Is a book tour worth the trouble? My accountant would say no.
I say yes.
The Wasted Author Tour
Last fall, as part of my “Wasted Author Tour,” I hosted ten readings in Detroit, Berkeley, Mill Valley, San Rafael, Corte Madera, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe. I was disappointed in the turnout more often than not, and I didn’t generate enough attendance or book sales to justify the time I devoted to the tour. But I would do it again. Without hesitation.
When I launched my first book—Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher—I scheduled one reading, my “launch,” and more than 50 people crowded into Mo’Joe Cafe in Berkeley. I even ran out of books to sell.
None of my readings on the Wasted Tour attracted that large a crowd, but at my third stop, Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, the store manager did unfold more chairs to accommodate latecomers. (No one sat in the first row however.) That audience of 30 was the biggest turnout of the tour and came on the heels of 25 in Detroit and 17 at the Ecology Center in Berkeley. But I also had turnouts of 10, 5, and 0. (I did sell a book at the reading where no one showed, to a man at the neighboring table who had to leave for a concert.)
Over the summer, I set a specific goal: Plan, promote, and execute 6 public readings in 2015. Sell 100 books.
Ten Percent Better
Setting up the readings took persistence, but sometimes all it took was an email…or three. I had a few personal contacts, like the Mo’Joe Cafe, where I’d done the Bones in the Wash reading in 2014, and the Ecology Center, where I’d served on the board back in the 1990s. I also asked my brother in Detroit and my sister in Santa Fe to host readings. When my emails didn’t get a response, I followed up with another email and/or a phone call. More than half of my overtures didn’t pan out, but enough did that I could legitimately call it a tour. In fact, I had a hard time fitting all the dates on a bookmark.
I talked up the tour to everyone I know, sent out targeted emails to several hundred people; shared posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; and listed the readings on Craigslist and other local sites. Several venues made their own posters and promoted the reading through their social media.
Although I called these events “readings,” I usually read for less than 10 minutes. I talked first about how I came to write the book, which took about 15 or 20 minutes, then read the first chapter (8 minutes long) before taking questions. One line I used at my first reading, because I was on a panel between two English professors, was that I did not presume that Wasted was literature. “My goal is entertainment,” I said, “and if there’s any literary merit in the book, it’s a fortuitous accident.” That got a lot of laughs and put me and the audience at ease with each other.
One story I enjoyed telling was about my singular experience reading Wasted as a reader, not an author. I wrote Wasted in the late 1990s, sent it to 60 or 70 agents and got eight or nine nibbles. But no bites. I set it aside and got on with my life. Then I wrote a second novel, Bones in the Wash, which I self-published it in 2013. Response was heartening enough that in the spring of 2014 I read Wasted again, for the first time in years, with the idea that I might rewrite it and self-publish it. One day, I was about two-thirds of the way through the book, and I was hungry and it was lunchtime, but I couldn’t put the book down. I didn’t remember what happened next, and I couldn’t wait to find out. That was exciting, to read the book as if I weren’t its author.
I always talked about the importance of the novel writing group I was part of for more than a dozen years. They read both my books, often in 2 or 3 chapter chunks, with months between chapters, and sometimes many versions of the same chapters. One of the group members came to my Urban Ore reading, and before we started, I assured him that Wasted was at least 10 percent better than when he read it last. “Oh, you cut 10 percent?” he quipped.
Many of the questions I fielded were about the mechanics of self-publishing and print on demand, which is still a mystery to most people. They’re surprised, for example, to learn that the book is not printed until it’s ordered and there’s no inventory sitting on a shelf. The online retailer, Amazon or otherwise, has the template in its database, and when you buy the book, then they print it.
How Much I Made
The economics of books are not straightforward. When I sold 11 books at Copperfield’s, I made less than $10.00. But the 13 books I sold at Mo’Joe Cafe netted more than $100.00. Like most bookstores, Copperfield’s purchased the books through IngramSpark, which wholesales books for bookstores and allows them to return unsold books.
I self-published my first book, Bones in the Wash, through CreateSpace, owned by Amazon. That makes it almost impossible to get bookstores to carry it. (Except where I had a personal relationship with three local bookstores and sold it on consignment.) I published Wasted through CreateSpace and IngramSpark, so anyone can ask their local bookstore to order the book.
At Copperfield’s and the other three bookstore readings, a store employee rang up the books through the cash register for $12.99, the same price as Amazon. I got $0.74 for each book.
At the non-bookstore venues, I sold the books myself, for $10.00 to $20.00 sliding scale (some of the venues had sliding scale admissions so I decided to try it), or two for $25.00. I averaged about $16.00 per book. Including shipping, the books cost me $5.60 each, so I made more than $10.00 per book. I didn’t do any market testing to set the price—part of my decision was based on not having to think too much about change. But it seemed to work pretty well. Just about everyone paid me $20 or $15 or $10.
When customers purchase the eBook online for $2.99 (from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble or iTunes), I make about $2.00. When someone buys the trade paperback online for $12.99, I make $2.00 for Bones in the Wash and $3.00 for Wasted. (Because Bones is 418 pages and Wasted is 324.)
Good thing I’m not in it for the money.
Attendance and Sales
In retrospect, the early readings of this tour, where I was unhappy with turnout, like 17 people at the Ecology Center, or 20 at Urban Ore, well, that was pretty good. What I know now, what I knew then, but conveniently forgot, is that small audiences come with the territory unless you’re a name author. And no matter how well an event is promoted, few strangers show up. At every gathering, except the two hosted by my siblings—a panel at the University of Detroit, and a house party at my sister’s in Santa Fe—I knew almost all of the people who came.
Here are the raw numbers—reading dates, locations, attendance, and sales.
|Sept. 11||Detroit — University of Detroit Mercy||25||5|
|Oct. 8||Berkeley — Ecology Center||17||6|
|Oct. 17||San Rafael — Copperfields||30||11|
|Oct. 22||Berkeley — Urban Ore||20||8|
|Oct. 24||Berkeley — Mo Joe||20||13|
|Nov. 1||Tam Valley Cabin||10||12|
|Nov. 12||Albuquerque — Flying Star Cafe||0||1|
|Nov. 14||Santa Fe — House Party||17||10|
|Nov. 19||Mill Valley — The Depot||5||1|
|Nov. 14||Corte Madera — Book Passage||20||1|
As you can see, I exceeded my goal of 6 readings, but fell short of 100 book sales. (If I count online sales during that period, I came close.) I never set a goal for attendance, but if I had, it would have been higher than 164.
I wish I had sold more books and attracted more potential readers. I slept fitfully the night before the readings and tried a bunch of ways to promote the readings that didn’t make a lick of difference.
But I always enjoyed talking about my work, reading an excerpt, and especially taking questions. Though I was discouraged by the smaller crowds, they were often intimate, more like sitting in my living room with friends.
The first few readings, there was a part of me that felt like I was acting, pretending to be a novelist. After ten readings, I didn’t feel like I was acting anymore.
I can’t wait to finish my next book so I can head out on tour again. I should probably start setting up tour dates now.
John Byrne Barry wrote his first book-length project in fifth grade at Kilmer School in Chicago—a 140-page treatise on dinosaurs. One page for each dinosaur, and lots of white space. He’s been writing ever since—magazine and newspaper stories; political comedy; advice columns (Question the Authority and the Lazy Organic Gardener); and more. He’s even written for a seed catalog. His first published novel, Bones in the Wash, is a political thriller set during the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico. He’s working on a third novel, a family drama about euthanasia. He lives in Mill Valley, California, with his wife and family. See more at greennoir.com.
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