The Magazine

A-Flogging We Shall Go

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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I like to think that I am the only heterosexual non-transvestite man in America who put on makeup not once but twice this past Thursday. The reason I did was that I appeared on two different television shows in Chicago for the purpose of flogging a new book. I love that word, "flog," even though it vaguely suggests a dead horse; in Webster's fourth definition, it means to promote. I have been flogging away for the better part of a month, and my arms grow tired.

Lots of writers profess to hate taking their show on the road to promote their books. Others, I'm told, long to be asked. I used not to do the promotion circuit. I write 'em, was my view, you sell 'em. Promotion of this kind takes days out of one's life. I no longer feel the same about this, and am perfectly ready to write 'em and also try my best to sell 'em--and this chiefly because I believe that carefully aimed promotion works to bring in money and that more golden entity, good new readers.

My own roadshow has been made splendidly smooth by my publisher's tactful and savvy publicity department, which makes travel and hotel reservations, and lines up bookstore and radio and television appearances. A relatively new fine twist has been added by the hiring, in various cities, of public relations agencies that supply the author with an escort during his visit. The escort usually identifies him- or more often herself by holding up a copy of your book at the airport, then drives you to your hotel and to your various appointments, filling you in on the style and manner of the talk-show hosts you are about to meet. Pretty cushy, I'd say.

The great roadshow terror is that very few people show up at a bookstore in a strange city where you are scheduled to give a spiel and do a book-signing. I have heard tales of no one at all showing up. Thus far I have missed this little nightmare. But I attended such a bookstore appearance for a friend one cold Chicago night in February that attracted a crowd of six people, including me and my wife, a homeless man, and a few others of dubious mental balance. Brave woman, my friend went ahead anyway, in the spirit of the show must go on, selling and signing no books whatsoever.

I thought I was in for a similar ordeal last summer when, on a Sunday afternoon in Santa Rosa, California, with the temperature at 112, my escort pulled up before an independent bookstore called Copperfield's. By spiel-time, though, 28 people--by my escort's count--had arrived, thereby delaying my nightmare for (doubtless) another time. Generally, I draw crowds of between sixty and a hundred or so people, and a few more in Chicago, where I am local-boy made semi-good. Television stars (Tom Brokaw) and politicians (Hillary Clinton) draw hundreds, which does not speak well for the country's cultural life.

How many books get sold as a result of these appearances no one seems to know for certain. After some of my appearances before, say, 100 people, twenty or thirty books get sold and signed; I have had a few such appearances where perhaps forty books are sold, including some of my earlier books. Meanwhile, it must cost roughly $400 a day to keep a writer on the road. One cannot gauge with any exactitude how profitable all this is to the publisher and writer, but then no one ever said publishing was a notably efficient business.

I've come to enjoy flogging because it allows me to meet readers I didn't know existed and rediscover others I had forgot about. In a Barnes and Noble in New York, I met a once-close friend I hadn't seen in twenty years. In Marin County, I encountered a woman who was the cousin of my dear friend, the late Edward Shils, though she had never met him and was pleased to have me fill her in on his life. At a Borders in a northern suburb of Chicago, the widow and widower of two kids with whom I went to high school introduced themselves to me. Widows and widowers, dear God, more than mere intimations of mortality here.

Between radio and television appearances, I find television less congenial, chiefly because, when viewing myself on the tube later, I discover how strange I look. Always a mistake to see yourself on television for an extended period. A friend reported to me that her father told her so often she was beautiful that she had come to believe it, until she made the error of looking at herself on a monitor while being interviewed on French television, and now can never again think of herself as a beauty. No one ever called me beautiful, but after seeing myself seven or eight times on television, I'm immensely grateful no one has ever mentioned the word grotesque. In my case, lots more makeup is obviously needed.


JOSEPH EPSTEIN