Every writer hates the idea of being a carnival barker. Nobody goes out anymore, you tell yourself. Who wants to give a reading where the only people in the audience are your mom and that drunk guy?
However, writers who don't meet readers in person are missing out, not only because every book needs all the help it can get to make it in the world, but because we can learn a great deal about our books and the publishing industry by having actual face time with our audience.
So comb your hair, put on your fancy pants, and get out there. As I stride into the middle of my own Do-It-Yourself Book Tour for my new novel, Beach Plum Island, here are a few tips I've learned along the way that might help you get started on your own tour:
1. Be Prepared to Entertain
Most of us hate speaking in public. I used to feel physically ill before presentations, so I signed up for a standup comedy class and, over time, won the war against nerves. But I still make sure to prepare ahead of time. As a general rule, never read for more than 10 or 15 minutes, and try to bring props. For my last novel, The Wishing Hill, I brought a can of snuff made at the mill that serves as one of the most important settings. For this book, I have a fun back story to tell--a real-life mystery that served as the kernel of inspiration for Beach Plum Island. I act out the mystery complete with sound effects. Yeah, hokey, I know. But people love to be entertained. Also, if you're not great at thinking on your feet, anticipate the questions people will ask and have the answers in your pocket. I mean this literally: write the answers down on index cards and put them in your pocket. You won't need to use the cards, but you'll feel more secure if you have them.
2. Don't Do Individual Readings Unless You're on Home Turf
My worst nightmare was a bookstore reading I did in western Massachusetts when my first book came out a few years ago. The bookstore had done plenty of advertising, but I didn't know anyone in that town. Plus, the same night I had my event, a celebrity just out of rehab was speaking at the college across the street. The only person who showed up for my event was an ex-boyfriend from college who hoped to sneak in unnoticed, ha ha. On the other hand, when I do local bookstores and literary festivals, I can count on my friends to fill seats.
3. Team Up When Possible
In April, I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the Newburyport Literary Festival, where I teamed up with my friend Elisabeth Elo, author of North of Boston, to talk about our different inspirations for writing. This coming June, I'll be doing a Beach Reads Author Festival at The Bestsellers Cafe with Elisabeth, as well as with authors Ann Hood, Elizabeth Graver, and Paul Mazzarella. Team up with other authors when you hit the road. Bookstores are very open to group presentations, as are libraries and schools, because they know you're more likely to draw a crowd that way, and you'll have more fun.
4. Take a Chance on Meet-and-Greets
For the first time this spring, I signed up to do "meet-and-greets" at my local Barnes & Noble stores. These events are just what they sound like: instead of doing a reading for people who may or may not (and probably won't) come, you're parked at a table where you chat with people and sign books. To my surprise, I really enjoyed the first one I did at the B&N in Salem, New Hampshire, recently. It's a busy store, and the manager was wonderful about bringing me a cup of hot tea and setting up my table in a high-traffic area near the cafe. In two hours, I met a woman starting her own candy store, a poet who writes in Arabic, several moms with young children, a woman whose cousin had a sister she never knew about, and many more. These customers often ended up buying my novel or, at the very least, left the store knowing about it.
5. Check Out Libraries
If you're an Indie author, it can be tough to get bookstores or literary festivals to host your event. But libraries are open to ideas for panel discussions or individual presentations, provided you make your book sound like it will appeal to their community -- for instance, if it has a local setting or will appeal to a certain subset of library patrons, like the Garden Club. Many libraries also have things like "literary cafes" or "coffee with the author" events, so don't hesitate to contact the libraries in your area to ask what's available. Most will let you sell books during the events; if you're traditionally published, you can ask your local bookstore to provide the books for you to sell.
6. Offer Perks and Swag
When I do my next bookstore meet-and-greet, I'll add some swag -- maybe bookmarks with a seacoast theme, since Beach Plum Island is set on an island, or soap made by the Plum Island Soap Company.
7. Promote Your Own Events
Yeah, I know. Bad enough that you're on the circuit, but you have to promote your own events, too. Don't leave it up to the bookstore or library to do it for you, because people who know you are more likely to attend and bring their friends. This means doing Evites, Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media.
8. Most of All, Have Fun
You won't always draw a crowd to an event, but you can always have fun. Sometimes the best conversations are in small groups, like book clubs, where you'll hear how people really react to your book. Inwardly you might be wincing at the idea of having driven an hour to speak with six people, but you know what? Those six people will tell their friends about you -- and about your book. That's called word-of-mouth advertising, and it's the most valuable of all for both readers and writers. Smart readers can teach you a lot about the words you've put on the page.