15 November 2008


Distance is, of course, relative. It is roughly 21.7 million miles from the Earth to the Moon. Since 2005 I have driven 43,223 miles flogging my books. (That's only 1/502 of a trip to the Moon.) My most recent book tour, from which I got home yesterday, was a mere 4,779 miles.

It seemed longer. I knew it was getting time to stop for the night Thursday when toward the end of 12 hours behind the wheel I cranked up The Grateful Dead on my car's stereo. I was passing some very colorful trucks. Hallucinating, perhaps? (I hadn't listened to The Grateful Dead in, oh, I don't know, maybe ten years.) So I pulled in at Harris Ranch, just south of what a friend of mine refers to as "Cowschwitz" - the gigantic Central California feedlot. Steak, whisky, sleep. It was an easy 2-1/2 hour drive home the next day.

In Portland, Salem and Seattle I kept company with Bill Cameron a very fine writer - LOST DOG and CHASING SMOKE - and a swell traveling and book eventing companion.

He even managed to exert some sort of parental control and convince his obviously well-raised (she bought a copy of my book after all), daughter to show up for our book event at Portland's Murder By the Book. And the event was well-received. You can read about it from the perspective of the bookseller here. (You may have to scroll up to actually read the blog post.)

So, once more I'm confronted with trying to decide whether or not book touring is worth all the time and expense. (That's right, unless you're with a big publisher who has forked over a fairly large advance for your book, you pay for book touring yourself.)

On the plus side:

It's fun. What could possibly be bad about driving around one of the most beautiful and diverse countries on the planet, stopping in at bookstores to talk with people about your own book, and other books, and whatever else comes to mind. At this point it is like a holiday spent visiting friends.

It's educational. I learn a lot on book tours. About the places I drive through, the people I meet, the book business, all kinds of interesting and useful stuff. After my eleven years living in Asia I didn't feel really re-connected with home until I'd driven all around and across the U.S. Getting out of my comfortable, "elite" existence in Southern California, is one of the only ways that I feel like I can even begin to understand this country. And the more I understand it, the more I love it.

It gives me time to think. What else is there to do on long drives?

I listen to a lot of music. Again, what else is there to do on long drives?

I hear really bizarre stuff on the radio. Yet again, what else is...?

I eat. Sometimes I encounter really great, regional or unexpected food. (Sometimes I don't.)

I sell some books that I might not have sold otherwise.

I meet some fans. And that's great for my ego.

I get to know booksellers. And as a type of people go, they are among my favorites.

Booksellers get to know me. And I like to think that if they get to know me, they'll like me and do a better job of "hand-selling" my books.

I could probably come up with a few more if I spent some time thinking it over, but those are the plusses that come to mind.

On the minus side:

Well, there's really only one minus - it's expensive and it probably isn't effective.

The chances of it paying for itself in sales is pretty slim. If I look at it in terms of my royalties, I would have needed to have sold around 900 hardback copies of FLIGHT OF THE HORNBILL simply to break even on this book tour.

I took pictures of everyone on my tour who bought a book and had me sign it. (Two people managed to slip through the cracks.) Here's the 90 photos. Now some of these people bought several copies, although most of them bought paperbacks. (Accounting for royalties, my break even point was about 1,500 paperbacks.)

Every store I went to had me sign some stock for them before I left. Four books in one store, as many as 40 in another. If all the stores I visited eventually sell all the stock I signed, I'm still not at the break even point. If they order the same amount again and manage to sell all those, I'm still not at it.

There is a lot of talk in the book business about "hand-selling" - store clerks recommending your books to customers, to book clubs, etc. That can account for a whole lot of extra sales, but do the numbers actually add up if you're hoping to make a living at this?

No, they don't.

Many small press books, mine included, don't show up in most of the big box chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble or Borders. They don't show up in airports or drugstores or at supermarket checkout counters. Where they do show up is in independent bookstores, and independents are where most hand-selling takes place.

At most there are 50 or so Mystery specialty bookstores in the U.S. There's another two hundred, at most, independents that carry enough mysteries that there's a chance they'll sell my books. Let's pretend that 200 stores sell, on average, 50 copies each of my books. That's 10,000 books - not enough to make much of a dent in anyone's best seller list. But 50 copies each is wildly inflated. Even if 200 stores do carry my books, the average is likely to be no more than five books each. (Some stores will sell a lot more than that, others will sell none.) That's nothing.

These days the biggest number of my sales are likely to come from online sources such as Amazon and B&N online. You can, in a sense, tour those places by being very active online and linking to your sales pages. But that's just not as much fun as going out and doing it in person.

My next book, SHANGHAIED, will be out in June next year. Am I going to be dumb enough to do a big book tour for it?

Probably. Look for me at a bookstore near you in June and July 2009.

10 November 2008


The drive from Boise to Portland was beautiful; through the rolling hills of Eastern Oregon and then down into the Columbia River Gorge and along the river. It rained a little, but mostly the weather cooperated by becoming part of the landscape. Somehow I avoided killing myself and others at high speeds while shooting the following photos out the window of my speeding vehicle.

Then I got to Portland, checked into Hotel Lucia - which tends to be my headquarters when I'm here - and went out to find something to eat and to make a pilgrimage to Powell's - possibly the greatest bookstore on the planet.

Now If you recall, last year Powell's and I had something of a lovers quarrel. I showed up on tour for Grave Imports, only to find that they were selling the two ARCs (advanced reading copies) that the publisher had sent them for free, and not carrying the actual, finished edition of the book that they would have to pay for. In essence, they were stealing from both my publisher and from me. I was annoyed. I made my annoyance known. I may have even implied in my blog that were someone to go to Powell's and shoplift my ARCs and send them to me, I'd be happy to sign them for them and send them back. Powell's wrote me a rather distressed email over the whole thing, and I rescinded the offer, but nothing was really settled.

So this year I went back, not sure what I was going to do if they were selling the ARCs of Flight of the Hornbill if they didn't also have the real book on the shelf. I was thinking that perhaps I would shoplift the ARCs myself, deliberately get caught, and then make a big case of it by insisting on going to trial and defending myself by claiming that I was simply trying to prevent their stealing from my publisher and myself.

I didn't get the chance. They don't have any copies of the book on their shelves at all. (You can order it from them online if you know what you're looking for.) They also didn't even have any copies of my friend and fellow Bleak House author Bill Cameron's new book, Chasing Smoke, and he's a local Portland author.

I found the whole thing utterly depressing. There were a bunch of books I wanted to buy at Powell's. I decided against buying any books there if they aren't going to carry my books. It could be that my love affair with Powell's is now officially on the rocks, and that saddens me.

Sorrows were drowned over drinks and dinner with an old pal who lives here. It was a very good evening, but a hangover ensued. Hopefully things will perk up by the time of my book event in Salem this evening.

08 November 2008


After dinner the night before at the Four Way Casino, Cafe and Bar in Wells, Nevada, I figured I'd be a lot better off breakfasting somewhere else. And I was. Surprisingly so.

One of the two brothels in Wells is Bella's Hacienda Brothel. It's one of the only, maybe the only of the Nevada brothels that is owned and operated by a woman - Bella. They also run Bella's Espresso House and Diner, right by the exit for Wells off of Interstate 80. So that's where I went for breakfast.

Now I gotta tell you, I'm pretty fussy about espresso. I make an excellent one at home, I'm particularly fond of the one to be had at El Cochinito - a Cuban cafe near my house - and also at LaMill - a fancy schmancy coffee place near my house. Add Bella's to the list.

There I was, in bumfuck nowhere Nevada, drinking one of the most truly excellent espressos I have ever had. (I drink it straight, no milk, no sugar, no nothin' between me and my near strong enough to walk on it coffee.) I had two doubles and would have had a third if I didn't think it would get in the way of rational driving. It was, without a doubt, one of the very best espressos I have ever enjoyed anywhere.

Breakfast was good, too. Fresh made biscuits, perfectly cooked and spiced homefries, perfectly cooked fresh eggs and a very good sausage patty. I was one happy author on tour. If a night at Bella's brothel comes complete with breakfast the next morning, it is well worth considering showing up in Wells with a wad of cash.

As is, I bought a couple pounds of Bella's Brothel Brew Beans, a couple of Bella's coffee mugs and a Nevada Brothel Cookbook and headed north on Highway 93 through the very top of Nevada and into Idaho.
I lived in Boise from about September 1970 until June 1971. I'd followed a high school girlfriend there because I wanted to get out of Los Angeles and go work among the "real people." That didn't work out so well at first, so I ended up in Boise State University for a couple of semesters. A lot of my spare time was spent hanging out in Hannifin's Cigar Store with that girlfriend. We'd play pinball, leaf through magazines, drink Moxie and listen to farmers and ranchers who sat around the old coal burning stove, trying different kinds of pipe tobacco and swapping lies. So today I went back to Hannifin's. It's still there, but the pinball machine is gone, the magazine rack has been replaced with a wall of coolers stocked with beer and soda pop, there weren't any farmers or ranchers and the guy working there hadn't ever heard of Moxie. Still, I took a couple of pictures. I appear in the exterior shot.

Then I walked around town for a bit. It is a fairly attractive old downtown, the once swank Idahana hotel still perches on the street like a timber town castle - although it is now infested with chichi businesses, and there are a couple of blocks of Basque businesses - something that is new since I lived there. Perhaps the most impressive site, however, was Otis the dog.
Rediscovered Books, where I had my event, was a very nice shop with an excellent set up for events. They've got a loyal clientele and a good, varied stock. They sent out 1200 emails to their list about the event, and did all they could to publicize it.

Still, that's book events for you - three people showed up. They enjoyed the show, asked interesting questions, but only one person bought one copy of Living Room of the Dead - wanting to start the series at the beginning. Another of the attendees apologized for not being able to buy a book until Wednesday, when his unemployment check shows up. Sheesh. I felt like I ought to just give him a copy. But I don't have taxpayers money to throw around, so I can't go bailing out book lovers.

It was one of those nights when you have to remind yourself that book events are for the bookstore, rather than for the audience who does or doesn't show up. It's good to get to know the stores and have them get to know me and my books. They'll sell more books in the long run that way. Still, it's no wonder that so many of us writers drink.

07 November 2008


That could refer to almost any book tour, at least for us lesser known writers. But it's not really true. There's the people who work in the bookstores and spending time with them is like visiting friends. And someone does always show up.

At Cheesecake & Crime in Henderson, Nevada, five women from a book group showed up. They didn't know me or my books, but they seemed genuinely interested and they bought plenty of books and asked good questions. Here they are, with me:
Afterwards I went back to my hotel. I was in room 23-319 of the MGM Grand (it has 5,044 rooms in its main wing.) The rooms are perfectly engineered to make you want to go out. The bed is okay, but not so comfortable that you want to spend a whole lot of time on it. The desk chair is too low for the desk, so working is a problem. The air conditioner cranks up no matter what you do to the thermostat at night; and the heater kicks in high in the morning. The TV gets lousy reception and has no cable. The whole room, like everything else in Las Vegas, shouts: "Get out and gamble."

Well, I didn't gamble, not even a dollar. Instead I went to Michael Mina's Stripsteak in the Mandalay Bay Hotel where I had the finest French Fries I have ever had. They were double fried in duck fat and served with, among two other sauces, a white truffle oil aioli. Along with them I had an incredible steak - a Black Angus ribeye cap that wasn't on the menu. Washed down with a good single malt and I was very happy.

After that I walked around for a while, but Las Vegas doesn't change much. Having been there last year, it was the same place - except for the enormous multi-building project that is fast rising on the west side of the Strip. It looks like it will have some great looking, quirky buildings. On the way back to my room I was stopped by two cookie cutter Blonde 101 hookers - bleached, plumped and siliconed, squeezed into tight red dresses. The casino at the MGM seems to be one of the current strolls for what is known as CGs - casino girls. They wanted $500 for one of them or $600 for the pair. Don't they know there's a financial crisis? I politely declined and went to bed alone.

Today I hit the road to Boise, taking Highway 93, one of the two roads that lay claim to being "America's Loneliest Highway." It quickly became apparent why. It was strangely beautiful.

I stopped for lunch in Ely - a truckstop of a town that is also historic.
And I've stopped for the night in Wells, at the junction of Interstate 80 and Nevada 93. It seems to exist entirely for tired truckers: gas, groceries, casino, cafes and brothels. It has the remnants of a historic downtown, and two busy brothels - Bella's and Donna's. (Just imagine if they ever merge.)

Tomorrow morning it's off to Boise, my triumphal return - 37 years after my one year at Boise State University.

03 November 2008


Book touring has not been quite as frantic as for previous books. Time and budgetary constraints have seen to that. It's still tiring though. And I still enjoy it. More pictures of those who have bought my books and had me sign them at events can now be found at my Flickr page if you click here.

Here's a random preview:

Tomorrow is the end of what seems like the world's longest election campaign. I've been complaining about it, but even I can change my mind sometimes. The current issue of The Economist has a column by Lexington that makes a pretty good case for why a long, expensive presidential campaign might be a good thing. I don't think you need to subscribe to the Economist's website to read it by clicking on this sentence. I could have summarized it for you, but I'm lazy this morning.

Speaking of which, here's some random thoughts that have been popping into my head lately:

BAILOUT MONEY - More like takeover dollars. A bunch of banks that are receiving our tax dollars are using them to buy other banks. It's easier to make money that looks good on your books, quicker, that way than by loaning the money out - which is what they were supposed to do with it. There oughta be a law. That's sleazy and will make matters worse in the long run. I was in favor of some sort of bailout. I figured it was necessary. But strangely enough, maybe it should have been regulated.

SMART REPUBLICANS WANT MCCAIN TO LOSE - The next president is going to be fucked. They'll be expected to put the country back together again and fast. But it isn't going to be fast. It is going to take at least a couple of years for the economy to even begin to balance out. Withdrawal from Iraq is likely to be a lot messier than expected. A comprehensive healthcare plan isn't going to get through Congress any time soon. Americans have short memories and expect miracles. The next president is going to get blamed for a whole hell of a lot that isn't really his fault, no matter who he is. If McCain loses and the Democrats take a much bigger majority in Congress, two years from now the Republicans will gain back a whole lot of Congress, four years from now they'll have a better shot at the presidency - and without having to deal with Sarah Palin in a strong position to be their candidate - having been vice-president. My guess is that the savvier Republican strategists are hoping Obama wins this time out.

I've been reading Beijing Coma by Ma Jian. It's extraordinary. He's one of the very best contemporary Chinese writers. Read it.

Thursday I'm hitting the road again. Off to Las Vegas for an event at Cheesecake and Crime in Henderson, then a drive up "America's Loneliest Highway" to Boise for an event at Rediscovered Books, then off to Portland, Salem, Olympia and Seattle before returning home in mid-November. I shall send dispatches from the road. I promise.