01/08/2011 12:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Going on a Book Tour? Dream Big or Stay Home

Ah, the book tour. That literary rite-of-passage that all authors at one time or another dream of, thoughts of which keep them going through the tough times. Who hasn't imagined standing in front of a group of eager readers, people who -- unlike your friends & family -- actually want to hear you expound upon the writing process? Who hasn't fantasized about sitting at a table, facing an endless line of people all clutching Your book, happily awaiting your signature?

I'm getting ready to depart upon one of these tours - details here, for anyone who wants to know them. And having been around the block a time or two, I have a clearer idea of what to expect.

When I was first published, several years ago, I arranged bookstore appearances myself. I was not at the top of my publisher's priority list, and thus discovered what so many authors do -- if I wanted any publicity, it was up to me. I was a newly-minted author, bright eyed and bushy tailed, and so naturally, I wanted to do a book tour. Even though my agent gently tried to persuade me it might not be the best use of my time or money.

Nonsense! Of course, total strangers would want to leave the comfort of their homes on a weeknight just to see me, an author they'd never heard of, who'd written a book they didn't know existed!

Fueling my excitement was the bookstores themselves. I dutifully went around to visit many local stores before my book was out, and sent off mailings to those further afield. So many managers begged me to do an appearance that I was, of course, flattered.

So I packed my bags, loaded up the gas tank, used up all of my husband's Marriott points, and hit the road.

Only to experience what many authors had experienced before me.

The signing where only the janitor showed up. The one where I was put at a table in front of the store, expected to accost every customer entering the place. The ones where the bookstore manager's definition of "we'll do lots of publicity and get the word out!" was to stick a poster up at the front counter the day before the signing.

Once, at a mall bookstore (this was in the olden days of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks), I was even stuck outside the store, in the mall itself. Standing there with a copy of a book in my hand, egged on by the manager, I felt like a cheese pusher from Hickory Farms.

I endured the litanies of "No, I'm not going to buy your book! "Excuse me, where's the bathroom?" And my personal favorite: "Sorry, never heard of you -- but can you help me get my book published?"

And I vowed never, ever, to put myself through it again.

Author's memories, however, are famously short. Flash forward a few years, to a new book and a new publisher. I'm going back on tour, but this time -- it's personal!

Sorry for the movie trailer hyperbole. Actually, it's just different.

Funny thing about publishers. They know what they're doing. Sometimes, in this ever-changing world of digital publishing, self-publishing, revolving editors, we authors forget that.

A publisher is not going to pay good money to send an author on a fool's errand So if they're not certain, or at least as certain as is possible, that there will be publicity, an audience, a go-to bookstore with a great track record of packing the place and generating lots of local interest, they're not going to send their authors, whom they really do value, out.

In other words, unlike authors, publishers know when to, well -- say no.

I've now been lucky enough to experience both kinds of tours; the one that I cobbled together myself, and the one put together by publishing experts. And there's a world of difference. Of course, there is. And when you're fortunate enough to have written a book that people have actually heard of, well -- there's an entire universe of difference.

My publisher, smartly, builds my bookstore appearances around ticketed events; literary foundations, museums, with lecture series who invite me to appear. These events come with some ready-made publicity, as well as ready-made audiences.

I've also learned to listen to my publisher. When a bookstore contacts me personally about an appearance, I pass the request on to my publicist. Only once did I ignore her advice and do an event anyway.

Only the janitor showed up.

It's really hard, when asked, when begged to do an appearance, to say no. It's an ego thing, for sure; it's what we've always dreamed of. It's also an altruistic thing; authors love bookstores and they want to help them out in any way they can. And we know that so many need our help, these days.

But I would say to that newly-minted, bright eyed and busy tailed author out there: Hold on a minute. Ask lots of questions, not just of the bookstore, but of your agent, your peers. Trust their experience. Value yourself and your time.

And I realize that most of you will ignore what I say.

I'm heading the week of January 10th. I can't wait to meet readers, shake hands with bookstore owners, steal a few hotel towels. After all these years, I still hold onto my fantasies of an author's life and have been fortunate enough to experience some of them. As far as the others, I'm still hoping and dreaming.

It's what keeps us going, after all, we starry-eyed literary types. Hope. Fantasy. A lively imagination.

And if painful reality intrudes, we just shrug. After all, we're writers.

We can always use it in our next novels -- or blog posts.