How book tours have changed over the years

by Tess Gerritsen

I am just about to wrap up my national book tour for THE KEEPSAKE.  It’s my twelfth book tour.  Over the years, I’ve noticed a number of changes in the book tour scene, some of them specific to my own career.  But other changes reflect what’s happening to novelists across the country.

And some of those changes are discouraging.

In 1996, my first hardcover thriller, HARVEST was published. My publisher planned a substantial marketing effort, including quirky giveaways (a little igloo cooler, to go along with the theme of harvested organs), a ton of advance galleys, and a national book tour.  Being a debut author has its definite advantages: you have no prior bad sales figures to live down, you’re a fresh face on the scene, and advance publicity about a major book deal always stirs curiosity.  (Landing a major book deal, however, is a double-edged sword because it also seems to bring out the nasty side of reviewers.  "He got paid how much?  Hell, I could write a better book!" seems to be the all-too-common response when a debut author gets a big advance.  I’ve seen that backlash happen to many authors, which may be why some now choose to play coy with the size of their advances.) 

As the new thriller gal on the block, I did get attention.  An AP reporter wrote a nationally syndicated article about the M.D. who switched careers.  Reviews (good and bad) came in from multiple newspapers.  Bookstore chains, not having any prior sales numbers to judge by, ordered substantial quantities of HARVEST.  I set off on my first book tour with fantasies of speaking to huge crowds.

Which of course never materialized.  In store after store, I would often sit completely alone at the signing table with only an embarassed bookseller to keep me company.  Occasionally, a half-dozen people would turn up, and I’d be ecstatic.  The best events, I generally found, were in independent bookstores — places like Poisoned Pen or Mysterious Galaxy, with loyal customers who make it a point to show up at author signings, even when they’ve never heard of the author.  Discouraging as some of the poorly attended events were, however, I knew that a tour surely had to make a difference.  My media escorts would drive me around to local bookstores and distributors’ warehouses to sign stock.  At every airport I landed in, I’d sign whatever was in the airport shop.  Even though most booksellers had never heard of me, they all seemed happy to have me sign their copies.  And there seemed to be a lot of copies out there.

While I was on the road, HARVEST hit the New York Times bestseller list.

For the next eleven books, my routine was pretty much another year, another book tour.  I got to be an old hand at trudging through airports, now wheeling only a carry-on.  I learned to carry "Signed by Author" stickers in my purse so I could label the airport copies.  For radio interviews, I learned to distill my plot down to only a sentence or two, and focus instead on the interesting nonfiction aspects behind the stories.  II started seeing larger crowds at signings and I’d recognize repeat customers.  But even as my  sales were growing, the tours themselves were getting less bang for the effort.

The media was harder to get.  Even if I had some cool new nonfiction hook (corpses who wake up in morgues in VANISH.  Or the how-to of shrinking human heads in THE KEEPSAKE) the TV and radio spots weren’t there as they used to be.  I’m not the only novelist who faces this dwindling of interest; it seems to be a problem for all of us.  The publisher pays to fly you into a new town, puts you up in a hotel, all to speak at a bookstore where you end up selling maybe thirty hardcovers.   Without any TV or radio or print coverage, does that make economic sense?

Another discouraging trend is that bookstores now seem to be ordering stock "just in time."  Although my sales have grown over the past decade, I simply don’t see the tall stacks of copies that stores used to bring in to last them through Christmas.  So drop-in signings make less and less sense, considering the price of gas and the time it takes to drive from store to store.  My media escorts tell me that they’re doing fewer drop-ins with all their authors because of this.

And I’ve pretty much stopped doing drop-ins at airport stores.  I don’t know if it’s because of distributor consolidation, with more centralized management, but it’s now just about impossible to get approval to sign airport copies.  The clerks are terrified of losing their jobs and they won’t let an author touch the books until they get approval from some manager.  I told one clerk that the books would sell much faster with an autograph sticker, and he said, "We had an hour-long argument with Kitty Kelly over this just last week.  She wanted to sign her books, and we wouldn’t let her do it, either." 

If Kitty Kelly couldn’t manage to persuade him, I sure wasn’t going to try.

Finally, there’s the ever-worsening hassle of airline travel.  When I started going on tours, I don’t recall having to suffer through cancelled or delayed flights.  Nowadays, when I manage to get to my destination on time, or even on the same day, I consider it a miracle.  Since they don’t feed you on planes, you arrive at a hotel late at night, starving, after room service has shut down.  Forcing you to binge on potato ships from the mini-bar.  And since airline reservations for book tour are sometimes made close to the travel date, you end up too often flying cross-country while wedged in the middle seat.

Airline travel has become such a nightmare that one thriller author recently chartered a private jet to fly her to all her midwest stops.  (It had to be on her own dime, because I can’t imagine a publisher ever paying for that.)  That’s an extravagance that I (an old Yankee) would never consider, but I understand completely why an author might resort to it.

Are these difficulties leading to fewer book tours?  In some parts of the country, media escorts tell me that their tours are down 50%, even 75% since last year.  Perhaps publishers are re-thinking the economics of tours.  Perhaps authors are finding tours to be a costly distraction from their writing. 

While I acknowledge that their value-to-cost ratio seems to be diminishing, I still believe that book tours are important to building your readership.  I also happen to love doing them.  I love meeting readers and visiting stores across the country. 

I just don’t know how much longer it will make sense.   

 

   

23 thoughts on “How book tours have changed over the years

  1. Tracy

    Tess,

    I recently attended one of your signings and had a great time. That one was well attended (with many people standing), but you were in a suburb of Boston with a pretty high population. What I enjoyed most was the opportunity to hear you speak in person and to hear the interesting questions that people in the audience asked (and your reply).

    I wonder if the world is moving toward a more served-at-home digital solution. I am thinking of something like the video series of your signing at the Poisoned Pen (which I also watched in full), but with some way to accept user questions, either live or not. YouTube videos seem to be the medium of today; maybe it is more cost effective to make it the author’s promotional tool of the future.

    I would personally enjoy seeing you in person instead of just online, but I wonder if such an attempt would breach the gap and increase sales. Just a thought…

    Looking forward to your upcoming publications,Tracy

    Reply
  2. Ali

    Thought provoking post – but also worrying as I often wonder when a Publishing Director will twig [on sheer short-term economics] that the book tour can not be justified finacially for many authirs – but for the longer term view it is important [IMHO] to get a writer out from the shelves.

    Though in these credit crunch times, worries about job security, and the yells that the shy is falling in, are much more louder and more frequent in many industries and Publishing is no different.

    In the UK I think the book tour works better as we’re a smaller country; books and authors are still held in high esteem, but the market is toughening, hardening as the illiterate masses become the majority and people’s time is squeezed.

    Still – I have to say that people still love a well written yarn and looking at the NY and London Times Bestseller rankings, Crime Thrillers dominate –

    The sky is not falling in, its just that the ceiling is a lot lower than it once was.

    Good luck with the tour –

    Ali

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  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    It seems to me that tours could be a lot more efficient if houses worked with the authors to incorporate the authors’ ideas of what works best for THEM. This is the complaint I hear from my bestseller friends, and it makes sense to me.

    At my own level, I’ve learned to avoid the “event signing” (reading and speaking) whenever possible and instead ask to do the table signing, “meet and greet” – just sitting by the door with my books. I sell a lot more books and meet a lot more people that way. It’s also much more fun to do with a friend. Panels are great, too.

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  4. tess

    Ali,I completely agree that book tours make a lot more sense in the UK due to the shorter distances an author has to travel. Plus, you have BBC headquarters in London, where one can sit in one recording booth and do a long string of interviews for radio stations all over the country.

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  5. pari

    Tess,I appreciate the longer-term perspective.

    One thing I wonder about is audience ennui. There are more authors nowadays; bookstores often have three-six events a week. I believe this much “choice” for the audience can become deleterious, overwhelming.

    In the few short years I’ve been in the business, I’ve noticed a change on the media side too. Though there’s more news, less of it relates to books — especially if they’re fiction.

    I suspect there’s going to be another shift, or that we’re in the middle of it, to a different paradigm for selling books and the culture of “celebrity.”

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  6. cait

    Personally, I love signed book and while I have never been to an author’s book tour stop, it is mostly because I live in the sticks and would have to drive 60 miles to a Real City, with Real Bookstores to have hopes of finding one.

    But I think you are right about the underlying issue of the tour…media exposure. And where books are concerned, I do thing there is an increasing problem.The number of books actually sold on a tour can’t even cover air fare in the vast majority of cases I would think. But get on the radio or get an article in the book section of the Sunday newspaper, talking about the appearance, and a lot of books are sold that you might not know about, by people who do not physically show up at the signing.

    But…these days, many ‘local’ stations are just semi-automated outlets of a national station with little real local, live content and the book/book review sections of newspapers are disappearing. The Sunday newspaper of my Real 60 Mile Away City has decided to ‘reorganize’ the arts section of the Sunday paper which seems to mean it has disappeared, some parts going to other sections and some going away. I guess newspaper publishers don’t thing that things like music and books and theater have enough ‘payback’…read advertising revenue..to make them worthwhile.

    Of course, I stopped buying that newspaper which just me more time to read books!

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  7. Louise Ure

    Great post, Tess. Of course, your story presumes that the publishing house is paying for all or part of the tour. That’s not the case for many authors.

    I’ll still continue to tour, but for me it’s the relationship with the booksellers that’s as important as the relationship to the readers.

    And I’ll still carry those small cans of V-8 juice. Perfect for a late night meal in a hotel room. Or a Bloody Mary, if that’s what I need!

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  8. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Gerritsen,I think it can still be worth it in terms of connecting with readers. But then, I’m coming only from the perspective of the reader who loves to find out his favorite author is coming to town and can get a book signed. I would hope the future industry model still makes touring available, but who knows these days?

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  9. J.D. Rhoades

    I’m with Alex on the “table signing.” it’s even better when they sit me near a pile of books, some of them by my friends, that I can hand sell along with my own. That way, it’s a lot less like “me me me” and more like “hey, mystery fan, let’s chat.”

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  10. John

    Hi Tess,

    Just wanted to say that I found your post very interesting, as I find your blog. As an avid reader and inspiring writer, I love the opportunity to meet my favorite authors and obtain signed copies of their books. And it always surprises me how supportive you all are of those of us who have those aspirations. I know that tours may not make sense economically right now but I wanted to thank you (and the others) for continuing to put yourselves out there because that can make all the difference to the reader. So I’m very much looking forward to FINALLY meeting you in CT next week! πŸ™‚

    John

    Reply
  11. toni mcgee causey

    Great post, Tess.

    I have long wondered why publishers don’t take the music concert template for author tours. Sandra Ruttan and I talked about this a long while back–and the essential idea would be that the big well-known author would be the lead act, with a regional favorite as the lead in and maybe a smaller, lesser-known, but local author as the opening act. The national author still moves around the country, the regional authors, regionally, etc. Where a lot of people will come in for the national author because of name recognition, there are a decent number of readers who will show up for a local or regional author and that local angle is a good tie-in for media, especially if it’s more of an event.

    Of course, someone’s got to coordinate that, but the event would be a bigger bang, there could probably be cross pollination.

    [Then again, I love event signings when I’m a part of a group and helping to promote friends–I’ve done well at those. Put me at a table by myself and I tend to turn into an inarticulate dolt.]

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  12. Catherine

    Tess I love Louise’s solution to late arrivals…vitamin packed juice or juice with kick.

    It’s been a couple of years since I’ve flown domestic in the United States…so things may of tightened up with this too.However this might assist with the late night munchies.My Aunt who flew with Qantas for 30 years used to always pack as though she was camping in luxurious surrounds. She would have well sealed small packets of food stuffs that could be added to crackers. Dried fruits and nuts too. I can’t imagine how many times she flew somewhere and there was nothing open…so I think this helped a lot.I hope things haven’t got so security concious that a packet of crackers are now forbidden.

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  13. JT Ellison

    I learned early on to fly with nuts, crackers and a banana, simply because I don’t like rolling in at midnight starving. And I buy water as I’m leaving the airport so I don’t have to spend $9 on the hotel water.

    That said, I decided not to do extensive touring for my next book simply because the cost was getting to be too much. But I’ve been blessed to set up the right mix of events, and I hope to get back to that. I’m doing a limited tour for Judas Kiss – lots of local dates, driving distance and one out of town (with Laura Benedict at Murder by the Book in Houston) to make it easier and less expensive. I LOVE the group, or at least duo signings. It makes it so much more for for both the audience and the author!

    And Tess, I’m still upset that I had to miss you.

    Reply
  14. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Tess

    I love touring, but I’m lucky in that I do get to travel with my husband, so I always feel sort-of at home. Touring alone would be pretty tough.

    And meeting the booksellers is wonderful. We’ve made some great friends that way.

    But sorry, cans of V8 juice will be taken off you at the airport unless bought air-side of security. Almonds and sultanas are a great instant meal, though.

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  15. Naomi

    I love Toni’s idea–it makes total sense. It would take a lot of coordination of publicists and I don’t know if different publishers would agree to work together. I guess booksellers could be key in making the arrangements and filling the slots.

    I, like Tracy, watched you, Tess, on youtube at the Poisoned Pen. There’s something to this teleconference marketing but more folks may have to get tech savvy.

    I find what’s most successful are these book events arranged by active women’s groups. They come out not necessarily for one particular author but for the “event.” Some already do, but if all organizers could hook up with bookstores, it might be even more powerful. As media opportunities are practically nil for most mystery writers, their promotions via flyers and the Internet do fulfill some of the gaps.

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  16. Richard S. Wheeler

    Splendid and realistic post, Mrs. Garritsen. The economic value of book tours is a mystery to me, especially those set up by costly NYC consulting and scheduling firms.

    So you sell a few copies at a signing. What other reasons might there be?

    Meet staff in bookstores who will remember you and recommend your book? The staff turns over about every six months, and all that effort is lost.

    Leave signed books in the store after the signing because some readers are too timid to approach a live author? Well, the sellers might move a couple more copies that way–and return the rest.

    Meet and share coffee at four a.m. with the drivers at a distributorship who put the books in the racks, and they’ll put yours at eye level? Well, no. They usually place the books according to the instructions given by their employers.

    Pick up newspaper and radio interviews along the way? Not worth the effort. People have short memories and are bombarded by thousands of interviews and promotions.

    My publishers have laid out tens of thousands of dollars for numerous tours, and I haven’t seen much bang for their buck. Unless an author has “star power” these tours make no economic sense, and I have sometimes thought that they exist mostly for the sake of authors’ vanity. In other words, publishers indulge authors by giving them tours.

    If a publisher is going to spend, say, thirty thousand on a book tour, I’d much prefer that my titles simply be given away at bookstores. That might yield an occasional returning reader.

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  17. Fiona

    Naomi,Perhaps there can be authors’ tours set up through Craig’s List, to get in touch with local “opening act” authors of a similar readership. It makes sense to me.

    Reply
  18. tess

    Peanuts. That’s been my salvation the last few trips. I carry a few bags of honey-roasted nuts, and request tomato juice enroute. That combination will stave off hunger for a few hours, at least.

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  19. Fran

    One of the problems we’ve seen with author tours is a lack of continuity with the publishing houses. Publicists are here today and if they’re any good, they’re gone tomorrow, and there’s no institutional memory.

    If there was, we’d never have the continuing battle we have to convince publicity departments that here in Seattle, an author can sign at Elliott Bay, at Third Place AND with us and not drain the purchasing pool. We all have different audiences, and they don’t often switch venues. Three or four signings in the city gets the publicity department more bang for their publicity buck.

    And I have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Wheeler. We don’t have a six-month turnover in staff, far from it. And while we may not always have huge numbers at our signings, we’re well known for having signed stock, and we have customers all over the world who buy from us because of the number and quality of our signed firsts. We’re not the only specialty shop who does this.

    But I agree with Toni: sometimes multiple signings, “star” name or no, can yield great returns for all the participants! It works especially well with one hardcover and a couple of paperback originals.

    Besides, Tess, if you hadn’t shown up, I’d have never learned how to shrink heads, and my world would be a sadder, bleaker place for it!

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  20. Tracy

    Just a quick note on food for planes. Nut allergies have become a major problem in the US. I have a 4 year-old niece with a severe peanut and tree nut allergy. She can go into anaphylactic shock (characterized by drop in blood pressure and difficulty breathing) and literally die within minutes — just from airborne exposure to nuts. When she flies the airline has to ask fellow travelers to keep any nuts put away as a safety measure. My point here is that you shouldn’t rely substantially on nuts as an airline snack.

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  21. Richard S. Wheeler

    I congratulate Fran if her store enjoys low turnover. Most bookstore jobs pay not much over minimum wage, with skimpy benefits, and turnover is rather high. After three decades of writing and touring, I’ve concluded that six months is a reasonable average. The people I’ve dealt with previously are not there the next time I walk in, and the new staffers don’t know me or my work, and my publishers and I have to start over if we hope for any hand-selling.

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  22. Beth

    Tess, I know how tiring and burdensome the tours are for you and I would selfishly prefer you use your energies to write. That said: I am SO EXCITED that you are coming to town and I get to hear your spoken voice! I hope the appreciation you get from your fans is encouraging and motivating (again selfishly!).

    Reply

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