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Know the West

Notes from the road to bestsellerdom

An author’s promotional book tour includes incontinent owls and posh but uncomfortable luncheons.


We pulled up at the Eagle River Nature Center north of Anchorage — a large but cozy log cabin on grounds sparkling with snow — happy to have escaped the city’s traffic. Inside, a dozen scruffy bird-lovers waited to hear me read from an anthology of wildlife stories I’d just had published. I’d chosen to share one contributor’s essay about “Gandalf the Grey,” an injured great gray owl from a raptor rehabilitation center, who visited classrooms as an education bird. A handler with a different owl perched on her fist stood next to me as I unboxed signed copies of the book. “When do we get to touch the owl?” a kid piped up when I opened the floor for questions after the reading. But the bird was not in a petting mood. Halfway through the presentation, it had noticed a stuffed eagle with fully spread wings, mounted below the cabin ceiling. It had gone into a frenzy, diving off the handler’s leather glove, flapping wildly upside down on its leash. The handler finally put the bird back in its cage.

I had planned this book tour like a field marshal plans a military campaign. A four-day Book Blitz South would target eight locations in the Anchorage and Mat-Su area; the nature center was our last stop before heading back home to Fairbanks. Fliers had been printed and hung, emails and press kits distributed, and the events listed in newspapers and online. My girlfriend, the book’s designer, acted as liaison, trip photographer, finance officer, driver, quartermaster and motivational coach rolled into one.

Long ago, I realized that words alone rarely draw crowds any more, unless you’re a politician. Touring authors are encouraged to play Indian flutes, tap-dance, juggle their books blindfolded, or at least behave unexpectedly, even outrageously.  Teaming up with falcons and owls from the rehab center was supposed to benefit everybody involved; we could all use the publicity.

When we first rolled into Anchorage, thousands of animal lovers thronged the streets. Alas, they were there to see dogs, not us: I had forgotten that the Book Blitz weekend coincided with the Iditarod, the world’s most prestigious sled dog race. Still, I hoped that a trickledown from the human surge would reach some bookstores.

Owls from the Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center accompanied Engelhard on his book tour.
Sean Hoyer

The luncheon at a posh hotel seemed like an auspicious beginning. The audience of gray-haired, well-dressed journalists looked as if they could tell coq au vin from bouillabaisse. My choice of reading — an essay rejected by Gourmet, about a friend who feeds his family on roadkill — elicited gasps, eye-rolls and even chuckles, but probably did not help with selling the book.

Our next stop, the museum, was being renovated, and foot traffic through the bare lobby, behind the owl’s back, made the bird nervous and incontinent. At the artsy café, with my voice beginning to sound like a raven’s, I struggled to be heard over the hissing espresso machine and coffee grinder.

The Barnes & Noble manager gave me a prime spot at a table facing the entrance, where I could make eye contact with customers as they entered. Light from the low-angle sun made me squint, though, so I resembled a shortsighted bookworm more than a sharp-eyed wilderness guide and auteur. When I tried to remedy that, I looked like a sunglassed Mafioso. With each frigid gust from the sliding doors, the poster of my book’s cover swiveled on its stand, causing the printed grizzly to scan the room as if in search of prey. The store did not allow raptors, and I felt lonely without a feathered companion.

At our next-to-last stop, a bookstore-cum-café, the manager expected a signing, not a reading. There were no extra chairs, and I found myself separated from the birds and their handlers by a shelf full of gewgaws. In a last-ditch bid for attention, I rearranged some books on a shelf, placing my brainchild between two local bestsellers, hoping to profit by proximity.

After two hours of signing, or rather non-signing, I had sold five books total — four of them to the bird handlers.

Descending into Fairbanks, red-eyed from driving all night through a blizzard, I reviewed the trip in my mind. Sales had been slim, our earnings almost devoured by the cost of gas. Yet I hoped that our stories would touch someone’s life, somewhere.

I later heard from a friend who used my own essay from the book to teach nature writing to students in China, and I wondered what they made of mountain goats stranded at sea level — how did these creatures quicken in their imaginations? Strangely, my words had traveled farther than I did, spiraling ever outward, released from my care like bold salvaged birds.

Michael Engelhard lives in Cordova, Alaska, where it’s impossible to drive to anywhere with a bookstore. He is working on a book about polar bears but will not consider bringing a bear along on his next promotion tour.