Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Amtrak Should Sponsor Book Tours (Like Mine!)

Social media has connected readers into communities in ways that were once impossible. Anybody, anywhere can tweet/blog/comment/post with their favorite writers or with other readers who share their tastes and passions. (I'm sure we'll get to civil debate at some point. Yep. Any day now.) This ability to connect gives us the opportunity to have a national, even global, literary culture while supporting a network of thousands of subcultures, specialties, and niches. We experience our shared humanity and our defining individuality. But for all that the internet can connect us, I don't think online connections can completely replace face-to-face interaction. We (most of us anyway) still have bodies at the end of our brains.

To me, at least, there is something irreplaceable about shaking an author's hand, or that moment when the signed book—with an inscription you can't wait to read but you put the book away without reading it because you also want to enjoy the anticipation—is handed back, or being a part of an audience for an amazing performance. There is something inspiring about discussing an experience with a total stranger as you leave a book store. Things happen when the chaos of an audience is mixed with the chaos of a writer in front of a microphone. But for the most part, the economics of publishing aren't conducive to extensive author tours. Travel and lodging costs are just too high. Especially in relation to the few dollars of profit of each potential sale. Simply put, the profit margins are too thin and the financial risk too great for most authors to travel extensively. Unless you're lucky enough to live in a major city or relatively near NYC or Boston (where, for a whole host of socio-economic reasons, many writers live), or you happen to live in one of the few cities that have become literary landmarks, you're very unlikely to meet your favorite author in person. And you're even less likely to see a debut author from a small press at the beginning of her career. Unfortunately, despite our connected society, “and I was there moments,” are still too far away for too many of us.

Since I moved to the Boston area, Amtrak's Downeaster has been my mode of travel when I go back to Maine. It's comfortable and affordable. I can read and write. I can get a snack or a beer. There's usually wifi. It's great. So I was really excited to see the establishment of the Amtrak Residency. To me anyway, the connection between trains and writing is natural. If the application period had come at a time when I wasn't editing a novel and planning a wedding, (Life hack: If at all possible, don't edit a novel and plan a wedding at the same time.) I absolutely would have applied. The residency really is a win/win for everyone involved; writers get a creative atmosphere to work in and the chance to travel and Amtrak gets goodwill from the literary community and the publicity from media coverage, essentially for free. But there is potential for more. The potential for Amtrak to become the vehicle of American literary culture.

Amtrak should sponsor author tours, especially authors that are less likely to tour, such as debut or mid-list authors from relatively small publishers. (You may know someone who fits that description. OK, you do and it's me!) With the exception of sold-out trains (which I have only seen one or two of in all the years I've taken the train) it would cost Amtrak pretty much nothing to contribute to an unparalleled literary culture. Just fill a seat no one was sitting in with an author on her way to a reading. Sure, there's only so much this would do. There would still be more readings in big cities and near the centers of publishing and a lot of people will still have to drive substantial distances to see their favorite authors, and there would still be financial risks for the publishers even with travel cost removed, but Amtrak tour sponsorship would still be a boon for authors, publishers, bookstores, and readers. And if, in exchange, Amtrak asks for an article in Arrive or posts on their blog or a Twitter Q&A or even to be named as sponsors by the author at the events themselves, well, I for one would see that as a fair exchange. And again, Amtrak could do all this good essentially at no cost to themselves.

Today's telecommunications creates a world vastly more connected than we ever could have imagined even fifteen years ago. But we still have bodies. We still seek meaning from information that can only be gleaned in person. So we turn to the great connector of the 19th century, to bridge some of the gaps left by our internet connected world. And it wouldn't cost Amtrak a penny. If Amtrak is looking for an author to start with, I'd gladly volunteer.

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