How to Build a Book Tour Audience
by Paula Margulies
Many authors are leery of doing book tours, not only because it's expensive to travel across the country, but also because it's difficult to create a good-sized audience. How can a relatively unknown writer hope to guarantee crowds at signings? Here are some suggestions to help put listeners in the chairs (and hopefully ring up sales):
Sign in Cities Where You Know People
Sounds obvious, doesn't it? Believe it or not, I've had clients insist on appearing in cities like New York, Chicago, or Washington, D.C., when they don't know anyone there. Being an unknown makes setting up signings difficult in the first place, but if you go to a city where you don't know anyone, chances are you'll have a hard time filling the seats. Instead, consider places where you know people – the town where you grew up, the city where you worked at that start-up company that now owns half the block, the places your college roommates live, etc. Don't just think big city or target market demographics – instead, focus on places where you can call up half a dozen people and get them to each bring a friend to your signing (or at least post a notice at work in the company break room).
Schedule Your Signings Wisely
At Areopagitica Books in Columbus, Ohio, bookstore owners Doug and Rebecca Rutledge suggest holding a signing at one o'clock in the afternoon on Saturdays. Why is that a preferred time? "Because," Doug says, "the farmer's market next door lets out then, and the overflow crowd tends to come into the bookstore to browse afterward." Likewise, James Jackson at The Know Bookstore in Durham, North Carolina, recommends holding signings at seven o'clock on Friday evenings, right after the weekly jazz session that's held in the adjacent café. If you don't have a lot of fans, or aren't familiar with the city where you're signing, scheduling your reading right after a nearby or in-store event can help draw interested listeners in to hear you without costing you a dime in advertising.
Think Outside the Bookstore Box
Many authors automatically want to hold readings at the big chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, small independent book stores, libraries and, depending on the topic, schools and universities. But there are lots of other options for book signing venues. If your book has a non-fiction topic or is specialty-based, you might consider finding related outlets for that particular bit of information. For example, if you've written a cookbook, you may be welcome at a local bakery or restaurant that features your style of cooking. If your novel has a romantic theme, you might consider speaking at a romance writers meeting or at one of the local singles get-togethers. Got a book with a political spin? There are numerous Democratic, Republican, and Green clubs looking for speakers on any number of topics. Written a civil war historical? Find one of the many reenactment clubs, and ask if you can speak at the next meeting.
Don't be afraid to look for enticing or rarely considered venues as possible outlets. Museums, concert halls, churches – any place where people gather is a potential venue for book signings. Camille Forbes, author of Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America's First Black Star, recently gave a reading at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. "The cemetery signing was a great start to my book tour," she says. "The audience had a unique vested interest in Williams, since he’s buried there." Not your typical venue, but people came, and she sold books.
Also, be sure to maximize your website as a place where interested readers can find ways to hear you speak. Contests are a great way to promote your book on the web and the possibilities are endless. You can run contests for phone interviews with book clubs, or even follow the lead of one enterprising writer, who offers a contest for filmmakers, allowing them to create entries using scenes from his novel.
Hit the Malls
Candy Davis, who manages the B. Dalton Bookseller at the Los Angeles Mall, doesn't have room for a signing inside her store. But she loves to set up authors at a table right outside the door, especially during the noon-time rush. "We get all kinds of business professionals at the mall during the lunch hour," she says. And those professionals are interested in meeting authors and buying books. Melissa Wiles at Borders Express Tower City in Cleveland, Ohio, has the same situation in her store. "I set up my authors outside in the mall walkway," Melissa says. "It's a great way for them to be seen." Melissa also hosts an annual book signing table during the holiday season. She invites seven or eight authors to come and sign during one of the busiest times of the year for book buyers.
If you don't have a lot of friends and family to call on, consider partnering with another writer for a joint signing. Perhaps you're a fiction writer with a story about a baseball-loving detective. That non-fiction writer you know with a book about coaching in the minor leagues might be just the person with whom to partner. You'll bring your friends and acquaintances to the signing, and he'll bring his. And the book store manager will love you both for helping to sell two books at one event.
Consider Holding Your Own Low-Cost Book Tour
I've heard about one writer who takes his annual vacation from his day job in the summer and uses those three or four weeks off to create his own book tour. He packs his wife and kids in the car (along with lots of copies of his book in the trunk) and schedules stops across the country with friends and relatives. At each town he visits, he prearranges bookstore signings and also gives talks at public schools, libraries, and universities. He stays with his friends and family, so he doesn't pay for high-priced hotels, and the folks he stays with help get the word out about his signings and talks.
Promote on the Cheap
If your budget is thin, there are inexpensive ways to promote your signings. Create your own flyers and post them in super markets, college student centers, and community libraries. Email the same flyers to your friends and family and reward them (maybe with a complimentary copy of your book?) for passing the word along. List your signings in the event calendars on newspaper and magazine websites and on announcement sites like Craigslist. Mount printed posters of your book cover on foam core and send these to bookstores for in-store promotions. Give the owners at speaking venues your printed giveaways (bookmarks, postcards, business cards, magnets, etc.) to hand out to customers and guests. And finally, if you're lucky enough to have a friend who's gifted at walking up to people and convincing them to come and hear you speak, ask him to work the room the next time you're scheduled to sign. You could even consider offering him a percentage of your sales. It might be the best money you ever spend.