Books, Promotion, Publishing Industry

Book Tours and the Changing Face of Publishing

A fellow author recently sent me a link to an interesting story from the L.A. Times about a recent do-it-yourself book tour by a husband-and-wife author team. The article details the many adventures and a few misadventures of a married writing couple who decided to take their promo show on the road.

Not only was it an entertaining read, it reminded me how vastly the landscape of the book publishing industry has changed since I first entered it 20 years ago.

Author Mary A. Shafer signs books at the Bushkill Falls Visitor Center
Here, I'm signing copies of my flood book at the Bushkill Falls Visitor Center in the Poconos.

All but gone are the multi-city author tours subsidized and heavily promoted by all but the largest of book publishers. It was never commonplace to see long lines of eager readers snaking out the door and wrapped around the outside of the bookstore building, but now the sight has become as rare as hen’s teeth. Between the actual costs of travel, food and lodging and the high cost of promotion, such tours are simply too expensive for most publishers to afford these days.

For many of us who write, this is but one facet of the excruciating death of long-held dreams of fame and fortune as a bestselling author. Or is it?

Fact is, there was never a brisk trade in in-person book tours for any but the most promising authors. Sure, a few no-names here and there managed to sweet-talk their editors and publicity departments into building a limited tour for them. Some enterprising souls at the bottom of the newbie author bucket — myself, included — were able to squeeze a few hundred bucks in gas money out of their small publishers in support of an exhausting, self-planned tour. But in general, the full-blown, fully supported book tour was reserved for those whose writing propelled them into the rarefied air breathed by those whose titles dwelled for extended periods on the NYT bestseller list. So, if we look at it with a less jaundiced eye, we’ll see that not much has changed in that way.

And yet.

What HAS changed is the fact that the very technology that is killing the traditional publishing model is also re-inventing the author tour in a positive way. Authors of any level can now do every bit of research needed to plan and execute their own efficient, effective book tours from the privacy and convenience of their own computers.

They can easily find the location and contact information for any kind of bookseller — big box or independent — and call the store’s event director or program manager to determine whether it’s a good fit for an in-person appearance. They can use Google Maps or some other similar tool to plot out the most logical, gas-saving route, and even choose to find good restaurants along the way. They can book their lodging ahead of time using discount sites such as Travelocity or Expedia. Some, like author Stephen Elliott, put their own twist on the traditional book tour, undoubtedly using these same kind of tools.

Best of all, authors can now choose to do a virtual tour that doesn’t even require them to leave home! Free services such as Skype allow authors to “appear” anywhere in the world using nothing more than their computers, a webcam and a decent microphone. Just ask author Barbara Techel and her sidekick, Frankie, the Walk ‘n Roll Dog!

Author Barbara Techel brings her message to classrooms via Skype.

Barb would be the first to tell you how easy Skype is to learn and to use, I’m sure. There’s even a Web-based service called LongPen that allows authors to sign books for their readers, almost as though they were meeting in person.

Traditional book tours, though long celebrated for their ability to cement star status and enjoyed by writers who seek the inimitable charge that comes from pressing the flesh with fans and readers, have never been a very efficient way to get the word out. And with each passing day, they become less environmentally friendly, when you add up all the emissions from cars, buses, trains and planes.

In fact, I’m one of those authors who enjoys getting away from the lonely keyboard once in a while, and I’m pretty sure I’ll always want to do the in-person thing in my home region. I’ll take advantage of the ability to do so in other places when I’m traveling anyway. But since we can’t stop the publishing world from changing, I’m also choosing to become the best darn virtual tour producer/promoter/star that I can be.

I invite other authors to join me in being good promoters of our books, as well as good promoters of environmentally responsible choices, when possible.

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