by John Scalzi
When I’m out and about and recount my tour adventures to people (I can reel off my itinerary just about in my sleep at this point), the question often arises about whether all this touring is actually still useful and/or desirable in an age where so many people get their books electronically, and when one (or at least, one like me) can show up to a comic con, at which between 20k and 50k people will show up in one place, where you also happen to be. In this context, book touring can at least initially seem like an anachronism, and of questionable value.
Here’s why it’s not questionable, at least for someone like me (and I will explain what “someone like me” means in a bit — stay tuned). In no particular order:
1. Because print books still matter. Chest-thumping about the digital revolution aside, print books are still 70% of the market in a general sense. I personally sell more electronically than in print, but my print sales are still substantial and I’m not inclined to ignore them. Book tours take me to places where those print books are sold, especially at the beginning of the book’s sales cycle. Showing up can make a difference.
2. Because it pumps up best seller list appearances. Lots of tours (including mine) include stops to bookstores that report to Bookscan, theNew York Times, and to local and specialty newspapers and magazines, all of whom collate that information and offer up best seller lists. Best seller lists matter because it’s free advertising in newspapers and online, because bookstores (including Barnes & Noble, the largest book chain in the US) put best selling books front of store, making your work easier for people to find — especially if you’re in genre, because sometimes people won’t intentionally wander over to the genre racks — and because it becomes a useful tool in marketing. When you can claim you are a bestseller, it assures someone who has never read you before that they aren’t wrong for giving you a try; after all, lots of other people agree with their decision.
3. Because it helps to support bookstores, and not just in the sense of selling a whole bunch of books to people at the event to see me, although that doesn’t hurt. It also reconnects people to the fact that there is a bookstore in their city, gives them an opportunity to walk the aisles and look at the wares, and gives the bookstore a chance to make the argument to these folks that shopping at the store is still a great way to buy books and a great way to support local business. Helping keep bookstores in business and front of mind to locals is in my long-term best interest, because, again, print isn’t going away anytime soon… unless the bookstores go away.
4. Because it can generate local and national attention. Aside from best seller lists (which generally happen after the fact), local press often run interviews and features — or even just appearance listings — prior to an event, which can help draw people in to the local bookstore, and which can help my publicist capture the interest of reporters and media outlets further down the line on the tour. Simply just showing up can make the difference in whether there’s a review or feature. And again, people may snark about newspapers/magazines being in decline, but know this: Those newspapers and magazines still go out to tens and hundreds of thousands of people. You can still get a lot of attention from and awareness out of them.
5. Because it develops relationships between you and book sellers. If I come into a bookstore, fill it with dozens of people, all of whom buy books, talk up the book seller to my audience, and show appreciation for and respect to the book seller for having my event at their store, you know what? Weeks and months later, long after I’m gone, that book seller is still likely to be recommending and hand selling me and my books to customers who come into the store — and ordering my books, both in back list and when the new books come out. This matters quite a lot because, again, print isn’t dead, and people are people; they remember the people who have helped them out and have been on their side.
(The flip side of this is that if you come in to a bookstore, act like a jerk and give a disappointing appearance for the people who have come to see you, the book seller is going to remember that, too. So, you know. You try not to do that.)
6. Because not everyone who comes to your book tour is going to come to a comic con or other convention. Note that I don’t think these things are either/or — you can do book tours and appearances at large general events, like comic cons, book fairs and other such things. I mean, I do — I do several conventions and book fairs a year. But anecdotally, there’s a large number of people who show up to my bookstore events who aren’t going to go to something like a comic con. Some of them are people who do not see themselves as “geeks” — i.e., people whose idea of fun encompasses spending a day (or three) in a convention center among tens of thousands of other people. Some people hate large crowds and prefer an opportunity to see you in a more intimate setting. Some people have never heard of you before and found out about you through a book seller flyer or email, or a newspaper write-up. Some people just happen to be in the store when you start doing your thing. And so on. Limiting one’s self to one sort of appearance limits you to the sort of person who will come to that sort of appearance — limits your potential audience, in other words. I’m not sure why I would want to do that.
7. Because people want their moment with you. The number of people who have a book signed specifically to have a signed book is actually pretty small. The majority of the people who are getting a book signed are getting a book signed so they get a little time with you — to talk to you about the book, to get a picture, to share a thought or otherwise spend just a moment with someone whose work they like and who they might even admire in some way. A book tour is a good way to have those moments, and those moments matter — it can mean the difference between someone being a casual fan, and someone being a lifelong reader of your work (and being someone who recommends that work to others).
And yes, this is a very hands-on, time-intensive, retail way of doing things, but again, it’s not just about the moment, it’s about what happens after the moment — the knock-on effects of that moment, over days and weeks and months and years. Looked upon that way, it’s not a bad time investment.
(And once again, it can work the other way, too — if you blow that moment with someone, they’re going to remember that. You have to be fully engaged in the moment, and you have to make sure the person you’re having the moment with knows you are actually happy to be sharing it with them.)
8. Because it’s fun, even as it is a lot of work. I mean, come on. I get to go around the US and meet people who are fantastically happy to see me, perform for them for an hour with the reading and Q&A, and then spend a moment with them as I sign their books and/or take a photo with them. It’s a lot of travel and a lot of work being “on” the whole time, but it’s not hard, and there is, bluntly, a lot of ego gratification, which doesn’t suck, either. Peoplegeek out about meeting me. That’s weird. And delightful! But weird. I like it, and I like that every day that I am out of tour, I get concrete evidence that people enjoy what I do. It’s a nice life, you know?
There are other reasons to tour, including some that are very inside pool for publishing and book selling, but you get the idea.
Now, it’s important to note a couple of things here. The first is that in general I get toured a lot more, and a lot longer, than most authors; I’ve toured for five out of my last six books and I’ve toured for no less than two and a half weeks each time. That’s a lot, especially when you consider that I publish new books more or less annually. I am also someone who sells a lot generally and is well-along in his career; my position and perspective are different than many authors.
It’s also important to note that by and large the benefits of touring are not short term; at the end of my tour, Tor, my publisher, will just barely zero out the cost of putting me on tour, or will either eke out a tiny profit or suffer a tiny loss. This is all about the long-term benefits: To me, to them, to booksellers, and to the relationships between all of us and the folks who read my work. In the short term, the book tour benefits might seem iffy. In the long term, however, it is totally worth it.
So, again, for me, touring makes sense, and will probably continue to make sense, for a long time to come. I expect I’m not the only author for whom this is the case.
John Scalzi is a former president of SFWA. This post first appeared on his blog and is reposted with his kind permission.