Friday, October 16, 2009

Virtual Publicity Translates to Real Sales

The first book tour I ever made was in 1980, when my biography of Fred Gipson, the Texas author who wrote the classic novel "Old Yeller," came out. I traveled from Amarillo to Beaumont, missing only El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, in doing media interviews and other appearances. It took time and energy, but it paid off with a lot of ink and air time, which of course had been the goal.

Now, from the comfort of my home office in Austin, I'm off on a virtual book tour thanks to my friend Stephanie Barko, my Austin-based publicist. (Check out her Web site at am "appearing" at various Web sites popular with readers of books, from to the Web site of Portland's legendary Powell's Book Store, to discuss the final book of my two-volume Texas Ranger history, "Time of the Rangers: The Texas Rangers from 1900 to Present." (New York: Forge Books, $27.95)

For those of you who'd like to travel along with me, here's my virtual itinerary:

10/13/09 Texas Pages Blog

10/14 Books & Writers

10/15 Bookgasm

10/16 GoodReads / History is not Boring Group

10/16 GoodReads / Texas Readers Group

10/16-10/29 GoodReads

10/17 Western Americana Blog

10/19 Rough Edges Blog

10/26 Texas Escapes

10/27 Powell's Blog

10/29 Straight from Hel Blog

10/31 Texas Scribbler Blog

11/2 Bookzillion Blog

11/3 Writers in the Sky newsletter

11/4 Powell's newsletter

11/4 Powell'

11/14 Texas History Page Blog

TBD Texana Review

On Tour, Literally and Virtually

It's a literary cliche for a writer to write about his adventures while on the road trying to peddle his books through media interviews and assorted public appearances, but hey, when you're a writer, you write what you know.

Just back from a mini in-person tour to Fort Worth, where I signed copies of "Historic Photos of Texas Oil" at Neiman-Marcus for their annual In-Circle VIP party. Sold a good pile of books and met some interesting people.

Got up at 4 a.m. the following morning to drive home to Austin where a friend graciously drove me to Houston for a noon lecture to the Houston Heritage Society at the Tea Room in their complex at Sam Houston Park beneath the towers of downtown. With only minor technical concerns, presented a PowerPoint slide show of selected vintage oil patch images from the book (plus a selection of outtakes) and again, signed and sold books afterward.

Society educational director Elizabeth Martin gave my old friend Larry BeSaw and I a tour of the complex, and then we headed to a mutual friend's place for a little rest before the next appearance, another signing at Neiman-Marcus. Following that event at their Galleria store, we had a good sea food dinner (well, I did...Larry, having grown up in Gainesville near the Red River says something has to have two or four legs before he'll eat it) and then headed back to Austin. I'm glad he was driving, because by the time we'd reached Columbus, I had begun to nod off despite an enjoyable conversation.

Finally, with apologies to David Letterman, who has enough on his plate right now, the Top 3 most common lines from my oil book appearances:

1) Q: "Oh, are/were you in the oil bidness?"
A: "Yes, I am. I am an end-consumer of the product."

2) Q: "Did you take these pictures?"
A: "Do I really look that old?"

3) Q: "Are these books complimentary?"
A: "Of whom?"

In my next post, I'll talk about my virtual book tour.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

2009 Texas Book Awards

Just got word that the first volume of my Texas Ranger history, "The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900" has been named a finalist for the 2009 Texas Book Award for non-fiction. The winning title will be announced at the Capitol on Halloween during the annual Texas Book Festival.

Meanwhile, volume 2, "Time of the Rangers: The Texas Rangers 1900 to Present," hit the bookstores August 18. So far, reviews (scarce as they are these days) have been favorable, as were the reviews for "Wearing the Cinco Peso."

Last time I checked, both volumes -- which amount to more than a quarter-million words and cover nearly 1,000 printed pages -- were selling very well.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Remembering Elmer Kelton (1926-2009)

I first met Elmer Kelton in the spring of 1967 when my granddad took me to San Angelo to help me find a summer job before I started as a freshman journalism student at Angelo State University that fall.

Granddad took me by the offices of the Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine to see if the editor might need a staff writer. The editor was Elmer, who had been there since 1963 after leaving the San Angelo Standard-Times. As he had when he worked as agriculture editor of the Standard-Times, Elmer spent much of his time on the road in his part of the state. But on this day, he actually happened to be in the office when we dropped by.

Elmer knew my granddad and greeted me graciously when Granddad introduced us. Though understanding a young man’s need to earn some money before and during college, Elmer didn’t have any jobs to offer. Even if he had, he surely realized I was a city boy who didn’t know a rambouillet from a ram, not to mention which end of a cow gets up first.

While he could not help my career at that point, he did later on, as I’ll explain in a bit.

I ended up landing a job as a reporter with the San Angelo Standard-Times, which probably served me better than a job with the Sheep and Goat Raiser’s Association would have.

Other than buying some of his Western paperbacks at the Angelo State University bookstore, I had no other dealings with Elmer until the 1970s. By that time I was a journeyman reporter working in Austin. In addition to covering the news, I periodically reviewed Texana for then book editor Bill Warren and reviewed several of Elmer's novels.

By the early 1980s, I had written a couple of non-fiction books and qualified for membership in the Western Writers of America. At conventions in Santa Fe and Amarillo, I got to listen to Elmer talk about his craft and to visit with him and his wife Anna.

At that Amarillo convention, I taped recorded him at length about his association with Houston Harte, long-time publisher of the San Angelo newspaper and head of the Harte-Hanks newspaper chain.

In 1993, I was elected to membership in the Texas Institute of Letters, which gave me more opportunity to interact with Elmer. Not that talking with him was all that hard to do. As anyone who ever had any contact with him knows, on the affability and humbleness scales, he went off the chart.

He was always happy to sign one of his books for someone, always answered his mail (and later, email) and almost always answered his own phone with a brisk and businesslike, “Kelton.”

As for book signing, as the cliché goes, the rarest of his 60-plus books are the unsigned ones. “I’d drive across town to autograph a book for somebody,” he told me once. Actually, he’d go farther than that.

No telling how many younger writers he helped with favorable blurbs or introductions to their works. In 1997, Elmer wrote the foreword for my book “Texas Ranger Tales” and later wrote a very kind blurb about the first of my two-volume history of the Texas Rangers.

He and I were both among the featured authors at the Texas Book Festival in 1998 and participated in a panel discussion together. Our session was held in one of the hearing rooms in the underground extension of the Capitol.

As we talked, my then four-year-old daughter Hallie squirmed in the audience next to her mom. When our time was up, my wife Linda came up to join me in visiting with Elmer and Anna.

At some point, after just about everyone but us had left the room, Linda realized that Hallie was no where to be seen. Had she decided to leave the committee room and wander off into the 667,000-square foot underground area. Had someone decided she was cute and kidnapped her?

Having raised two boys and a daughter and by then grandparents as well, Elmer and Anna joined us in our search. Just as we were about to call the police, we found little Hallie hiding under a chair in the back of the room.

We all had a relieved laugh about it, and from there on out, just about every time Elmer and I talked with each other, he’d bring that incident up with a smile and ask how Hallie was doing.

The last time I saw Elmer was at the Way Out West Book Festival in Alpine in August 2008. Early on the morning after the last event, he and Anna were up early (in the fashion of most West Texans) for the drive back to San Angelo.

I had some stuff I had intended to donate to the West Texas Collection at Angelo State on my way to Alpine, but had run out of time. Talking in the parking lot of the motel where all the writers had stayed, I asked him if he would mind dropping the material by the library for me—no rush—and he was happy to oblige.

And that, to me, sums up the man. In addition to being a fine writer and gentleman (two traits not always connected), he was always happy to oblige.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Small Books

The invention of pocketbooks, those ubiquitous paperbacks no vacationer would go to the beach without, changed the publishing world in the late 1940s.

Now, several Texas book publishers (and one from across the Red River) are trying a new format: a pocketbook-sized hardback. Until someone comes up with a better generic description, let's just call 'em small books. The books are coming from academic, regional and, fittingly, small presses.

The leader in this recent innovation, at least in number of titles published so far, is Texas Christian University Press. They've brought out seven smalls to date, with another due out this fall. They call the series Texas Small Books. Each runs from 84 to 88 pages and sell for $9.95.

The one that's had the most resonance with me so far is Midland writer Patrick Dearen's "Lone Star Lost: Buried Treasures in Texas."

Dearen has dug up 10 new tales of old treasure and previously unpublished pictures to go with them for an enjoyable read that will make you want to go metal detector shopping long before you're finished reading it. This is a solid gold book from a long-time pro writer.

Other titles from TCU Press include "State Fare: An Irreverant Guide to Texas Movies" by Don Graham; "Extraordinary Texas Women" by recently retired press director Judy Alter; "Texas Country Singers" by Phil Fry and Jim Lee; "Great Texas Chefs" also by Alter; "Texas Football Legends" by Carlton Stowers and "Braggin' on Texas" by Sherrie S. McLeRoy.

Alter says that from a publisher's standpoint, the little books are fun to produce. The idea behind them is to have a title priced low enough to be an impulse purchase that will bring Texas subjects to a broad, popular audience. So far, she says, sales have been good.

From State House Press, operated by McMurray College in Abilene, is "Buffalo Days: Stories from J. Wright Mooar" as told to James Winford Hunt and edited by Robert F. Pace. This 126-page small book (though slightly larger than the TCU titles) sells for $19.95.

That's pretty pricey for this size book, but for those interested in the 1870s Texas buffalo hunting era, there's a lot of good content here. The book is a compilation of stories that originally appeared in the old Holland's magazine in 1933.

The smallest of the small books I've seen so far is Allan G. Kimball's information-packed "The Big Bend Guide," published by Great Texas Line Press in Fort Worth. Measuring only about three by three inches, the 104-page softcover book sells for a downright reasonable $5.95 -- a lot less than a cheeseburger in a lot of places.

While diminutive, Kimball's book contains plenty of useful information for anyone planning a visit to the 800,000-plus-acre Big Bend National Park or any of the beautiful country around it. The literature of the Big Bend is almost as extensive as its rugged desert and mountain terrain, but Kimball's guide is the best small source I've seen.

Perusing it, I was amazed at how much information he was able to pack in. Of course, he's an old newspaper guy like me, so no wonder. On top of that, his grandfather rode with the U.S. Cavalry when it protected the Big Bend from Mexican bandits and probably was involved in naming Panther Peak, below which sits the national park headquarters. He knows the park well.

The book includes 10 top travel tips, 10 top hikes, top intineraries, a check lists for motorists, a list of Web sites and bibliography. There's also a section on Big Bend area place names. (Insider's tip: Marathon, Texas is pronounced MaraTHAN, not MaraTHON.)

To give the University of Oklahoma Press its due, a couple of years ago it released "A Texas Cowboy's Journal: Up the Trail to Kansas in 1868" by Jack Bailey. Bailey is the first person known to have kept a diary on a cattle drive from Texas to the railroad in Kansas, but it stayed in private hands and unpublished until the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum acquired it and got well-known Western historian-writer David Dary to edit and annotate it. The 111-page semi-small book sells for $17.95.

Finally, from Bright Sky Press, is "Historic Texas Book of Days" by Yvonne Bruce and Ann Bruce Henaff. Covering every day of the year in unumbered pages, this book also sells on the high end for its size at $19.95. But it is beautifully illustrated and contains some intriguing Old Farmer's Almanac-style facts particular to the four seasons in Texas. Unfortunately, the book does not predict when the Central and South Texas drought will end.