When To Tour On Your Own Dime (And When To Stay Home With a Good Book)

We all know the oft-repeated bad news: the publishing world, which was always going to hell in a handbasket, is now rushing down the mountain on steroids. Translation: there's little opportunity or money to be had when it comes to getting big publishers to promote their writers, send them on tour, and pick up the tab. I remember a friend of mine, who has written nine bestsellers, telling me that in the good old days, she actually had a credit card from her publisher that she could use to take her extended family out for a fancy dinner in a city where she was giving a reading.

Now, whether your book is being published by Random House or a small neighborhood cooperative, you are likely to face the distinct possibility of touring with your book on your own dime. But then again, it's your book -- your baby, your life's work for x amount of years -- so why wouldn't you want to put yourself out into the world on your own dime?

That's been my attitude with my books, most of which were published by small presses with no funds for marketing. Yes, I would drive long distances to give readings because it was and is such a joy to share my work with others. Yes, I would speak to bookclubs, groups only vaguely interested in my work, or someone who happened into a coffeehouse at the wrong moment, all in the name of taking my work seriously, despite whether or not I lost more money than I gained. At least, this is how I started out: willing to do anything that might work, whether it had a 99% chance of success (e.g. drawing in listeners who would be prone to buy my book) or a .005% chance.

Now that I prepared to tour during the year with my 13th and 14th books -- a novel and a non-fiction book on the Holocaust -- I'm somewhat older and wiser, or maybe just more weary and less apt to wear out the tires on my car without good reason. Here's a list of what I learned makes for a good touring opportunity, and some hints I've picked up about how to gauge whether to go or stay home:

  • What would a successful, it-was-all-worth-it reading look like to you? If three people came and loved the book, each buying a copy, would that make it all worth doing? Consider different scenarios, get a sense of what you expect, but also be prepared for surprises (sometimes 3 people, sometimes 125, and who buys and doesn't buy books is often mysterious).
  • Does the venue where you plan to read generally pull off successful readings?
  • Does committing to this event fit into your livelihood (even if you don't make money from it, would you feel like this stop on a tour enhances your overall vocation/avocation)?
  • Is this event something that would help or hurt your overall health at the moment? Maybe you're doing too much and need down time; maybe you're ready to travel and stimulate your imagination on the the road.
  • Is this venue the best way in this community/city/town to reach your people -- the ones who would be most excited by your writing and get the most out of your book? If not, what would be a better venue?
  • Does the bookstore, club, community center, or wherever your reading have a person in charge of the reading who seems committed to making the reading a success (e.g. putting out publicity: flyers, ads, emailings, web announcements, tweets, etc.)? How to tell: If this person seems to have a track record for organizing successful events, answers your emails or calls fairly promptly and seems excited that you're coming. First hint you might want to pull the plug: the person in charge doesn't answer your emails or phone messages.
  • When you google the reading and the town/venue where it will be, do you come up with any hits? If you find no publicity has gone out within a week or two of the reading, that's a sign you don't want to ignore (unless you're going to this place anyway, and it's no problem if no one shows up for the reading).
  • Is the venue being reasonable about selling your books? In other words, is this store or club or group willing to either buy your books wholesale, sell them and keep the profit (at least, you don't incur any risk, and you might build your royalty check), or have you sell the books and keep the profit? If a place isn't willing to buy the books to sell, I don't think it hardly ever makes sense to share even a percentage of your slim profits.
  • Did it seem like everything fell into place easily when you committed to this reading, or was it like pushing a minivan up a mountain? Sometimes the ease of setting up an event speaks volumes about how successful the event will be, and sometimes not, so....
  • Do you have a hunch this will be boom or bust? Listen to your instincts before committing, and if all signs point toward a long drive for nothing, be open to investigating further and even calling off the reading.

There are no hard and fast rules when deciding whether to stay or go, and sometimes, even knowing all you can know and planning all you can plan, you might show up to find no one there except us chickens. When a group of poets I'm in went out to Western Kansas to do a bunch of readings, we ended our little tour with a reading at a coffee shop in Dodge City, only to discover the owner of the shop did no publicity for us whatsoever. So we surrounded tables of customers and read our poetry guerilla-style, but only subjected the lunch crowd to one poem each. It wasn't the end of the world, and the reading amused us enough to make the stop worthwhile. Sometimes, even when all goes wrong, there's a rightness in the journey.....and there's always something to learn about how, why and where to do it next time.

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  • Tina L. Hook

    I love the book party idea! As a new indie I've been searching for the right events for me. Since my book probably won't be carried at bookstores, I doubt that those venues would be the right ones for my needs.


  • Thanks for commenting, Janet and Melva. Jill, I don't have places per se, but one idea is to have people you know (relatives, friends, etc.) throw you a book party: they invite everyone they know, suggesting they support the literary arts by showing up and buying your book. My sister is going to throw me a book party as well as some other friends here and there. Having 10 people show up to buy the book and enjoy a party together sure beats traveling a long time to have hardly anyone appear. Thanks for your comments too, Jeanne, and it is a deal! My companion post to this talks about touring without leaving home, and some of you might find some ideas here that work for you: http://www.shewrites.com/profiles/blogs/armchair-book-tours-getting-yourself-out-there-without-leaving

  • Janet McAdams

    Thanks, Caryn. This is excellent advice.

  • Jill Dawson

    Hi Caryn - thanks for this. I published my seventh novel this year and despite being (I suppose) reasonably well known in the UK the audiences have sometimes been tiny. I think that reader's appetites for book events here in Britain is diminishing, unless the author is already a celebrity - cook, or comic or TV personality.  My novel Lucky Bunny comes out in the USA in September and I'm wondering whether to bother...or which bookshops and events in which places in the USA that She-writes authors can recommend?

  • Melva Sue Priddy

    Very reasonable suggestions, Caryn.  Thanks.

  • Joanne Orion Miller

    Really a brilliant and sensible set of suggestions on book tours. I've been to some horrendous (for the author) readings where not one person showed up other than a few off-the-street bums looking for a dry place to nap. I've had an aversion to public readings ever since, and never thought about publicizing any of my books that way. Now I have a better take on it all. Thanks, Caryn!