When my first novel, Lifers, published, I made almost zero plans to promote it. I thought that promoting the book was the publisher’s responsibility, so I basically settled in for a nap and waited for the royalty checks to come in (spoiler alert: this didn’t work). Then, a few weeks later, Lifers received a capsule review in The New York Times Book Review. My wife and I ran out and bought every copy of the paper we could find, and I settled back to take a longer nap and waited for even larger royalty checks to arrive.
Again, this did not work. In fact, nothing happened whatsoever. Because the frustrating truth is, if you as the author don’t put a lot of work into physically promoting your book, it’s impossible to take advantage of stuff like that. We have to get out there and do the work.
One of the most effective ways of drumming up some publicity and awareness of you and your book is a good old-fashioned book tour. It’s probably not surprising that very few authors actually get the classic book tour funded by their publisher that you sometimes see in movies and TV shows—and when they do get them, they tend to be a lot smaller scale than those movies imply. But just because your publisher isn’t willing to foot the bill and do the legwork for a book tour doesn’t mean you can’t organize one on your own.
In the modern-day it’s easy enough to set up a virtual book tour, stopping by blogs to do interviews, post guest articles, hitting up podcasts and vlogs via your phone or video conferencing. And that can be very effective in terms of moving the needle on your book. But even if you’ve set up a virtual book tour to promote your new book, you should consider a book tour in real life (IRL) as well—or should, once the world returns to something resembling normal.
Virtual events and Blog Tours are fantastic promotional tools and can be a lot of fun. But there are several advantages to a real-world physical book tour:
- Meeting readers. You can, of course, technically “meet” readers and fans online—but it’s simply not the same as having a personal moment. Shaking a hand, looking people in the eye, being present is a powerful experience. Plus, meeting readers in real life avoids the incredible awkwardness of navigating dozens of tiny boxes on your screen, weird sound issues, and connection problems that transform readings and other events into hallucinogenic experiences.
- Connecting with booksellers. Print books are here to stay. The convenience and flexibility of digital books aren’t going away, but people of all ages still love print books. As a result, the death of the bookstore has been wildly exaggerated. Meeting booksellers and getting to know them—and putting your face to your book titles—is a good step towards ensuring your work is stocked in bookstores. Even when you do readings in bars or other locations, there’s usually a mobile bookseller involved. Making inroads with the folks who decide what books to shelve is huge.
- Stocking shelves. If you’re reading in a book store, they’ve more than likely ordered your books for the event, and will likely keep some on the shelves for a while after you’re gone. One local bookstore near me still has my books on the shelves several years after an event. On an online platform, your book is one of several million. In a bookstore, it’s one of several thousand.
- Hand selling. There’s a vast difference between someone saying they will order your book from Amazon or another online seller and literally handing someone a physical copy that you just signed. One’s a possibility of a sale, the other’s a sale.
- Publicity. No one is writing an article about your virtual blog tour. But if you’re going to be doing a reading at a local bookstore, bar, or library, there’s a good chance a local paper, radio show, or locally-focused blog will cover it, which in turn puts your name and book title into a lot of ears and eyeballs.
Like any promotional operational, one does not just decide one afternoon that they’ll organize a book tour. You have to do a lot of planning.
Note the publication date of your book and back up about six months. A mistake many authors make is assuming they can’t start planning until their book is out. On the contrary—you need to start contacting your venues long before then in order to secure event dates around the time your book hits the shelves.
Saying you’re going on a book tour is sort of like saying you’re going to eat some cake—do you mean a modest slice, two pieces, or the whole thing (presumably on your way to the hospital to treat the sugar coma)? Book tours can be relatively simple affairs with a few appearances, or they can be epic road trips spanning weeks. They can cost a lot of money, or they can be done on a shoestring. Your first steps should be determining your budget (and zero or close to it is a perfectly acceptable budget—you just have to know that in advance), how far you’re willing and able to travel, and how much time you want to devote to the tour.
Note: You can certainly organize a book tour that has a lot of downtime—you don’t have to do six stops in four days. On the other hand, you want to strike while your book is fresh news, so stretching things out too far might dilute the promotional impact.
Depending on your plans, you might need to consider gas, transit fares, lodging, meals, and promotional materials. Some of these costs will depend on the logistics of your tour. Keep in mind you may be able to deduct some of these expenses from your tax bill—some travel and meals are definitely deductible. Consult with a tax professional before making any assumptions, though.
How much does a DIY book tour cost? Chris Guillebeau spent about $30,000 promoting The Art of Non-Conformity about ten years ago, and Katey Schultz spent $12,000 promoting her book Flashes of War. You can hire a publicist, stay in swanky hotels, and fly around the country for six weeks if you have the budget for it. But if you don’t have the budget, you don’t have to spend much. In fact, you can organize a book tour where the only thing you spend money on is gas or transit fare—as long as you’re willing to do all the work a publicist would normally do.
If your first budget makes you sweat, here are some tips for cutting costs:
- Stay in one area. This doesn’t have to be your home town. You want a metropolitan area with a number of venues, but keeping everything within driving/
transit distance of central point means you can hit a long list of venues without buying a lot of plane tickets.
- Couch surf. This one might seem obvious, but if you set up your stops in areas where you have friends and family, you can have a place to crash after the event without splashing out for a hotel or motel.
- Use miles. Another obvious tactic a surprising number of people overlook is credit card points or airline miles that can be traded in for hotels, rental cars, and other items and services. If you’ve got such a card, check your points balance and see what you can get.
- Keep promotion digital. Posters, invitations, and giveaways are great, but if you’re strapped for cash you can rely solely on free social media to get the word out.
- Make it work. If you’re a freelancer, consider how you might get some work done while on tour—maybe building in a few hours with your laptop before or after each event. That way you at least don’t lose income while promoting your book. If you travel for work, think about whether you might set up your tour dates to coincide with work-paid travel.
- Team up. Know other authors with books to promote? See if any of them want to go in with you on a tour. This can maximize the crowds you attract, widen the resources you have access to, and allow you to spend a bit more overall because your individual contribution is lowered. Plus you can share driving duties if it’s a carpool situation.
Unless you have endless resources, when planning a DIY book tour you should consider the locations you’ll visit. There’s one fundamental choice to make: Whether you plan to stay local, or if you’re going to take it national (or, I supposed, international, you fancy thing), you should take a few things into consideration when planning the dates and locations you’re going to hit. If you’re planning to drive, a useful tool is MyRouteOnline, which allows you to input several addresses and then shows you the best driving route to hit them in order, which is a good starting point when trying to nail down dates at each venue.
If you’re looking for bookstores and other venues that you can get to and back within the day, a site like TravelTime can be very useful—it will show you the geographical area you can travel to in 2 hours (or less) by car, transit, walking, biking—or a combination. You can cross-reference the resulting map with bookstores, libraries, etc. to build your list of possible venues. You should also consider who you know near those potential venues. Friends and family near the appearance site can translate to free food, places to stay, and a larger crowd in attendance. Of course, you shouldn’t presume—ask first—but if people are willing to put you up, it can save you huge amounts of money.
If you’ve got a day job (and many professional writers do) you might need to take time off to accommodate your travel and appearance schedule, so keep that in mind as you plan. And know that you can create all the ideal itineraries you want, but much of your tour schedule will depend on the available dates venues offer you, which may not line up with your ideal plans. It’s best to contact book stores, bars, libraries, and other venues as early in this process as possible to make sure they’ll book you—and on the dates you’d prefer.
The most crucial part of any DIY book tour is to contact the folks who manage venues. Whether you’re targeting bookstores, bars, or other places, someone has to actually accept you as a guest and set up the appearance. Well, you could do a guerrilla book tour where you just show up at random spots and start reading from your book, but that’s not an effective or efficient way to promote a book. You really do need to start making phone calls and sending emails.
This might require a bit of research. The simplest way to start is to find the location’s website and look for an EVENTS page, then see if there’s a contact listed. If not, look for the general number and email and start some cold-calling (cold-calling remains the most super of adult super powers; if you can make cold-calls, you can get almost anything done). Don’t be scared! Places that hold events are eager to have events—they want to hear from you. Just give them the basics—who you are, the book you’re promoting, what you’re hoping to do (reading, signing, both), and the dates you’re most interested in.
When I set up a DIY book tour after my first novel came out, I literally just sent out emails to a few bookstores and bars in areas that I could easily drive to and that had some friendly faces nearby. My response rate was probably about 20 percent, but I didn’t have any prior connection with the folks who worked at those places. I just contacted them and asked if they’d be interested in letting me read there, and some of them were. It really is just that simple.
Another strategy is to look for local book clubs or writing clubs and contact them—they very likely have existing relationships with the local stores and libraries. And if you’re a member of the SFWA, RWA, HWA, or MWA, reaching out to the local chapter will probably yield a lot of great information, if not an easy path to booking your appearance. Plus, once you have a reading in the books your fellow guild members can help promote it—and fill out the crowd.
Finally, follow up with your events contact at the venue a few weeks before the event. Make sure they’ve done some kind of promotion—advertising, in-store flyers, a mention in their newsletter—and that arrangements have been made. Mainly you just want to have confidence they didn’t forget all about you. If you get the sense that they have forgotten you, you might have to take matters into your own hands and double down on your efforts to get some local media attention.
Once you have some readings set up, your next step is to contact any media you can think of. Bloggers, podcasts, traditional radio, local television, local papers—literally anyone you can think of. Contrary to popular misconception, you don’t need a publicist for this—a publicist will probably do it better, and might have ideas and strategies that you lack, but can definitely do this yourself. The key is to make contact as early as possible. Journalists, reviewers, and other media folks have really long lead times. They’re more than happy to have content provided to them, but you have to get on their radar in time. Simply email or call with the information: Who you are, where you’ll be, and what you’re doing. In your email it’s a good idea to include any major reviews or past coverage you’ve received. Then, follow up a few weeks later. You won’t hear back from everyone, but you’ll probably get at least a few nibbles.
Also, check to see if there are any local events calendars you can submit to and make sure you get the info over to them. And finally, don’t forget your social media! Toss the event out to your followers and friends, because some of them might hail from the area you’ll be reading in, or know someone who is. You’d be amazed how far your social media can reach if you give it time—and the opportunity.
While you should expect the venue to do some promotion for you, and getting some media attention will help, you should also promote your appearance pretty aggressively. That means having an EVENTS page on your website, posting the event to Facebook, sending out waves of social media posts and reminders, and including it in every newsletter, interview, and other networking you engage in.
Because here’s the thing: The ratio of social media contacts—that is, the number of people you contact repeatedly via Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms—to actual attendees is abysmal. Think in terms of maybe one person for every 1,000 you reach—and by reach, I mean have meaningful impact on. It’s incredibly easy to like, favorite, or share a post, so if a bit of promotion looks like it’s blowing up, expect approximately zero people to actually show up to your reading.
Then send out another batch of posts, emails, and reminders.
Now you’ve got some readings set up, you’ve reached out to media, and you’ve got your logistics planned. There’s one last, final detail to deal with: The reading itself.
You might think you can just show up with a copy of your book, flip it open, and start reading. You would be very, very wrong. In fact, authors who do that usually come off as flustered and unprepared. What you want to do is thoughtfully select a passage from your book that will take about 5–10 minutes to read. You really don’t want to go any longer than that, because audiences just don’t do well with longer reading times.
You’ll want to pick a passage that conveys the style and tone of the book but is also dynamic and exciting. Pick a funny section, or a dramatic moment. Resist the urge to do accents—in fact, dialog-heavy passages are a bad idea because all the “he said, she replied” tags get super repetitive. Above all, pick a passage you yourself will enjoy reading, something you can have fun with.
For the love of meatloaf, practice. Sure, you wrote it. But can you read it? Go through it a few times. This will not only confirm your choice isn’t too long (or too short), but will also identify rough spots where your tongue twists. Don’t be afraid to do some light editing—it might feel like cheating, but changing a word here and there is better than stumbling in your delivery.
Think about your remarks, too. Once you’ve practiced your reading, work up some talking points and craft an introduction that leads naturally to the selection. Your audience wants to know a little about your inspiration, process, and the story behind the book. Don’t try too hard to be funny or brilliant (though both are appreciated, of course)—just be natural.
Remember checking to see if you knew anyone who lived near the venues you’ve booked? Get them to show up. Cajole, bribe, and beg if necessary, because getting some “ringers” in will accomplish two things: Prevent a thin crowd (or, worse, no crowd) and provide a bed of positive support that will hopefully provide laughs to your jokes, applause to your performance, and maybe a question when no one else has any at the end of the night. You might not need your ringers, but if you do you’ll be incredibly happy they came.
Whatever you do, don’t assume the venue will have copies of your books. Sure, they should have copies, but stuff happens. Bringing a dozen of your own copies just in case could be the difference between selling a dozen books and not selling a dozen books. One of the strengths of IRL events, as mentioned above, is the opportunity to hand-sell books to folks. By the time they get home, that promise to look you up and order a copy may have faded somewhat. Pulling a book out of your bag and offering to sign it right there and then might seal the deal.
Weird stuff can happen when you set up a reading or other event. I once in fact read to an empty store—I’d set up the reading months before, but when I showed up no one seemed to have been informed of the event. The staff threw together a space really quickly, but no advertising or promotion had been done, and literally no one showed up. I read to my wife, mother, and two friends who’d come with me. The store manager was nice enough to have me sign two copies, which meant they couldn’t be returned and so counted as sales.
You might have disruptive folks who get belligerent or provocative, or who are loudly dismissive of your writing talent. You might be sharing the evening with another writer—who’s more popular than you are and thus dominates the crowd’s attention. The point is that live events are unpredictable, so you should cultivate a flexible mental attitude—and remember that even a crazy, chaotic experience can also be a successful event.
We’re discussing IRL book tours, but this is the 21st century—enlist someone to record your event. This can be fancy—I once had a real, actual filmmaker come to a reading and make a nifty short film about it—but it doesn’t have to be. A friend with a smartphone and some patience can record your whole appearance for later editing, and you can whip up a few short videos with the highlights, which means a whole other potential audience can “meet” you and learn about your book
Someone should also handle photos for you—photos are incredibly useful for jazzing up your blog posts about the event after the fact, sharing on Instagram and other venues, and just documenting the moment. If your friend-with-the-smartphone is comfortable with devices, they can do both, snapping photos while they’re recording. If you don’t have any friends who can record things, invest in a cheap tripod for smartphones, set yours up in the back, zoom in and press record a moment before everything begins. It will be static and unexciting, but at least you’ll have a video to work with.
A book tour can be stressful, nerve-wracking, and rarely pays off big in terms of immediate sales and publicity. But it’s also fun, exciting, and plants the seeds of future success. If you decide your next book could benefit from one, there’s no reason you can’t plan it yourself—and for cheap.