At the time of this writing, in-store visits are still problematic in many locations. I hear some authors say they can’t wait until we can do them again (amen!) while some are doing virtual visits. (Good on them. Indies—and authors—can use all the help they can get these days.)
But I also hear some questioning the fundamental usefulness of book touring, per se.
Fair enough. Because I’ll be the first to admit that if you look at it strictly from a “return on investment” viewpoint, the answer’s not always crystal clear. So let’s step back a bit…
A few years ago my wife and I had books come out at the same time and decided it might be fun to do a joint book tour. Our plans started small but, as per usual, once we began brainstorming all common sense left the room and we ended up booking and doing what was probably the largest national book tour of that year.
Sixteen weeks on the road, covering almost 100 bookstores plus dozens of school visits, along with conferences, festivals, libraries, book fairs, etc. Done in two eight-week legs—one in the spring and one in the fall, with a break over summer because our kids were home—we covered much of the U.S., burning up 15,000 miles of highway in our trusty minivan.
It was a blast getting to visit all those bookstores… virtually all of which were indies. When we were booking the tour, we had a few criteria: If it was a mom & pop store*, if they had a store dog or cat, and if they had coffee, they were definitely in… assuming they were anywhere close to our planned route.
[*We also visited a lot of iconic indies that are well beyond “mom & pop”—Book People, Tattered Cover, Powell’s, Hicklebees, Changing Hands, Wild Rumpus, Anderson’s, The Bookworm, etc. But you get the vibe...]
We can talk about the logistics of touring later (as usual, I have thoughts) but today I want to address the question behind the question. The initial question is usually something like “How many books did you sell?” and/or “Did you make money?”
The answer to the first one is technically zero. We don’t sell books. (But we gave away hundreds, with our goofy-yet-fun “Booking” adventures, invented by my brilliant wife.) But the stores we visited definitely sold some books. I don’t know exactly how many, but certainly well into the thousands. (Which doesn’t mean we hit list. We presented at 100 stores, right?)
The answer to the second one is no. And yes, probably, eventually. And the real answer: Umm… that’s sort of missing the point.
The answer’s a little vague because it was kind of a hybrid tour, regarding support. When a publisher sends you on tour, they usually fly you to a big city where you present at a few stores and maybe a school, then to another city (where you do the same), and on to a few more cities. All very nice, and all on their dime. (This is 80/20 observational vs. experiential for me, but my wife has been fortunate enough to have been toured several times.) But we wanted something a little different. We wanted to visit the indies in flyover country, many of whom don’t get authors every day, if ever. And we wanted to visit a LOT of them. (Partly, my wife wanted to visit all those indies in the middle of the country as a “thank you” for hand-selling her books all these years. And we wanted to see America, beyond the left and right coasts.)
Booking the tour and being in contact with our respective publicists, it quickly became apparent that we were planning something far beyond their purview. Which was fine by us—we knew going in that this was above and beyond what we could expect any publisher to spring for. But it wasn’t entirely on us—the publisher generously supported a leg in the middle of it, where we flew from Seattle to Chicago, presented at a pair of conferences as well as some schools and stores, then back to Seattle where our book-wrapped van awaited. Also, some of the events have decent honorariums, and I recall after one particularly busy stretch of back-to-back-to-back presentations at bigger conferences and schools we were pretty worn out, but then I did the math and said, “Well, we just paid for our gas for the whole tour.” But on the other hand, over 100 nights in hotels can really add up, even if you’re not staying at the fanciest place in town.
So I really don’t know… maybe we made money, maybe not? Either way, it would be hard to make the case that we came home flush. (And the royalties from books sold at our in-store events wouldn’t show up for six months, regardless.) All of which leads to the question behind the question:
As we’ve seen, the reasons many people immediately think of (sell books, make money) may or may not apply. Yes, part of that equation depends on the level of support—if any—you get from your publisher. But there are longer term benefits that will apply regardless of where the financing comes from. Such as…
Building relationships with booksellers.
This is a biggie. In the Amazon age it’s easy to overlook the importance of word-of-mouth and—especially—hand selling, but this is still a very effective way for books to reach readers. And it carries the weight of authenticity: readers will take a trustworthy bookseller’s recommendation over an algorithm any day. But you have to do your part. If you just swoop in, basically say “Buy my book!” then sign and leave, you have become the sales algorithm. But if you do the work to bring some new potential customers to an indie store, offer the store and attendees something of value*, and interact with the customers and staff in a way that’s far removed from simply trying to sell your book, you may have the start of a real relationship. And—assuming they find you and your work to be genuine—the bookseller may be inclined to recommend your work long after you’ve gone.
Plus, writers don’t work in the typical office environment… most of it is just you, alone with your computer and the voices in your head. It’s nice to get out once in a while and commune with your ‘co-workers’… the booksellers and librarians and teachers who care about the written word as much as you do.
[*When it made logistical & scheduling sense, we would sometimes offer to do a pro bono author presentation at a nearby school of the store’s choosing. Sometimes the store would hold an associated book sale at the school and sometimes not, but regardless, we always made a point of telling the school (and the students) that their local indie bookstore could have picked any school to have us visit and they picked this one, so please return the favor and support them. And of course we’d also mention that we’d be at their local bookstore that evening, which often brought students and their families to the store. Helping connect stores with their local schools and community is a win-win situation for everyone.]
Interacting with your readers…
Let’s face it—meeting fans of your work is one of the most enjoyable parts of being on book tour… in times when inspiration is running low, nothing quite picks you back up like someone telling you what your work meant to them. And if you give your time and attention freely and honestly to your readers, they’ll remember that going forward, also.
…and reaching new ones.
Everything I just said about interacting with fans applies to new readers, too. Even those who’ve never read a word you’ve written will leave with an impression of you… as a person, if not (yet) as a reader. And don’t think for a minute that the one doesn’t affect the other*.
[*My overall take on in-store presentations: If you swoosh in there and regurgitate a list of your various books with descriptions of each, etc., you come off like a walking version of your publisher’s catalog. Zzzz… Or worse, if you do the “Well, in my book…” thing (popular with non-fiction authors but not unheard of with novelists) you come across like an “As seen on TV” salesperson. But if you’re an honest, engaging, sincere, funny, and/or informative person (pick any of the above, as long as it includes honest), and you offer something of value to the attendees (vs. ego-boosting yourself) then—without even really talking about your books—their overall impression will likely be something along the lines of, “Wow. They were helpful and took the time to answer my question and they seemed nice and authentic… and funny, too. I bet I’d enjoy their books!”]
Presenting in front of potential advocates for your work.
This is one of those intangible things that can pay off in the long term, but it’s hard to know exactly when or how. However, presenting to educators or librarians or teachers or even teachers-of-teachers (NCTE, anyone?) can only be a good thing. There may be no immediate payoff from any specific conference (any potential honorarium or travel allowance aside) and there may never be. But that’s okay. Besides them learning about you and your work, there’s a lot you can learn from them… about what works and what doesn’t in an educational setting, about what interests their students, etc. It’s good karma. And you just never know*.
[*Example: I’ve presented in front of teachers at reading conferences in the Midwest, including during the tour described above. The following year, a teacher in L.A. contacted me and said she’d heard about my book from an educator at an English teachers’ workshop who used my book as an example during a presentation. She thought it was a good fit for something she was teaching, so she required all the school’s incoming freshmen to read it over the summer. It’s not possible to trace events back to where it started, but there’s a fairly decent possibility that someone heard me talking about the book somewhere and told someone else who told someone else (teachers talk!) and pretty soon… Bob’s your uncle.]
Showing your publisher that you’re willing to do your part.
Like the other points, this is sort of unquantifiable but very real, nevertheless. It’s no secret that at least part of the publicity for any upcoming publication depends on the author, and the more you can do—and the more you can let them know about what you’re doing—the more they appreciate it, and may be inclined to think favorably of you*. So another benefit of doing whatever you can—on whatever level is workable for you, whether that’s garnering local press or doing local signings or library presentations or schools or whatever—is that you’re demonstrating your willingness to pitch in and be a team player. Which can only be a good thing.
[*I remember dropping our editor off at the airport to fly back to NYC after she flew in to see a pair of special events we were doing in the Northwest in the middle of that crazy tour, and I thanked her for coming. She seemed genuinely surprised and said, “Oh no… thank you, for all you guys are doing!” That brought home to me the fact that yeah, along with promoting ourselves and our works—and books & reading in general—we were also promoting our publisher’s products, and this fact was not lost on them.]
So… does it make sense to tour?
Strictly in dollars and cents over the short term, it might not. (Like, if you were only going to put out one book and your only goal was to maximize immediate profits, touring beyond your local area would be counterproductive.)
But over the long haul, with multiple books over multiple years (which I’m guessing most of us want), then yes, you can make a strong case that building up bookseller loyalty… that meeting your readers in person… that helping create new readers… that presenting in front of people who value books the way we do… that helping your publisher get the word out… is absolutely beneficial over the long haul.
Because as I’ve said before, for virtually all of us this isn’t a get-rich-quick thing. It a long game. So we need to take the long view. And getting out there and doing all the things we’ve discussed is a great step toward building a solid foundation for a creative career.
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.