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This past Saturday, May 23, author Libba Bray gave a reading at Books & Books in Coral Gables. A crowd of fans listened to her discuss her latest book, The Sweet Far Thing, asked questions, and then purchased signed copies of her work.
What made the event unique is that Bray was never in Miami.
Instead, she was 1,000 miles away in Brooklyn, sitting in front of her MacBook Pro laptop, which, equipped with a built-in webcam and the popular teleconferencing software Skype, beamed her voice and image real-time onto a projection screen in the Gables. Through a wireless microphone provided to the store free of charge from publisher Random House, the audience asked questions while remaining seated. Afterward, they bought pre-signed copies of The Sweet Far Thing.
"I was nervous," says Bray, a writer of three best-selling young adult books. "I'm like the Jessica Simpson of technology."
Bray's seven-city Skype book tour, which began in Chicago a week before it hit Miami, is the first of its kind in the industry, says Random House spokeswoman Meg O'Brien, and an effort to take advantage of the Internet savvy of Bray's mostly teen audience. The publishing conglomerate — which, despite recent downsizing, is the world's largest — has used Skype previously to allow authors to make appearances at private book groups, but is now introducing it into the somewhat hallowed ground of the book tour.
At least one reason is money. Book revenues are way down. December 3, 2008, became known as "Black Wednesday" in the publishing industry, after almost every major publishing imprint announced layoffs, hiring and pension freezes, and, in the case of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a freeze of acquiring new works, a move that Forbes magazine incredulously compared to "a car manufacturer announcing that car manufacturing is henceforth suspended."
Random House in particular has been the subject of industry speculation. In March last year, its parent company, media conglomerate Bertelsmann AG, known as the "German Warner Bros.," fired former CEO Peter Olson and replaced him with 39-year-old Markus Dohle, whose previous claim to fame was making big money helping small towns find a cheap way to register cars and collect taxes. Balzacian perhaps, but not Balzac. Then in December, the company dissolved two of its five imprints, Bantam Dell and Doubleday.
So now the question is: Will the cost-cutting eliminate the in-person book tour as we know it?
Miami writer Les Standiford estimates it costs about $1,000 a day to produce the average book tour. In light of the fact that profit margins for literary works generally hover between 2 and 5 percent, a book tour is not an insignificant investment.
"I'm skeptical that any kind of tour — virtual or literal — sells books by other than already notable authors or personalities," says Standiford, who, besides publishing with Random House, is director of the graduate creative writing program at Florida International University. "That's why publishers have finally begun to pull back and seek alternatives."
Spokeswoman O'Brien casts Skype tours as another chapter in the rise of technology-based promotional techniques such as book blogs and trailers and as "a greener way of promoting a book."
David Ebersoff, a best-selling author at Random House who also works there as an editor for celebrity writers including Joyce Carol Oates and the late Norman Mailer, agrees. "I see [Skype appearances] as enhancing traditional book tours," he says.
In the past year alone, Ebersoff says he's done about 40 call-in events with book groups to promote his latest novel, The 19th Wife, for which there's also a sophisticated website and a YouTube trailer featuring Ebersoff driving around a town in Utah that was one of the inspirations for the book. "The author and the publisher have to work as a team to get the most promotion possible. To expect otherwise is to be unrealistic," he says.
Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan also believes the in-person book tour will survive. "It's too powerful a tool," he says. "Even if there aren't any direct sales the night of an event, I've often found that due to our intense promotion of the author's appearance, there is usually a residual effect where we see an increased interest in the author's titles."
There's also the author-reader interaction to consider, the irreplaceable exchanges that occur during live-book signings. Miami poet Denise Duhamel tells the story of meeting fellow poet Bill Knott in Boston when she was in college. After waiting in line, Duhamel handed Knott, one of her idols, a copy of his book to sign, and he said, "I don't know why you bought this book. It's not very good." According to her, he then flipped through its pages, crossing out certain titles and writing new ones with a purple pen. He even scratched out one poem entirely before handing it back to her with a smile. "It was one of the best nights of my life," she says.
Authors too, after all, are also book fans. "My son and I recently waited in line for three hours to see Neil Gaiman," Bray says, referring to the incredibly popular science fiction and graphic novel author who's also notorious for his good looks and powerful readings.
But would Bray have waited three hours just to see a video projection of Gaiman?
"As lovely as he is, probably not," she says.