Harlan Coben and Missy Higgins at the Firehouse Saloon (words + music = best book tour ever)
I can't stop listening to the Missy Higgins CD I bought on Sunday at the Harlan Coben book event, and what's odd about that is 1) I don't listen to CDs, 2) I don't buy CDs, and 3) I don't go to book events. Usually. What made me roust myself out the door, crack open the constricted Visa card, and change my behavior is an event that dared to do business as unusual. This was not your father's book signing. No cringe-inducing Pynchonian nerd behind a podium. No beggar-can't-be-chooser behind a table. No reading over the roar of an espresso machine. By bringing in Missy Higgins, who's known and loved in Australia but largely pre-discovered here in the US, Harlan Coben is making the tour for his latest novel, Long Lost, a series of lively events that tap into two disparate fan bases to create the one thing both he and Higgins are looking for: an audience.
During Sunday's event at the Firehouse Saloon in Houston, Coben said a line from Missy's song "Where I Stood" made an appearance in one of his novels: "I don't know if I can stand another hand upon you, all I know is that I should." (The song also made an appearance in a Grey's Anatomy ep, soundtracking the aftermath of an ambulance crash.) Missy's mum, reading the novel on a beach on the other side of the planet, saw her daughter's music and got a huge kick out of it, so now here they are, and there we were, and that thread of inspiration continues to wrap around the global spool. How cool is that?
Colleen, of course, being the big Harlan Coben fan (reference huge smile to the right) and the instigator of most of our adventures, was the one behind the wheel here, but as soon as she told me about the event, I had to know who else was going to show up. The place was packed. Hipsters had drifted in from the nearby Montrose gayborhood, and Colleen and I sat with a couple of Australian engineers who were there to see their homegirl, but it looked to me like most of the people were there to see Harlan Coben. Murder By the Book knows how to get out the vote, so there were a lot of hard core mystery fans, who can't disguise themselves even if they lint-roller the cat hair off the embroidered red Christmas sweaters. Aspiring writers scored seats early, turning out for the witty, wise Coben like mountaineers would turn out for Sir Edmund Hillary.
During the hour or so of banter and music, there was a lot of cross-talk about the creative process. Coben seemed genuinely interested in introducing Higgins' work to his audience and not desperate to pluggetty-plug-plug his book, which most people had bought on their way in the door anyway. Higgins' fans gave the group a great body, and she has a delicious stage presence that definitely endows him with some cool. The contrasting styles and gracious cooperative transformed an event that is traditionally about selling into a groovy sort of happening that was all about enjoying a Sunday afternoon with friends. It was fun, entertaining, thoughtful, and in terms of bottom line being the bottom line, it worked. I spent cover price plus five bucks for the book, $15 for Missy's CD (warmly autographed to my hipster daughter), and another $8 for drinks. Love and money--depending on which song you listen to--making the world go round.
Listening to Missy's music this morning, I was thinking about the beauty of evolution. If Murder By the Book had brought Harlan Coben in for the standard book tour event, they'd have had a respectable turnout, but I wouldn't have been there. I wouldn't be blogging about it right now, and I wouldn't have bought Long Lost, which either Colleen or I will be blogging about as soon as one of us has a moment to read it. A serious rethinking of the book tour is long overdue. Publishers have known for a long time it doesn't work, but force of habit kept it going until money got tight. Now, ready or not, like it or don't, the page is turning.
The squeeze we feel in the publishing industry right now is labor pain. Something new is being born, and birth is a traumatic but ultimately glorious -- and unstoppable -- process. In his inauguration speech, Barack Obama said that people would have to accept that the ground has shifted beneath their feet. That's true of the book biz to the tenth power. And the key to survival is not clinging to the last scrap of business as usual, grabbing for the evaporating advertising budget, or grasping for every fifteen seconds of face time we can score. The key is the artistic cooperative. We'll help ourselves by helping each other, by pulling that thread of inspiration to see what unravels.
Ponder while you groove to the amazing Missy Higgins...