It is a truth universally acknowledged that book tours don't really sell books. Or at least they don't sell a lot of books in comparison to the amount of time and expense involved. So then why do authors continue to go on them? Well, book tours have ancillary benefits, otherwise publishers wouldn't still send authors on them. Meeting booksellers makes them more likely to recommend your work, or to look forward to your next book. It gives local media an excuse to talk about you. It gives you a chance to travel the country, catch up with old friends, and show your exes what they missed when they dumped you.
But what if your publisher is an independent press with little to no budget for touring? What if your big name publisher doesn't think it's worth sending you out? Plan your own tour.
When my collection of short stories THINGS THAT PASS FOR LOVE was published by OV/Dzanc Books in 2008, they offered me $1000 toward book promotion. I took it on the road (and ended up spending a bit more than that, but I did visit over 17 cities). Here are some helpful tips as you plan your own DIY book tour:
- What do you want?
Define your goals. Are you trying to sell X number of books? Or are you taking a "victory lap"? Are you visiting certain friends or a favorite old haunt? If you know what you want, you can judge the best tour for you. Then, maybe, it's worth it to drive 300 miles to sell three books to your aunt Gladys.
- Start here:
Sort your Facebook friends by region or do your luddite equivalent. The places you have the most friends are likely to generate the biggest crowds ("Crowd" in this article is defined as six or more audience members). Obviously, your hometown is a requisite, especially if your parents still live there. If you see that you only know two people in Seattle, maybe it's not worth flying there. No one's heard of you, so it's unlikely that people will come to see you read unless your friends force them to come. Consider also your college and/or grad school, especially if you know professors there who can require their students to attend. (An aside: Try to avoid the two-person reading. It's embarrassing. Know, however, that you will have at least one during your tour. Be happy when it happens; at least THAT'S over.)
- Set aside lots of time. Make a spreadsheet.
For some reason, planning a tour takes forever. You call, you find out the events person is only available on Tuesday mornings, you forget to call back, etc. Keep a record of where you've called/emailed, who you've talked to and what the follow up action is. You'll be glad you did.
- Buy (or download and print) a map.
Did you know West Virginia borders Pennsylvania? Me neither. Once you've picked your towns, try to put them in some coherent order. Ann Arbor, Michigan; Los Angeles, California; Oxford, Mississippi; Portland, Oregon is not a good itinerary. This might mean that you don't get to some cities. Oh well. Catch them next time around.
- See where other authors have read.
Authors post their appearances on their websites, so pick a few authors who were published by indie presses and see where they read. No need to reinvent the wheel. You can even copy their itinerary. Heck, copy mine: http://www.allisonamend.com/tour.htm.
- Call bookstores. Practice first. (And have your distributor and ISBN number handy).
The first time I called a bookstore, my end of the conversation went something like this: "Hi. I, uh, have a book out, and I, um, am touring. Can I come read, I mean, if you want me to come and read
." Finally the person on the other end of the line rescued me. "You want Events. Please hold." While the Smiths played "the Bomb" in the background, I regrouped. When the phone was taken off hold, I managed. "Hi, I'm an author with a book. I'll be in the area on my reading tour in October and I'd love to read. At your bookstore."
As though she was filling out her taxes while she spoke to me, the woman asked who the publisher was. "OV Books," I said, "It's a independent press."
"Uh huh." I could tell she thought I'd written a book about my cat and published it on my inkjet. "Who's the distributor?"
I'd like to use my lifeline, Regis. "That big one?" I said. "That begins with a ‘C'— Consolidated? Conundrum?" As I said this, I realized that Conundrum is the name of the press that rejects Paul Giametti's book in the movie Sideways.
"We don't have any free openings in October. Thanks for calling." She hung up on me.
I cried for ten minutes, ate some pasta and found out the name of the distributor: Consortium.
I picked another bookstore and called again. This was Booksmith, possibly the coolest, nicest, most supportive bookstore on the planet. "Oh, I love OV and Dzanc's books," the events coordinator crowed. "What night do you want to read?"
Only plan one or two events in each city. I read three times in San Francisco, which diluted my audience each time.
Try to plan your tour around non-writing events: I went to a wedding in the middle. It was great. There were civilians there, and I spent two whole days without talking about writing!
- Attend conferences and reading series.
These are fantastic, because you have a built-in audience. They take some planning, since they schedule far in advance, but I read at Wordstock and the Wisconsin Book Festival. I met some great regional writers and had a "crowd" even in places I didn't know anyone. At the Gist Reading Series in Pittsburgh, 100 people stood in line in the cold an hour before the doors opened, paid $5, and brought food for a potluck. Now that's a reading series!
- Be not proud.
In Seattle, I called up a friend from college to whom I hadn't spoken in 15 years and asked to stay with her. She said yes; I saved money on a hotel room (and she had a hot tub in her backyard). I've asked people to arrange for rides from the airport for me, to host book parties, to feed me. Sometimes you can exchange services—I made a huge batch of turkey chili for one busy family and froze it in exchange for their hospitality. I babysat for another friend in exchange for using her living room for a book party. (Her child did throw up on me 5 minutes before the party started, but that may have been my fault for overfeeding him.)
Have any friends who are professors? Are your professors still at your alma mater? Ask them to invite you to speak to their classes. Often they will offer you an honorarium, or make their class buy your book.
- Contact everyone you know.
EVERYONE. Friends from camp, preschool classmates, people you met on vacation in 1983, former teachers, old babysitters. Sometimes the strangest people will buy your book or come to your reading. That's a good thing. Encourage them to invite/coerce their friends. Offer free booze.
- Tell everyone. Via email.
Don't tell them 700 times, but twice or three times shouldn't upset anyone too much.
- Alert the media.
This one is hard. I Googled newspapers in the towns I was traveling to, and tried to call them up to interest them in a profile or review of my work. Sometimes I pretended to be Eunice Pappalardi, my fake publicist. Sometimes I bought Thai food and asked friends to help me call. I sent out press releases and emails to those whose addresses I could find. It worked better when I could tie my book into something local—I'm from Chicago, so it was an easier sell to Chicago-area journalists and media outlets (NPR, Time Out Chicago, Oy Chicago
). If your book has a theme that is of local interest, highlight that when you call. Be prepared for a miniscule rate of success.
- Get a "reading outfit."
In other words, make your tour as easy as possible. Travel light. I bought myself a dress that could be worn with or without tights and with or without a sweater. It didn't wrinkle. I liked the way I looked in it. Then I never had to decide what to wear, eliminating one source of anxiety. Always carry-on your luggage and a few of your books in case they don't show up in time. Get an iphone or a similar gizmo that has Google and mapping capability. I might still be in Madison, Wisconsin if it weren't for my little iPhone friend.
Similarly, pick two or three passages you want to read, and always read the same thing. Funny is best, but take a look at your audience before you start and pick the passage you think they'll appreciate most. I usually read from a humorous story about a porn writer, but when my friends brought their 6 and 7 year olds to the reading, I had to scramble to find child-friendly writing.
- Be careful out there.
I came home with a nasty rash. It turned out to be an irritation from laundry soap, but my dermatologist could barely contain her judgment when I admitted that I'd slept in 34 different beds in the past 6 weeks. I was also sleep-deprived, lonely, chubby and bloated from eating out. Make sure you're not out there too long. Once, I responded to the airline's question, "What's your final destination?" with "That city that begins with M."
- Don't expect to write.
It's not gonna happen.
- Have Fun!
You've been waiting for this moment for years, so try to enjoy it, even as you're stuck in the Dallas airport deciding between your fifth Starbucks of the day or TCBY for a bit of protein while waiting for weather to clear in Minneapolis so you can fly to Chicago to drive to Iowa.
No rest for the weary: My novel, STATIONS WEST, will be out in March of 2010 from Louisiana State University Press. I'm getting out the old spreadsheet and practicing my Eunice Pappalardi voice at this very moment.