Have book, will travel

A Seattle author recalls life on tour

"WOULD YOU BE willing to travel and take your book on tour?" the Random House marketing director asked.

It was December 1998, and I was pitching my book proposal to a group of five in a small conference room in Random House's midtown New York City office, among them Random House President Ann Godoff and Senior Editor Scott Moyers. Of course I'd be willing to take my book on tour. Who wouldn't be willing to bop from city to city, visiting bookstores by day and socializing with old friends over expense account-billed dinners by night? But long before any whirlwind cross-country tour could begin, I first needed to get a book- publishing contract—and write the book.

The upshot of the meeting was indeed a book deal, and two and a half years later Random House published Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women. Written as a first-person narrative, Brothel depicts my exploration of the largely hidden world of legalized prostitution in Nevada, in particular the seven months I spent living in the state's most prominent cathouse, the Mustang Ranch. Very deliberately, my book tour began the week Brothel went on sale in bookstores across America.

According to a recent article in Newsweek ("The Hard Sell," Aug. 27, 2001), well-devised author book tours are now the rule. "Two decades ago, the author book tour was almost a novelty. Today it can be the deciding factor in a book's success. Touring has always been as much about selling the author as the book. Turn the author into a traveling salesman, and those personal appearances generate real sales." It had been in that vein that Random House's marketing director had been invited to hear my pitch: to get a sense of how presentable I might be publicly. Sure, the topic of sex and prostitution were inherently marketable, but she wanted to know how articulate and appealing I, the author, was.

While action packed and fully paid for, my book tour never turned out to be as recreational as I had imagined. In fact, I quickly discovered just how exhausting schlepping a book around the country could be. My three publicists—for the East Coast, West Coast, and Canada—had each scheduled itineraries practically down to the minute in seven cities (New York, Boston, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.). Concern that the Midwest and Southeast would, at best, lukewarmly receive a book about prostitution eliminated them from my tour. Additionally, I discovered bookstore visits wouldn't be among my stops. "There's not much bang for the buck if we place an unknown author behind a stack of books to autograph them and no one comes up to pick up a copy," one publicist told me.

Instead, I spent most of my tour doing national and local media-primarily radio, television, and print. (Everyone knows the media love anything having to do with sex!) A typical tour day: being awoken at 6 a.m. by a hotel operator's wake-up call. Showering and choosing between my two interview outfits (I tried to pack light), each one growing riper with each day of wear. Gulping down a cup of room-service coffee and a slice of toast before racing down to the lobby to meet my hired escort, who would ferry me between appointments. Attempting to calm any jitters before the start of my first gig, usually a commercial-morning-radio show hosted by a bantering pair of DJs who only wanted to know how much money brothel prostitutes made and how good-looking they were. Switching gears for a public radio station interview entailing a more measured and reflective discussion about the public health and sociological aspects of Nevada's brothel industry. Nibbling discreetly on my room-service lunch while doing a newspaper interview by phone back in my hotel room. Freshening up quickly before heading out for my first gig of the afternoon on a local afternoon television or radio program.

At the end of the day, my escort delivered me either to the airport to catch a plane for my next destination or back to my hotel room to crash. Instead of indulging myself on regional cuisine in the cities' hot spots, I usually only had enough energy to muster a phone call to room service again. Fortunately, my accommodations were all lovely (no motels!) and exceeded my expectations. In L.A., I even got put up at the Regent Beverly Wilshire off Rodeo Drive. Giggling, my West Coast publicist told me she thought this most fitting since this was the hotel used in the film Pretty Woman.

REMARKABLY, MY BOOK tour was mishap free. Except, of course, for the day I left behind my garment bag (containing both my interview outfits!) in an airplane closet, only to realize my blunder several hours later. Then there was my interview with Bill O'Reilly of The O'Reilly [Factor]. Aware of O'Reilly's conservative dogmatism and domineering interview style, I thought I was prepared to hold my own and make my points without becoming defensive. I was terribly mistaken. "I feel that prostitutes, generally speaking, are lazy people. . . . Why should mainstream America care about them at all?" he ranted. "Anyone can have sex . . . it doesn't require any skill." O'Reilly cut off our interview before I could respond.

If O'Reilly was my low, the Today Show certainly had to be my high. According to Book Magazine (July/Aug. 2001), NBC-TV's morning program is one of the "great book-launching pads." My East Coast publicist had managed to book me on the program five months in advance, a coup in itself. It was such a big deal that Random House even hired a free-lance media coach on Central Park West to help prepare me for my five-minute segment. When news broke regarding Timothy McVeigh's stay of execution, my live appearance ended up getting bumped, much to the chagrin of my mom and mother-in-law who'd told all their friends to tune in. I still had my interview with Matt Lauer (he is adorable in real life!); only it aired three weeks later.

Things have slowed down a lot since Brothel's debut in May. It's a letdown of sorts. You quickly realize that the 15 minutes of fame accompanying your book tour is fleeting . . . that is, until publication (hopefully) of your next book. And even though I am now a "published" author, I am still haunted by writing insecurities—terrified of the empty page, overwhelmed by a flood of thoughts racing around my head waiting to be expressed, and self-critical of any ones that are. Including these.


Catch Alexa Albert at Bookfest, where she speaks on "Tricks of the Trade: The Secret World of Brothels and Courtesans" with author Susan Griffin. Hugo Stage, 4:30-5:30 p.m. Sun., Oct. 21.

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