I've just finished a Book Tour for my new book, This Is Not Forgiveness. A week of journeying up and down the country, visiting different regions with a couple of overnight stays. Back in the day, you would go to a bookshop, do a bit of a talk to a class or two who had been invited in to meet you, do some signing, then off to the next. These days, because of the difficulty of getting pupils out of school, finding bookshops that can accommodate large numbers, etc. etc., the author generally goes into schools.
Book tours are organised by the publisher and they differ from a normal school visit. You are only there for an hour or so, not all day. You are usually required to speak to large audiences, anything from 150 - 200 students, sometimes from different schools. You don't get paid. The payment, pay back, pay off, is seen in terms of publicity and book sales. Sometimes schools don't get this, so if letters haven't gone out, no-one has any money, the whole thing, as far as the book seller and publisher are concerned, is a bit of a waste of time. Me? I just go along and do what I'm asked to do. I don't really think in terms of book sales on the day. It took me a while, in fact, to work out that this was what it's about but I can be slow like that.
Sometimes, the visit is a great experience. The bookseller is on the ball, the school is primed and eager, the staff have done some prelim. work, the kids know who you are, maybe they've looked at a couple of your books, read extracts, been to your web site. This always helps. You kind of know when it will be good like that. You are expected. There are posters up in the foyer, the receptionist knows who you are. The Librarian or the member of the English staff is on hand to welcome you. There's coffee, biscuits, maybe even pastries or muffins, and water on the table, with a glass. They have been talking the event up, pre-selling books. The hall (or wherever it is) is ready. Chairs set out. The techie stuff works (I use a Powerpoint) and if it doesn't there's someone from IT to sort it out. Grand. The students file in, fill up from the front, there are plenty of staff with them. They listen more or less attentively (staff, too), ask questions and then, at the end, they come up and buy shed loads of books, you sign them, have your photo taken, answer more questions and everyone is happy - even the bookseller and the publicist.
Sometimes it doesn't go like that. You get a feeling this time, too. Of doom. There are no posters. No sign of any publicity. The receptionist is hostile, like every visitor is a potential paedophile, there are mutterings about CRB checks, photo I.D.. You don't have either, so you submit to a mug shot and take the pamphlet about the school's policy on Child Safety. No sign of any staff to greet you, so you sit and wait until a flustered librarian comes running round the corner, telling you that they are under Special Measures/have SATs tests/the hall is no longer available. You are in the Drama Studio which has no windows so ends up being a cross between a sauna and the Black Hole of Calcutta. Everyone has to sit on the floor, so you do a quick mental check to make sure that your Public Liability Insurance is up to date, just in case you trip over and crush the front row. The IT doesn't work - no one told us/no laptops available/we thought you were bringing yours with you. The students amble in unsupervised, sit where they like (i.e. as far you from as possible). They regard you with an indifference bordering on hostility; large swathes make an ostentatious point of paying you no attention and get on with texting/chatting/fidgeting/giggling/chewing and generally behaving as if you weren't there. The few staff who are present sit well away from their charges and get on with their marking. There are almost no questions and the ones that are asked are personal/facetious, or both. Almost nobody wants to buy books and everyone is glad to get out of there (most of all you).
Now, before I'm deluged with sympathy or messages of the 'Poor you! It never happens to me...' variety, I have to say that this does not happen very often. If it does, what to do?
1. Don't try to win them. If they have made their minds up not to 'appreciate', they won't. Finish as quickly as you can. Don't be afraid to knock it on the head. You are not contractually obliged. You aren't being paid.
2. Don't blame yourself (even if every one around you is doing so) because if a talk works in one place in front of one audience and not in another, than how are you the problem?
3. This from Bernard Ashley (let's face it, if he's had problems, anyone can): focus on the ones who are listening, not on the ones who aren't. Don't be distracted by those not paying attention; seek out those who are and speak to them. They wanted to come and they wanted to hear you. They want to ask questions and to buy books, so screen out the rest of them. If need be, make some time after the others have gone to talk to them individually or as a small group.
These negatives are minor compared with meeting enthusiastic readers, die hard fans who lug along bags of your old titles for you to sign or produce books that belong to their friend/sister/mum. Readers who like the look of whatever book you are promoting and want to try it and, these days, those who've started reading your book on Kindle but want a signed paper copy. Keen readers who have banded together to form their own book club/blog/writers group to shine like a beacon in the philistine darkness. You don't have to shift masses of books. If one person appreciates you being there, if signing one book makes that reader feel special, then the whole thing is worthwhile.
And I've met some wonderful booksellers who have organised excellent visits because they know their patch, they know their books and they know their schools. Booksellers like Elaine and Sue at SilverDell Books in Kirkham, who gave me a Rolls Royce (or Range Rover) of a day in and around Lancaster and even found time to show me their wonderful bookshop and let me sample their homemade ice-cream. Me, books and ice cream? It could get messy...