How Do We Get Our Books Out There in the World? The Book Tour Isn’t Dead

What I’ve learned about book publishing in the last four years is that no one out there really, truly knows how to sell books. Not the publishers and their small armies of marketing people and publicists. Not the agents. Everyone seems to have been completely blindsided by online bookselling and e-books. And very few books seem to be able to yell above the noise that is the constant 24-hour news cycle.

This all came as a big surprise to me when I was a new writer. I thought that if you got your proverbial backside into the chair every day and wrote your book and solicited agents (far and wide), you might get a publishing contract. And if you landed that, then you could lie down on the rug in your living room and take a long nap. Because the rest of the work was up to the publisher.

And apparently there was a time and place when this rang true--when publishers really did do the bookselling for authors and there was more room out there for a wide swath of books on all kinds of arcane subjects and more space out there for quieter conversations about books. Now you often need headlines to get your book noticed. You need to be the blockbuster hit novel or memoir of the entire summer. And maybe you’ve heard you need to have 5,000 Facebook friends and 3,000 Twitter followers (at least). (None of which I entirely understand the benefit of, not to mention how we would really ever have the time to cultivate that many relationships if we’re meant to be actually writing. The next book!)

But none of this is probably news to anyone now. Though when I first heard it, when my publishers made it clear that it was a guessing game how books really got sold, I felt my knees go weak. No one knows? How to sell books? What do you mean? I tried to get a better answer from someone. How could they not know?

And what the marketing folks told me was that at this moment in our universe, this exact juncture of time and place in July of 2013, no one can really tell how long the printed book is going to last. It’s partly about the gift and the curse of e-books. They’re easy to buy and to read apparently, and great on airplanes, and I entirely get their appeal for certain people. But they’re killing authors’ royalties and driving prices down and really hurting bookstores. Because bookstores can’t sell e-books. It just doesn’t work. Bookstores are all about bricks and mortar. All about the town you live in. All about the actual page. Or paper. E-books are most often bought from Amazon which is the land of the those headline-grabbing, megahit books I mentioned before.

Amazon is about pushing a very small number of books to become huge successes. There are no browsing tables at Amazon where you can pick up dozens of books you’ve never heard of and read their opening pages. Amazon doesn’t pay taxes in your town or help with your community arts scene. They don’t bring living authors into the stores to meet actual readers and shake their actual hands and blow their minds by reading their luminous, trenchant stories.

So this was dispiriting news to receive when I first heard it. It still is. But here in the topsy-turvy world of books in 2013, some of the Indie bookstores we all know and love are getting stronger. Thriving in fact. Take our local store, Longfellow Books (below), in Portland, Maine. It is the very backbone of our Maine writing community. The amazing owners and booksellers there PUSH good books and they understand the vital role that books—real living breathing books, play in keeping our arts community alive and in connecting readers to the work that will change their lives.

If you have a book you’ve written and want to sell it, there are things you CAN do to help give yourself a leg up in the marketplace: the first is to reach out to any and every bookstore that you have ever stepped foot in, and even those you haven’t. Write personal notes to them. Emails if that’s better. Tell them what you valued about their store and then mention your book and see if they have a reading series.

Then create a Book Tour: Get on the calendar of each of those bookstore’s reading series. Because bookstore readings matter. They just do. And I know that it seems like all you might need is a lot of Goodreads and Amazon ads for your book to find readers. But I think what still really matters is the part where you look people in the eye and read a sentence from your opening chapter and that all-important connection is made.

I went out on the road with my first book, a memoir, and I crisscrossed the country. I had enough friends with couches I could sleep on that I was able to do it pretty cost-effectively. And my publisher helped. So I’m doing it again in three weeks--going to lots of local and far-flung bookstores to read from my new novel. Some say the book tour is dead. But how can that be when there are hundreds of great Indie bookstores out there shouting out the praises of the authors they love and selling crates of books?

So I say, let’s read from our books. Out loud. In bookstores. We wrote these books. We lived in them for years. So we understand them. We can inflect. We can enunciate. We can deliver them in person in a beautiful, soulful bookstore like Longfellow Books, much better than the electronic device can. I read from this new novel of mine last month for the first time, and it felt like putting on a very familiar, favorite old coat. I’d written those sentences. I’d crafted those paragraphs. I knew this novel. And I was so glad to be standing there in front of a live audience of friends and strangers, holding the spine of the book in my hands.

Susan Conley is the author of the novel Paris Was the Place, forthcoming from Knopf on August 6th, 2013 and the memoir The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011). She’s written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and Maine Magazine. You can follow Susan on Facebook and Twitter and at her website: susanconley.com.

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Tags: bookstores, countdown, e-books, marketing, publication

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Comment by Lloyd Lofthouse on July 25, 2013 at 5:23pm

Suzanne,

True. We've seen several independent bookstores go out of business in our area east of SF. In addition, Borders went out of business, but Half Price Books is booming. In fact, that used book chain added one section in the store where I shop for new books. The rest of the store is still used books though.

And Costco once listed books and DVDs on their Website but that's gone even though they still sell DVDs and books in their big box stores.

However, sales of books---including both e-books and tree books---are booming. There has been no serious drop in sales just where people are buying books. Revenues for the publishing industry---including indies and traditional---hasn't seen any serious drop.

People are still reading. What they are doing different is how they read and where they buy.

Comment by Suzanne Linn Kamata on July 25, 2013 at 4:58pm

When my first anthology and later my first novel, Losing Kei, came out, I did readings and signings at independent bookstores in South Carolina, where I'm from. Now, all of those stores have gone out of business.  The only independent bookstores in the capital city are used bookstores.

Comment by Lloyd Lofthouse on July 25, 2013 at 12:15pm

Susan, what you say is somewhat true, but book tours from city to city work best for well-known authors who have already developed a large and loyal fan base. The goal of the tour is to alert those fans of an author's new release and drum up reviews and interviews in local media in cities across America to get the word out.

The author events in brick and mortar bookstores seldom if ever sell enough books to pay what we know of as the traditional book tour.  For example, my wife went on tour for her last book in May and June.  In each city, she would usually have an interview on a radio show and another interview with the local newspaper like the Chicago Tribune or the Washington Post.  However, she said that the usual turn out for one of the bookstore events was maybe twenty to forty people.  If all of those fans bought a copy it wouldn’t come close to pay for the daily expense of the book tour that often costs about a $1,000 a day with meals, hotel rooms, drivers, flights between cities, etc.

Then there are the numbers: The AVERAGE traditionally published book only sells 250 copies in its first year in print and 3,000 over its shelf life.

Studies show us that in the US alone, there are about 65 million avid book readers who read an average of 9 or 10 books a year but the publishing industry (both traditional and indie) is churning out an average of 1,500 books a day.

These facts are the reason why it is so important to build an author’s branded platform on the Internet---designed to find the readers who may be interested in an author’s work.  The average platform includes a Website, Blog, Twitter account, Facebook page, Amazon author page, etc. And the author is spending maybe 30 minutes or an hour a day socializing on this sites and leaving comments on other Blogs and Forums.

For example, my first book was historical fiction set in 19th century China. Readers who only read science fiction and fantasy are not going to be interested in that story. If you look at BookBub pricing and statistics page, you get a better idea of what readers are interested in by just looking at how many subscribers there are for each genre. The 610,000 members who read mysteries may not be interested in the Literary Fiction genre that only has 250,000 readers.

http://home.bookbub.com/advertise/pricing

But this is the rub:  Book Bub rejects many of the books submitted to them by authors, and there is no guarantee that if BookBub accepts an author that it will sell enough copies to make back the money spent to advertise there.

This June, my first novel was featured on BookBub and I was fortunate that almost 3,000 copies sold that month—more than 1,900 the first 24 hours after the ad ran in the historical fiction category. My usual average monthly sales are about 300 – 400 copies.

As for an author’s platform:  It can take months and years to build a proper author’s Website/Blog to the point where readers interested in the topic/genre an author writes may find his or her site because search engine rank is vitally important.  For example, if one of my Blogs is ranked 10,000 in a Google search, the odds are that no reader will ever see my Blog because there are only about ten results on a Google search page and few readers are going to search through the number of pages to reach listings in the thousands.  It took me most of a year to build my Websites/Blogs until they started to land on the first page of a Google search and then sales of my work went from 20 to 30 copies a month to 300 – 400 a month on average.

Think of authors and books as a forest and readers as hikers trekking through the forest. There is no way that one reader is going to see every tree in that forest.  But some trees are going to attract his or her attention more than others.  An author’s tree (his or her Blog and Website) is either going to be a little sapling that goes unnoticed because it is one of hundreds of thousands or a giant two thousand year old redwood.

A new author starting out is that sapling. But an author who has several New York Times Bestsellers or who won the National Book Award is a tall, mature redwood.

Comment by Kathleen Fuller, Ph.D. on July 25, 2013 at 10:16am

Great post- Gives me an idea to read my book's suggestions as part of my presentation to a bariatric group.  My book's title is Not Your Mother's Diet .   My next book, Cut the Guilt will be launched Oct. 15th.  Thanks so much for your post.

Comment by Sheana Ochoa on July 24, 2013 at 10:45am

Brava! You inspired me. I have my first book coming out next year and I have always imagined going on a book tour. I want to do it for the nostalgia if nothing else, but it is important. Thanks for this post. I'd like to learn more about how you plan your bookstore. And what do you mean by asking the book store if they have a reading series? Any tips would be very much appreciated.

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