The Event Lament: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly about DIY Book Tours
The publishing industry doesn’t come with a handbook. Yes, you can purchase just about anything written by Jane Friedman and generally speaking, that will help guide you, but there’s no, like, one-page document that tells you the steps one can take to become a successful author. I need a recipe. Tell me the precise measurements of flour, water, oil, vanilla, and cinnamon I need to end up on the New York Times Bestseller list.
No such recipe exists, you say? Fine.
Then, at least can you tell me how I’m doing? No? Really?
At publishing imprints, for every season, there’s a lead title. I don’t know if it’s generally information that authors are informed about – largely because I am not a lead title – but I suspect the size of your advance is a pretty good indicator of where you stand. It’s simple math: the higher the advance, the more marketing the publisher is going to do on your behalf. Why? Well, you’re an investment, and so it’s important that the publisher invests wisely. That means, if they’ve ponied up significant dollars that now live in your bank account, they’re going to want to make that money back, and the best way to do that is via marketing.
Lead titles get big opportunities. Panels, conferences, all of these things get an author out in front of the right audiences (read: booksellers and librarians, and also to some degree the general public – aka readers).
But most of us will not be lead titles. Especially if you’re a debut.
So, then what?
I did a bunch of research (I know, surprise, surprise) to try and figure out the benefits of going on a tour with my debut novel, especially if my publisher wasn’t planning on sending me anywhere. I read all the horror stories online about authors showing up to events and finding all of the seats empty, so right there I decided I’d be hard-pressed to ever do an event alone. At least if I had a buddy with me – another author, my agent, someone – if it all went to shit, I’d have someone there to down a drink with.
Since marketing feels kind of like a big game of throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks, I felt like a complete and/or robust marketing plan wouldn’t be fully formed without events on the calendar, especially during launch week. So I got as creative as possible and started making plans.
The first thing I did was to assess my situation. I am very fortunate to have a summer home in one location and a permanent home in another. They are five hours apart – one in New York and one in Cape Cod. I am extremely grateful to belong to a generous, supportive community in each location, so I decided to begin with them.
In my area on Long Island, one thing we don’t have is a local indie bookstore. There’s a new one that just opened up but it’s like 15 miles away from where I live. I brainstormed about potential venues for a launch party, and realized that right in my own neighborhood, we have a comedy club, and since The Book Proposal is a comedy, I thought that might be a fun way to celebrate: by finding a cool comedian whose work shared a similar vibe to the book. Also, in my day job, I run a non-profit, so I am no stranger to planning events. It’s been a while thanks to Covid, but I used to host 3-4 events of varying sizes every year.
The thought struck me last December, around the holidays: a fundraiser would be a great way to launch this book.
You see, I don’t just run a non-profit, I run a literacy non-profit. We teach people how to read. Raising money for an organization that develops future readers with the launch of my debut novel makes perfect sense!
I began planning first by doing my comedy research. It was so much fun – searching for a local comedian who was genuinely funny, whose vibe matched the tone of the book. I wanted a local because this is a story set in New York (Brooklyn, to be specific). When I stumbled upon the work of Liz Miele, I knew I hit pay dirt. Not only is she freaking hysterical, but she lives in Brooklyn and she has dyslexia. So, yeah. Fate.
I contacted my selected venue to discuss pricing and available dates, and then I contacted Liz's booking agent to see if we could make something work. We signed the contract in January. So, if you’re planning on doing something like this yourself, I’d say make sure you start your planning at least 6 months out.
Once the big launch party was in the books, I made a save-the-date and let all of my local and work-based connections know about it. Now, with 2 weeks to launch as I write this, I’ve got just over 100 people coming to this ticketed event. For the run of show, I’ll be the opening act – meaning I get to go up and do a quick reading and welcome people and thank them, and then I get to sit back and enjoy a night of comedy starring a comedian whose work I love! We’ll have some raffle baskets and I’ll sign some books and we’ll raise a few thousand dollars for a good cause.
That’s my signature event.
Once you’ve got a signature event on the calendar, you can start to build other, smaller events around it. But I don’t think it’s wise to tap into the same potential audience twice. My signature event would cover my Long Island people. (Though I have to say I was so pleasantly surprised when all of my out-of-town family signed up to come! I also have friends from Cape Cod driving down for it and, the biggest surprise of all – my agent is coming in from Colorado! People will surprise you with the outpouring of love they’ll offer you.)
As mentioned previously, my other community is in Cape Cod, which happens to be an area rich with beautiful indie bookstores! I started by randomly emailing one of my favorite local indies (Titcomb’s in Sandwich) and this was a bit strategic because I have friends who live on the Cape year round but also I have friends who live in Boston and summer there, so I wanted to choose a location that the Boston folks could get to as well. The bookstore owner, Rae, was so lovely and welcoming and was excited to host me at her shop! But remembering the rule from before (do nothing alone), I asked my friend, fellow romance author Lauren H. Mae, if she’d be willing to come down from Maine and do the event with me. Thankfully, she said yes, and before long, my second event was on the schedule.
My third event was with another community where I was going to have a guaranteed audience: my MFA program. I went to Fairfield University, which is in Connecticut, right between the Cape and Long Island, and I’m grateful that they have a huge alumni network that hosts readings and open mics and things like that. I reached out to the alumni in charge of all that fun stuff, and they happen to be two of the most welcoming, lovely artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing! With open arms, I was offered several opportunities to showcase my work – and before I knew it, I had an online event and a live event added to the growing calendar!
So, to recap: the book comes out 5/16, and I had events booked for 5/17 (Long Island), 5/18 (Cape Cod), 5/19 (Connecticut) and 5/7 (online). Whew!
The next event I was able to book originally came through my publicist. She received an email from an indie bookstore in Queens, one neighborhood over from where I grew up. I still have a somewhat decent footprint in the city, so I was happy to take that event on – and I learned (around that same time) that my agent would be traveling in from Colorado for the week of my launch – and she, ironically, used to live in that exact neighborhood. It made sense to book an event there for the actual day of my launch, May 16th, which I knew would be a relatively small event in comparison to the one the following day. I considered it a “soft launch” – I knew I’d populate the room with at least a good handful of my own people, and then if anyone from the community wanted to come, the more, the merrier. The bookstore owner and I decided it would be fun to host an “in conversation with” event between myself and my agent, so that was an easy event to plan.
Other events – some online things, and some live events further down the pike – came to fruition in the weeks and months that followed, and I’m still planning and finalizing events into June and July. But it all started with one anchor event – the fundraiser for my organization.
I think the big takeaway is that if you’re a rookie and you’re planning to host events, you should consider your reach. I don’t expect strangers to come see me at any of these events. I’m sure there's a possibility that some of the people in attendance might be folks I’ve never met, but it would be unwise to count on new readers to fill up your event spaces. I am a debut author. Right now, I am nobody. To expect that people will be so excited about my book that they want to leave their houses on a Tuesday night to come spend money and visit me at a random bookstore would be naïve. I’m hopeful, sure, but I think the lower I keep my expectations, the happier (and more sane) I will be able to remain.
Additionally, as much as possible, these events are ticketed. I think this is largely a Covid thing – like, since the pandemic, small spaces don’t want to overcrowd – but it’s also just wise from a business standpoint. The purpose of events is to get your name out there and ultimately, to sell books. So, if I’m hosting the event on launch day at the indie in Queens, I’m going to give them a call a week in advance and see how we’re doing on tickets, just to gauge whether or not I need to beg family members to come.
The up side? I feel like I’m getting an incredible education about booking events and what to expect. I’m also making all sorts of great contacts at bookstores and putting my name out there. Will it help sell books? I don’t know. Ultimately, time will tell. It’s certainly not going to hurt, that’s for sure.
The down side? Well, just like with all things marketing, it takes a lot of time and energy. And bravery! I’m not a huge fan of the spotlight – reading in front of a crowd makes me extremely nervous, but to be fair, this whole experience is wildly outside of my comfort zone, so at this point, I’m starting to grow a little numb to it all. I will say, I think events are a part of a well-rounded marketing plan, so as nervous as I am to get mine going (as of writing this, I’m 2 weeks away from my launch date), I’m also looking forward to going through the experience.
I’ll let you know in future posts whether or not it was all worthwhile – stay tuned!