Adventures in #bookselling: What this first-time #author learned on #book tour

My dear agent Dan Conaway pointed out to me yesterday that it’s been 5 months since Crown published my book Radio Shangri-La. I’ve been too busy running around the country selling it–figuratively, thankfully, not literally—to notice how much time’s gone by. Last night a lush, gorgeous bookstore in lush, gorgeous Santa Barbara called Chaucer’s hosted me; it’s been around for 37 years, outliving the Borders and Barnes and Nobles in the more pedestrian-trafficked heart of downtown.

In Radio Shangri-La I revealed what I learned in the “happiest” Kingdom on earth. Now, if you want to hear it, I’m going to share with you a tiny bit of what I learned on book tour.  After decades in the media business, I feel like I got a crash course in a part of it I knew nothing about, publishing.

First of all, let me say that besides having the privilege of writing a book and getting paid to do so (which was an incredible thrill I don’t take for granted or feel entitled to have experienced) I was very fortunate to be able to spend five months doing little else besides touting my book (and engaging in my new passion, volunteering.) Most authors don’t have the means or the time to do that. While Crown paid us an extremely generous advance, when it came time to sell the book, they didn’t want to financially support a tour—which is of course the case with many first-time authors, and increasingly, for well-known ones. Digital means and conventional media are seen as better tools for wider promotion. A “web tour,” where a third party is hired by the publisher and myriad blogs are approached with advance copies in exchange for the promise of a review, is more standard these days. Don’t get me wrong: it was a great thing, those free book giveaways that happened just as the book hit, to generate buzz.

But as a veteran journalist who’s always had a fascination with marketing and promotion, I knew that an author couldn’t rely on a Web tour and Facebook alone. There are a lot of great books out there, a lot of things competing for people’s attention. I’d given up my “plaform” as a reporter at the public radio show Marketplace, not that that would have necessarily helped me sell a lot of books, but it did put my name out there every day. I wasn’t kidding myself, though: Just having my the achievement of selling, writing and publishing a book, and having it out in the ether, didn’t mean a thing. I needed to sell, sell, sell. (I also knew I wanted to sell through the proper channels, so that the sales of the books counted in the greater scheme of things for booksellers, so not once have I sold a book from my own personal stash and pocketed the money.)

So, for five months, I’ve been plotting and strategizing: Where do I have friends and family to visit? When I go to a bookstore, what media are logical to hit up for an interview? (Again, I’ve got an advantage—given my job in public radio, and given that my book was about starting a radio station in the Kingdom of Bhutan, I had a bit of a calling card with local stations. But local shows are eager for good guests, regardless.) In my old haunt of North Carolina, for instance, an appearance on Frank Stasio’s show on WUNC turned out over 70 people that night to Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. The bookseller was astonished as more chairs had to be hauled out, and so was I, since I knew hardly any of the people who showed up. (My base was located in Greensboro, an hour or so away, where there was no longer an indy bookstore.)

Same thing in Miami, where I’d been lucky to get into Books and Books in Coral Gables, after my publisher got me invited as a late-minute add to the Ft. Lauderdale Literary Feast. The fantastic Books and Books mailing list, as well as a mention in the paper’s book section (which I’d been fortunate to coral after researching the proper contacts) and a brief radio hit (thanks to a former colleague) yielded a packed house, almost entirely of strangers.

Now, not every stop has been jammed. Driving around the midwest with my boyfriend (who, thankfully, understands the book business very well himself and has been a tremendous help) before the Printer’s Row Festival in Chicago a month or so ago, we stopped to visit friends in St. Louis, where I’d booked myself into Left Bank Books. There, I didn’t get any radio media, just listings courtesy the book store’s usual mailings. (Which by the way is a very powerful tool that gets your book out in front of people who might not otherwise have heard of it–and thus, another reason to go to bookstores.) Only 2 people showed up, but that gave me an amazing opportunity to speak long and intently to two very interested, interesting people who I know will forever more be ambassadors for me and the book.

In my native NY at the Rubin Museum, where we launched the book in conversation with dear Simon Winchester, and in my newer hometown of LA at the Track 16 gallery, where my friend the author Meghan Daum interviewed me, we had packed houses–thanks to media hits in conjunction with large friend lists, and the lists of those two generous venues. It took a lot of planning and wrangling to pull those things off, but they were worth it.

Then, there are the libraries. They love having authors come to speak, and i personally am a library fanatic.  Conventional wisdom is that people who go to library events may not buy books. But in places like Glendale, CA at the public library, or the other night in Oceanside, CA, I didn’t worry so much about book sales. (Though in each library I’ve been in, a qualified bookseller has been present.) I was A. happy to be helping support a library, B. happy for the work the library had done in promoting my appearance, and C. thrilled to talk to people who were interested in my book. I am sure that in each place I’ve gone, at least one person has gone home and told someone else about Bhutan and my book.

And the book clubs and ladies lunches! One random chat with someone in a cafe in Santa Monica (I’d just received my book and gave it to a friend for her 50th birthday, and the ladies next to us asked what it was….) led to an appearance at a bookstore I didn’t even know about in my area, a beautiful shop in Manhattan Beach called Pages, and their enthusiasm led a local book club to choose Radio Shangri-La and invite me to come speak to them about it. That’s not to mention the SKYPE interviews I’ve started to do with book clubs as a result of the aforementioned Web tour and giveaway.

Book festivals have been interesting, too. Thanks to a long-ago friend who’d landed in Tucson, I got connected to a “mafia” of people involved with the growing Tucson Festival of Books, and invited not only to speak there, but also to speak at a private Women’s Foundation fundraiser. And I was lucky enough to cross paths with a passionate bookseller named Terry Gilman of the southern California based Mysterious Galaxy, who’d been given the galley of my book early on–and who has gone out of her way to help me promote my book despite the fact that it’s not anything close to the genre she typically sells.

Then, of course, there’s the Web. I used to cover technology and while I’m not born of the “Web generation,” I’m a digital native. So I knew the importance of creating a blog (where I post with information about Bhutan, happiness economics and matters relating the book,) and linking it to Facebook and Twitter. And maintaining those things, even when it felt like a hassle.  After all, I’d left the daily news biz to get away from reducing complex issues down to blips, and here I was, blogging blips about the happy Kingdom, etc.

But it’s all been interesting.  Has it been worth it, you ask?  Is my book a major bestseller knockin’ it off the charts? No, maybe it will become one when the good people at Broadway Books and I work hard to launch it in paperback next year…..but here’s why I know it’s a success right now: Every single day, I get incredible mail from people around the world who are reading it, and loving it, an author’s dream come true. Every day, people sign up for my Twitter or blog, which means they’re likely visiting my website. At Chaucer’s last night, I know I made friends not just with Eric Love, the events coordinator, but with the people who turned out. Eric’s hopefully going to do what the kind people at E. Shaver’s in Savannah did—sell a signed copy of Radio Shangri-La to some regular customer, or a tourist, who sends it home as a birthday present.  I’ve heard several instances of that.   More potential for cascading effects for showing up in one place.

And if there’s any one takeaway here for authors who are reading this, it’s that in this year, 2011, writing a book isn’t just about writing a book. It’s about selling your book–and there’s no one way to do it, and no one like you to do it. (Although it is hardly a solo pursuit: you need to enlist a small army of supporters every step of the way.) I’ve loved every single crazy often exhausting minute of the last five months, the people I’ve met, the old friends and colleagues who’ve showed up along the way, visiting bookstores and libraries and luncheons in beautiful communities filled with people who love books, love reading, love learning.

I’ve loved it so much that my dear agent Dan and I are working hard now (after spending quite a long time working on the proposal) to sell another book. Writing it will be one challenge, and then I look forward to, once it’s done, getting out there and selling it. With the help of that army of people, including you, who’ve helped me so enormously, so generously, this time around.

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5 thoughts on “Adventures in #bookselling: What this first-time #author learned on #book tour

  1. We should PAY you for this hard earned wisdom. Thanks Lisa!

  2. Judi pudi says:

    L- is for Loved which U R by your fans
    O- is for Outside (the box)- that’s how you think
    V- is for Volunteering, which you’ve discovered
    E- is for evolving, which we’re all learning together
    You know what it spells – however it means so much more. You’re so easily adored and what’s more A WONDERFUL FRIEND. May the gods keep you well and able to bring us joy for many years… Ala vie, poo, poo!

  3. Paul LaRosa says:

    Great post. Thanks for the advice. I’m going to need it next year when my memoir is published. I’ve published 4 true crime books and know that what you say is so true — the author (unless he’s very well known) must do all the selling him/herself. I also had a similar experience to yours where I showed up at a bookstore to find one woman there. I spoke to her one and one for a while and, lo and behold, she wrote a blog post about our meeting the next day. I had no idea she was going to do that and the post was glowing. Every little bit helps.
    Thanks,
    Paul

  4. Susan McBeth says:

    Loved reading about your bookselling adventures Lisa, but you aren’t done yet! Can’t wait for all your fans in San Diego to attend the special Radio Shangri-La event we are cooking up for you on September 30. Stay tuned for more information coming soon at http://www.adventuresbythebook.com/.

  5. Bill Peschel says:

    Fascinating information. I had learned some of the same lessons promoting my book these past six months, but you were much more on the ball and got to go to a wider variety of places, so good on you.

    I think it’s indicative that, even as tuned in as I am into publishing, I still hadn’t heard about your book, which goes to show how far you have to push to find your audience.

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