There is “the theory of” and “the planning of,” but sooner or later you’re faced with “the doing of…”
A typical day on book tour might start with packing up* and checking out of the hotel, then traveling to the next stop where (assuming you’re a PB/MG/YA author) you may have a mid-day school visit.
[*We learned early on not to unpack and put clothes in the dressers or closets. Suitcases on suitcase stands are way more efficient and you won’t leave things behind. We prided ourselves on how quickly we could move in or out, humming the “Mission Impossible” theme while doing it.]
These days you should add an extra fifteen minutes when presenting at a school, because you’re almost certainly going to have to visit the admin office first (at many schools, there is no other way to physically access the campus) and sign in, receiving a visitor’s badge. Then they’ll get the librarian or teacher who coordinated your visit to escort you to the auditorium/cafeteria/gym/MPR for your presentation. Go to the venue and prioritize getting the tech up and running before doing too much meet-and-greet. Almost all schools will have someone to help with this, and they range from total tech wizards to flustered/overworked teachers who aren’t familiar with the equipment. Pro tip: have your presentation available on a thumb drive for use and backed up on your computer as well as in one other location, preferably online. (Or vice versa. We try to use their equipment and present off our thumb drives when possible, but more than once the day was saved because we had our computers with us. Multiple cables & adaptors to interface between your computer and their projector/system are worth their weight in gold. I also bring a small USB “pointer/clicker,” because there’s nothing that kills the flow of a presentation more than having to run back to the computer to advance each slide or waving at someone to change slides for you. And finally, be able to give some semblance of your presentation without any technology at all, because sooner or later you’ll have to. Trust me on this…)
You’ll want to have an educational component in your presentation (teachers, librarians, and principals will appreciate this—you’re at a school, after all) but also something entertaining for the kiddos. And while you definitely want to talk about your work at some point, what you don’t want to do is simply show all of your books and give a sales pitch for each. (No one will like this approach, adult or student.) Don’t forget to give credit to the store that selected the school. (My brilliant wife makes a slide for the top of each show that basically says, “Sponsored by XYZ Bookstore” with the store’s logo, and this is up when the students are filing in. Often the store will have a rep at the school, either to watch or to hold a sale afterward. They always appreciate the shoutout.) At the end, also mention you’ll be at the sponsoring store that evening to take questions and sign books.
After the school presentation—and some version of checking in/unpacking/eating—you get to the bookstore. As with a school, it pays to arrive a little early. Greet the owner/coordinator, get the lay of the land, browse the shelves if there’s time, meet some customers if there’s time, grab a coffee if available, and get ready for your presentation…
As mentioned previously, there are a few different types of signings. Your mileage may vary, of course, but here’s how I broadly categorize them…
“Sit & Sign.” This is where the store parks you somewhere (typically near the entrance, or maybe in your genre’s section if it’s a big store) at a table with a stack of your books, and you’re left to try and engage customers as they walk by, hopefully leading to a discussion and maybe even a sale. These are usually not the best experience, and we try to avoid them if there’s another option. You’re engaging with people who aren’t there to see you and likely aren’t even interested in the type of book you’re presenting. There’s no real draw to this sort of signing (unless you have fans/friends/readers in the area who will make the trip to see you) other than the fact that it can lead to signing a fair amount of stock. (Seems like the larger chain stores tend to go for this, so sometimes the stock signing can be significant. When we sign stock we always volunteer to put “signed by author” stickers on the books, because it increases the likelihood that book will sell down the road. Chain stores will have a big roll of these, or you can bring your own to smaller stores.) Also, as there is no actual presentation, it’s harder to give the customers much of value during a sit and sign other than occasionally taking questions one-on-one.
“Read & Sign.” This at least offers customers the ‘value’ of hearing you read from your work. (Usually your latest, which they likely haven’t read yet… like a trailer or teaser for your new book.) I put value in quotes because you’re giving them something they can get simply by picking up the book and perusing a chapter. I’m not a huge fan of readings—either as attendee or presenter—but if the audience consists primarily of fan-ish readers (which it usually doesn’t—see below) then this might work well for you and your attendees. At least you typically have the trappings of a presentation—chairs for them and a place in front for you—and there is some interaction between reader and author. And of course you can do a Q&A afterward, which is even more interactive.
“Presentation w/Q&A.” This is our favorite, because it has something for everyone. As mentioned, a high percentage of people want to write a book. (And of course, some of them are actually writers, actively writing and/or trying to publish. These people are even more interested in speaking with you.) The details regarding how to decide on the specifics of an author presentation might make a good post unto itself, but a few popular topics include “where writers get ideas,” “the journey to publication,” “making the creative life work,” “the writing process,” and “a peek behind the publishing curtain.” A variation of this is the “In conversation with…” presentation, where someone (often another writer, or perhaps one of the store’s staff) will interview you. Either way, a conversation is almost always better than a one-way delivery.
A big key to reaching the audience is knowing who you’re addressing. We sometimes do a quick assessment first (via a show of hands) regarding how many have an interest in writing someday, how many are actively writing, how many have a draft they’re in the process of shopping, how many have no interest in writing but are avid readers, etc. Then we tailor the presentation to them. Another key factor is not making the presentation about you. Ideally, it should focus on them, and give them something that can help them get where they want to go. (There’s nothing more boring than some dude droning on and on about himself and his books, his story, his process, his life, etc.) And of course, the way to make sure you’re giving the attendees what they want is to be as interactive as possible. Sometimes the bulk of the presentation ends up being a lively hour-long Q&A session. (Again, a bunch of concise answers will usually be better than a few long dissertations here. Regardless, we always try to do a “lightning round” near the end where we answer a bunch of questions quickly, because there’s nothing worse than someone sitting through a presentation and not getting a chance to ask their question.)
After you’re done you sign books for the attendees, of course, and always be sure to ask the store if they’d like you to sign stock.
And… always thank the staff profusely for hosting your visit. This is a mutual-aid thing. Yes, you’re taking the time to present, hopefully bringing people into their store, maybe even new customers. But they’re allowing you to present your work in their establishment, which costs them in terms of time/work/money. You want to leave them feeling good about you and your books, and they want you feeling good about their store. Win-win, right?
I can honestly say we’ve met booksellers and school librarians who’ve become lifelong friends through doing events with them. Which shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, we have a shared love of books.
“If you build it, they will come” doesn’t necessarily apply to book events.
It’s more like “If you build it--and tell them all about it--some of them might come.”
Yes, there is the rare store that has such a strong, loyal customer base that you can just show up and there’ll either be a decent sized crowd waiting or they’ll flock to you from around the store once they see an author presenting, but depending on either of those is a very bad bet.
And unless you’re hovering near the very tippy-top of the NYT bestseller list, it’s also a mistake to think that your name alone will bring in a crowd.
One obvious challenge with a book tour is that you’re not in your hometown. When you do a local book event—assuming you have a new book out and you haven’t done anything local in a while—you can tell all your friends and family and co-workers about it, and get a pretty good turnout from just that.
But that doesn’t apply when you’re hundreds or thousands of miles away, in a different state, where you know virtually no one… and very few of them know of you.
So, you have to ask (and answer) the question: Why would someone come and see you if they didn’t know you, and/or didn’t know your books?
The answer is two-fold: They have to know about the event, and they have to be interested in the event once they learn about it.
Let’s take the second part first. People are generally interested in information that can benefit them. I mentioned this last time, but multiple surveys have shown that something like 85% of all adults want to write a book, typically a novel or perhaps a memoir. (And a smaller but still significant number have started writing.) We can provide value to them (beyond talking about our latest book) by stepping outside our specific genre and addressing this broad area of interest directly, as follows…
When we were calling stores and the event coordinator/owner/manager would find out we wrote MG & YA, she’d often say “We don’t usually have good luck with kids’ events, and worse with teens.” And we’d say, “We agree completely. We have better luck when we position it as: Two published authors are going to talk about reading and writing and the publishing business.” And we’d promote it that way. And it generally worked. Often we’d have a good turnout with lots of engaged people at the event—asking questions and buying books to get signed—and there wouldn’t be a kid in the room.
We’ll talk about presentation specifics more next time, but for now you should come up with a general theme and pitch for your presentation. We call our joint events the “He Said, She Said” presentation and it’s largely based on us riffing back-and-forth on reading, writing, publishing, and living the writing life, and at least half of it is Q&A. (Remember, your goal is to give the attendees something they’ll value, not just find different ways to say “Here’s my book, buy it now!”) And my solo events cover largely the same territory, often focusing on the power of art. Again, with lots of Q&A.
So now that you have something that—hopefully—people will be interested in (and that the store’s event coordinator will feel the same about), you want to help get the word out.
Sure, you should definitely put your tour schedule all over social media because once in a while someone will show up from seeing that. But really, your strongest move is helping the store let their customers know.
Easy things first. Make an electronic poster for each event with all the pertinent date/time/presentation info (as well as graphics of you and your book, of course) and send it to the store. They can print out and place the posters wherever they see fit. Also send them high-res graphics of your book cover & author photo, so they can use them on their website and their social channels and in their email newsletter, etc. When time allows we’ll sometimes send out a turnkey press release—specific to the store, time, and date—for the store to use with their local press outlets and/or social media/newsletter posts.
For our big tour we also made a nice overall tour poster which had all the images & info about us and our presentation, with spaces for each store to fill in their specific date and time, then we printed out a hundred of them at 11x17 and sent one to each store on the tour ahead of time.
We made a fun (okay, some might say corny) little “tour trailer” video which we sent to all the stores as well as posting on our social accounts. This gives the stores an idea about the vibe of our presentation, and lets them post it on their social accounts to let their customers know a little about the event.
Along with this we did a TV interview or two along the route, usually the day of the evening presentation in that market, as well as getting press in some local papers for the same reason.
And finally, make sure the store has your book in stock for the event. (Don’t laugh. It seems obvious, but on our very first out-of-state stop on the big tour—in Arizona—the store had my book but not my wife’s, and then in Minnesota the opposite thing happened.) Your publicist can definitely help here, as they’ll get in touch with their sales rep for that region and make sure the store has your books. Another piece of insurance is to contact each store with a quick message a week or so out saying, “We’re on the road headed your way—can’t wait to see you on June seventeenth!” or whatever. (We had one store cancel on us after we’d already started the tour, but luckily we found out ahead of time due to the above and it saved us driving halfway across Mississippi for a non-event.)
Okay, the pump has been primed: the store knows, the customers know, and the books are in stock. Next, we’ll wrap up with the day-to-day nuts & bolts of in-store events.
Last time we discussed the overall steps in setting up a book tour. Let’s look at some of the important specifics around booking the events as well as scheduling your travel.
1. The Pitch. Believe it or not, not every store you contact will immediately say “Oh my God YES OF COURSE!” when you ask about doing an in-store event. It takes time and effort on the store’s part to put on an event, as well as ordering in your books for it, etc. So the store has to do some quick and dirty ROI calculations to determine if they’re going to have a fighting chance of making a few dollars and/or bringing in some new customers in exchange for their time and effort. All of which boils down to your ability to bring people into the store.
Once you let the store know you share the same goals—bringing people into their store—and it sounds like you have a realistic view of how to do that, they’re more likely to want to have you do an event at their store. (More about this in Part III, but a big clue here is that approx. 85% of all adults want to write a book.)
2. Setting the Time and Date. Stores know their local customers and the best times for presentations (and you’ll want to defer to their experience) but much of this is common sense: weekday visits usually happen in the evenings, after dinner but not too late… like 7:00 PM or so. Sometimes I’d be booking a Tuesday in Georgia and the store would say, “We like to do author signings on weekends,” and I’d have to say, “Well, we’re coming through Atlanta on Tuesday… by Saturday we’ll be in St. Louis,” or whatever.*
[* But be advised, this is NOT “business hardball.” They’re a bookstore and you’re an author. You both love books, and you’re on the same team. While you certainly don’t want to cool your heels in a hotel room for three or four days waiting for the “perfect presentation slot,” we would occasionally defer for a day under special circumstances. (Ex: Apparently NOTHING happens in Nebraska during a Cornhuskers game, so we had a day off in a hotel in Omaha on a Saturday, which is usually a prime day.) But overall the stores were almost universally accommodating to our schedule… we managed to present six-plus days a week for four months during our biggest tour.]
3. School Visits. As opposed to in-store events (which are free), school presentations typically include an honorarium. (See this post on some issues associated with doing free school visits.) But while we were on book tour, when scheduling allowed we would occasionally tell the store that we’d donate one joint presentation—free—to a local school of their choosing, during the day of the store event. There were several reasons this made sense…
4. Booking Lodging. We booked virtually everything online in advance. At first we booked a few weeks ahead, as we traveled, but after a couple of close calls we started booking further in advance, and by the time we did the second leg of the tour we had everything locked down before we even left the house. Logistics matter here, and you can optimize your hotel time with a few little tips regarding how you juggle your presentations and lodging:
We booked in one of three general configurations: the “sign-and-sleep,” the “hit-and-run,” and the “two-fer.” The sign-and-sleep is your basic “Do the evening event, go to your hotel and sleep, then get up and drive to the next stop” routine. And it works fine, especially when you have quite a distance between stops. The downside is you don’t get the best bang for the buck, hotel-wise… you’re either checking in during the afternoon then grabbing dinner and doing the event, or—depending on how far you had to drive—arriving in town then eating, then doing the event, then checking in and hitting the hay before getting up and driving on.
If we didn’t have a super long drive to the next stop and/or if the event was reasonably early in the evening, we’d do a hit-and-run, which meant instead of sleeping in the event town we’d do the signing then immediately drive to the next stop and check in… where we’d usually have a two-fer. (Two nights in the same place.) That way we’d wake up and have the whole morning (or day, if no daytime event) to hang out at the hotel, go for a run or swim or sightsee, and get in some serious writing time down in the lobby with coffee and snacks. Then after the evening event we could just go back to the room and hang. You get more “hotel time” for the same outlay, and of course you only have to load-in, unpack, pack up, and load back out once instead of twice. We did this whenever we could, and it always felt like a luxury when we could have a day to hang out or sightsee without having to pack up and drive. (We presented six or seven days a week, so any little break was welcome!)
Regarding rooms, our basic priority list when booking was:
Next time in Part III we’ll discuss making sure you have people (and books!) in the store during your presentation.
See you there!
We’ve gone on three different book tours within the past year. First for my wife’s newest book (The Peach Rebellion) last May, then for my latest (The 9:09 Project) in Nov/Dec. And since both our books published within 6 months of each other (at different imprints of the same umbrella house), we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go on a “He Said/She Said—Part II*” joint book tour, from which we just returned a couple of weeks ago as I write this.
[*To recap, the original “He Said/She Said” tour was a four-month national book tour covering well over 100 venues. Probably the biggest U.S. book tour of that year. See here for more on it.]
The original post covered the “why” of touring, from a philosophical viewpoint, but I’ve gotten questions about the logistics (aka the nuts & bolts—the who, what, when, where, and how) of setting up and executing a book tour. When I was younger I spent a fair amount of time on the road playing in a few different bands, and many of the logistical lessons I learned on the road still translate well today (and certainly came in handy when we booked that big, crazy tour half a dozen years ago). So let’s dive in…
1. When. The first decision—before you even figure out where you’re going and which stores to visit, is when to tour. Obviously, the best time is when you have a new book out. Throughout the life of most books, the briskest selling period will usually be in the months after release, and you (as well as the Event Coordinators at the stores you’re visiting) will want to capitalize on that. However, if there’s no new release but you have a backlist that sells well, this can also work. Or you could tour with a friend who writes in the same genre who happens to have a book coming out. (Think about how big musical acts tour – their either have a new record out, or they do a “greatest hits” tour, or they do a “package” tour with other like-minded bands who have a similar fan base.)
Then decide how long you want to be out. Realistically, you might average one store an evening, with perhaps one non-store presentation (school, conference, festival, etc.) during the day. (Weekends are different—you can sometimes do stores during the day and evening.) So if you want to present at a minimum of a dozen stores, for example, plan on a couple of weeks. Once you know how long you can be on tour and the rough number of stores you’d like to visit, you can start planning your route.
2. Where. At its most basic, a workable plan looks like this: Pick an efficient route that goes through a number of target-rich environments. (IOW, a major interstate that passes through a bunch of cities and towns that have bookstores.) A loop route is generally better than an out-and-back because you don’t want to hit stores near other stores you’re covering (the stores don’t like it, and you’re drawing from the same well of customers twice) so a circular route gives you twice as much “fresh territory.” (Our overall rule was stores should be at least 20 miles apart, and ideally further. Big cities are an exception, because two stores ten miles apart can have totally different customer bases. This will come up in your conversations with the Event Coordinators at the stores.)
A few factors will help determine the route specifics: where you live, any special places you may have as a goal destination, and desired daily mileage. You can occasionally bang out 500 miles or more in a day when you have to get across a “book desert” to get to another locale, but that’ll wear you out quickly and takes all the fun away. We try not to schedule more than 200 miles for most “normal” tour days. That’s only three or four hours of luxurious sight-seeing per day—broken up by meal stops, etc.—which makes for an easy cruise. (Plus, the goal isn’t to cover the most miles, it’s to visit the most stores, so venues closer together makes for a more efficient tour.)
3. Who. Once you know the basic route, it’s time to look for likely venues along the route. Good sources of info for this: The American Booksellers Association website (click their Find a Bookstore tab, then enter the city you’re currently searching); entering “bookstore” into the Nearby tab on Google Maps when you’re mapping a given location; and word-of-mouth, either from fellow authors, local booksellers (indie stores know each other), or asking for recommendations on social media.
When hunting for likely prospects, you’ll have your own personal criteria. We were looking for indie bookstores which had good connections to their local community, with bonus points for hosting regular book clubs and/or writers’ groups, having a coffee bar, and having a store dog or cat. Number of books in stock might also be a consideration for you… all bookstores are wonderful in their own way, but a store with 5000 books is less likely to carry your titles than one with 50,000 books. Not that this should be a Boolean consideration, however—some of our best (and most successful) visits were at smaller stores.
At first, you’re looking for more initial prospects than you’ll need. (Take the total number of days you’re going to be out and multiply by two or three—ideally two or more in each target city on the route--for reasons we’ll see shortly.) We’ll talk more about the selection process when we get to the “how.”
4. What. This may be the easiest part—deciding what your presentation will consist of. Broadly, there are three categories of signings: the “Sit and Sign,” the “Read and Sign,” and the “Present and Q&A.” We’ll do a deeper dive into these in Part IV, but the critical task here is to come up with a general idea of a presentation that works for you, your books, your audience, and the bookstores you’re visiting. The reason you need to come up with a rough idea now (instead of months down the road when you’ll actually be doing it) is that you have to sell it to the event coordinators at your target venues (more on this in Part II) and if they don’t think you’ll have something of interest to their customers, it’s going to be a much harder sell. My overall advice here is something I’ve reiterated before: the worst way to get people interested in your work is to drone on about it. OTOH, if you come off as interesting or informative, they’ll naturally be inclined to think your book may be likewise, and may check it out. (TL;DR: Do not shout “Buy my book!” at potential readers. It’s bad form… and it never works.)
You don’t need to decide on every detail at this point, just enough to be able to say to the event coordinator, “I have a presentation that covers X, Y, and Z, and I take questions from the attendees. Then I sign for everyone who wants a book, and I’m happy to sign whatever stock you have.”
5. How. Now that we know what we want to do, let’s step through the nuts & bolts of the preliminary actions. Be aware that for a significant tour you’ll want to start this process well in advance of the projected tour dates. Like several months.
1. Buy a big-ass map covering your potential tour area and put it on the wall in your workspace. (We call ours the “war room map,” because that’s what it looks like in the middle of booking a tour.) Get small colored stickers in various colors.
a. We used different stickers for “initial,” “provisional,” and “confirmed.”
b. Don’t highlight your route, because it may (will) change.
2. Start building documents to track all the information discussed below. Use whatever method works best for you, but we ended up with an overall plan and a page for each day of the tour with all pertinent info. (Venue, location, time/date, name of contact, etc.) My wife is brilliant at building informative spreadsheets for this (lucky me!).
3. For each city on your route, look at the list of candidates you compiled in #3 (Who), above, and order them in terms of your preference.
4. Make initial contact with your first choice for each given date/location. (You’re contacting a business with multiple employees, so phone is the best for this.) Introduce yourself, briefly explain you’re setting up tour dates, and obtain/verify Event Coordinator name & contact info (which is the whole purpose of this call).
a. Place an “initial contact” colored sticker at that location.
b. Go to the next target location and do the same. Etc…
5. Contact the Event Coordinator to discuss possible events. (This may happen during the above call, but will usually require a follow-up call or email.) Explain the tour basics and the rough timeframe you’ll be in their area, and get provisional approval. Explain that you’ll circle back to confirm a specific time/date when schedule is finalized.
a. If they pass, go on to your 2nd choice for that location and do the above.
6. Do this for every venue on your route, at every likely city.
a. Again, keep spacing in mind. You don’t want two stores in the same market, but you also don’t want big gaps of several hundred miles if possible.
7. Go back to your first venue and confirm a logical start date/time that works for you and the store. This is your “anchor”--everything will stem from this date. Replace the “provisional” sticker at that location to a “confirmed” one.
a. Gen up and send a ‘confirmation document’ to the event coordinator with all pertinent information.
8. Go to the next store on your route that provisionally approved a visit and book them for the next day.
9. Continue the above, through the rest of your route. Realistically, you’ll still be getting initial approvals for the end of the tour while you’re starting to finalize the early stops. That’s fine, because by that point you can say, “We’re scheduled to come through your area during the middle of the first week of August, so can we pencil in the 3rd or 4th, and we’ll confirm with details in a couple of weeks?”
In Part II we’ll cover some of the details around the scheduling of the signings, booking school visits along the way, and the logistics of booking rooms.
Happy tour planning!
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.