The Homemade Book Tour
Once upon a time, writers wrote books, got them published, and were deliriously happy! Not anymore. Now, along with being deliriously happy, authors must do a number of things to get their book in front of readers, quite often at their own expense. These include giving readings both where they’re known, and where they’re not. How do you get an out-of-town bookstore to let you come and read? Press 53 author Bonnie ZoBell has kindly agreed to share her thoughts on this very topic.
At the ripe age of 59, I finally got my first full-length book published—What Happened Here, a linked collection with Press 53. I LOVE Press 53. I was over the moon. I knew the days of publishers having whole departments full of people to promote books were over, and independent presses couldn’t afford to. What could I do to spread the word? I decided to take matters into my own hands since I could hardly sit still. I had to get out of my office and do everything I could to sell my collection, mainly because I wanted people to read it.
The first thing to know is that book tours don’t necessarily sell a lot of books. However, they get the name of your baby out there. You get to meet readers personally, which makes a much bigger impact. Hopefully they’ll tell their friends and you’ll get some local press. Plus, you’re out on the road visiting a lot of old friends and relatives and seeing the sights.
My first thought was to pick big cities where I thought I should read—New York, Chicago, and so on. I began to try to book readings here and there, and bookstores constantly asked me if I knew anyone in that city, or didn’t want me to read there because my book was set “out west” instead of in their region. Okay, so I wasn’t Danielle Steel. This beginning plan quickly morphed into trying to find readings where I knew people—friends, family, fellow writers. Fortunately, I still got to read in New York and Chicago because I know people there, but this wasn’t always where I sold the most books or had the biggest audiences.
I quickly learned how much better Plan B was. Some people would ask such questions as why in the world I would want to go to Virginia Beach. Not exactly a literary hotspot. Well, it was only a few miles away from Norfolk, where I read, and I got to see some beloved cousins I hadn’t seen in decades and they invited all their friends. Not only did I sell a lot of books, but I had a great time visiting with them after all that time and meeting their friends.
When I found local writers to read with, we always had a much bigger audience than I would have had alone. These local writer friends knew people in that particular city so they had more people to invite. Okay, so I’m not a household name.
Finding Other Writers for Readings in Strange Cities
When I read in a strange city where I didn’t really know anyone, I quickly learned it wasn’t at all that hard to find other writers who wanted to read with me. These writers, even very well-known ones, love to be invited to read, especially at an event someone else is organizing. The first few times, I really had to work up my nerve to ask people I didn’t know, but that quickly changed as virtually all the people I contacted either wanted to read themselves or, if they weren’t available, would have suggestions of not only people in that area who might want to, but also for local venues for the event.
How did I find other writers in cities I didn’t know well? Several ways. On FaceBook, if you type into the browser at the top “My friends who live in San Francisco,” for instance, you will find everyone you know who lives there—if and only if they’ve listed what city they live in on their profile. Often I would be surprised to learn that people I talked to frequently on FaceBook or online lived in a certain city. Even with friends of friends I knew on FB, at least I knew we had mutual friends, which made it easier to contact them.
When I couldn’t find other writers that way, I’d go online and search a number of things—writing organizations in that city with members who taught creative writing. You can also find people by Googling variations of “Writers in Flint, Michigan.”
I’d look at what books they’d published to try to make sure they wrote work in roughly my same genre—fiction. This made the pitch to bookstores more attractive. If the writer’s email wasn’t listed on the organization’s site, it wasn’t so hard to find their emails. Most have websites or are listed in Poets & Writers. I’d simply be direct when I contacted them and say I had a new book out, would be in their city, something about what I’d read about their work, and did they want to read?
A few times the venues I read in were coffee houses or bars, but mostly they were bookstores. When I was first calling places without locals to read with me, on more than one occasion I’d call, maybe, a bookstore in North Carolina, say a little about my book, and on a few occasions was flatly turned down because the stores wanted writers from North Carolina, not a book set in Southern California. This was another factor in my determining it was better to read with at least one other person in that city.
Making Contact with Reading Venues
Do not simply email a bookstore. Often you won’t get a response because the store is busy, and that’s not the same email as the one that goes directly to the event planner. I would first see if I could find the name of this person anywhere on the site. Then I’d call the bookstore, ask for the planner if I had a name, or if not, simply say I wanted to talk about doing a reading event at the store. Most often, I would be given the email address for the event planner, or I’d talk to the owner of the store, and on a few occasions I was able to talk to the planner, in which case sometimes I was able to arrange for an event on the spot.
Plan far in advance. Places that host a lot of readings are often booked way out. Usually, if you go their websites, there’ll be an event calendar, and you can see exactly what’s going on on various dates and how far in advance they’re planning.
When I emailed event planners, I would talk both about my book and those of the local writers I wanted to read with. I would make it clear that we I knew a lot of people in the area who would come and that we would help promote the reading. And we did!
Getting the Word Out
Now that you have a venue and people set up to read with you, you need to let locals know about the event. The first thing to do is to ask the event planner or owner of that bookstore what would be good places to list the event in or who might be interested in doing an interview or article. Happily take any help here you can. Ask non-writers you know who live in that town. Make flyers or press releases with you and the other writers who are going to read on it with short bios. You can make one of these and then change the writers’ names and venues for each city. Send these with pitches to local newspapers, magazines, websites, and so on, telling them you’re available for an interview. List the reading in the local city listings for events going on.
Create a Facebook Event for each of your events and again go to the top of FaceBook and type in “My friends who live in New York.” Invite all of them. Depending on what changes FaceBook has been making and how difficult it’s being, try looking up “New York” or “Brooklyn, New York.” Usually there’s a list of people who live there. Invite all of them.
Where to Stay
This is tricky. How old are you? Do you mind couch surfing? I did some of that, but also stayed in a lot of hotels. I found that after being on the road for that long, I really needed some alone time to sleep late and hang in my t-shirt and leggings, not to mention time to email the next few places I was going to to make sure everything was set up. Look in Expedia or Priceline for cheaper hotels to stay in.
Don’t make the mistake I did in Somerville, Massachusetts, since I didn’t know the lay of the land very well. I booked a hotel (unknowingly) way out of town because it was cheaper. But what I found out was it would have been less expensive to stay in a pricier hotel closer to town and not have to pay exorbitant cab fare to get to where I needed to go. I tried taking the train from my remote spot to my venue, but the trains were being worked on, so we were let out in a not-great section of town and expected to know what to do. I didn’t! I latched onto a family taking their son to his college dorm for the first time and didn’t let them out of my sight. I wish I could have just walked to the venue.
How to Travel
I took an East Coast Book Tour and a West Coast Book Tour. Flying is absolutely cheaper than renting a car and driving. The rates have come way down for one-way flights. For the East Coast, I mostly flew. I got really tired of making it to the airport by certain times, being delayed, but most of all figuring out how to carry all my books with me and make the weight restrictions for my suitcase. Get your publisher or a friend to mail you some books along the way. Still, it takes a while for the books to arrive, so you have to make guesstimates about how many you’ll need, which is pretty tough. Most of all, maybe because I live in California in a city where you have to have a car, I got tired of feeling so dependent on others to get me where I wanted to go.
On the West Coast, since I’m from San Diego but had an old car I didn’t trust, and since I didn’t want to have to drive all the way back down the coast afterward, I usually I drove a rented car from here to the end of my route, Seattle, reading at various places along the way. I felt much more autonomous, it was easy to throw my books into the car, and it was a pretty driving trip. A lot more expensive, though. And there’s something about crossing state lines that makes the rented car that makes the price go up quite a bit.
You’ll have to decide for yourself.
Book tours are fairly exhausting and a lot of work. However, you do get the name of your book out there, not only by reading, but by advertising the readings locally and on social media. And you can make it into a fun visiting sightseeing trip. I’m glad I did it!
About Bonnie: Bonnie ZoBell recently won first place in the 2015 Next Generation Indie Press Award in the Novella and was a finalist in the Regional Fiction category for her linked 2014 collection with Press 53, What Happened Here:a novella and stories. Her fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published in March 2013. She’s won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. A finalist for the James Jones First Novel Contest and the Nelson Algren Award, she’s received fellowships at The MacDowell Colony, the Corporation of Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, Villa Montalvo, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. She has an MFA from Columbia University, currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College and is working on a novel. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.