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Book tours go virtual to grab readers

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A screen shot from BookVideos.tv shows author Jodi Picoult on the road with her daughter. (Courtesy of TurnHere)

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This screen shot of author and journalist David Halberstam's desk is from Out of the Book, a film series produced by Powell's Books, in Portland, Oreg. (Courtesy of Powell's Books)

Last fall, David Halberstam, the Pulitzer-winning journalist and author, appeared at the Bookworm of Edwards, a small independent bookstore tucked into Colorado’s Vail Valley. Joining him were Joan Didion, Seymour Hersh, Robert Caro and Bob Woodward, who commented on his latest book, “The Coldest Winter,” about the Korean War. Sitting on folding chairs, an audience of 50 heard from each of these literary stars.

If it seems too good to be true, it kind of is, since Halberstam had died six months earlier. He and the others appeared on screen at the bookstore as a part of an author film series, Out of the Book. Produced by Powell’s Books, a prominent used bookstore in Portland, Ore., the free 30-minute films feature short portraits of writers and their new titles. The series debuted last summer with a highly acclaimed personal portrait of Ian McEwan and his book “On Chesil Beach”; it screened in more than 50 independent bookstores across the country.

“I think the strength of this program is especially useful for smaller communities like ours, which do not have arts theaters or a constant supply of nationally touring authors,” said Nicole Magistro, co-owner of the Bookworm of Edwards, adding that sales for the two titles were higher than usual after the event. “It is a great way to connect readers with the books and authors they love.”

At a time when more than half of American adults say they haven’t read a work of literature in the past year, the book industry is searching high and low for ways to attract new readers and hold the attention of existing ones. The latest solution: Let the authors speak for themselves and to larger audiences by putting the traditional book tour on the big screen and online.

“Book promotion has traditionally been rather rigid in format,” said Dave Weich, director of marketing and development at Powell’s and the producer of the films. “This was a more exciting and personable way to introduce the author to the reader.”

Industry insiders said the new initiatives hold appeal for both avid fans and nonreaders. “For the fan, to see the author, to have a physical embodiment, whether it’s live or on the screen, is satisfying,” said Elliot Figman, executive director of Poets & Writers, a nonprofit literary organization. As for nonreaders, if they stumble on the series and like it, “they’ll be more willing to be introduced to something new.”

And it is catching on. Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., holds its screenings at a local theater to accommodate the crowds. The Bookworm of Edwards is considering doing the same for its next film.

BookVideos.tv, a Web site run by TurnHere, an Internet video production company, is trying to do something similar with author videos. One of its two- to five- minute videos shows Jeannette Walls talking about her memoir, “The Glass Castle,” and the difficulty she had hiding the truth about her homeless parents; another features Jodi Picoult, author of “My Sister’s Keeper,” wearing matching pink with her daughter Sammy while on a book tour in Rome. The films are shot by local filmmakers wherever the author happens to be, cutting costs and imbuing the films with a natural, homey vibe.

“There’s a certain magic when you get a local producer and local writer together,” explained Brad Inman, founder and CEO of TurnHere. “They create a story together that they think will be engaging for the reader.” He added, “It’s a new way—an easy, efficient way—to get authors out there.” To date, 20 different publishing companies have signed on with BookVideos, among them Simon & Schuster, for which BookVideos has made more than 100 author shorts.

Writers whose books have book club appeal, like Walls and Picoult, are perfect subjects for the videos, according to Sue Fleming, vice president of online and consumer marketing for Simon & Schuster’s adult publishing division, because their personal narratives “engender discussion.”

Dubbed “a story about the story,” Bookvideos is becoming increasingly visible. Bookvideos are embedded on the product pages of BarnesandNoble.com, posted on YouTube. And Borders plans to open 14 new concept bookstore stores this year equipped with digital media centers and computer kiosks, and segments from Bookvideos will be featured on LCD screens in the Wellness and Cooking sections of certain stores.

Meanwhile, industry eyes are trained on a third new media initiative that is attempting to break ground across the country, using the personal computer as its stage. It’s called Titlepage, and it’s an online book talk show.

Hosted by Daniel Menaker, formerly the executive editor in chief of Random House Publishing Group, Titlepage invites authors to talk about their new releases. Each biweekly episode is approximately 50 minutes long and features discussions between Menaker and four guest authors. It’s posted online, so there is much more creative flexibility

“We wanted to give readers a chance to get smart, extended coverage of books, in an adult and engaging way,” explained John Williams, the show’s online editor. Hearing what authors have to say, he said, helps pique reader interest because “authors are very good at describing their own books.”

Titlepage is the brainchild of filmmakers Odile Isralson and Lina Matta, and is based loosely on a popular French book talk show, “Apostrophes,” which brought literary discussion to prime-time French television for 15 years, until it folded in 1990. With an estimated 211 million Internet users in the U.S., Titlepage’s audience could be just as widespread as the TV talk shows it mimics.

For writers, too, it could be a boon. “I think a lot of us have that experience of stumping around the country trying to connect with our readers, but we can’t be everywhere, and the people who read our books are scattered around,” said Susan Choi, a fiction writer and Pulitzer finalist.

The first episode, which launched on March 3 on the Titlepage Web site, featured Choi and three other fiction writers: Richard Bock, whose debut novel came out last month; Colin Harrison, a suspense writer; and Richard Price, a contributing writer for the HBO show “The Wire.”

“If people are online, and that’s why they’re not reading,” Williams said, “then we hope to get their attention online and push them back to books.”

E-mail: jyk2117@columbia.edu