Thursday, March 6, 2008

Book Tours and Beyond: An Interview with Kevin Smokler

The connection between the web and books is as old (or as young) as the web. Actually it predates it. I remember surfing local dial-up bulleting board systems (BBS) back in the 80's, when one of the main attractions was the availability on-line of eclectic and obscure text files of books and articles you could not get anywhere else. Of course today you can get anything on Amazon, and that is only one way the web transformed the world of books.

Kevin Smokler is the co-founder of ( a San-Francisco based literary 2.0 start-up that wants to change the world of books in yet another way. By becoming the web's largest 100% free directory of author events, it hopes to use the social enabling aspects of the web to facilitate better interaction between authors and readers.

In a nutshell, authors can sign up to the website and list their up-coming events. Readers can then easily keep tabs on which authors are in town, or where their favorite authors are touring at the moment.

Smokler is also an author, a speaker, a prolific blogger, and a one man think tank about the future of publishing.

So what is a book tour anyway?

A book tour is a promotional jumping from place to place for authors with a book newly published. Usually it involves doing readings at bookstores and related venues as well as media appearances on radio, newspapers, TV and such. That is if the nation cares about your book which sometimes they don't.

Same really as when musicians go on tour to promote an album. Except a lot fewer groupies.

The acts of writing and reading are mostly done private on their own. There is no inherent element of performance like in a music concert. Why then is a meeting of the author and the reader desirable?

The realities of publishing today are such that authors that don't promote themselves do so at their peril. There simply aren't enough resources to go around for everyone to receive a Da Vinci Codian marketing budget. From the reader's point of view, we now live in a culture that values transparency, instead of secrecy, when discussing the creative process, be it DVD commentaries,
Inside the Actor's Studio or Project Runway. It's an information-rich world. When you read a good book, you want to know more, not less, about who birthed it.

How did the idea for come about? How did the team gather?

Chris Anderson
, our CEO went on tour in 2006 to promote his first book "THE LONG TAIL" which sold brilliantly. Still he remained convinced that the glorious experience he was having on book tour was the exception rather than the rule. Put simpler, he'd heard too many stories of authors being flown, at great expense to their publishers to say, a Barnes & Noble in Fort Lee, NJ to give a reading to a clutch of empty chairs. He also knew that there were countless cases of a favorite author coming to town but the appearance not mentioned by local media outlets, namely because the author spoke at say, a church rather than a Borders. The asymmetry of interested readers and touring authors not able to locate one another was the first spark of the idea.

Chris approached me in November of 2006 after reading about the Virtual Book Tour, a project I used to head up that matched up authors promoting a book and blogs that might be interested in that book. Our CTO Adam Goldstein came to us that spring through
Paul Graham's Y Combinator program for young entrepreneurs.

To promote your own book you conducted a “virtual book tour”, while on you promote the old school version. What's the advantages of each? Looking at your itinerary you now travel quite a bit. What kind of tour do you prefer personally?

I'm one of those rare authors who constantly feels as though they're in the wrong profession because I love to talk in front of a crowd. So if your own enthusiasm for your projects is contagious, I recommend you get out there and infect others. That assumes of course your lifestyle allows for it. If you write better than you talk, play to your strengths and tour virtually. But a virtual tour involves leaning on long standing relationships developed over years of having an on-line presence. And most others don't have that either.

Upshot: Author should assume that promotion of their books is their responsibility and should begin building networks, both on-line and off, sooner rather than later.

What's the feedback gets from authors, readers and bookstores?

I would 95% has been positive, glad-this-is-here, why-has-no-one-done-this-yet sort of feedback. Which we're very grateful for. The concerns expressed thus far have been mostly around it being too labor extensive to add events to our database (a fair point we're very close to fixing) and that we can't use our database to preference those in the book world who need the attention (small presses, mid-list authors, independent bookstores if that's ). Much as we'd like to, our first commitments are to fairness for everyone who uses our service and integrity of the information that is our cells and molecules.

Who is using most so far? Readers, authors or bookstores? Is there a specific genre that is more popular?

Visitors tend towards readers and interested audience members. Sign-ups lean toward authors, which makes sense. Bookstores are one of our primary sources of event data.

Recently once again articles or comments from the like of Steve Jobs, talk about the decline in readership. This is an analysis you opposed in the collection of essays “Bookmark Now” which you edited in 2005. Do you think it is more of the same, or is there something new at play here?

I'm inclined to believe that cultural calls for alarm are best dealt with at head and tail instead of belly. Let's say that reading is in decline. Well, then its the job of the people who make things we read to change how they do business instead of complaining. Basic principal of capitalism. The tail: if we think reading is inherently valuable as a society, do we provide an environment in families and households where it can thrive? Or do we accept as given that everyone should work 60 hours a week, commute an hour in each direction and be suspect of any entertainment that isn't loud and diversionary? Put simply, when we say culture is "in decline" we should begin with those who stand to benefit most from the panic and those who raised it in the first place. One of those is almost always ourselves.

In the case Mr. Jobs comments, he was citing the NEA's follow up to its 2004 Reading at Risk study in response to a question of whether Apple would release an e-reader to compete with Amazon's Kindle. His remarks have largely been dismissed as MacWorld-related bluster which is where I stand. Timothy Egan in the New York Times did the best dissection I've seen so far which cites that even though one-quarter of American didn't read a book last year, 27 percent read 15 or more books. We're comfortable enough with that number to build our business around putting in touch with the authors they love.

What's planned for Any new features coming up?

Oh yes indeed. Keep your ear to the ground. We've got a big announcement coming up!

And so we shall! Check out online at

Eylon Israely


Eco-Libris: Plant a Tree for Every Book you Read!