Before my book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, came out, people kept asking me if I would be going on a book tour. My response was always to laugh because these days if you aren’t Daniel Silva, Alice Munro, or Malcolm Gladwell, no one is rolling out the red carpet for you (and your publisher, even a big name one, doesn’t really have the kind of resources to do that). Given that my first book was published by a university press– albeit a great one, especially for what I do [University of California]– the thought was basically a pipe dream. These days a blog tour is a far more realistic goal, and likely one that helps you reach more readers anyway (and, lucky me, a group of amazing bloggers has been writing about Playing to Win through The Brilliant Book Club: Illuminating Reads for Parents).
But I knew I would want to do some local celebrating at least, so over the summer I contacted my local Barnes & Noble and some other independent book stores in the area. The same day I contacted them, my local B&N had me scheduled. Yes, it was that easy!
(A few months later at my local B&N doing a discussion and signing– my first! Also covered by my local Patch, a great resource.)
So then I thought perhaps I should contact some other bookstores within driving distance of my house. When they set dates as well I looked ahead to my fall calendar to check out places where I knew I would be traveling already (like when I went to visit my husband working in DC for the year) and then contacted bookstores in those areas. I also did a few trips that dovetailed with family visits, so that in the end I only really paid for one trip solely as a book promotion event. And thus my own little “national book tour” was organized.
Now given my royalty cut and the number of books you can realistically expect to sell at any given event, you aren’t doing these signings to make money– though it’s great visibility for your book, of course. But that also means trying to keep costs down in other ways; for instance, I got to sleep on the air mattresses of a few friends (though I don’t recommend this in your second, and especially your third trimester of pregnancy…). Given my academic background I also often combined a book signing at a store with a talk at a local university.
Many people have been surprised that all my signings ended up at Barnes & Noble stores. Some might see this as a sign of a big box gobbling up smaller stores, which of course may be true, but it’s not the whole story here. I also always contacted independent book stores and I often never heard anything back. Stores I did here back from were already booked 5-6 months in advance and didn’t have any openings when I would be in town. The good news from this though is that Barnes & Nobles were for the most part tremendously responsive and supportive, doing their own publicity and always getting me a drink (again, this matters when you are pregnant).
What else was good– and bad, and ugly from my tour?
1) Seeing old friends- I know my focus should always be on selling books, but honestly one of the best parts of traveling around the country was connecting with so many people from different parts of my life. At one event I had family along with friends from high school, college, and grad school, and then total strangers sitting side-by-side. That was pretty cool, and much of it thanks to Facebook (a reminder of how important social media is to authors).
In my home town I also had two of my middle school teachers present (The woman on the left actually taught me Language Arts and was my advisor for Accelerated Reader and Forensics so to say she contributed in some way to every phase of this book is not an understatement! And the woman on the right taught me pre-algebra and U.S. History and in general how to be an organized student.) and even my orthodontist (If you know me well you know I spent close to ten years of my life in braces and survived two reconstructive jaw surgeries, so it’s not as crazy as it sounds given how well I know him, but it’s still very neat).
I took many more photos with friends at events– and I love it when friends send me photos of their own copies of the book, or better yet their own kids with the book– and sometime in the next few weeks I will be making a photo book so I can always remember these times.
2) Making new, very young friends- Every single store I went to had me do something slightly different and no two stores did things in exactly the same way. Some wanted a reading and discussion, others just a meet-and greet, for example– but more on that later. At events where I did a meet-and greet, especially on the weekends, I got to chat with some of the youngest readers. Whenever a store put me in the front, right by the door, and especially close to the children’s section, I got to see kids. So many of them were just so impressed to meet a “real” author. Several asked me what they would have to do to write a book someday and I told them to just keep reading! Those interactions never directly resulted in sales (who knows, maybe their parents went online later to buy though), but they did give my appearances extra special meaning for me.
1) Being late.- Call it Murphy’s Law, but whenever I had a good turnout something would go wrong; whenever the turnout was low (or sometimes, sob, non-existent), the store had tons of copies of the book and beautiful signs all over the store, and even in the windows!
The worst was definitely when I was 45 minutes late to a signing due to unbelievable traffic. Yes, that was worse than the one event I had to cancel due to a childcare issue related to my husband’s job. At least I knew with a few days’ notice I had to cancel, when I was late I was just late. In the end, I knew there was nothing I could do, but I still shed a few stress-related tears.
2) Being hidden- It was also very frustrating to go to some stores and basically be hidden. When you are asked to do a meet-and-greet but you are put in the music section of the store you aren’t going to get any foot traffic or connect with people who might have been looking for anything remotely similar to your book. You can sit with a smile on your face, and drink something, but it’s pretty dispiriting. Luckily, they weren’t all like that, of course! I also found, similar to point #1, that some stores ordered many more copies of my book than others and a few times I almost sold out. I wished that the extra books from other signings could have been easily transferred.
1) Promotion vs. Sales- As you can probably tell based on how this little book tour came about, I am pretty resourceful , and I think, decent at self-promotion. I always figure it’s better to ask and the worst thing someone can say is, “No.” But one thing I did learn about myself from this experience is that while I may be comfortable with promotion, I’m not a great salesperson when it comes to myself. Two examples: 1) At one store the manager asked me to walk around with my book and go up to customers to tell them about it. I just couldn’t bring myself to do this! [Note that this was a good example of how every store does things differently because another store told me explicitly not to talk with customers and try to sell the book and bug them– something I completely understood!] It somehow felt like begging. 2) At another store, a meet-and-greet near the front door, I was paired with two other authors. I didn’t know beforehand, but once I arrived I thought this could be great since it would be less lonely and all of our books were quite different so we might get one another new readers after an initial chat. One of the authors excelled at her own saleswomanship though. When someone would walk in the front door she would immediately ask, “Do you read true crime?” And then launch into a description of her book. Again, I had a hard time doing this– felt like I was invading readers’ shopping experiences. At one point though when a reader responded she couldn’t read the true crime book, finding the topic upsetting (a mother killing her two teenage children), I jumped in that my book was quite different, about parents who invest a lot in their kids. Well the saleswoman author then jumped back in that her murdering mom had also done lots of afterschool activities with her kids, but still killed them. At that the reader walked away and I decided to just keep my mouth shut…
2) Bringing your own books- It only happened once (and also the only store that wasn’t prepared for my event when I arrived, with people actually waiting), but I actually had to get other stores to transfer books and carry them in myself because the books hasn’t arrived to the store in time– another case of be prepared for anything on a book tour!
So what practical advice can I offer to other first time authors, especially from small presses?
The first is to sign your books! I learned that once a book is signed it can’t be returned. That means it’s a sale actually. At one of my final stops the manager told me to sign their whole stock and they won’t even get stuck with it– it gets sent back to a warehouse and distributed to other stores as a signed copy. By the end of my tour I was signing all books and not being shy about it– which I was at the beginning.
[Sidenote: One of the truly strange experiences here was signing my married name. I really never sign it and I had no practice doing it! Sure I scrawl a signature on credit card receipts– one too many according to my husband, of course– but I rarely try to write legibly. I could sign “Hilary Levey” well and quickly, but then would have to pause to think about it when I signed “Friedman.” Again, by the end of my tour I was better at this, but it took getting used to.]
Speaking of signing, do get signage. I didn’t take this everywhere, but I did like having this roll down/up sign (a tip I got from taking a book promotion seminar at Grub Street in Boston).
In the end I often had to check it on a plane and it wasn’t worth the $50 baggage fee (see previous comment on royalty cut), but it was worth it other places. Would be much easier to use now if I wasn’t the aforementioned 3rd trimester-pregnant, but if I was more mobile and able to bend over more easily, I’d have used it even more.
Finally, whenever you can, do a reading/discussion. While meet-and-greets could be fun for meeting kids and total strangers, I attracted more in-store customers when I was reading. At one event a high school student sat down and shared his own experiences based on what I read, which was neat. Also, even if only four people were there for a whole reading, I felt more energized after, especially if there were good questions.
I’m really glad I did this and I learned a lot for the next (!) time. It also helped that because of my pregnancy I could put a pretty firm deadline on when I would stop doing events. While my in-store events are done I am doing talks at parents’ clubs and other similar more private groups.
And let’s just say that I will never forget doing this at my college bookstore, almost exactly 15 years to the date after I bought my first book there– a book for a Sociology class that set me down this whole path in the first place…