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The DIY Book Tour

Originally posted on February 11, 2013

Over the past few years, I’ve hosted more than 100 events with readers in eight countries. There is no “author school” where one learns to do these things—it’s very much been a make-it-up-as-I-go process.

I’ve also received a lot of questions from other authors, aspiring authors, musicians, artists, and other readers who like the idea of taking their show on the road.

In this (long!) post I’ll share a few stories, highlights, and lessons learned from the past three years of coordinating and hosting book events. I hope something here will be helpful to anyone who hopes to reach more people with their message.

Beginnings: The AONC Book (September 2010-January 2011)

I began event #1 in New York City on the day my first book launched back in September 2010. Over the following three months I traveled to every U.S. state and Canadian province, meeting readers at every stop.

The venues for this first “Unconventional Book Tour” were quite varied. I went to a lot of bookstores, but also stopped in at plenty of other unconventional venues arranged by readers.

Among other places, AONC readers and I gathered in a Pilates studio (New Haven), coffee shops (Wilmington, Lexington, and Louisville), a pizza parlor (Anchorage), a bed and breakfast (Atlanta) an art gallery (Lawrence), a farm (Nashville), a heavy metal concert hall (San Francisco), a grocery store (Minneapolis), a couple of corporate offices (Arlington, Philadelphia), and numerous co-working spaces.

We had as many as 200+ people (Los Angeles, Portland, Vancouver, Toronto, and others) and as few as four people (West Virginia). I traveled by plane, train, bus, and rental car—sometimes riding along with a friend or my brother Ken, who joined me for a few stops in the Great Lakes area.

Putting together the itinerary, especially for the U.S. portion, was a project in itself. I took an atlas with me during the previous year’s Annual Review and divided up the country into regions. The plan was to do all of New England on the first leg, all of the Midwest on the second leg, and so on.

Everywhere I went, I connected with dozens of people who had been reading the blog or had heard about the book. Many of these relationships are still in place now, and I continue to hear fun stories from people about tour #1 wherever I go.

Biggest lesson of book tour #1: if you’re thinking of doing something big that involves going on the road and connecting with people, don’t hesitate! It’s worth it.

Starting in New York and ending in Portland, I went to 18 initial cities on the first $100 Startup tour, including a quick hop over to London for the U.K. launch. Then I went back for Canada and several additional U.S. cities before hosting the second annual World Domination Summit in Portland.

In some ways, the process was much the same as the first tour, except this time we scaled up a bit. At most stops on the initial $100 Startup tour we had at least 150 people, and often many more. In contrast to round 1, where a number of smaller stops were conducted by roundtable conversation without a microphone, this time I always spoke with a microphone, and often from a stage.

After the first round of cities, I headed out on another small round of stops including San Diego, Orange County, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Omaha. This second round was also a great experience, but by this point I felt like something was missing with the model. At each stop I knew great people who all offered to help in advance, but due to so many other things going on, I was often delayed in getting back to them. I also didn’t know what to ask besides “Show up! Bring someone!”

Surely we can do better, I thought. This sense of mixed feelings (so much potential! but I’m so busy!) led to the creation of the new model, which we just debuted in eight cities across the U.S. over the past couple of weeks.

New Model: January 2013-Present

With the benefit of 90 or so events in hindsight, and as I was thinking ahead to some long-term goals for 2014 and beyond, I realized we needed to make some changes in the tour. The biggest thing I needed was an actual process. (File under: obvious.)

It’s fun to hang out with a bunch of people in a pizza parlor and make it up as you go—the maverick or renegade story has always been a big part of the AONC narrative—but I also think you should be learning lessons and improving as you go along.

Thus, I realized that we should “go grassroots” and work more closely with local groups and organizations in coordinating the events. I’ve worked with co-hosts since the very first tour, but I wanted to involve them more in the process and create a structure they could adapt in their own way for their city.

To start, I created a form that prospective co-hosts or sponsors can fill out. –->

Then, as a test, we picked nine prospective co-hosts for an initial mini-tour, starting in California then continuing to the east coast, on to Nashville and Dallas in the south, with Columbia (Missouri) thrown in for good measure.

Each stop was officially coordinated by at least one co-host, often on behalf of a non-profit, startup, co-working space, or other organization. I did all the events for free, and wherever possible the tickets were free for attendees as well.

I’ve been trying out this new model over the past two weeks. The verdict so far is that this new model is working mostly well, with one significant problem that I’ll mention later in the wrap-up.

Highs and Lows

Traveling the world has certainly brought a lot of awareness and knowledge, but there’s no doubt that book tour has changed my life too. It’s been incredibly fun and meaningful.

When I write blog posts and manuscripts, I think about the people I’ve met on tour, especially those who drive long distances to attend, bake cupcakes, or drag along friends. Book tour has also been great for seeing how multi-generational our community is. A lot of people assume that blog readers are mostly younger people, and that’s not the case at all.

A few cities on the first tour really surprised me. Lawrence, Kansas drew a bigger crowd than Chicago. Cheyenne, Wyoming was tiny—but in Missoula, Montana, a good-sized group showed up. Portland, Maine was one of my favorite stops, but almost no one came out in Burlington, Vermont.

I spoke at the flagship Borders store in Ann Arbor, Michigan right before it went out of business, and they were kind enough to make the book one of their most recommended titles of 2012. (Sadly, the whole Borders chain is now extinct. May they rest in peace.)

Because every one is different, I don’t get tired of the events themselves. Some are better than others, but there are very few “bad” gigs. I do sometimes get tired of constantly shuffling from one place to another, worrying that everything is in order. And I do get behind on my other projects while touring, which creates a tension as I strive to make progress on more than one thing at once.

Once in a while, some kind of communication breaks down and we have a real problem. In Hawaii on the first tour, I showed up at the Barnes & Noble store that had been officially confirmed through my publisher. For some unknown reason, the event manager was not a fan. She refused to let the attendees sit down (!) and basically told me to take them somewhere else (!).

Meanwhile, readers were showing up in the front of the store, including some who had flown over from other islands and at least one guy who had come from the mainland just for the event. Thankfully, it turned out OK—one of the quick-thinking readers found a nearby bar that offered us a whole section to ourselves. As I walked out of the store I vowed never to return.

(Note: Many other B&N stores have been great! I think we just hit bad luck with one random event manager.)

In Australia, one of my favorite countries, it was my own publisher who went AWOL. Up to ten days before two events we were hosting in Melbourne and Sydney, there was no word on venues. Then another five days went by. Finally I showed up in Melbourne and tracked down my local contact on the phone, wherein I learned that absolutely nothing had been done to prepare for the 100+ people in both cities who were preparing to show up in a few days.

“We just don’t launch books in Australia,” my contact told me, before suggesting that a strip bar he had attended in Sydney might be a good place to hold the event. As exciting as that may have sounded to the publishing contact, for some reason I decided it wasn’t the best plan.

A friend in Melbourne ended up coming to my rescue for that city’s event, and in Sydney I ended up paying more than $1,000 to rent a last-minute meeting room at the Hilton. The hotel wasn’t an ideal space and I certainly wasn’t happy about paying for something we could have received for free if we had more than two days notice, but by that point I had no idea what to do and all future communication from the local publisher went unanswered.

Ironically, even though no one from my Australian publisher even bothered to attend either event, one of which was held less than a mile from their office in Melbourne, representatives from two other publishers who were fans of the book showed up. (File under: bizarre experiences and awkward conversations.)

I was depressed about the bad experience and almost wrote a long blog post telling the whole story, but in the end I decided to keep things positive. I had a good experience with the readers, and that’s who it’s all about.

I should stress that these two negative experiences are definitely the exception. After more than 100 events, I can say that 95 of them have been amazing, very good, or at least good. Whether at bookstores or publishers, most people who work in publishing do so because they love books and want them to be read. As an author I want my books to be read too, and I also want to be a good partner for everyone else in the business.

Lessons Learned

Here are a few things I’ve learned from all the different events.

Make it fun! A large number of people who come to the gigs have said that they’ve never been to a book talk before, which is great. I encourage readers to bring cupcakes and to talk to other people who show up. Sometimes they also bring muffins, brownies, or scones. In Nashville last week some guy brought Mac & Cheese—a long story.

I give a talk for 25 minutes or less, do another 25 minutes of Q&AA (Questions and Attempted Answers), and then we hang out. Wherever possible, I try to keep it conversational and informal. In Atlanta we had a New Orleans style marching band. Two weeks ago in Detroit there was an African drum show and a food fair of local vendors, many of whom had started their businesses for less than $100. (Great testimonial!)

Co-hosts make all the difference. If a few people are on the ground in any given city making things happen, we’ll have a much better experience than if it was just me and a bookstore.

I can draw a good group on my own, but we’ll have a better time if there are more people who aren’t familiar with my stuff. Good co-hosts can make a huge difference, and I’m very grateful for the ones who go above and beyond in putting together a supportive environment for all our attendees.

I’m no CouchSurfer. On the first tour I was trying to keep expenses low and stay as affordably as possible, which led to sleeping on couches or in budget motels faraway from the venue. Lesson learned: I don’t stay in people’s homes these days, and I don’t stay in many Motel 6’s either.

After the gig these days, if I’m not traveling on to the next city the same evening, I go crash at a hotel. Since I’ve missed most of the working day due to travel, I usually spend the next two hours working online at the bar or in my room. I simply have to do my best to keep up—if I fall behind, I end up letting people down on various commitments.

You’ll improve through repetition. While I’ve been touring over the past ten days I’ve been shifting small things in the talks I give. I recently read an article about how small shifts in delivery can create different responses.

In a good talk, everything is there for a reason. Right now I think the talk is 90% where I’d like it to be, but in a situation like this, the final 10% is everything. Therefore I keep working away and trying to improve.

Possible Questions and Answers

Below are some questions that some people might ask, and an attempt at the answers.

Who pays for book tour?

It depends. For the first book tour, I paid for everything—all flights, hotels, ground travel, meals, and everything else. I honestly don’t think my first publisher believed me when I said I was going to visit readers in 63 cities. They eventually came around to the idea, but only after saying “You know we can’t pay for that, right?”

In the end it was fine, since I wanted to prove myself as an author. I believed that authors are responsible for the success of their books (more on this later) and I saw the first tour as an investment in my career. The whole tour cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000.

For the second book, I changed publishers and Random House was smart enough to understand that these tours are critical to our mutual success, especially in the beginning. They were also smart enough to realize that the $100 Startup tour might go on for a long time—so we agreed to a deal where they paid for the first 20 stops (flights, hotels, ground travel), and I took care of things after that. It was essentially a good faith agreement, one that both of us were happy to make.

The $100 Startup is now in process of publication with at least eighteen foreign publishers. Arrangements for in-country visits or tours vary considerably. In some cases I receive an offer to come over for a local launch with everything paid for. In other cases I receive an offer to come over, but with only limited expenses covered. Finally, sometimes the translated book comes out somewhere, I never hear anything from the publisher, and I have no idea what happened.

Is it worth it?

In the first few weeks after a new book comes out, when everyone is watching the bestseller lists and you’re trying to start with a bang, it’s definitely worth it. I focus on major cities during that time, and we’ll sell a few thousand books each week just through the actual tour. I’m also usually doing radio or other media in many of the stops, and some of that has an effect as well.

Where it gets more interesting is after those first few weeks. By that point, a lot of fans already have the book—so I don’t sell a ton of copies in the later stops, at least not directly. My royalty is approximately $3 per hardcover book, so if we sell 40 books at an event, I “make” $120 one year later… and I’ve probably paid $1,000 or more to fly to that city and stay in a hotel. Whenever possible we don’t charge for the event itself, and I don’t ask for (or accept) donations.

However, the real answer is: THINK LONG-TERM. It’s all about the career, not the short-term fix. My goal is to build real relationships that will continue long beyond any one project. In addition to traditionally published books, I make a good living from the self-publishing work I do. One thing relates to another, which is why you need an integrated, long-term focus.

Who is responsible for marketing?

I firmly believe that authors are always responsible for the outcome of their books. I will do anything and everything I can to ensure the book debuts well and (hopefully) goes on to sell for a long period of time. Anything the publisher does to help is a bonus.

Side note: consider adopting a version of this perspective no matter what kind of work you do. When you’re responsible for the outcome, you know you’ll make it happen, and you won’t be disappointed if no one else helps.

What if you’re afraid of speaking?

Join the club. The only people I know who are completely unafraid of public speaking aren’t very good at it, because they’re overconfident. I’m nervous almost every night before a talk, even if I’ve done it seven nights in a row. It gets better, though. You improve through sheer repetition and with the realization that most people in the audience want you to succeed. You gain confidence and improve in your ability to connect with people through presentations and Q&A.

The biggest lesson I learned about speaking was from Scott Berkun, who said something like: “Remember that the audience is on your side. They want you to succeed.” This perspective shift helped me a lot when I was getting started.*

*They’re on your side because they’ve come to the gig in the first place. They’re your fans, or at least they’re curious. Even if not, no one wants to hear a bad speaker … therefore they want you to do well.

What if no one shows up?

Having no one show up is the biggest fear of every author, bookstore, and publicist. It’s never happened to me but I came close once in New Brunswick. (I love most of Canada, but Fredericton was… interesting.)

The reason I have a signup process is to ensure that people will come—or at least, to ensure that they say they’ll come. The actual signup-to-attendance ratio varies a bit from city to city, but it’s usually at least 50%. If I have 200 people on any given list, I can feel confident that 100 of them will actually show up.

Final Thoughts

I know that not everyone cares about the business side of being an author. But if you do care, I hope this is helpful. If you have any questions, post them in the comments and I’ll do my best to respond.

Like everything else I do, the books tours are in a state of continuous improvement. I’m still learning what works best and what should be changed.

One lesson from recent weeks: In the new model, we learned that we need to make a closer connection to book sales. It’s fun to bring together a hundred or more people in any given city night after night, but if it’s a book tour it should indeed be somehow about books.

I think I’ve figured out how to fix this. For future stops, we’ll be asking our partner organizations to purchase books in advance. They can then resell them at the events or simply give them away through sponsorship, but that way we know that a certain number of books is sold each night.

Of course, I should thank you—the readers—for making the tours possible. Without people who care about books, I wouldn’t have this career in the first place. Without going on the road, I could still blog and probably make a good living from my online products, but meeting remarkable people in city after city has added a whole different dimension to my work.

I also learned long ago that the best thing about the events is everyone else who attends. I try to mention this fact at every stop, and I especially enjoy when people connect with each other after coming to the gig.

In a time when publishing is constantly being reinvented, the DIY book tour model has been good to me. If you’re hoping to reach more people with your own message, regardless of whether you’re an author or not, I hope that something in this post is helpful or inspiring.