The Economics of Touring

JT Ellison

I had a bit of a panic two weeks ago when the statement for my business card arrived, and the total was big enough that if I d cared to, I could have bought this instead.

Or this.

Or nearly paid for this.

Needless to say, once I d dragged my jaw off the floor, I sat down with my color-coded Excel spreadsheet and did some soul searching.

The Facts: Touring, promotions, and the like are becoming more and more expensive, with less and less upside. With the advent of social networking, Google Alerts and Facebook ads, you can reach an exponentially greater number of readers than slogging out onto the road. Hotels, rental cars, gas, food, airplanes it all adds up pretty damn quick, and when you can send a tweet that 6,000 people see in one minute or less for free, it becomes less and less attractive.

The Reality: I like traveling. Being a writer helps me fulfill a lifelong dream see the open road, experience new cultures and cities, and have a good time whilst doing it. I adore meeting readers. Adore it. And it s tax deductible, so in the past, I ve let that be the deciding factor. And since I am running a business here, I need to offset income, so business travel is a good way to do that.

But: Where do you draw the line? At what point is the need to tour and promote overshadowing the two other factors time, and money?

I should note that my business card bender this month wasn t just for the initial tour for SO CLOSE THE HAND OF DEATH, though a large chunk of it was. I also booked all my travel for the rest of the year, including the trip I just went on (D.C. for research), two conferences fees and their airfare, an upcoming overseas trip, plus two vacation trips in August that the airfare is the only expense. (Yes, we travel too much. Without kids, it s kind of like a permanent Spring Break around here.) When I look at all that, I calmed down a little, because while it may look indiscriminate and rash, I actually utilized my mad bargain skillz to get the very best deals possible, and several of the trips are of vital importance to me personally. And my usual $1000 average monthly bill will be practically nonexistent for the rest of the year.

Friends of mine know that when it comes to myself, I can be austere in the extreme. I only ever buy clothes on steep discount. I have no car payment, live in a state that has no state income tax (though our sales tax is 9.4%) and tend to buy wine that s less than $20 a bottle. I spent $600 on my glasses, but I ve worn them every day for the past 4 years, so the amortized rate ends up being about 41 cents a day, and dropping rapidly. I use Starbucks as a treat, not a right. We don t have kids, and Jade s food, while plentifully expensive, doesn t exactly break the bank. I do have a book buying addiction, but that s been curbed with the advent of my Goal for 2011, Depth, which means I m focused on reading what I have instead of buying more. I do trend toward expensive face cream, but if you consider my total makeup expenditure for any given fiscal year might hit $50, and 90% of that is Carmex, I think it offsets. Not too long ago, I went crazy at TJ Maxx, buying a pair of sandals, a pair of jeans, 2 dresses, a purse and a wrap. $189. I honestly called one of my dear girlfriends and bemoaned, and eventually took back the jeans and both dresses. I just didn t NEED them.

But this is business. Making money costs money. I do NEED to find ways to promote my books, and I do NEED to use the money I make on them through advances and royalties to pay the mortgage, my health insurance, and all the expenses accrued throughout the year for touring and promotions. And those expenses seem to be going up. I am blessed that I have the ability to cover these costs, but after this last round, I’m really rethinking my expenditures.

So is touring the most cost effective use of your precious advance dollars?

The answer is no, of course. To cover the cost of one plane ticket, I’d have to sell about 1000 books per event, and while I’m generally not disappointed with turnout, I’m just not at that level. But it has been an invaluable resource for me, and I’m firmly convinced that I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without all the stops I’ve made along the way. There is nothing, NOTHING, better than a bookseller who evangelizes for you, and a reader who you’ve met who tells their friends to read your books. You can get that online, yes, but it doesn’t have the same feel.

And now it all really is changing, and perhaps even becoming irrelevant, as more ebooks flood the market and bookstores go out of business. The venues for touring are dramatically curtailed day after day. My first book tour, back in late 2007-early 2008, covered 13 states. Each book, even while I endeavor to hit different areas of the country each time, that number has decreased. And in the Fall, when my 7th novel comes out, I won t be doing more than 1 or 2 out of town gigs and one of those is Bouchercon St. Louis.

Reed Farrel Coleman wrote a great piece in this month’s Crimespree Magazine that resonated with me. He’s asking that the conference planners do some heavy thinking about where the conferences are held in the future. Bouchercon San Francisco cost him twice what Bouchercon Indianapolis cost. I have to admit, after doing two book tours last year, the idea of dropping another $2000 for BCon in San Francisco was too much for me. I have to have a travel budget, just like everyone else. I agree with Reed that the con organizers need to be looking at less expensive venues, or else they’re going to price themselves out of the market. (Hint: Come to Nashville!)

The economics of touring aside, the time spent on the road is almost more of a consideration for me. I think I have a form of ADD, because for every conference, weekend trip, book release, etc., I basically lose the week after. Yes, I write on the road, but it s little bits here and there, in the hotel, on airplanes, creative bursts shoved into notebooks or written on cocktail napkins. I don t have the facility to focus on too many things at once, so I tend to push the creative to second place when I m on the road. I know some authors who write better when they travel, but I m willing to bet that universally they have kids and familial obligations that eat into their writing time when they re home. I need quiet to concentrate, to allow my creative well to refill daily. Even being off Facebook and Twitter for Lent has allowed me a deeper, stronger focus on my work, and as a consequence, I m getting more done, and it s better quality stuff.

But for all the whining about money and time lost, there s something irreplaceable about touring that I m not sure how I can forego. And that s meeting you. The reader. The person who allows me the indulgence of trying to make these decisions. Every tour, I get home tired and cranky and the bills arrive and I swear I m never going to do it again, and every time those galleys arrive for the next book, I find myself entertaining the idea, and ultimately calling my publicist and saying yes, let s do this.

I can t predict what s going to happen next. All I know is that as an artist, I have to weigh the cost and time associated with the physical book tour and conferences and look at ways to minimize the damage. Whether that s just attending one conference a year, finding new ways to do bookstore appearances virtually, or simply not doing it at all, remains to be seen. Ultimately, I have to do what s going to get the best books into the hands of the readers the quickest way possible, and that means staying home and writing like a good little dooby.

So I m curious to hear what you think. Be honest. How many times have you blown off an author signing? Are you less likely to attend an event if you’ve been regularly accessing your favorites through FB and Twitter? And will the e-book revolution kill touring once and for all?

Wine of the Week – shared with wonderful new friends in Santa Fe, (which it is the time
to spend good money on good wine) Turley Zinfandel 2005 (Rattlesnake Vineyard)

31 thoughts on “The Economics of Touring

  1. Laura Lane McNeal

    I feel your pain. As a not yet published author but one with an agent who is in the process of trying to sell my ms, I have been watching the market closely. There is no doubt it is in turmoil. The question I pose is where does it leave the author, ultimately, because as you point out writing is a passion, but it is also a business. I have been doing a lot of thinking on the subject, wondering what will happen once my novel is published (yes I'm staying optimistic) and what I believe is that the Internet can never replace personal interaction. I feel Twitter and Facebook, blogs and websites bring you closer to the individual, at least psychologically, giving more of an impetus for me at least to want to meet the author in person. As far as book signings, because I realize what the author has done to get to the book signing, such as the hassle and cost of travelling to the destination, I go out of my eay to go to book signings to show my appreciation. But that's just me. If you come to New Orleans I promise I will show you a good time! Thanks for the post. I'm storing it in the "hope I need it later" part of my brain in case I do get published anytime soon.

  2. Reine

    Hi JT,

    Please come to the Tucson Festival of books. It's huge, the fourth largest in the US, and very reasonable rates here. We have a small international airport, and Southwest Air flights to here are very inexpensive. You can fly to Phoenix, do a booksigning at the Poisoned Pen then fly to Tucson, or rent a car and drive down – great potential for research.

    I enjoy meeting the authors I read. I don't get to too many signings, but I enjoy the panel discussions and one-to-one. Meeting Zoë and Andy at this year's festival was a lot of fun, as was the panel discussion I went to. I rarely read hardbound books anymore because of my quadriplegia, but I buy for friends. They always love getting books signed by a favored author, makes it a really special gift, and I've introduced friends to "new" authors this way. I think it's a good thing to do if you can make the cost of travel work for you. Too bad some of the best events are in expensive locations.

  3. pari noskin taichert

    J.T., this post is a biggie for most of us. I don't know if I'm going to travel specifically for "promotion" again. I did so much of it when I was starting out, but it interfered with my work and that interfered with my publishing rate.

    I'm better off staying home and writing.

  4. Jeff Mariotte

    I can second the Tucson Festival of Books suggestion. I've attended all three years, as an author and bookseller (with Mysterious Galaxy). The festival started out great and just got better. It's not as big as the L.A. Times Festival, but it's much more fun, the audiences at the panels and signings are growing (as is attendance overall), and the staff and volunteers do a bang-up job. Highly recommended.

  5. Chuck

    Laura Lane, I am right there with you. JT has been a guardian angel for me through this maddening process, as I go to work, hoping beyond hope that today's the day my agent calls and yells, "GUESS WHAT? You sitting down?"

    That's why I am thankful JT gave us today's entry. This is a real treat because, for writers like Laura Lane and me, this part of the business–the marketing–is a mystery.

    I don't have anything useful to add other than my thanks. But I can tell you this, when I do get published, a majority of my time will be spent marketing to the million and a half personnel in the US military. Primarily because of my subject matter, and because (believe it or not) soldiers are avid readers. While their job is quite difficult, they have ample down time to read. Having been one of them, I hope I get the chance to do this because I'm positive I will be able to relate to them and strike a chord.

    And JT, you should be in front of people. Be smart about your $$$, but be out there. You're a treasure and your readers need to meet you.

  6. MJ

    I love author signings, but while some writers will come to the closest high-end college town, Ann Arbor, many no longer come to my neck of the midwest, so I don't really look for signing events any longer. This is likely also due to the loss of stores that host signings in my area. We still have several Borders stores, but they tend to do more mass popular writers (and I don't want an Oprah or NYT lister – I want one of my genre writers). When there were more, and I could get to them, I did attend and buy books. Now I just buy what I hear of from this site, Twitter, other writer/author blogs, crime and mystery magazines, etc.

  7. Laura Lane McNeal

    I was derelict in my duty to mention that New Orleans has not one, but two great literary festivals each year. The Pirate's Alley Faulkner Festival takes place in November and the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in April, both in the French Quarter. We also have for or five great indie book stores that regularly have author signings. And Southwest flies here. We'd love to have each and every one of you!

  8. Louise Ure

    Best advice I got with my first book? "Spend the whole advance on promotion, and that includes a book tour." I did that, and I'm happy I did. But if you keep doing that, the mortgage and insurance don't get paid. I don't know that I'd travel again for any new books.

  9. Murderati fan

    I often thought how lovely it would be to use my spare bedroom for an author. I could drive her around and all it would cost her is a signed book. Lovely if someone would set up a network of authors(or wannabes) hosting authors – could even be a business. Athors could join the network for x dollars a year. Unfotunately the authors who need it the most can afford it the least. But JT, keep traveling, and if your yen takes you where there are tax breaks – right on!! Just avoid those stormy nights at M is for Mystery. I went there because I saw your blog. I bought a book because I saw you (and got it signed) and I've bought others and mentioned you because I enjoyed your books. So even though you only sell one or two books that visit, the beat goes on.

    I'm for having an event in Nashville. Amazing City!

  10. Barbie

    On the contrary, the only authors I'd attend a signing would be the ones I have some sort of contact through Facebook and Twitter or Blogs like this one. I think there's literally only a handful of authors I'd go to a signing for if I didn't live all the way down in Brazil. In this particular cases, I'd go regardless of the e-books (and would probably buy a print and a digital copy). I mean… to me, the two things are connected, because I wouldn't bother to leave my home to go to a signing from an author I don't "know" (as in, I don't know what they think, how they view the world and things like that) and don't personally like.


  11. Cornelia Read

    Conferences are so expensive, but they keep me sane. So maybe that's a good investment? Touring I've been very lucky with–have gotten sent a few places by the publisher, or gone to places I could get to easily and stay with family. GOD it's fun, but the rent must be paid…

    What a wonderful, thought-provoking post, JT! And I'm with you on the clothing budget. Big fan of thrift stores…

  12. Erin

    You asked if we would be less likely to attend an event with with an author you have contact with on FB or Twitter, for me I would much rather attend a sisgning of an author I have talked to online. Before I discovered Murderati through reading your books I NEVER would have thought I could become "friends" with the people whos pics I see on the back of the books I read! Meeting any of any of the authors I have been lucky eonough to be friends online with would be WAY more exciting to me than meeting one I haven't ever talked to.

    Kicking myself for not coming to this site after reading All The Pretty Girls! I would have known about Boucheron and that it was here in Indy 2yrs ago!

  13. Allison Brennan

    I don't tour, because I don't feel in mass market it's worth my time or expense. I can't bring in the crowds, even with selling what I do and hitting the NYT list with every book. I have a signing locally (where I can usually bring in a decent crowd and sell 30-50 books) but that's it. I'll do signings when I travel, but I don't travel to do signings. I spend my money on limited "things" i.e. bookmarks; my website; an occasional book trailer; Romance Sells; an occasional well-targetted ad; conferences (which double as meetings with my agent/editor/publisher); and an occasional research trip. Anything I can double-up on I will.

    I'm not sold that most expenses are justified for authors because we just don't have the time and resources to do what a publisher can. I spend probably the most money (other than combined conferences) on buying discount copies of my books and shipping them to people for giveaways. Because I believe first and foremost that the best way to gain new readers is if they read my book.

  14. PK the Bookeemonster

    Book signings and other events do not come to Montana so that question doesn't apply. I've gone to two conventions, the last at San Fran. I went as a business promotion for my newsletter, justifying the cost but it became such a mess and cost so much I don't think I can go to another for a long time. It busted my bank. And the hoped-for exposure for the newsletter — just didn't. However, it was wonderful to see my online 4MA friends and authors.
    But I understand your tug-and-pull of promotion versus budget. I'm not a writer but I have Premeditated and I have no spare money to get new subscribers but I need subscribers in order to continue. I don't know the answer.

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Another factor is that book sales are just down at these things, whether it's e books or the economy or both. Certain conventions are always worthwhile, but it's much more about the business you can do with all the industry people who are there than it is about book sales. Certain conventions are worthwhile because of the number of readers you can interact with. But things have changed, just this year alone. I am more and more loath to miss out on the writing time.

  16. Allison Brennan

    Alex, you are absolutely right. And I don't go to conventions for readers per se, I go for the business. Meeting with your editor/agent/etc once a year is generally a good idea, and I get my social fix at the same time. Since I have no life outside of writing and the kids, getting out to socialize with other writers is always fun!

  17. Jake Nantz

    Just a thought – with the concern being that readers won't attend or buy because they have a nook or kindle, is there a way to sell a bookmark where each has a separate 'code' on it for downloading the book, or something like that? Still tangible (and signable) but gets them the digital copy instead of the mmpb or whatever? You guys may already be doing this, or it may not be cost effective, I dunno, was just thinking out loud.

    Either way, I can understand the pull of $$ and the loss of writing time combined. But we would sure love to get you to a signing over here in Raleigh before you stop touring all together!

  18. Reine

    Allison, hi. I guess most all your readers know that you, and other authors, are not real friends, that you are in the business of writing and wouldn't think harshly of you, were you not to participate in a faux social relationship. Does it help, however, to keep making that point, that we are not real friends? Perhaps I'm naive, and you are relentlessly stalked by admiring fans with severe personality disorders.

  19. Jen Forbus

    I go out of my way for book events, actually. I've traveled out of state on quite a few occasions to see authors. I've also helped authors to set up events with libraries and bookstores in my area. Reading a good book is wonderful and I'll likely tell someone else about it. Meeting the author of that book in person and having a great experience with him/her will cause me to remember that author and book much, much longer.

  20. Alafair Burke

    Touring is incredibly expensive, but you're right that there's an irreplaceable (at least so far) quality to a face to face meeting. It's not just about the number of books sold at an event. It's the signed copies that sell after you leave. It's the handselling that happens before and after. It's the word of mouth support that every single person you meet continues to give you through the years. Jen Forbus had a great write up from a fan's perspective in the same issue of Crime Spree that you mention. I think it should be required reading at every publishing house.

  21. JT Ellison

    Thank you so much for all of this fabulous input! Ironically I'm traveling today and haven't been able to get on Internet. I appreciate all your comments though, and will take them to heart when I start making my plans for the next book. (hoping this comes through….)

  22. Allison Brennan

    Hi Reine, I don't think I said that my readers aren't my real friends or that I belabored that point. I love meeting readers and doing signings, but as a mass market author it is woefully not cost effective at all to do a big tour at my expense. It's a HUGE expense. Everything I said was related to the value of an author spending for her own promotion. I still believe that the best way to gain–and keep–readers is to write books they want to read. I'm very accessible, I answer all my email (though it might take a few weeks) and I post on my facebook page daily. The best thing about RWA is that they have a PUBLIC literacy signing and I promote that in my newsletter so readers in the area can come and chat. I have been trying to get ITW to do the same thing at Thrillerfest. I'm sorry you misunderstood my point or were offended. Sometimes, I'm unclear. 🙂

  23. Gordon Harries

    Well, I’m British and many of my favourite writers are either American or dead (sometimes both) so there’s that, but I enjoy book signings and am convinced that they sell books.

    I remember attending a John Connolly/Joolz Denby signing around the time of Connolly’s ‘The Black Angel’ and watching in amazement as he gave an impromptu lecture on the reformation. Both James Ellroy and Neil Gaiman have publicly said that they funded their own book tours early on because they knew that way to become financially viable was to meet the reading public and handsel, handsel, handsel.

    The counter-argument to that is, of course, that Connolly, Ellroy and Gaiman are all gifted performers, gifted in the art of both putting an audience at ease and entertaining them. Very few people can do that. (That said, another Connolly –Michael—who I would argue is not a natural entertainer has said that only having a truncated tour a few years ago after he sunk a fair amount of money into a promotional CD hurt him.)

    I suppose that my problem with ‘virtual’ tours is that too often I don’t feel that the author is particularly invested. The amount of blog interviews that I’ve read, for example, where it seems like the majority of answers were cut and pasted with the merest regard for the questions is staggering and I suppose I will take note of it if I feel that an author is phoning it in.

    In addition to which, I’m not a great fan of facebook ‘fan’ pages. I’m a member of a few, but it tends to be when I know the author personally and regard them as something of a friend but for the most part I’m aware that –as any reader is—a fan page is a promotional device designed to sell me product. So I think that an author needs to at least generate the illusion of genuine connection with his/her fanbase or remove themselves from the internet fray almost entirely, as John Connolly and James Ellroy have done. (Although given they’re sales, they can afford to.)

    Anyway, just a few random thoughts far too late at night.


  24. Reine

    Allison, yes. I apologize. I often don't get the subtleties, or some would say I need to be hit over the head to get it, whatever it might be. Then my mouth takes off before it filters through the haze.

  25. Kaye Barley

    JT – I read Reed's piece in the latest Crimespree and, of course, I read Jen's piece. Two of my favorite people – and both very smart cookies.

    You know what a huge B'Con fan I am. I'm a fool for B'Con.

    I did not go last year and frankly, it was all about the money. Having a husband I love to travel with – who happens to not really give two shakes about spending his vacation time at a mystery convention – makes me think twice about spending that kind of money. The airfare from NC to San Francisco was prohibitive just for starters.

    I had intended to go to St. Louis this year and would give anything to be there, but this is the year that other travel commitments are already in place. All that said – NEXT YEAR I hope to see you and a lot more of my favorite writer friends at at least one con, if not two.

    I love the idea of the Bouchercon folks thinking about less expensive cities. Once I'm in that convention hotel, I don't really do a lot of sightseeing. I swear I'm going to, but then I'm scared to death I'm going to miss something in the hotel. That happened in Baltimore. Margaret M. looked and looked for me so she could introduce me to Barbara Michaels. I was at the Harbor. I wanted to die.

    Nashville? Sounds great!!!!!!

  26. KDJames

    JT, a good number of my imaginary internet friends are Readers Who Are Not Writers and I am constantly amazed by the lengths (and expense) they'll go to to attend a signing of a favourite author. A few years ago, there was a signing in OH and they traveled from CA, WA, MN, VA, MD, IN and Canada — plus a few more locations I've probably forgotten. Yes, part of the draw was to see each other (this group is always looking for an excuse to party) but mostly it was to see the author and get a signed book. They took requests for people who couldn't be there and mailed books to them. So I do think personal appearances are of significant importance to some fans.

    As for me, I'm an extreme introvert. I'm not shy and I have no problem talking to people — I mostly find it enjoyable — but doing so exhausts me and drains my physical and mental energy. I've attended one RWA conference and, honestly, it took me weeks to get all those voices out of my head and recover from the excess stimulation. I'm always looking for an excuse, er, good reason not to endure the bombardment of large groups of people. The high cost of travel and lodging makes an effective argument.

  27. JT Ellison

    This is s great discussion. I'm feeling better about the future of touring, though I think it's going to be more focused on cons and festivals rather than individual signings. Two birds and one stone, you know. But I really appreciate your input and I'm sorry I couldn't participate more. have a great weekend!

  28. Reine


    In fact, on rereading, I'm not sure what I was responding to, which leads me to believe I had another partial-complex seizure… sorry everyone, nothing I can do about it except feel bad.

  29. PD Martin

    My problem is that the conventions I'd really like to get to are in the US and the UK. And that's a bloody long way from Australia! And, of course, longer flights also mean more $.

    I went to one Bouchercon and it was fantastic, but I don't think I had the network of people to make the most out of it. I know conventions are TO network, but I think it helps if you've already got some contacts, from a previous tour or convention, etc.

    As for signings – I know a lot of publishers and publicists discourage public signings. I was once told that if only a few people turn up, it can do more harm than good from a PR perspective. I thought that was pretty interesting!


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