Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lessons of the Book Tour

I'm just back from a brief book tour for my new book of fiction, and I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I learned this time about touring.

Reading in bars is a very relaxing atmosphere. It's great for the quality of the reading--it may even be a better place for a reading than many other venues, but it is not always good for selling books. People are hoarding their dollars for beer; they have come to be entertained, not to be sold something; and often there is not an obvious spot to place the books for maximum showcase (and minimum shoplifting risk).

Invest in the non-digital. Choose co-readers whose writing you love and then enjoy the hell out of reading with them, chat with strangers who attend your readings, invite friends and acquaintances out for dinner or drinks after the reading, meet one-on-one with other writers in each city when you can, and visit bookstores. The internet age is training us to be brains with eyes and a mouse-clicking finger for a body, but real people still respond to real people.

Bookstores still sell books, even small press books. Bookstores still attract readers who want to buy books. Meet your booksellers along the book tour. Do research to figure out what indie bookstores along your route would be a good match for your book; who takes consignment; and to whom you should speak, if that info is available. Indie booksellers are still interested in authors working hard for their book, and if they think it intersects their customers' tastes, they can become a great ally via the Hand Sell. Meanwhile, you should become an ally to the bookstore by directing folks there—let your people know that your book is for sale at _______ Bookstore, and let them know what you like about the store. What books attracted your eye when you were there?

Don't judge a reading by the number of people who show up to it. Sometimes a small reading audience is composed of 100% writers and editors on the verge of becoming your literary comrades. Sometimes one person becomes a huge fan. Sometimes a listener gives you a really useful piece of feedback.

You'll pick up books along the way and you won't always get rid of as many of your books as you'd like. You'll wish that you'd packed more shirts and less of almost everything else. Pack travel-sized toiletries. Bring one pair of jeans instead of two. Two pairs of shoes instead of three or four. Ship books back to yourself mid-tour if you need to. In most cities, there's a Mailboxes Etc or UPS Store around the corner.

When reading, make sure you stay interested in reaching your audience, in staying open. Make sure the reading stays fresh for you. If you read the same passage at different events, figure out how to mix things up for yourself in other ways. Read a slight variation. Emphasize a different aspect of the book or the character. Wear a different type of clothing to see how it affects you. Venture out of your comfort zone in some way. Be open to learning more about your own book or yourself as a reader.

Reading from excerpts printed out on pages of 14-point font is easier on middle-aged eyes, but don't forget to flash your book cover from the stage.

If you feel fear or low confidence coming upon you during your reading, remember that this is coming from you, not them. No matter what some of the audience is doing, most people there still want a great show, and if you've prepared, you have the power to deliver that. Buck up. Keep going.

You like your book. You already did all the hard work in writing and editing it. Now it's your job to serve the writing. In a sense, it's beyond you at this point. Don't think of your book tour as egotistical self-promotion. Think of it as getting the book to its intended audience. There is a humility in the completion of a book, and the life that it takes on in readers' hands. In terms of your reading, this means you mostly need to read slowly and loudly enough to let your voice reach their ears.

You can prevent even travel sickness (etc) from ruining your reading with the right amount of preparation. Know your reading selection almost by heart. Practice how you want to read it. Choose what words you want to emphasize. Wear something you love. When you have everything in place, if one thing goes wrong (I had a migraine for one reading that made me feel like I was sideways in my body) you can still sail through a great performance and no one will be the wiser.

One MC along my tour did a beautiful thing: He introduced each of the readers not only with our written bio, but also with his own brief summation of our writing. Then after we read, he responded to our reading with what he liked about it. He was thoughtful and articulate, and I felt it lent an extra weight and coherence to a well-curated reading. The audience had a strong sense of why the presenter was presenting us.

For more tips on the small press book tour:

Poet Laura Davis (Braiding the Storm, Finishing Line Press, Fall 2012) recently interviewed me on her blog about planning and funding an indie book tour here:
"Chapbook Rookie: Interview with author Karen Lillis on Planning Your Own Book Tour"

Fiction author Allison Amend (Things That Pass for Love, OV/Dzanc Books, 2008) shares tips on the book tour at Glimmer Train here:
"Instructions for a Do-It-Yourself Book Tour"

The Awl recently ran a feature called "Nine Writers And Publicists Tell All About Readings And Book Tours," and I especially liked the interview with Laurie Weeks (Zipper Mouth, Feminist Press) about being open to her audience and in the moment in her readings.