I know some people are getting up in arms about Kevin Baker’s article in the Village Voice on book tours and sundry other matters but I think he makes some good points. For instance this bit:
For the likes of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, for the writers of certain detective fictions, romances, teenage-vampire series, pet horoscopes, Star Wars novelizations, dog-buddy stories, celebrity memoirs, novels that have recipes in them, and other peculiar genres, the book tour is indeed a triumphal, rock-star road trip, complete with lines out the door and readers dressed up in costumes. For the rest of us, for those of us who just write, the book tour can be a lonely, disorienting experience, one that will tempt you to do any manner of ill-advised things.
Leaving aside the snotty implication that there are real writers and not real writers—it’s definitely true that book tours work much better for some genres than for others. Writers of YA and children’s books have a much better time of it because even if the book shop events are sparsely populated the school visits never are. Every time I had an event with five or less people,1 the next day I’d spend talking about books and writing with a few hundred keen students bursting with excellent questions.
For the writers of that endangered genre of adult literary fiction there are no school visits—from what I’ve heard it’s book shops or nothing. No matter how many times you told yourself it was building your career, a tour of nothing but tiny audiences, or no audience at all, would get very depressing.
I have a friend who writes in that genre. On one of her tours, when her latest book was on the New York Times bestseller list, she had several events where no one turned up. Not a soul. This boggles my mind. On Scott’s tour the lowest turn out was maybe forty. All the YA bestsellers I know who tour get crowds. Which makes me agree with Mr Baker that perhaps book tours just don’t suit his rarified genre. For some reason teenager readers will turn out while adult litfic readers won’t.
I wonder why? Do the readers of his genre dislike going to events at book shops? Do the writers of his genre insist on doing readings? Which really are—except for the most gifted readers—the most boring way of interacting with a book-loving crowd. In my experience of attending and doing book shop events, punters are much more interested in hearing writers talk about how they came to write the book they’re promoting, than hearing a chunk of it read out loud. They prefer to hear us tell stories rather than read them.
I read a lot of publishing blogs. It strikes me often that those who write and publish the litfic genre are way more depressed than those of us in other genres. Readership seems to be way down and they suffer from a conviction that their genre is the only important genre thus this loss of a “serious” readership strike them as a sign of end times. Maybe that’s another reason they have less successful book tours? They’re too depressed and thus too depressing.2
I don’t think the success of a tour is entirely about genre though. All the writers who tour well have had more than one successful book whether they’re Libba Bray, Ian McEwen, or Nora Roberts. They have a body of work that’s attracted a big readership. If Stephen King had toured for Carrie I’m guessing the turn out would not have been that impressive. One big book does not a fan base make. Several big books do.
So, yeah, the book tours which draw big crowds are all tours of big-selling, popular authors, who’d probably sell a lot of books whether they went on tour or not. It may be that single-author book tours are an outmoded way of promoting less well-known books and authors. Maybe it would work better to send a bunch of authors out together, especially if they know each other. Some of the most fun events I’ve seen have been like that.
Or maybe as Mr Baker suggests there are better, less soul-destroying, more innovative ways to get the word out about an author. I’ve been very interested in the various book trailers and so on. I have no idea how effective they are. I’m yet to buy a book on the basis of a trailer.
Seems to me that the tried-and-true method of getting large numbers of ARCs to influential people is still best. If they love it and start talking then bingo! you’ve got most excellent word of mouth. Which remains the most effective way to sell books, no matter what your genre. I mean isn’t a book tour just an expensive manner of trying to get word of mouth going? Isn’t that what all promotion of anything tries to do?
Now if only there were a little shop in Schenectady that sold “word of mouth” as well as “ideas” . . .