The efficacy of book tours

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” . . .

  1. Though truth be told some of the small events were the best of the tour cause they were made up of die-hard MorM or HTDYF fans or readers of this blog who had excellently curly questions. []
  2. Okay, my tongue’s a wee bit in my cheek on this one. []


  1. Tim on #

    It’s interesting when you look at book tours from a marketing perspective. Okay, so I’m not in marketing, but I work in a book/DVD store that has had a couple of book signings recently and there’s one thing I’ve come to learn about: if someone wasn’t buying your books before, turning up at a book store that they happen to be in isn’t going to make them buy your book.

    You might have other experiences, but usually my conversations with customers (not there for the book signing) will be something like…

    Customer: Who’s that guy at the table?
    Me: That’s [Person x]
    Customer: Who?
    Me: *Explains a bit about [Person X] and their book*
    Customer: Oh.. *grabs their bag and walks straight past [Person X]*

    On the other hand, I have actually bought books by people who visited my school (when I was still in school).

    Again, I don’t know if as authors you and Scott have noticed things to be different but that’s my experience as someone who’s worked in a shop.

  2. sara z. on #

    “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.”

    YES. Every time I’ve gone to a literary fiction author event, author insists on reading for LIKE 20 MINUTES. That is so long! If you must read…talk, read a scene, talk about other stuff, read another scene, etc. I think YA authors get this, and have much more sympathy for their audience.

    Also, I love doing group events. I wish every event could be an event with one or two or three other authors. I don’t think adult lit authors on the main would go for this, because there seem to be some “but I don’t want to share my glory” attitudes.

  3. holly black on #

    I think that not only certain genres, but certain books bring people out. Some books are very popular, but for whatever reason don’t bring people to the store to meet the author. Other less popular books have a more rabid fan base — or at least a fan base that’s more aware of the author.

  4. liliya on #

    i did my first book signing recently and was really surprised that at least half the sales were to random shoppers. I’m sure it helped that it was near christmas and they were children’s books but I’m guessing the real key to success was… I was also giving out free toffees. Nothing like a bit of bribery and coercion.
    I sold some to teachers who were looking for books to do with their classes and to parents who I guess thought a signed book would be a more special present for their kids. I’ve done a couple of school visits too and was really struck by how most of the questions were to do with writing processes – i think in the UK there’s a bit of a ‘cult of the author’ which is being really encouraged in schools and that’s why a signed book, even by an author no one’s heard of (as one lady kindly told me at the signing!) is seen as something special. it was a really nice surprise although I don’t really like this festishizing of the writer – I mean it is, actually, just a job description…

  5. G on #

    I have actually been talking about this (in blog comments) quite a lot recently.That is, handselling books, which I have been doing madly after reading them in the modern equivalent of ARCS- (free)e-books. And I am originally from Schenectady, so perhaps I am the answer to everyone’s problem?

    That and perhaps publicizing readings sufficiently so that those of us who are readers know in advance where and when to go and making them interesting enough (for whatever reason, including a muffin/drink) to make up for the $10-15 an hour hiring a babysitter costs!

  6. lisa on #

    Yes! I am constantly reading about American author tours where no crowd shows up, or authors talking about how it’s important to do them even though only a handful of people might show up. Given the cost of travel, and time taken to go, I wonder why these events remain ‘important’ – surely it would be more important to connect with a lot of readers, even if it isn’t done in a traditional (i.e. bookshop signing) way.

    I love the idea of the group author tour. No Media Kings used to do something similar (and maybe still does) – the indie, DIY, group book tour, whereby a bunch of indie writers go on tour together with the express intent of entertaining an audience in each city. Not doing readings, but acually doing something fun and interesting and entertaining, and thus draw bigger crowds, and thus sell more books.

  7. Rebecca on #

    I think book tours help retain readers more than gain new ones. Or if they help gain new ones, it’s because fans are dragging their friends to the events. Because diehard fans will be like, “OMFG MY FAVORITE AUTHOR EVER IS COMING I MUST SEE HIM/HER OMG OMG!” The personal interaction makes readers even more excited, and then that keeps the author’s name in their heads, and then they want to buy their subsequent books. Although, maybe that’s only teen events. I don’t know much about other events. I’ve been to one litfic reading in my life, and it was for my thesis advisor, so he had a bunch of his friends from school there.

    Multi-author events are a great idea! The best ones I’ve ever been to have had multiple authors. They interact with each other and the audience, and make jokes, and do funny things. It’s awesome.

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