Monday, January 19, 2009

Book tours, 2

There was a Village Voice column about a book tour, and it raised some questions. I haven't read that whole article--too annoying--but I suspect the following A's will answer some of the Q's. I'm sure I don't have to remind you that this is only one writer's opinions, though they are based on my experiences on a lot of national book tours.

l. A bad book tour is the least of one's worries as an aspiring or published author.

All of us should be so lucky as to have a book tour to bitch about. I remind myself of that fact every time nobody shows up, or the hotel room doesn't have a shower cap (gasp!), or I'm exhausted from too many plane flights. Honestly, book tours and whether we get them, or not, and whether they work, or not, and whether ours are handled well, are so far down on the list of what-to-worry-about as to be hardly worth thinking about until you actually get to go on one. Writing is the horse. Everything else is cart.

2. In regard to book tours, as with life, managing expectations is everything.

Hardly any novelist gets crowds. In the mystery field, if we're not bestsellers, we can sometimes pull a nice group to a mystery bookstore, and we can usually get our friends and family to come out for us locally, but outside of those built-in fanbases, we don't have any right to expect much, because 'not much' is what we're going to get the first time, then next time, and all the times after that unless our books suddenly take off into bestseller stratospheres. It's VERY important to drill this into our skulls before stepping onto the first airplane. Then, with our expectations suitably lowered to reality, we'll be fine. Secretly disappointed, maybe, because we still held out hope for those crowds snaking out the door, but we'll still be fine.

3. Publishers can't make people show up, and they can't make them behave once they're there.

I've had biggish (but never THAT big) crowds, small crowds, no crowds. The key to getting people out is letting them know you'll be there. All of my publishers have done that by beating the woods for publicity. That's the normal procedure. Sometimes they get it for me, sometimes nobody's interested. I've had a lot of tv interviews, tons of newspaper space. None of it brought 800 people to any signing. Not even 100, for that matter. Publishers can't go door to door and drag readers out by their hair, gosh darn it.

Look, I've had it all. Full page ads in the freaking New York Times Sunday Book Section, for heaven's sake. Radio ad campaigns. Great reviews and a lot of them. More nominations and awards than any writer has any right to expect. High-visibility roles in writers organizations. Book tour after book tour. What it did was turn me into a solid midlist author. None of it, NONE of it has ever propelled me any higher. Not every writer can be on top. Being in the middle is pretty great, too. And I DO believe that cream rises. I may think that a lot of the books that rise to the top taste pretty bad, but to a whole lot of readers they taste just fine.

3. What's hard about book tours?

Traveling itself is hard on most people. I like it, though as you know I do hit walls now and then. Hotels can let you down. Big deal. It's one night out of a lifetime. Or three nights, or whatever. The travel agent can put you in a bad seat on the plane. It happens. Book signings can stab your ego with a steely knife. Yes, they can. This is a tough business. Book tours are terrific builders of character, heh. There are other things I could mention, but I really hate book tour whiners, you know? I've known book stores that refuse to invite back writers who complain about their terrible suffering on a tour. Poor babies. How many unpublished writers would love to have those problems? Here's my mantra whenever someone asks me how I'm holding up on a book tour. I smile, and say, "How bad can it be to have room service and meet nice people who say lovely things about my books?"

4. What is the point of a book tour if nobody shows up and it's so physically draining and emotionally challenging?

Don't think for a moment that I haven't asked myself that question at least once on every tour, but especially after nights when I'm talking only to the store's staff. You can get different answers on this question, answers ranging from, "There is no point. They are pointless wastes of the publisher's time and the writer's time and energy.". . . to. . ."Publicity is the point, and getting as much of it as you can, even if it's not much and doesn't seem worth the trouble. It may be worth the trouble if you build on it book after book, year after year. At the very least, tours and the publicity they may engender can help a writer to maintain his position in the marketplace, even if they don't improve that position. Personally, I don't think it's all that important to meet store managers and staff--unless it's an independent mystery bookstore--because personnel change so often. I do think it helps to go around to a lot of bookstores and sign their stock of your book, because those signed books are likely--though not guaranteed--to get better display and sales. And if nothing else, when you go co-operatively and without complaint on a tour, your publisher who is paying for it thinks better of you than they do of the writers who lack that attitude.

4. The squeaky wheel gets shown the door.

This is not true of bestsellers. For the rest of us, when it comes to book tours, ours not to bitch and moan, ours but to go and say thank you.

Okay, that's the tough love I give myself. Now here's how a book tour works:

1. Publisher decides to send you on one.
2. The sales department tells the publicity department where they--the sales people--want you to go. The stores they select may make absolutely no sense to you at all. That doesn't matter. They make sense to the sales department, and the sales department rules. You can ask to be sent to certain cities or stores that do make sense to you, but you will probably not get what you want unless it easily and cheaply coincides with what they want. As a result of that, you may have to cover your ass with stores that actually do want to see you, but where your publisher won't send you. I know this sounds crazy. I still don't know if it *is* crazy.
3. The publicist contacts those stores in those cities to see if they want you. The publicist works with a travel agent to set everything up, including hotels, escort drivers, interviews, signings, and "drive-bys," which are quick stops at bookstores just to say hi and sign their stock of your book.
4. The publicist sends you the schedule, which will change week by week and even up to and including the day you leave. Your own ability to remain calm in the midst of a certain amount of chaos will serve you well! There will also be changes to the schedule while you're on tour, changes you will receive by FAX at the hotels.
5. Once you're on tour, you probably will never hear from anybody at the publishing house unless there's a problem. That seemed weird and lonely to me, at first. But then I realized, once they have me launched on my tour, they're already onto getting the next author up and running. You can always call and ask for help, however.
6. Sometimes uncomfortable things happen. Like the time I arrived at my hotel on Miami Beach at midnight and they had no record of my reservation and I didn't think I should call my publicist, so I put it on my own charge card. (Which the publicist wasn't happy that I did.)
7. Sometimes you get lonely.
8. Sometimes you get tired. I think the thing that wears me out the most is the same thing that is a great and necessary luxury, which is the "escorts" that a publisher hires to meet you at the airport, take you to the hotel, take you to everything you have scheduled, and then return you to the airport. Making hours and hours of small talk with strangers every day is a strain on an introvert's poor widdle sensitive soul. :) On the other hand, you will "connect" with some of them and they will help make the day a joy that flies by.
9. Sometimes you make big boo-boos. Like the time I left my entire packet of airline tickets in my seat on the plane. Fortunately, the airplane people found it and returned it to me, no harm done. But. . .gulp.
10. Sometimes you cry. Yep. Tired and lonely and missing home and only a few people are showing up at several signings in a row? Not happy. Then you eat a room service prime rib that your publisher is paying for, and you get a good night's sleep in a lovely bed, and you feel better in the morning, and you remember, these are "problems" to die for.
11. Sometimes it's so much fun you can hardly stand it, and sometimes you feel really lucky to get to be doing it at all, and sometimes you think book tours are the stupidest idea ever invented to take time away from your writing.
12. Attitude. . .my own, yours, ours. . .is everything.

Overall, are they worth it? I have no effing clue. And that's the truth. But because I don't know for sure? I'll keep doing them for as long as they're offered to me. And if they aren't offered, I may find ways to do them modestly on my own. This current tour is a very special case. I'm doing it partly to promote my books in my state, but also to say thank you to my state and its libraries and librarians. That's probably the main reason I'm enjoying it so much--it's not entirely about me.

What have I left out?


Nancy P said...

Yeesh! World's longest blog post. Ignore at will!

Dina said...

You know, Nancy, I have been thinking about this since you first posted. I do think a big thing is the introduction to the booksellers. Particularly the indies (because customers are more likely to meet with the people that met you). Why? Hand selling. Some of my favorite authors were introduced to me by indie sellers who thought well of the author and thought I might like the book.

Another thing is to think about the weather. I may go to a book signing in May that I won't go to in January. I know that isn't much help when your book comes out in the winter, but just a thought.

Nancy P said...

Dina, that's true about the hand-selling, though it doesn't work if the bookseller doesn't actually love the book. But if they have read it, and they do love it, and then on top of that they meet and love you, then. . .hand selling for the win.

Weather. . .so true, though most of us have zero control over when a publisher sends us out. We just have to go when they say go, and that always depends on the season the book comes out, and THAT depends on the choice they originally made about that, such choices being made for a variety of reasons that we also can't control or influence.

Beth said...

Thanks for sharing, Nancy. I always enjoy reading your take on the business (and the other writers in the group). Hopefully one of these days I'll be able to use your tips and thoughts on my own tour!

And I promise to talk to any writer sitting alone at a table from now on...

Maria Lima said...

Nancy, great post about the reality. I've not experienced the tour from a publisher, but while I was in San Antonio, working @ Remember the Alibi, remember several authors flying in/out in a matter of hours during a tour. To a person, they were exhausted, but the more successful of them managed to put away that exhaustion during the signing. Some authors drew huge crowds, others, not so much - it was always difficult to tell. I remember one time when we had four popular romance writers scheduled in a group event. Happened to be the same day the trophy bearing San Antonio Spurs arrived home. We got 0 customers.

The writers took it in stride and bought each other's books. True class.

Pablo said...

It's all great information, but I still don't understand the economics of it. How can you possibly induce enough sales to cover the cost of your plane tickets alone?

Lisa M said...

Whew, I'm pooped just reading all this great stuff, Nancy.
Strong spirit and mind are number one on the writers must-have list that's for sure.
And a GREAT sense of humor.
The key is opportunity. Take the ones you are given and make the best of the rest.
Then order room service.

Nancy P said...

I don't think we do cover those costs, Pablo. I think the idea--correct or not--is that the publicity, etc., will generate sales over and above the actual tour, and that it all goes in a big pot labeled, "Sell More Books." Personally, I have never figured out how a publisher could justify it in any other way. I seriously doubt any of my tours--the actual tours themselves--have paid for themselves all by themselves.

They're also, I think, trying just about anything they can to goose sales somehow into high levels, so they gamble on some things for lack of knowing what else to do. "Maybe if we do this ad, that will work." "Maybe if we send her out on tour, that will do it." "Maybe if we try a radio campaign. . ."

And more often than not in publishing, gambles don't pay for themselves. Most books, as I understand it, don't earn back their advances. So there's probably no reason to think anything else in publishing earns its way, either. One book does better than expected and pays for a few others, I guess.

Crazy, I know.

I.J.Parker said...

Book tours help no one but bookstores. They create the illusion that the bookstore hires the authors to entertain the customer. Briefly, the bookstore will stock your books, but then they are returned just like eberybody else's who isn't a bestseller. It's a matter of shelf space. Which is for sale! An author's visit does not pay for more that a couple of day's worth.
Therefore: let's find a better way!

Kimberly Frost said...

Wonderful, informative post! Thank you for it. :)

bono said...

Given the current state of the economy overall, what's your best guess re: whether publishers will continue to fund book tours?

Thanks, Nancy, for your inside look at the life of a writer. It makes me appreciate the books I read even more.

Nancy P said...

I.J., I'd argue that tours do help authors at some points, in some ways. When I started out, for instance, they helped me to establish relationships with mystery bookstore owners--at a time when they, along with libraries, were selling most of my books. That was really valuable to me and continues to be to this day. They also helped to establish my place in the mystery world, probably making me appear more successful than I was. That was a good thing, not a bad thing. In addition, they achieved some small one-time things, like landing me on the Denver Post bestseller list and the LA Times bestseller list for one of my books. My tour that year, to those two cities, had been particularly effective in terms of publicity, and bookstore visits.

Having said that, however, I'll say that you're still not wrong. They are not efficient ways to sell books, and a "better way" would be wonderful.

(I have never heard anybody say they think a bookstore hires the authors who appear. I could be wrong about that perception, but I think everybody pretty much understands the publishers send us, or the author sends himself. It is certainly true, however, that publishers send authors where the sales people want them to go, and the sales people want us to go to their "best" bookstore clients. In that indirect sense, you are right.)

Nancy P said...

bono, good question about the effect of the economy. I don't know. I'd heard that tours were being cut back even a few years ago. When I toured for Virgin, they cut it up into two parts, one for hard cover, one for paperback, which no publisher had ever done before, at least not for me. Each one was briefer than any tour I'd had before.

Bookstores can get over-dosed with touring authors, too, and it gets harder to get out a crowd, esp. for new ones. It's good for authors doing their own tours to remember that no appearance is free. Small book stores, esp., find them costly these days. There's staff to pay, the store may be kept open at night when it usually would not be, there may be refreshments, there may be paid advertising, etc.