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Victoria Zackheim

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Victoria Zackheim

Learning the perils and pluses of barnstorming
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No Guts, No Glory
By Victoria Zackheim   

Last edited: Thursday, January 02, 2003
Posted: Thursday, January 02, 2003

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The full-length version of the SF Chronicle article about the trials and tribulations of being on book tour.

I was thrilled when I signed the contract to have my first book published. Who wouldn't be, after sixteen years of writing, revising, deleting and self-deprecating? Holding the finished product, smelling the ink and seeing my name printed on the cover, these were dreams come true . Dealing with the fear that no one on earth would ever actually buy it, read it or like it would come later. The publisher was a small Northwest press, but that did nothing to diminish my sense of accomplishment. Nor was it minimized when I was told that not only was there no budget for public relations or promotional events-book fairs, readings in bookstores, special appearances, etc.-but that all travel and advertising expenses would come out of my pocket. What's more, I was now in charge of all reviews, articles and interviews. If The Bone Weaver was going to sell, I'd be the one making it happen. What was I thinking? I honestly don't know what I expected, but I recall very clearly what I imagined: adoring crowds; newspaper coverage; bookstore readings, with popping flashbulbs and fans lined up, my novel clutched in their hands as they waited their turn to get my autograph. That may sound arrogant, but my first reading was in front of 120 people, 57 of whom bought the novel and stood in line to have it autographed. Publish and they will come! I tried to recall this success months later when I was standing in a charming little bookstore in Port Arthur, WA, a village tucked away on Bremerton Island, and wishing that someone other than the owner would show up for the reading. After an hour of waiting around in the empty store, the nice woman asked me to autograph a few books. I nearly refused, concerned that she would never be able to sell them. Realizing, however, that "saving face" could go both ways, I signed and then hit the road. A few hours later, standing at the railing of the Kingston-Edmonds ferry, with coastal villages slipping by and a snow-capped Mount Rainier in the distance, it occurred to me that this book tour thing might not be the marketing tool I had imagined. I considered taking all the unsold books, removing their jackets and papering my bathroom with them, but it was too early to give up. There are no roadies on a book tour. I expected the book tour experience to be pure delight, with a touch of anxiety. I've got forty years of public speaking behind me, so I figured that any difficulties would arise from the logistics-such as connecting flights and arriving at events on time-rather than appearing before a roomful of strangers. When the invitation came to participate in the Wordslingers Festival in Nevada City, I spent hours poring over the book, choosing the best passages to read, and then writing concise and (of course) fascinating introductions to each passage. Settled in with the panel of Wordslinger authors, I was surprised when one of them asked everyone in the room to stand and sing Amazing Grace. Was I supposed to have a theme song and no one told me? This might be a good time to mention that my novel is neither a sci-fi thriller nor a bodice-ripper. It's a generational novel about a university professor whose life-long friend has just died. Distraught, lonely and questioning the choices she has made in her life (career vs. family, for one), she sets off on a journey to understand how she came to this lonely place. There are no aliens (at least, not of the E.T. type) and no scenes of seduction. Instead, the reader is taken back to 1887, a time when her family struggled to survive pogroms, illness and the violence of shtetl life in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe. While many people know that a shtetl is a Jewish village in tsarist Russia, there are those who see the word and assume it's a typographical error. Which might explain why, when my readings are advertised in small-town papers, the crowds that materialize sometimes number in single digits. It's no problem, unless you're the one paying for airline tickets, rental cars, hotels and meals. Or when that one person in attendance is a 9 year-old girl left behind while her mother runs to the market. But think of it this way: somewhere near Poulbo, Washington, is a shtetl-wise little girl. Which brings us to the ethnic thing. I've traveled tens of thousands of miles and appeared at bookstores, Jewish and non-Jewish book fairs, and various literary events. No matter where I am, or wish to go, I'm usually asked one of these two questions: The general public asks, "Is your novel a Jewish story?" and the Jewish book fair organizers ask, "Your novel is Jewish, isn't it?" I admit that I'm often tempted to respond, "Do you want it to be?" Over time, however, I've evolved to this conclusion: that while the story does goes back into the shtetls of eastern Europe, and while those shtetls were decidedly Jewish, The Bone Weaver is Jewish in the same way that Zorba the Greek is Greek. Another kind of performance anxiety. A lot of my concerns about logistics were diminished when I realized that my partner of five years (a man of infinite patience and humor) intended to drive me to the airport, kiss me good-bye and wait in Baggage Claim upon each return. This means I only need to anguish over arriving safely and on time at my destination, being met by the designated driver, and then progressing to the event. All very Isabel Allende-like, right? Exciting, instilling in me the sense of what real writers experience. Unless the driver is waiting for you at the wrong gate. Don't ask. My first book tour to Los Angeles (there have been four so far ) taught me a lot about schlepping, which is a Yiddish word that means "dragging my junk all over the place". On the outside chance that the book fairs might sell out (always the dreamer), I took two cases of books on the plane. They fit very nicely onto the little folding cart, although lifting them into and taking them down from the overhead bins is hard on the back. Throughout the L.A. tour, I never broke the seal on either box, which I found particularly annoying, since the organizers had specifically requested that I bring those cases. Saying nothing (you always want to be asked back), I flew home, slept for three hours, and left at the crack of dawn for Texas and Florida, more than grateful to be able to travel without those heavy books. After the Austin event, I felt very important when the emcee announced, "Victoria has to catch a flight to Florida, where she'll be appearing tomorrow, so let's give her our thanks" and I was escorted from the room amid robust applause. Could the National Book Award people hear that adulation? Despite my concerns, I made the flight to Fort Lauderdale, tight connections and all, and immediately called the book fair coordinator to announce my arrival. "Wonderful!" replied Marcia, who had created an entire event around the "family tapestry" concept of my novel. Ever the professional, I asked, "And how many books did you get for the affair?" This question was followed by one of those lengthy and terrifying silences. "Sinking feeling" best describes the sensation when I suddenly understood that those cases of books I had schlepped to Los Angeles were intended for Fort Lauderdale. A hundred people had paid a significant sum to eat, listen to the author and buy her book...and there were no books. The next morning, I bought lots of mailing labels. Following my lunchtime speech, I informed the audience that the book would be free, but the mailing labels were $18.95. And because the mistake was mine, I'd cover postage when I shipped the books. Two important lessons were learned. First, that selling a virtual book has its risks. Second, that it's a good thing I didn't write a funny novel. When you write humor, the audience expects you to be humorous. On the other hand, if it's a serious book and you happen to say something funny, everyone is surprised and you feel quite clever for having pulled it off. The world traveler seeks her fortune. I landed in Seattle during the worst storm of the year. It was so violent that the clerk at Hertz insisted I take a full-size car. Good thing, since the cheap one would've been blown off the highway and into the bay. When I arrived at the reading, I was pleased to find twelve people there. After all, it was a suburb north of Seattle; how many could I expect? Not a good question. I admit to some ego deflation when the bookstore's owner mentioned that a children's author had spoken that same morning-to a crowd of five hundred. I quickly calculated the financial benefits of five hundred sales and restrained myself from weeping. There were still readings in a half-dozen bookstores between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., so all was not lost. The Jewish book fair in Vancouver was the final event on this tour. It went very well, the sushi dinner afterward was quite good, and I thoroughly enjoyed the funky room at the old Sylvia Hotel on English Bay. On the other hand, I could have done without the food poisoning. Yes, there is a Jewish book fair in Knoxville. When the organizer of the book fair posts a glowing literary review on the Internet, invites you to participate and offers to cover your airfare, how can you not accept? Especially when they throw in a host family, meaning no hotel bills for four nights. As soon as my appearance dates were set, I called the best independent bookstores within four hundred miles and got myself invited for readings and signings. The Knoxville events were terrific and my host family so hospitable I thought they were going to hand over the deed to the property. On the fourth day, I climbed into my economy rental car and covered 1300 miles, driving from town to town, the process made even sweeter because I was paying 81¢ for a gallon of gas. When I stopped to fill up, it was most often in one of those towns where men hang out around the pumps, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and speak a language I almost understand. You should also know that Jesus is alive and well in the south and is discussed on nearly every AM and FM station. And if it's not Jesus, it's Rush Limbaugh, who's treated by some as if he's the reincarnation of Jesus. I also discovered that, not having taken Christ as my Savior, I'm going to burn in Hell. In Asheville, North Carolina, I signed books at Malaprop's, a store whose clients reminded me of the Haight in the 'sixties. They placed me at a little table, with a stack of books waiting to be purchased and signed. Wonderful store, delightful people, but most everyone who passed by my station averted their eyes, as if expecting me to either beg them to buy my book or threaten them with a weapon if they did not. It was at Malaprop's that I learned another vital lesson: itinerant writers should travel with cheese and crackers. You set it out on the table and people will stop by to sample. And then you pounce. South Florida is one large city. The last big tour was ten days in south Florida. Fort Lauderdale in November had been such a success (despite the fiasco with the mailing labels) that I decided to return during the height of the season. That means February, when sun-loving tourists and winter residents arrive from New York and Chicago to avoid the cold, get in some golf and wear Bermuda shorts in pastel colors. I had ten bookings scheduled over seven days. When a woman I met during the November event offered me the guest room in her home in Plantation, thirty miles from Miami, I quickly accepted, grateful to be spared height-of-season rates. I admit that I was concerned about sharing a bathroom with her seven year-old twins, but they were so tidy that I took special care to clean up after myself (what if they voted not to invite me back?). The family was very nice, but I rarely saw them. I was too busy driving from Plantation to Miami, Plantation to Boca Raton and Pembroke Pines, Plantation to South Miami and then westward across the state to the gulf city of Sarasota. (Incidentally, there are no visible alligators along the highway known as Alligator Alley, but there's a Ben & Jerry's in Sarasota that more than makes up for the lack of amphibians.) When I returned to the Atlantic side, I used my free day to lecture on creative writing to five middle-school English classes in Pembroke Pines. I never realized there were so many ways to roll your eyes and convey total boredom. On the other hand, there were some terrific imaginations in those classes. On the last day in Florida, I was booked to do a reading at a particularly large bookstore. Unfortunately, the events manager not only forgot to advertise the reading, but the posters had not arrived on time. Standing at the podium, I looked out into the crowd, which consisted of one elderly woman. When I thanked her for coming, she sweetly explained that her husband was in the reference area looking for information on prostate disease and she would be leaving as soon as he found the book. Taking the personal approach, I sat next to her and discussed my novel. When I was finished, she took a book from the pile and asked me to sign it. "I hope you enjoy it," I told her, giving her my most endearing smile. "Oh," she said. "I'm not sure I'll read it. I'm only buying it because I feel so sorry for you." If pity sells books, so be it.

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Reviewed by Cynth'ya 11/28/2003
Thanks so much for schooling me on the slings and arrows of outrageous promotions. It's stories like this one that let you know you're doing the right thing. And I was inspired to follow suit myself.

Stay tough Victoria, and blessin's to you, (even your name says "Winner")

cynth'ya lewis reed
Reviewed by Jim Dunlap 10/14/2003
Very good writing. I'm sure your book sold well.
Reviewed by DALI ABEL (Reader) 3/7/2003
No Guts, No Glory, can be seen as a humorous account of the efforts made by a tenacious author to market her books. I found it poignant as it reveals in simple words the situation were good writing falls victim of a situation where the jester is king.
Thank you, Victoria for enlightening us. I don’t know whether this would make any difference to you, but you have won a reader, a special one who works out heavily by throwing some best sellers against the wall.

Dali Abel
Reviewed by Bobbi Maucere (Reader) 2/21/2003
oops I forgot to add my email
Bobbi Hutcheson
Reviewed by tom vancel 2/17/2003
It's a great article about a great trip and a learning curve that can only be acheived by being there and doing it.
Reviewed by Mary Mick 1/21/2003
This article is pretty funny, expressing well the real "fun" of travelling about the country with often little to show for it. Victoria Zackheim, you're a writer a person wants to hear more from, simply because you're honest about emotions!

Read my review of the book's review here, because I'm the one who phoned you 1/21/03 here in San Francisco.

I'll pass that $1 copy on to others.

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