I’m about to embark on another book tour. This will be my tenth. Let me tell you about a book tour.
When I began publishing nearly a dozen years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that book tours were an essential part of the promotion of a new work. The idea, not a bad one, was that readers would be interested in seeing authors in person and hearing what they had to say. A lot of time, money, and energy went into the planning and execution of a book tour. The results of the tour were tracked by publishers: How many sales resulted from each store event? How did the store feel about the event? Was the event perceived as successful? For some authors, the cost of the tour was clearly worth the expense. For others, the results were less clearly favorable—in terms of sales, anyway. That’s how it was for me, in the beginning.
With my first book, Iron Lake, readers stayed away in droves. It wasn’t uncommon for me to travel a great distance for an event at which were present only me, the bookseller, and the bookseller’s cat. I planned and paid for that first tour. Despite the general lack of crowds at my signings, I never viewed an event as unsuccessful, for several reasons. First, I was able to make a personal contact with a bookseller. This was the person who, I knew, would hand sell my work, book after book. Second, I did sell books. Booksellers generally told me that as a result of the display both before and after the event, many customers bought Iron Lake. And third, those few readers who came to an event gave me terrific confirmation for the job I’d done, not only in the writing but in my personal presentation. I was, they assured me, a big hit.
Over the years, the glow of the book tour has dimmed. Not for me, but for a lot of writers and for most publishers. Because almost every writer tours, the appearance at a bookstore of yet another hopeful face has become commonplace. These days even best-selling authors can’t be certain of drawing a crowd. Booksellers have become wary of going through all the hassle of promoting a signing that can’t guarantee a turnout. Now, to the uncertainty about the value of personal appearances, add all the possibilities available through the Internet—viral marketing, web promotion, blogs, MySpace, Facebook—that give an author the opportunity for a breadth of exposure almost unthinkable a dozen years ago and at a fraction of the cost of a national book tour. From a purely business perspective—bang for your buck–it might seem a no-brainer that the days of book touring have passed.
Me, I don’t think so. I still do a lot of personal appearances with every book, and for many of the same reasons that compelled me to tour with the first. I continue to believe that it’s important for an author to make that personal connection, with both booksellers and readers. Word spreads from a good event—and most of my events these days are good. It’s always a pleasure to spend a little time with booksellers I’ve come to know well over the years. And I still get such a thrill out of standing in front of a room full of people who’ve gathered simply because they like my work. The expense isn’t, I suppose, justified from a strictly business perspective. But for me, it’s not all about business. It’s also about art, about community, and about connection.
I still plan my own tours. I set up the events, buy my airline tickets, book my hotels, rent cars and drive myself around. My publisher is usually agreeable in helping to finance a tour, but I also kick in a lot of my own money. In the past, a new book has entailed planning and attending fifty to sixty events in the ten weeks following the release. This year, I’ve cut back a bit, but I’ve never once considered cutting out a tour completely. Honestly, if I didn’t tour, I’d feel that the birth of a new book was incomplete somehow. I’m like a proud father who wants to hold up his newest child for everyone to see.
Maybe this time when I tour, I’ll pass out cigars.