My first D.I.Y. book tour was a 40-state, 60-city four-month trip. It was an experiment to find out three things: 1) is a book tour worth doing anymore? 2) can an indie author make and manage a tour of this magnitude? and 3) what does it take to sell a book in America?
The book I was promoting – From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story – is about how my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I bought condemned property, a former frat house, and – knowing nothing about fixing houses – brought it back to its original Victorian splendor. Everyone said we’d go bankrupt and break up. But, ultimately, after many funny and jaw-dropping travails, we triumphed and were featured in This Old House magazine, whose post of the story became the number one online house feature in the nation for two weeks.
A combination love story, mission impossible tale, and inspirational memoir, From Animal House to Our House has wide appeal, but how was I going to get this book into the hands of what seemed to be a large readership?
The current wisdom is that, when you publish a book, you sit in front of your computer and take aim at blogs. Yes, I was prepared to do that but it didn’t seem enough. If the key to selling a book is word-of-mouth (even the publishers tell you this), then I had to start a campaign that would spread the word. So, six months before my book was out, I woke one morning with an inspiration, announcing to Jill, my wife: I have to get a camper van and tour the country to sell this book!
Because I’m a DIY guy, I outfitted the van myself, with solar panels on the roof, both DC and AC power, a tidy kitchen, and even a toilet in the rear. My publisher, Academy Chicago, a mid-sized independent, agreed to give me an assistant (an intern) to help me book and manage the tour. And that was it.
Because my book was about restoring an old house, I sought partnerships at every city with preservation groups, historical societies, and neighborhood associations. Most books have some angle that would lend itself to a partnership of some kind. For most writers, an obvious target would be book clubs and, more specifically, specialized book clubs. But there are organizations – for single parents, for recovery from substance abuse, for cooking enthusiasts, etc. – that might have thematic connections to the book you have written, no matter what the genre. Remember, you are looking for a host who can offer you a place to read/present. You have to query these prospective partners early. I wrote the queries and Mary, my assistant, sent them out. This was a tremendous help. Over the course of many months, I must have revised and refined them half a dozen times before I got what I thought was right.
Your query offers a) your credentials (i.e., will you put on a good show?), b) a compelling reason to partner (e.g., “this would make a great event to highlight the good work of your organization”), and c) no demands. The last is most important. You’ve got to make it easy for the host. If you have a slide show, then bring your own projector and screen (this is what I did). If you think you should get paid for your appearance, then you should stay home.
How about all those friends you have on Facebook? Will they come through? Will they, like a super-colony of ants, antenna excitement about your book from town to town? In a word: no. As far as I can see, using Facebook for self-promotion is something like a Ponzie scheme: it might work for the few who are famous but for most people it’s a promise that’s never kept. Your FB “friends” will express good intentions (if they express anything at all) but, let’s face it, we’re all too busy and distracted to act as somebody else’s publicist. Still, I was surprised by how useless Facebook was. If you’ve had a different FB experience, I’d love to hear about it.
They come through. Use them. My mother publicized my appearance at her retirement community and turned out 150 people. I sold all the books I had and then took orders for 15 more. Family will come to your readings. In Missoula, MT, a cousin I hadn’t seen in 30 years showed up. It happened again in Indianapolis. Use your friends’ families too. Close friends will recruit their families for you – and those families may, in turn, recruit more. This happened in Denver, when a friend’s daughter brought some of her friends to my reading.
“When I did my first book tour in 2003, I was stunned by how callous some of the bookstore events managers were. The worst was a guy who said to me over the phone: “Give me five good reasons why I should have you read in my store.” He was rude, but he was right too. You are not necessarily doing the bookstore any favors by offering to read there. The store has to accommodate your visit with some PR and planning. That costs money. It’s gotten to the point where some stores now charge (non-famous) writers to read there. The most outrageous fee I encountered was $300 at a big-deal bookstore. There’s no way an indie-press author is going to recoup that money in book sales at a single event. Maybe that’s the message the big-deal store is trying to send. Other stores now ask for a “co-op fee,” which ostensibly splits the cost of advertising. My publisher paid this at one store.
My policy for choosing stores has come down to this: I will go only where I am wanted. I will not pay to read. I will not beg to read. Why strong-arm your way into a reading at a store that is lukewarm about your appearance and in a town where you have no contacts? At the start of my tour, I had the fantasy of partnering wholly with independent bookstores: indie author takes on the world with indie bookstores! Sadly, this did not happen for a number of reasons. Because bookstores are having a tough time these days, more than a few aren’t sure about readings anymore. Most bookstores have limited resources. They may have an events calendar on a rudimentary website; they may have a mailing list; but they have no money for advertising your appearance, much less that of 100 others they host during the year.
A disappointing number of bookstore events managers were not good with deadlines and answering emails – even when I followed up with phone calls. These delays complicated securing dates in some key cities, which made me realize, finally, that I was relying too heavily on bookstores. I hasten to add that I had some great events at some bookstores and more than a few store owners promised to push my book. Nevertheless, here is the sad truth: whereas writers could once rely on independent bookstores to hand-sell their books, they can do so no longer because now stores are working under an avalanche of new releases and they’re so nervous about the prospects (“They’re terrified,” my publisher told me), they return new books within a few weeks of receiving them. Never mind that they can return a new book for a full refund within two years. They deem it too risky to hang on to untested stock. So, by the month’s end, they have sent your book back. This is why, on my tour, I kept coming across books I had already signed at other stores a month or so earlier. If the store really likes your book, it may tout it as a “pick” on its website but it will remain a special order, taking up to 4 days to get into the store if someone wants it.
What this means is that, since the store doesn’t keep your book on the shelf, your appearance at that store is, really, a one-shot deal. And so, if selling a book is about word-of-mouth and there’s no guarantee that the bookstore will spread the word, then you might be better off holding your own event – at a friend’s house or a library or anywhere you might draw a handful of people — and selling the book yourself. Chances are, you’ll do at least as well even at a private event as you would at the local book store. And those people at your private event will spread the word.
Libraries: Libraries are great venues because they have a deep reach into the community. It’s easy to get newspapers and other outlets to pay attention to an event at the local library for all the obvious reasons (much easier than getting them to pay attention to a bookstore event). That’s why there’s stiff competition in landing a library booking. Still, if you have a local contact (e.g., partnering with a local organization), you stand a good chance. Nowadays, most libraries have a dedicated programming director and/or publicist. Be aware that many libraries book their events six months to a year in advance.
If at all possible, offer to help with the PR. This is especially important when booking appearances at bookstores, which don’t have time or money for PR. My publisher and I offered to do ALL of the PR for every stop — this makes a big difference. Most places split the task with us. As a result, we hit many more media targets than we would have had we let the host organization go it alone. Unless you hire a publicist (starting at $15K), nobody is going to send out your press releases, much less query radio and TV on your behalf. Yes, major publishers have in-house publicists, but don’t be fooled: unless you’re at the top of your publisher’s list, that publicist isn’t going to do much for you. One of my big-house writer friends shared a home-grown tour with me last year because her big-house publicist wasn’t doing anything. “When I phoned him,” she told me, “he said he hadn’t done anything for me because he was suffering from seasonal affective disorder.”
Once you get a booking, you’ve got to hit newspapers, community papers, local arts papers, online events calendars, and radio and TV stations. For newspapers and TV shows, you should offer an online press kit that includes photos, a press release, and other info they might find useful. As any journalism student will tell you, a press release is a template news article that any paper can customize as its own. At least a dozen newspapers used my press release for the core of their articles. Pitch local interests, if possible, when you send to newspapers. In other words, mention the group or groups you’re partnering with in town. Morning TV shows are always scrambling for content: make it easy for them by keeping your pitch short, offering links to more info (like your press kit), and giving them bulleted talk points. If producers of TV morning shows don’t answer your query, don’t waste your time phoning them. They’re impossible to reach.
I knew the only way to get traction with my bookings was to forgo a reading and, instead, offer a “presentation” — with a slide show. My presentation is, actually, a comic monologue: excerpts from the book that I present as a “talk.” A talk will always have greater appeal than a reading. As we know, the best reading is not a reading. But the public doesn’t know this: for most prospective audiences, a reading has limited appeal. So my advice is, Don’t read. Present. Enhance your presentation with visuals, if they make sense. If I were a poet with a book of autobiographical poems, for instance, I would consider bringing slides of family, events, and places that influenced my writing. I’d bring artifacts too — anything to augment the impact. In short, as artists with products to sell, we need to reconsider what we do and how we do it: honestly, we need to compete against other entertainment.
My comic monologue and slide show were very successful; it seemed to appeal to the widest spectrum of prospective readers. But the tour was tough, sometimes a city every night for several weeks straight. Booking the tour and keeping up with the PR was a full-time job, even with the help of my hard-working intern. I camped in Walmart parking lots, cooked for myself in my camper van kitchen, and found comfort in the company of my go-anywhere basset hound. At the hardest points, I had to ask myself: What exactly am I willing to do to get my book into as many hands as possible? If you think that a book tour should make money and/or you should easily recoup your expenses, then stay home and query book bloggers. If, on the other hand, you believe that by putting yourself in motion, by meeting as many people as you can, you will be better off as a writer, then the DIY book tour is for you. You don’t have to go on the road for four months as I did. Your “tour” could be relegated to weekends.
My most successful events were partnerships between local organizations and libraries – Preservation Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Library, Historic Kansas City Foundation and the Kansas City Library, etc. – and multiple organizations supporting an event: Quapaw Quarter Association, Arkansas Historic Preservation and the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas in Little Rock; The San Jose Women’s Club and the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, etc. My least successful events were at bookstores that clearly had done nothing to prepare for my visit. I found that when I had booked an appearance at a bookstore first, local organizations were less inclined to partner with me because they preferred organizing their own event. So I learned to contact a prospective partner first, before contacting a bookstore, if at all. Where I could, as soon as I secured a date with a local partner, I contacted the local bookstore to see if it wanted to sell my book at the event. In other words, I remain a staunch support of indie bookstores. That said, more than one bookstore was not interested in my event even when I offered to bring them local partners and plenty of PR.
Here’s what it took to get a turn-out of 15 at one very good book store:
On the other hand, here’s what it took to get over 50 people to my event at a museum: one feature article in the city’s paper and one announcement in the local arts paper. What can we conclude from this? Not much, I’m afraid, except to say that when people don’t show up, it’s understandable, since everyone is more distracted than ever. When people do show up, it may be due to a convergence of good PR and salubrious solar One fact remains clear, however: more people will come to a library or a museum for a “talk” than will show up at a bookstore for a “reading.”
At bottom, the question we ask ourselves is, How many people do I need at my event to make it worth my while? Of my 60 appearances, I had three where nobody showed up. The largest turnouts (excluding my mother’s retirement community) were 50-60 people, which was gratifying, since they were all strangers to me. A more typical number was 10-20. Several times I had only 5-10. How many books did I sell? We’re trying to figure that out. Before I started, Jill joked that if I averaged 5 per stop, I’d have sold 300. “Not much for all the trouble,” she said. I know we’ve done better than that. But Jill is missing the point: a tour like this isn’t about selling outright; it’s about planting a seed in every town. For every 10 people who showed up, there were another 10-1,000 who were aware of the event — read about it in the local paper, saw me talking about it on TV, heard about it from a friend or acquaintance. At every event, I handed out business cards for my website and have since heard from many of these prospective readers. After my appearance in Oklahoma City, I received two offers to return. At several cities where, for one reason or another I wasn’t able to book an event, I have since received invitations to make an appearance.
Yes, this all comes down to a who knows? But that’s a far better prospect than having spent my summer in front of the computer, targeting book bloggers and striving to get somebody somewhere to pay attention to From Animal House to Our House. The fact is, lots of people paid attention – I met them, I made them laugh, I gave them something to talk about. Maybe something will come of that. And maybe that’s the best we can hope for in these hard times.
You can order the how-to book I wrote on this — 120 pages of advice and suggestions — here: How to Sell a Book in America: the DIY Book Tour and Other Marketing Strategies.