Book Tour Blues

“Never again,” I swear every time I’m on book tour.

I’ll never do this again, I don’t care if I sell one book or 10 million, I’m not getting on another 6 a.m. flight out of an airport that’s been closed for two days due to bad weather and is therefore mobbed now with livid travelers — 10 cities in 12 days; nice hotels, but I can’t sleep at night because the windows are sealed shut (is it to prevent authors whose books have tanked from throwing themselves out?), and I get claustrophobic; friendly escorts, but they feel an obligation to talk to you, and I’m too tired from the flight to make conversation; radio and press interviews that I could have done from home, on the phone and who knows if anyone out there is listening to these shows?; bookstores where I’m alone with a salesclerk, a couple of homeless people and one other person — there’s always one person — who’s been sent by God, I know, or by one of the two or three authors in this country who, on a bad day, might consider me a worthy competitor and pray that my book will fail, to witness my mortification before the salesclerk and the homeless guys.

I’ll never do this again, I swear to myself and my husband and children and to all my students whether they want to hear it or not, and they all nod and say, “yes, of course, of course you won’t, it’s not as if you’ve ever made and broken this promise before….”

I’ll never do this again.

Till I’m three months away from the publication of another novel, and my publisher asks if I’ll agree to appear at the Jewish Book Council’s (JBC) Fourth Annual Live Auction (that’s not the real title for the event, but it really should be) in New York.

The JBC, in case you didn’t know, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of “Jewish interest” literature. It operates through a network of Jewish Federation chapters, Jewish community centers, Jewish book festivals, libraries and synagogues around the country, giving awards and reviewing books in its magazine. It is just about the most organized, well-run machine in the publishing industry today, and it’s one of the most effective, as well. If you’re an author with a book to promote, and the JBC likes you and decides to send you on tour, chances are,you won’t spend too many lonely nights in empty bookstores, in freezing weather, in strange cities, wondering why you didn’t go to law school or get a broker’s license or sell shoes at Neiman Marcus when you still had a chance … anything, really, instead of this.

I’ll never do this again.

Yes, I tell my publisher, I’ll gladly appear before the representatives of the JBC in New York. I’ll be one of a few hundred authors, each given a maximum of two minutes — that’s 120 seconds — in which to introduce his or herself, talk about his or her book and make enough of an impression to be invited to participate in subsequent events. Never mind that this means I’d be committing to going on tour again (that is, if anyone from the JBC wants me after the live auction). Never mind, either, that I have no clue what to say about myself or the book during those fateful 120 seconds. Or that I’ll be doing this the night before the opening of Book Expo America, where hundreds of publishers — Jewish and non-Jewish — will be promoting thousands of upcoming books (I swear, there are more authors in this country than there are readers), all to no avail, really, because every one of those books and authors and publishers has already been eclipsed by two upcoming titles: Harry Potter No. 17, or No. 80, or whatever it is; and the new book by the guy who wrote “The Kite Runner.” The rest of us, ladies and gentlemen, might as well go home.

Yes, I say, I’ll appear before the JBC in New York.

The event unfolds over three consecutive evenings in the main sanctuary of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan. I’ve been scheduled to speak during the last half-hour of the last night. I arrive two hours early, as instructed, and check in at the door. I’m handed a badge and led into the sanctuary, where I sit in the front row of the “N through Z” section, directly across from the “Ls” and “Ms” of the “A through M” group. I’m easily one of 100 authors here, and I get the feeling that every one of them is looking at me with a mixture of bitter suspicion and indignant disregard. They’re all thinking what I’m thinking — there are too many of us in this business, and certainly in this room. Mine is the only book anyone should read, and it would be, too — the only book anyone read this year — if not for “Harry Potter,” “The Kite Runner,” and all these other people whose last names are not Nahai.

The moderator explains the rules: Two minutes, she says. Go over the limit, and you’ll be hauled away from the podium in disgrace, never to be invited to speak before the JBC again, or to be sent on tour by the JBC, or to sell another book to a Jewish reader. OK, fine, she doesn’t really say that. But that’s what she means when she says that the two-minute rule is “strictly enforced.” She shows us large yellow signs — “one minute,” “30 seconds,” “10 seconds” — that she’s going to hold up as reminders throughout each presentation, and this makes some authors chuckle nervously, or snort disdainfully, because, of course, we each have so many thousands of hours’ worth of interesting things to say about ourselves and our work — but no one’s about to object. Partly, this is because they don’t want to offend the JBC or be labeled “troublemaker.” Partly, too, we each see the wisdom of keeping everyone else’s presentation short. As for me, I have no trouble settling in for the long evening. I don’t know about the others here, but I’m quite used to this — the two-minutes at the podium, preceded by years of toiling in solitude and hoping for the best, followed by months of waiting and watching and wondering why I didn’t finish law school while other authors, whose last names are not Nahai, are called up to the podium. l

Gina B. Nahai’s new novel “Caspian Rain” will be published this fall. Her column appears on the first Friday of every month. She will write more about the evening at the Jewish Book Council next month.