What I choose to do with the extra $40 a month I have left is up to me. So, for the past three years, I've been going on these book tours. Some people I tell this to are confused as to what this entails. It's not a complicated process, though I can understand why you'd think you'd be missing something considering the crux of the whole thing is "I drive a long time to read something for twelve minutes and then hope I can find somewhere to sleep."
Making a book tour happen--at least at the level I do it--doesn't require an agent or getting dressed in the morning. I've gone into it a bit more (as well as other related issues) in an essay I wrote for Passages North a couple years back, but here I'll boil it down to only setting up a tour.
The first thing I did was decide how long I wanted to be gone for. Some people can only decide how long they can be gone for, but because I work at a preschool and give guitar lessons, that leaves me with an entire three months where I have about four hours of shiftable responsibility a week. I don't have to worry about doing the dumb thing the smart way. While tour is a fun and a worthwhile experience for some people, I really suggest you don't wreck your life trying to get a couple weeks off from unloading a dock so you can drive to Boise and read to nobody. Writing and reading as a public exercise is unreasonable enough already.
In the past, I'd done twelve days at a time. Since those went well enough, I figured I'd try seventeen days this time. I'll talk more later about how stupid this was, but for now, that's the arbitrary number I went with.
After that, I went to Google Image search, typed in "map of us," and then looked at this picture for awhile. I wanted to get to the East Coast and back without having to kill myself on drives and also without having to email too many people who don't know me and don't give a fuck about me, as opposed to people who are one or the other and can be easily shamed or annoyed into helping me.
(I always make sure I have alternate cities listed where available, too. So, I wrote down "Peoria, IL" for a stop, but if I couldn't find anything there--which is likely because Peoria kind of blows--I knew that I could look in Normal/Bloomington, Springfield, or Champaign/Urbana as well. Decide ahead of time how far out of your way you want to go to do a show, too. My buddy Bob tours all the time and doesn't give a fuck if he has to zig zag or backtrack to play a show as long as he doesn't have to drive more than five hours to do it. I'm more likely to take a day off and save what I'm assuming is a headache and can confirm is money.)
I put all of this into a spreadsheet just to make sure I could organize it all and not email the same place twice or book two cities on the same day or do any other number of things that would make me look like a jerkoff.
You may struggle with the idea of community, and I understand that, but some of these people will be very useful to you. Maybe someday you can be useful to them and maybe, even better, be useful to them because you're a buddy.
I couldn't find a human being in every place, so I had to research venues, too. This involves attaching "reading event" "poetry reading" "coffee shop" "diy" "lounge" and "hardcore" to the names of cities, depending on where you're okay with reading. I've been to all sorts of places and read with all sorts of acts, but you might not be cool with reading in someone's living room to a bunch of kids with what appear to be unfinished haircuts. That's fine if you don't, but places like that are out there if you're into it.
Once I had the names and contact information of people and venues in the cities I was potentially going to, I had to do the shittiest part of the booking process and actually start contacting them.
Setting up an event for any creative performance is the ultimate yelp into the ether. Seventeen days means dealing with at least seventeen different people. This is before you factor in dealing with places that book by committee or people who will forward you other people or multiple people at a venue all checking the booking email address and not communicating with one another. Everyone's going to want something different from you except for a few things:
1) Nobody wants to read an extended synopsis, especially in the scientifically abstract, about the work you're touring behind. This includes long blurbs, where you were at emotionally when creating it, and how it's been received so far.
2) Nobody wants to deal with a superstar. Don't want so much that you seem like a pain in the ass.
3) Nobody wants to deal with a pissant. Don't want so little that you don't seem to be worth anyone's time.
4) Everybody wants to have an easygoing, artistically fulfilling experience, including you. So present yourself, briefly, as you are--or at least the parts of yourself that aren't shitty.
Here's the template for my (not-perfect-so-don't-hold-me-to-it) booking email:
[Name of Person if Available]
This is Ryan from Passenger Side Books, a small micro-press. I live in Wisconsin and like to leave it every once in awhile, so I'm currently planning another book tour this summer. I hope to come through [City] on [Date]. Maybe we can work out an event that evening with me and some local writers or musicians?
I usually read for about twenty minutes, but can do longer or shorter as the event necessitates. I love sharing bills with acoustic folks, hardcore bands, heavy metal belly dancers (Champaign, IL! What a weird city!), or anything else creative people can think of. I'm easy to please.
[If someone sent me this person's way, I namedrop them here and also probably say something that proves I've visited their website and know a little about them. Everyone's so goddamn special.]
Below is a big generic bio with publication history and all that other stuff some people are curious about sometimes. I have posters and handbills I can send ASAP if we set something up. Let's be in touch about some good times.
Ryan Werner is the author of several short short story collections and chapbooks out on Jersey Devil Press and Passenger Side Books. His newest book, a novella called Soft, is a 250+ chapter rock and roll morality play. Of his work, Mary Miller (author of Big World and The Last Days of California) said, "Ryan writes with authority, skill, and passion, not only about the Midwest, but about youth and what it means to be young." His work has appeared in or is forthcoming in the Indiana Review, The Rumpus, Smokelong Quarterly, [PANK], BULL: Men's Fiction, Juked, and many other places of varying notoriety and popularity.
When I contact a place, I change their name to purple in my spreadsheet. If they get back to me and confirm, I change it to green. If they never get back to me or can't do the show, I change it to red. If they get back to me with "lol a/s/l?" I stop trying to book tours in chat rooms.
That's pretty much it in terms of the heavy lifting. It's the easiest and hardest thing. I learned that some think I'm not even worth being told to fuck off. A prompt "NO, EAT SHIT" from a person or venue would be off-putting, but welcome. I worked for a year and a half on my newest book, spent hours researching people and venues to contact, and put even more time and money into moving things past a creative stage. Just because I worked hard doesn't mean I matter, but it also doesn't mean I should stop working hard. At least not at this point, where I can still do the majority of this work while eating ice cream and watching Robocop.
Repeat the contact process until tour is booked. On the days when you're waiting for a response, research more people and venues. There's usually some stuff that is missed after only one pass. There are Facebook pages for DIY scenes and venues. Do the homework. Don't contact a coffee shop just because they're a coffee shop. Make sure they actually do the kind of thing you want to do. Can you imagine trying to book a tour twenty years ago? Holy shit. Use the information that's out there. There's no excuse for being a dummy these days.
Yes: I received some help along the way. Really, when it comes down to it, it's all help. These people will be thanked extensively. Everyone else will be shamed. Let's look at the tour.
I got into town and went to this comic shop where, like almost every other comic shop, I didn't buy or touch anything. I love comics, but don't understand all of the quirks about the subculture. As much as I wanted to play with the Venom figure, I didn't. Next door was a record store where I picked up some cheap 45s (Alice Cooper, Neil Young, The Cult, The Bellrays) and, after my comic store wandering, felt especially hospitable to the people in there talking loudly about how they couldn't believe they found some Beatles records or some shit.
Steve Halle met me at this record shop and we went and got something to drink. He runs the Re:Verse reading series and does a ton of work putting out wild, otherwise-lots-to-the-world poetry books. We talked a bit about David Foster Wallace, how he wrote most of Infinite Jest in Normal and how I've tried to read it about nine or ten times. I think the Sparknotes for it is longer than any of my books.
I set up in a really cool looking part of campus that was great other than nobody was there. A guy with a hand-drum showed up and made it worse. Then a guy with an acoustic guitar, which bummed me out just out of instinct.
People slowly filtered in and those musician dude played and it wasn't bad at all. Nice guys, too. Good cover of "My Sweet Lord" by George Harrison. Rachel Burns read and she's way more soft spoken than I thought she'd be, a very low voice that you might hear coming from the mouth of a woman who poisons people in a detective movie from the '50s. Then I read and, other than the wind blowing my props all around, it was fine. I sold an absurd amount of stuff and stayed at Rick and Rose's place where we were up too late talking about Billy Corgan. They're the best people.
DAY TWO: CHAMPAIGN, IL
This was about an hour drive, so I had more than enough time to walk around to the world's worst pawn shops for a bit and totally not buy a solid state Crate practice amp for $130. I found a Barry Hannah book that turned out to not be that good--it turns out you can't write your redemption like you wrote your destruction--and then sat at The Blind Pig, where I'd be reading.
The reading went well. Everyone was very cute and there was no wind, two things I was grateful for.
Caleb Curtiss set the whole thing up for me (and then bailed to go to Pitchfork on Hobart duty, handing the reading off to John Dudek, who was also incredible) and let me stay at his house. I read his book The Taxonomy of the Space Between Us and it's damn good. The standouts were a multi-section poem called "Dream" and a poem/essay hybrid that has the same title of the book I don't feel like typing out again. It could have been a bad gimmick in someone else's hands, but it ends up being the only way to show the confusing, twisting loss of a sibling and how time never really quite slips away as much as it readjusts itself. And, he has really awesome shampoo in his shower.
DAY THREE: BLOOMINGTON, IN
The CSI pinball machine wasn't in the student union on campus, so I had to play a Monopoly machine with a messed up left flipper. Horseshit.
Austin Hayden made the reading happen (with a big assist from Maggie Su) because he's the best dude. We read at this gay bar called The Back Door. There were astronauts riding unicorns painted on the walls and right after the reading finished a big dance party broke out, which I'm guessing is like a sort of daily Rapture that could happen at any moment.
We were the only white people on a six-person reading and it was at a gay bar. I don't get to hear a lot of non-white voices, in non-straight atmospheres or otherwise, so this was exciting for a small-town dude like me. Turns out it's a big world with lots of different people living in it. Who knew?
We did karaoke at this place called The Office Lounge. It's a liquor store for about the first ten feet and then it turns into a bar. I killed "Gettin' Jiggy Wit It" to the point where the woman running the karaoke night bowed to me. Tulo and Austin split a gallon of gin and tonic and did "How's It Gonna Be" by Third Eye Blind. Then Austin almost got beat up by an old man for walking on a table during "Authority Song" and we left shortly after.
Our buddy Dillon put us up that night in his apartment above a 24-hour donut shop. Austin, Dillon, and our boy Tulo, who was coming along for this reading and the next one, got drunk and I got fat. I woke up in the middle of the night with a bit of puke in my mouth and my first thought wasn't Maybe I shouldn't have eaten three donuts and a pint of milk before bed, but instead was I bet one of those guys puked in my mouth a little and then left.
DAY FOUR: CINCINNATI, OH
The Midbestern Megan Martin made this one be a big deal. She resurrected her and Lisa Howe's reading series IMPORTANT PEOPLE, which we totally aren't worthy of. About forty people sat there and listened to everyone read and they even laughed at this dumb joke about Mamie Eisenhower in the section of the novella I read. Best reading of the tour, easily. It was especially great as Megan was there and her book Nevers really helped me write my novella. Because rules are dumb, as she proved over and over in that book.
After the reading, we all ended up at the greasy bar called The Rake's End. Some punk gal talked to me about performance art for just a bit too long and then Tulo talked to my girlfriend on the phone about Gossip Girl for not quite long enough, according to the two of them. I crashed out not long after getting back to Megan's place and eating some pudding.
DAY FIVE: DAY OFF IN CINCINNATI, OH
My buddy Sara Tucker (who did awesome at the reading the day before) put me up and took me to an arcade where I got fucked over by yet another Monopoly pinball machine. I don't want to talk about it.
DAY SIX: HARRISONBURG, VA
This was one of the seven-hour drives. Harrisonburg came about because I couldn't get anything in Columbus, OH or Pittsburgh, PA. Columbus falling through was just a matter of lack of communication and people not getting back to me on time. Pittsburgh was a bit odd in that I had a place booked and when I wrote back to confirm where to send fliers to, I got silence. This ate up a big chunk of time I could have used to book another show.
I contacted Joan Bauer who runs the Hemingway Summer Reading series and she told me they usually book 4-5 months in advance, that I can come and read at the open mic for three minutes if I want (and they usually focus on poetry), and then she sent me the schedule for the rest of the series even though you could literally fit the country of Germany between where I live and where the reading series takes place. She also suggested that if I do come through that week, that I shouldn't book a Tuesday, as she was expecting a big draw for the poets they have on deck already.
Emails like that and the process I'm assuming goes along with running that series make me think that it and events like it are the reason so many people think it's hard to make readings and tours happen in the first place. Best of luck to Joan and the like, but there's most certainly a better, more writer-friendly way to do things.
For example! When I got in touch with some people in Harrisonburg, they said there was one reading they do every month and it just so happened to be on the day I was looking for. So they added me to the event. I'm definitely not saying that touring acts should be bent over backwards for, because sometimes shows and scenes are saturated enough as is, but there's a difference between saturation and clueless exclusivity.
Enough complaining. What a beautiful drive through West Virginia. Wild and wonderful might be a bit of a stretch, but the reading was great and I had an excellent cheeseburger. Tip of the hat to Paul Somers for both. A kind woman whose name I can't remember let me sleep on her couch and she didn't even murder me. Some dude in a Kid Rock shirt who I think was tweaking on meth also didn't murder me, which was somewhat of a larger concern.
DAY SEVEN: BUTTFUCKED IN WASHINGTON DC
On the drive to Harrisonburg the day before, I got two flat tires and an email from Joel at The Electric Maid in Washington DC. I got the tires fixed the next morning. The reading, on the other hand, not so much.
Joel told me that, despite the reading being booked for two months, he couldn't find any local support. I was still invited to show up and read, but he said it'd probably only be him and the soundguy. Not a lot of money in that, he said. I took to Facebook, explaining my situation, how the show was cancelled and I'd take any last minute help I could get. After some comments from people, Joel said that he never cancelled the show, and I could still read if I wanted to.
So I cancelled the show, pretty much at the request of the promoter, who didn't promote shit.
I spent my day at the zoo. I don't like animals, so watching them in captivity is great. My friend Kaila took me to a Mexican restaurant where I explained how wrestling works, using the rise of Daniel Bryan as a representation for the great American story of underdog/redemption. I did some laundry and slept on her guest bed.
Parking is a nightmare there.
Essentially: fuck DC.
DAY EIGHT: PHILADELPHIA, PA
Drove straight to an arcade and played the best game of skiball of my entire life. Met up with my friend Marissa, who was kind enough to let me crash at her place, and had a cheese steak. I ate it with ketchup and was shunned.
I finally met Mike Sweeney, the guy who made my first book happen and made this novella not be a big pile of shit. I was pretty sure it was Mike until he was leaving and told me that he could have just been someone that Mike paid to say he was Mike, and because that was a weird enough thing, I entertained the possibility.
Philly sure didn't like me! I got up, read to a group of ten people who didn't make a sound, and then walked back to my merch to the sound of polite clapping. Then everyone left the room. Then I got an email that my reading in Akron was cancelled because the house got bedbugs.
Essentially: fuck Philly.
DAY NINE: BROOKLYN, NY
$35 in tolls just to drive from Philly to Brooklyn and then go insane once I get there because people won't stop honking at me when I refuse to block an intersection.
I went to a record/comic shop called Vinyl Fantasy that totally ruled. Ilana was kind enough to not only give me free comics, but she talked some dude in the store out of spending like $2000 on some ponzi scheme.
The reading was at a place called Molasses Books. I was uneasy about reading at a bookstore, because bookstores take cuts, often large ones, of books sold from the people reading. I understand taking a cut from a book you inventory, because it takes up space and you need to pay someone to do the transaction. However, if I'm walking into your bookstore, reading, and then closing my suitcase of books and walking out of the store, the store itself doesn't deserve any of they money from the books I sold. Certainly not 20-40% as is standard.
You, as a book store owner/operator, let me stand in a spot and read. This draws customers to the store, because it's an event. It's something going on that makes people go into the store when they otherwise wouldn't and possibly buy something. If a bookstore wants a cut on something they aren't going to inventory, ask them for a similar cut on books they sold independently of you while you were in the store. That's the only fair way to do things.
Anyways, Molasses Books was just a coffee shop that sold used books. They didn't give a fuck about getting a cut. I got to finally meet my friends Nicole Audrey Spector and Zachary Lipez, both super talented writers I had only previously known from the internet. Nicole is very funny and pretty and Zach is even funnier but slightly less pretty. They seemed to hit it off about being freelance writers, which is great, because then I don't need to talk about how I make mac & cheese for toddlers. I would have loved to hang out more, but I needed to get the fuck out of Brooklyn.
I drove two hours into Pennsylvania and checked into a hotel.
Essentially: fuck the east coast.
DAY TEN: NOT SHIT GOING ON IN WHITE HAVEN, PA
Home of Liz Lemon!
My dad travels for a living. The company pays for the hotels, but the membership points go to him personally. I stayed in this Comfort Inn for two nights and it cost money that was pretty much imaginary for every single person involved. I downloaded wrestling, read comics, and ate lots of Wheat Thins.
I guess I could have stayed in hotels every night, but that just seemed like the wrong way to do things and missing out on some of the real tour experience. Also, I was running out of momentum and needed a quiet place to not get dressed for awhile. Doing the tour alone only really seemed like a bad idea once it got to this extended downtime.
DAY ELEVEN: "PIZZA" IN CLEVELAND, OH
I couldn't find anything in Cleveland or Akron to get added to last minute. I drove up to Cleveland to see my friends Russell and Julie, who just happened to be on a little weekend getaway. I had a weird pizza with brats on it and then drove to a different Comfort Inn where I downloaded different wrestling and read the same comics. I bought myself a Mountain Dew and it was all about as exciting as you'd think.
DAY TWELVE: TOLEDO, OH
I found this bowling alley in Akron with 48 lanes and 22 pinball machines, so I hit that up before I left. The new KISS machine is kind of weak, but I set the loop record on the Black Knight 2000. Played this pirate game called Black Rose that was really awesome. All the instructions were in German, so I really didn't know what I was doing. Bounced around to a bunch of other ones and before I knew it, three hours, ten dollars, and my ability to talk comfortably to people were all gone.
This dude Danny was having the reading at his house. There were no bedbugs, which I was stoked about. It was the first show he'd done in awhile after doing them for years and years. He has a two year old daughter who I played with most of the time because I was really missing (some of) my Montessori friends. She had a Care Bear outfit on and she was wild until I got up and read, at which point she was lulled to sleep. If you're under five or over eighty, you can sleep at my readings and I won't be sad about it.
This seven year old girl sang her first song ever in front of people, about her cat who died. Not a dry eye in the house.
I talked to some older dude about thrash metal for what I think was a couple of hours. Once someone mentions Kreator, time disappears.
DAY THIRTEEN: ANN ARBOR, MI
I showed up to the venue super early and after telling two different people that I was there for the reading that night, a third came up to me and told me she didn't know anything about the reading. I tried getting in touch with Barry Graham, who set the whole thing up, but he wasn't getting back to me. A man named Leo showed up and told me he was running the show now, since Barry was out of town. The woman who told me she didn't know anything about a reading wasn't lying: she forgot to mark it on the events calendar and hadn't hung any of the fliers up I'd sent in.
A guy in a Ramones shirt started soundchecking an acoustic guitar. Can you see where this is headed?
He got halfway done performing to his three friends at a table in front, Leo and his girlfriend off to the side, me behind them, and two other guys behind me. Leo told me I was up next and I showed him the event page online, specifically the part where it said there were going to be four readers, a band, and three comedians. One of the readers was in the back of the room. He told me he didn't know the other one. Barry was out of town and he was supposed to read, too.
The guy playing acoustic guitar wasn't the listed musical act. Leo didn't know who one of the comedians was. A notification popped up from one of the other comedians, saying that she and her guy (the other other comedian) though the show was cancelled and now they can't make it.
The guy in the Ramones shirt finishes playing and in the time it took me to walk on stage and ask everyone if they could hear me without a microphone, he and his three friends packed up his guitar and walked directly out of the building.
I read for four minutes. Red Hot Chili Peppers were blasting on the jukebox across the bar the entire time. An old guy came up and bought my book and said, "Good effort."
The next guy to read came up with two yellow legal pads and read some poems about beer league softball.
I really wanted to go home.
DAY FOURTEEN: GRAND RAPIDS, MI
One of my best friends, Josh, and his wife, Abby, live in Grand Rapids, so this is where the tour was going to hopefully turn back into what it was on the first several days. Except between them working and having a newly fostered ten-year-old in the house and me going to a reading that lasted for almost five hours, we didn't get to see much of each other. (I did, however, get to meet the totally rad Todd Kaneko, who I'll hopefully be doing a wrestling-themed tour with someday.)
The reading was fun, but exhausting. It was the last reading this house venue was doing before the people who ran it moved away, so everyone was invited to read. Twenty people, all with notebooks, read for about ten to fifteen minutes each. By the end of the night I think even I forgot I was selling books. Lots of great people, but it was a marathon.
DAY FIFTEEN: NOT KALAMAZOO, MI
My reading in Kalamazoo fell through that morning for a story even more convoluted than all of this. It boils down to me not hitting "reply all" on an email chain.
So I went home. Gwen was happy to see me. I was happy to see her. The next morning, I got my haircut for the first time in twelve years. Thanks to the people who wanted to see me look even more irresistible and some money from my own pocket, I was then able to donate $750 to a local women's shelter. They gave me a tour of the place and, other than the circumstances that bring women there, it's better than my or your college dorm. They do the good work.
DAY SIXTEEN: RACINE, WI
This was supposed to be South Bend, IN. It was all set up through a guy named Myles, who then handed it off to two people who couldn't have given a fuck at all. By the time they really really stopped responding to my email check-ins, I was already screwed.
Thankfully, my friend Josh Hensley from AMAZING SUPER AWESOME CHECK IT THE FUCK OUT ALREADY band The Rutabega in South Bend checked in to see where I was reading, found out it was nowhere, and got me added to this show they were playing in Racine. Gwen and I drove out for it and had dinner with my buddy Jay, another one of the coolest wrestling fans I know, before heading over to the venue.
The second band played the world's longest set for a second band on a three band bill, especially for a band that was just bass and drums. No tonal variety for 55 minutes is only awesome if you're a test pattern.
I read a very, very short story because by the time I got up there it was already about midnight on a Friday. Not exactly the prime time to be telling people to be quiet and listen to flash fiction, but people mostly obliged and I was happy to be there with so many buddies and good tunes and pretty everyone except that band that played their interpretation of Led Zeppelin's live at Royal Albert Hall set.
Jeff Moody put us all up at his place because he, like so many other people mentioned here, is the best dude.
DAY SEVENTEEN: CHICAGO, IL
Gwen and I stopped into a small press festival in Griffith, IN before heading to the reading. It was pretty tiny, but for a first year, it seemed to have everyone there into it. The best part was meeting Bud Smith, who might be the silver-tongued devil people are always talking about.
We met up with Michael Lambert, who was supposed to the tour with me but bailed because he's a punk bitch (who got funding from his university to go to a retreat and blah blah blah FUCK YOU, MIKE). All three of us read at this new place called the Two-Hearted Queen, to the two owners and our friend Liz. She was glad we waited for her, but if we didn't, we wouldn't have had a third of the crowd.
The next day I deactivated my Facebook (SO SHARE THIS POST ON THERE) (AND KEEP IN TOUCH WITH ME ON INSTAGRAM), which I hopefully won't need again until I start booking next year's tour. If nothing else, I got my books into the hands of people who wouldn't have otherwise got them and saw some things I wouldn't have otherwise saw. It's like Tumblr except, you know, real.