John Shors had just landed in Thailand when he called Denver for an interview.
“I’m here at this crazy huge airport and need to take a taxi into the city,” he said from Suvarnabhumi International in Bangkok, having just left a family vacation in Hawaii earlier this month. “I have this side business where I take groups of my readers on literary tours to the settings of my novels.”
At that moment, the Boulder-based author was preparing to lead a group of 12 through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore over 17 days, with all expenses included in the roughly $6,900 per-person experience.
The tours, which the 50-year-old conducts three or four times per year, trace the footsteps of characters from his books. Those include 2004’s “Beneath a Marble Sky,” which wove its historical-fiction narrative around the 17th-century construction of the Taj Mahal, or 2013’s “Temple of a Thousand Faces,” which did the same for Cambodia’s 900-year-old Hindu treasure, Angkor Wat.
Shors has also led tours that follow street kids in Saigon (a.k.a. Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, in “Dragon House”) and tsunamis in Thailand (“Cross Currents”). But book-related activities and chats only represent about 1% of the trips, he said.
“I always hire great local guides and do things that big tour operators can’t, like riding elephants through the jungle,” Shors said. “I’ve had some of the same people go on six or seven different trips with me since 2014.”
Museums, pop-up bars and artists have lately awakened to the flashy, lucrative power of immersive experiences. But Shors has been doing this for years, and his latest venture — self-publishing three full-length novels simultaneously — represents an even bigger leap into the unknown.
“I spent six years writing the three novels in ‘The Demon Seekers’ trilogy,” he said of his new series for young adults, his first foray outside the familiar world of historical fiction. “My theory is that because people are binge-readers and binge-TV-watchers, the series could be much more successful that way. The advantage of the travel business is that it completely funded those six years of writing.”
Shors may be onto something, as the winnings from past gambles show.
He’s spoken to 3,000-plus book clubs on six continents (most via speakerphone or video chat) in a by-request program he pioneered in 2006 — one that was quickly imitated by his peers and their publishers. Despite having released works on big imprints like Penguin Group, he’s sinking $20,000 of his own money into an Amazon ad campaign for the self-published “Demon Seekers” books, which began appearing in late 2019.
He also digs into the grassroots of the book world, seeding new fans at author events and student speaking engagements. He’ll visit The Tattered Cover at Aspen Grove at 7 p.m. on Feb. 6, where he’ll talk about and sign “The Demon Seekers: Book One.” He’s also setting up visits to area high schools with a focus on reading, writing and editing for would-be authors.
“I’ve been strategic from the outset,” Shors said. “I knew I wanted to be a novelist back when I was in high school, so after I graduated from Colorado College, I went overseas to teach English in Japan, save money and backpack around.”
When Shors eventually returned to the United States, he worked as a newspaper reporter for a business weekly in his hometown of Des Moines before moving to Colorado to co-found the PR behemoth GroundFloor Media. There he handled corporate clients such as Starbucks and PetSmart, in turn learning how to create interest in fresh and untested ideas.
When Penguin bought the rights to his debut novel, “Beneath a Marble Sky,” for a 2006 paperback edition, “people laughed at my idea of putting a letter in the back asking book clubs to invite me to their discussions.” Still, he included his personal email address for good measure.
“The day after (it was published), I opened my inbox and had emails from 800 book clubs around the country,” he said. “And ‘CBS Evening News’ and Newsweek were calling to talk about it.”
These days, it’s easy to understand the confidence in Shors’ entrepreneurial experimentation. He’s sold more than 500,000 copies of his work worldwide and appeared on best-seller lists from The Chicago Tribune to Cambodia’s Monument Books. The latter is the country’s biggest bookseller, and Shors shared a photo of “Temple of a Thousand Faces” currently holding the No. 1 best-selling fiction spot there. (No. 2 is the novelization of the 2018 English-language movie, “Crazy Rich Asians.”)
But the new “Demon Seekers” trilogy is a departure from Shors’ tried-and-true Asian settings. The series picks up a century after a hostile alien invasion of Earth, which has been turned into a prison for the dregs of humanity. Hope rests with 17-year-old Tasia, a Seeker who hunts down the creatures that ruined her world.
Despite having just been published, Shors is already negotiating with film studios for the rights — “high-level groups that have done $500 million movies,” he hinted — and expects to have a deal in place soon.
Through it all, Shors tours and writes, writes and tours. His system involves visits to China, Japan, India, Eastern Europe, Cuba and the Galapagos Islands for research, after which he employs wife Alison and kids Sophie and Jack as guinea pigs for the planned package tours. Once the details are set — from upscale boutique hotels to hole-in-the-wall local eateries — he makes them available to fans via johnshorstravel.com.
“As far as I know, I’m the only successful author who runs such tours,” he said. “It’s fun because I create all the tours from scratch. And even if something goes a little wrong, those oftentimes are the best memories.”
What could go wrong? During his most recent trip to Vietnam, the engine on Shors’ private rental boat broke down, setting his group adrift on the Mekong Delta until they were close enough to shore to grab at coconut fronds to hold them in place. Flat tires and sudden monsoons are also not uncommon.
“The vast majority of the time, people are perfectly willing to experience these minor inconveniences,” Shors said. “What makes them work is what makes my books work: We get to know the local culture and actually talk to people. Lots of people. We often invite guides to have dinner with us. We spend time immersing ourselves deeply in the culture. You learn that no matter how much you plan and test, there’s always going to be some sort of curveball.”
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