The Book Tour: Real and Virtual

Moderator William Souder, along with panelists Brian Jay Jones, John Rosengren, and literary agent Ike Williams wasted little time in debunking the idea—if any writer still held it—that the glamorous national book tour, paid for a by a publisher, still exists (with notable exceptions for some big-name authors). Instead, much of the promotion of a new book is up to the author, though some strategic work with the publisher can help.

The virtual side of promotion can be high tech—Facebook, Twitter, websites—or via a much older but still powerful medium—radio. Jones explained how he set up a day’s worth of radio interviews that he conducted from his home. But he said not all radio interviews are desirable. Shows that feature calls from listeners can take the interview away from the author’s intended message. Rosengren said he hired a publicist who specialized in radio to get interviews that were appropriate for his books. Though both featured baseball players, their themes went beyond the sport itself to address larger social issues, so public radio stations were often more appropriate than sports shows.

Williams seconded the idea of authors hiring their own publicists—preferably one who has worked with the publisher before—if they can afford it. He also noted that “editorial people have no clout now at all” when it comes to how—or if—a publisher will market a book. His advice: get to know the marketing and sales staff, especially the people who work with social media. Arrange for them to be at the first meeting with an editor.

Arranging the “real” tour, the visiting of bookstores and speaking at events, is something most writers now handle largely on their own. Knowing which events will be lucrative, Souder suggested, can be a crapshoot. One of his events, at St. Paul’s premier bookstore, netted zero sales, while a talk at a small community library resulted in dozens. Still, the authors on the panel agreed that it’s worth trying to get readings at the major metropolitan bookstores, though they can fill their calendars months in advance.

Rosengren had several tips for scouting out locations. He talked to writers in cities he wanted to target and looked for specific groups that would be interested in his subject. His first biography was on the Jewish-American slugger Hank Greenburg, so he pitched himself to Jewish groups and synagogues. He also tapped into the Jewish Book Council’s Author Network, which helps promote Jewish authors or writers with books on Jewish themes.

The self-promotion necessary today takes time and money. Jones said he didn’t turn down any appearances in his home region, the D.C. area, but traveling far from home can mean relying on friends and family to put up an author. Williams said he sees too many writers fall into the “trap of promotion.” At some point, writers are better off financially to start a new book and score the next advance, rather than scrambling to sell 20 or 30 copies of a book that’s been in print a year or two.

Souder said that having a well-known subject is a plus, which Jones seconded. The moderator recounted an exchange when he was promoting his biography of John Jay Audubon. Someone asked if that was “the guy that built that big highway in Germany.” Souder seemed to have more name recognition with Rachel Carson. He is now considered an expert on her, and can make money speaking at environmentally themed events.