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Author book tours aren’t what they used to be

Tracie Milenkoff 38 AmeliKowalisyn 32 Valparaiso Ind. received personally signed copies “I Just Want Pee Alone” book signing social event

Tracie Milenkoff, 38, and Amelia Kowalisyn, 32, of Valparaiso, Ind. received personally signed copies of “I Just Want to Pee Alone” at a book signing and social event in downtown Chicago July 26. | Natasha Wasinski~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 24, 2013 6:11AM

Local novelist Kevin Guilfoile remembers the good old days when authors traveled coast-to-coast promoting their work.

When his debut novel “Cast of Shadows” was released in 2005, he embarked on a 15-city book tour.

Back then, private drivers greeted him at the airport, taking him to a swanky hotel. Sometimes Guilfoile had a suite. Work days were spent wandering from one bookstore to the next, pressing paperbacks into others’ hands.

“There was a whole industry around book tours,” Guilfoile said. “By the time my second book, ‘The Thousand,’ came out [in 2010], that was largely gone for most authors.”

That year, he only visited four cities carefully selected by his publisher.

In today’s post-recession economy, most book publishers won’t, or simply cannot afford to, send professional writers on cross-country tours. That luxury usually is reserved for the powerhouses: J.K. Rowling, John Grisham and celebrities who’ve penned a book.

Then again, should publishers shell out such funds for all writers with the world increasingly nuanced and digitized?

“Financially did the model make sense? Probably not,” Guilfoile conceded. “But I’m certainly glad I had the experience.”

Though the landscape for marketing literature has changed, face-to-face promotional opportunities still have value.

“The novelty of meeting a favorite author has not worn off,” said Caitlin Eck, publicity manager for the Independent Publishers Group and Chicago Review Press.

Consequently, authors still make in-person appearances. Readers still want autographed books. It’s the nature of their interactions, and where they take place, that has changed.

A virtual tour — in which an author makes pre-planned “stops” in the blogosphere through live chats, guest posts, and Q&A sessions on various websites — is one popular and inexpensive method for attracting readers.

“It’s a really nice way that the book tour has sort of evolved with the online community growing and with costs being cut here and there,” Eck said. “Every industry changes, and we can’t be resistant to those changes.”

Kristyn Friske, Windy City Publishers’ executive vice president for business development and marketing, said the decrease in the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores is compelling the industry to explore creative options.

“In actuality, you’re better off going to a venue where your targeted audience is,” she noted.

Though it may not always be stipulated in publishing agreements, writers, like many professionals, are expected to do a bit of self-promotion on their own via the web and in their local communities. Promotional book events now take place at public libraries, during conferences, in partnerships with social and civic organizations, and, in some instances, at sporting goods stores, trunk shows and bars.

Publishing houses, venues, and event sponsors are also better packaging the author experience.

“I didn’t get to experience the glamour days,” said historical fiction writer Melanie Benjamin.

And, yet, she has traveled out-of-state several times since the January release of her New York Times bestselling book “The Aviator’s Wife.”

But Benjamin puts a twist on the traditional author experience, choosing not to recite from her books in any manner.

“When you think of the normal author appearance, it used to be the author standing up and reading for 15 minutes and then taking questions,” she said. “Those days are kind of over.”

Instead, she plans presentations on issues or events related to “The Aviator’s Wife” that audiences might find more interesting, she said.

“I really try hard to make my appearances different and to give the audience a reason to come out of their houses,” she said.

Natasha Wasinski is a local free-lance writer.

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