The Nation's Business

True tales from the book-tour trade

When asked why he declined to review one of my books, Larry Zolf said: ‘I couldn’t review your book. I liked it.’

Peter C. Newman November 30 1998
The Nation's Business

True tales from the book-tour trade

When asked why he declined to review one of my books, Larry Zolf said: ‘I couldn’t review your book. I liked it.’

Peter C. Newman November 30 1998

True tales from the book-tour trade

The Nation's Business

When asked why he declined to review one of my books, Larry Zolf said: ‘I couldn’t review your book. I liked it.’

Peter C. Newman

Come November, like autumn leaves blowin' in the wind, we authors tour the Canadian heartland, trumpeting our meagre literary offerings to an indifferent public. Though most writers don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs, that’s what they are, risking three or more years, slaving away, to create a $35 product that nobody really needs.

To somehow encourage Canadians to purchase these outpourings of our fevered psyches is, of course, the purpose of the annual book flogs. Once we hit the road, ordinarily shy and deferential writers who think it’s daring to use an adverb turn into obnoxious gladiators. Our Spartacus spirit is expressed in everything from harassing our publishers for more advertising dollars to storming stores and autographing as many of our books as quickly as we can. (We remain convinced—wrongly, as it turns out—that once they are thus desecrated, booksellers can no longer returned the unsold volumes to publishers for refunds.)

Once, when I was on the promotion trail with Penguin publicist Sarah Thring in 1985,

I arrived at a small Kingston, Ont., bookstore at noon. It was deserted of customers and staff, so I signed all my books and left, often wondering afterwards what went through the proprietor’s head when he returned. (Thring also once had the distinction of chaperoning a famous hockey player who was flogging his autobiography. While no one assumed that he had actually written it, the problem was he hadn’t read it either and couldn’t answer any questions about the interesting life some ghostwriter had concocted for him.)

Another favorite trick while on these tours is to visit bookstores and pile one’s book in front of a rival’s offering, hoping that impulse shoppers will grab your volumes first. My current six-week tour, promoting Titans: How the New Canadian Establishment Seized Power, is my 20th journey around the circuit. It doesn’t get any easier. A typical day starts with a predawn interview—once sharing the waiting room with Preston Manning and his wife, Sandra, who tried to convert me to their “unite the right” cause. The day ends with an after-dinner speech and autograph session before falling into a strange bed. It’s like being a rock star without any groupies.

There was a time, not so long ago, when print, radio and TV interviewers who took us temporarily under their talkative wings had actually read our books and could discuss their finer attributes and more obvious flaws. My favorite interviewer was Jack Webster, the Scottish laird who then ruled over BCTV in Vancouver. His morning shows were so popular that they changed the city’s traffic patterns, as people stayed home to hear his morning signon at “9 a.m., precisely!” When I published one of my previous volumes on the Canadian Establishment in 1981, Webster began his

show by holding The Acquisitors in front of him and barking into the camera lens: “I have here in my hands,” followed by a dramatic pause and then, “a scurrilous book ... I say, a SCURRILOUS book!” No author can ask for a higher commendation than that.

Another highlight along the route in those vintage flogs was being interviewed by Brenlee Carrington, who had the only talk show on 1290-Fox, an uptown country AM station on the outskirts of Winnipeg. Authors would arrive expecting the usual once-overlightly kind of interview to find that feisty lady had all but memorized their books. More than once, I had to ask her to stop the tape so I could check something in my book she had just asked me to explain. (She wanted to be the next Barbara Frum, but instead married a Winnipeg millionaire and retired from broadcasting.)

Winnipeg was also memorable as the city where Cara Operations Ltd. purchased the airport bookstore and transferred some of its food-services employees to run the place. It was, for a time, the world’s only bookstore whose clerks wore hairnets and who were rumored to take stock of the books every Friday evening just in case they might go bad over the weekend.

The odd interviewer still reads the books that avalanche through their mail slots. But much more often, as some television whiz kid—whose main qualifications seem to be teased hair and gleaming molars—settles in for “the interview,” you hear that awful “crack” when the book’s binding is stretched for the first time. So often now, authors are relegated to a token five minutes on daytime variety shows with preoccupied hosts, giving them no chance for a dialogue.

And then there are the reviews. Mostly they’re sympathetic or at least understanding of an author’s intent and techniques. Others use the opportunity to vent their poisonous personal feuds by condemning the author for having the nerve to publish a book so shoddy it is not worth the trees that gave it life. I’ve suffered from that kind of diabolical butchery and will never understand why critics don’t review the book instead of the author.

My favorite memory of how book reviewing works in this country concerns Larry Zolf, a knowledgeable Winnipegger familiar with the Bronfman family story, who turned down the request of Saturday Night to review my 1978 book on the powerful dynasty. Later, when I asked him why, he look quite affronted: “I couldn’t review your book,” said he. “I liked it.”

But book flogs are not all sweat and worry. It is incredibly rewarding to meet your readers, knowing that there is an audience out there for those hard-won perceptions that liven most books. The best part of these literary marathons is being out among real people, away from the literati, sharing the joys of being a writer and a Canadian.