This fall, I accomplished a daunting right of passage for any Jewish boy with literary inclinations: The Jewish Book Tour, one of the stranger experiences in modern publishing. It is also one of the most amazing. The Tour, organized by the Jewish Book Network, sends Jewish authors or authors of books with Jewish interest to Jewish Community Centers all over the country to promote their work. At a time of shrinking budgets and almost no publisher-sponsored tours for mid-list authors, the Jewish Book Tour is a miracle. You show up off a cheap flight in Detroit or San Diego or Jacksonville or wherever a few Jews who love books have built something together. You're given a welcome bag. There's food, of course. You speak. There's an audience. You sign books. They buy books. They try to set you up with their granddaughters. It's not Hemingway and Dos Passos in Paris, but for those of us trying to eke out a living writing books, it's more than most get.
The audition process is like American Idol meets open-mic night in the Borscht Belt. Every summer in New York, hundreds of authors from the famous to the obscure gather in front of representatives from the Jewish Book Network members. Each author gets two-minutes to present the book and demonstrate some public speaking ability, which a surprising number simply don't have. There's some gems. There's some duds. There's time for wine and awkward networking when the presentations are done. A few months later, the lucky author finds himself flying from city to city, talking about his book and doing signings.
My journey bounced me from coast to coast in no particular order, putting me in front of crowds of people who'd come for a love of books or for a love free entertainment, but either way, who had come and were going to hear me speak. After the grueling task of sitting down and writing a book, it is an amazing feeling to stand in front of a room and have people who aren't your mother give a damn about what you wrote. I hadn't felt much connection to any sort of community, let along a Jewish community, before writing this book (that's what the book's about--hint hint--buy it). I had my friends. I had my social network. I had a few colleagues and a partner and a dog. I never felt much need for a community. But there I was, having committed that solitary act of narcissism, book writing, and there they were--a community that didn't know me at all, but welcomed me with open arms, wanted to hear my message, to argue about it, to disagree, and to set me up with their granddaughters (did I mention that already? It came up a lot).
So what was the lesson here? Why am I sharing this? Because as publishing and its associated retailers all lose their minds over the future of distribution and pricing models (The Two Day War of Amazon and Macmillan is the latest example), it is important to remember that it's the community of readers who make books happen. The Jewish Book Network is one model, but there are countless others organized around politics or sci-fi or cats. They're out there and it behooves us authors to reach out and find them, to support them. Some won't be able to afford to arrange a national tour for dozens of authors. We aren't all people of the book. But with the technology at our disposal, we can reach out and find communities without getting on a plane.
Yes, gone are the days when we can write our books and let the books speak for themselves. JD Salinger, peace be upon him, could be aloof, but his publisher had to keep marketing him. Now that publishers are ever more strapped for marketing dollars and marketing ideas and review space, it is up to us.
Every act of writing happens alone. I love the solitary act of setting words down in order, but no act of publishing can happen alone, in spite of the technology at our disposal. We need a community. If you're a writer, I highly recommend finding yours.