The Rising Costs of Touring

by Michelle Gagnon

One of our local independents just announced that in the future, authors will be charged a $75 fee to hold an event at the bookstore.

Immediately, the local bookish listservs lit up. Words like “heinous” and “disgraceful” were thrown around. Boycotts were threatened; conversely, so were Occupy Wall Street-style sit-ins.

I understand that times are tough for booksellers, and that independent bookstores are vanishing faster than the proverbial snowball on a Texas summer day. I also appreciate the fact that by and large, most author events are a losing proposition. Frequently stores stay open late to host the event, which means paying overtime for staff to set up/clean up, ring in purchases, and MC. They also pay extra overhead during those hours (lights, heat, AC, etc), not to mention the costs of publicizing the reading via posters, newspaper listings, mailings, etc.

I get all that. But the thing is, times are tough for authors now, too. Advances have decreased dramatically. Print runs are smaller. Already negligible marketing budgets have now withered to the point of being virtually non-existent. There’s less co-op space available than ever before, and the battle for those critical high-visibility spots is intense.

A few years ago, I visited twenty-seven bookstores over the course of six weeks to promote my book. Had I been forced to pay seventy-five dollars to each vendor, it would have cost me nearly two grand. Mind you, that doesn’t include my own considerable expenses: gas and/or tolls if I drive to the event, flights and hotels if I fly. Most authors not only organize their own tours, they also pay all the associated costs out of pocket, chalking it up to necessary marketing fees. And sometimes, you drive an hour (or, heaven forbid, fly for a few), arrive at the store, and end up pitching your song and dance routine to three people, one of whom is the bookseller.

But we do it anyway. Because it isn’t just about selling books the night of the event (although that certainly never hurts). The main goal is to get to know the bookseller, and develop a relationship that will hopefully lead to them selling copies of your book long after you’ve exited the premises. At least, that’s always the hope.

Moreover, this does seem a bit unjust. There are authors who have the marketing machine squarely in their corner, whose tours are planned for them, who are met at the airport by media escorts who cart them from store to store. Authors who routinely attract between 50-100 people wherever they appear. Authors who, I’m willing to bet, will never have to dive into their own pockets to pay that $75 fee–in all likelihood, their publisher will pay it for them, and they’ll have no idea that the exchange even took place.

So here’s my proposition. Charge those authors more for their events: $125, say, or $150. For a top tier bestseller, the publishers will throw down that amount without blinking. Keep the events free for writers who aren’t regulars on the NY Times list. Give the midlisters a chance to get the word out about their books via your store, and who knows–maybe someday, they’ll be the ones attracting shoppers in droves.

That’s my two cents. But then, I can’t quite see myself camping out in the middle of a shopping mall with a placard.

It would be truly sad to see the grand tradition of book touring fall by the wayside, yet another casualty of the ebook onslaught.

11 thoughts on “The Rising Costs of Touring

  1. That makes no sense. If an author is bringing in 100 people, the bookstore owner stands to make a lot of money from sales, both from the author’s books and from other products the customers may spot in the store. If nothing else, people who have never been in the store before will cross the threshold the first time and they may end up being return customers. To then charge these authors $150 makes no sense because the store could pay these authors $150 to show up and they would still make money. The authors that are costing the stores money are those who show up and bring only a handful of people into the store. There is a principle, don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Stores are not going to charge popular authors extra in order to pay for the unknown authors.

    As authors, I don’t see the point in wasting time on in-store events if we aren’t bringing in enough people to keep the store owner happy.

  2. I agree with Tim about the better known authors, but still think charging authors for an appearance is not just a bad idea, but wrong. If the bookseller doesn’t want to fool with the appearance, tell the author no. Everyone connected with publishing–publishers, agents, booksellers–is looking for ways to squeeze another dollar out of the process, and every solution comes out of the author’s end.

  3. The problem with that argument, Timothy, is that basically then only bestselling authors tour. And the truth is, there are times when I attract 50 people, and events where Lee Child might only have three attendees (it happens-not frequently, but it does happen). At what point does the bookstore consider attendance to be high enough? Is it simply a matter of how many people show up? What if half those people, or less, don’t buy books? What if three people show, but each of them buys not only the book being presented but several more? (After all, that is the main reason that stores hold events- to lure shoppers inside and promote all of their inventory).

    Charging authors seems like a prohibitive value judgment, and one that will end up negatively impacting everyone in the end.

  4. [quote]Frequently stores stay open late to host the event, which means paying overtime for staff to set up/clean up, ring in purchases, and MC. They also pay extra overhead during those hours (lights, heat, AC, etc), [unquote]

    I understand this, Michelle. These stores take on all this cost to do a signing, they shouldn’t have to bear it. That is clearly the author’s responsibility.

    When I approached Murder On The Beach in Delray Beach, Florida, about doing a signing, they wanted to charge me $100 PLUS all the money from the first 20 books sold PLUS I pay for all publicity PLUS I pay for all refreshments at the event PLUS I clean up afterward. Sounded quite reasonable, but I had to feed my dog that night, so I didn’t take them up on it.

    However, I support this so much that I’m going to write that bookstore and suggest they slap a $5 cover charge on everyone who walks into their store from the moment they open their doors in the morning.

    I mean, they’ve got expenses! First of all, there’s the cash outlay for the books themselves. Thousands of books! Who do you think pays for all that? Then they have to pay the staff to arrange the stock, to ring up purchases. And then there’s the lights, and my God, the heat!!! The store shouldn’t have to shoulder those onerous costs in these tight times. That’s the responsibility of the customer! The customer who wants to come in and buy books!

    Yes, that’s it. Make them pay $5 upon entering to cover all the costs the poor bookseller has to bear. Then the bookseller will be happy to permit them to buy books.

    Problem solved. Everyone is happy.

  5. Admittedly, I’ve been to very few book signings, but to be honest, when I go, all I see is a small table that has been pulled aside, maybe a cloth thrown over it, the books arranged on top, and they may periodically make a few announcements that so-and-so author is doing a book-signing. All during their NORMAL business hours, using their NORMAL consumption of electricity, etc.

    So from this scenario what I see the bookstore providing:
    (presumably) the supply of books; About 10 minutes of manpower to pull the table over and then put it back again (the author can slap their own cloth on the table);
    And maybe 2-3 times getting on the loudspeaker to announce the author. I’m not counting time for them to check out a customer who buys a book, since that’s a basic cost of doing business.

    Everybody has to make their own decision, but that to me doesn’t justify $75. I know bookstores are having tough times. But so is everybody else.

    On the other hand, you could make the argument that folks who want a booth at the swap meet have to rent space, so they could call it the same type of thing….

  6. Reading these comments I thought, hey! I’m just going to rent a table at a swap meet. And there it was. I’ve sort of given up touring and even signing at bookstores. People aren’t very jazzed to meet authors any more. For awhile it was sort of novel (sorry) but now it’s too frequent. Unless you have a nonfiction book. About dogs. Or horses. Or cats. Then you’re golden.

  7. Actually, one of the most successful events I ever attended was organized by a friend. Right before the holiday season she hosted a party at her house and invited me, a jewelry designer, a children’s toy distributor, and a singer to present and sell our wares. I sold a ton of books (of course, I also ended up buying a lot of the other stuff, so it didn’t turn out to be a profitable evening). Still, I suspect that if this becomes standard policy for bookstores, more and more authors will resort to the book equivalent of Tupperware parties.

  8. Seriously? Let me make sure I understand the logic here.

    The bookstore is selling a book. The author of the book wants to come in and promote the book they’re selling. Essentially shilling for the bookstore to buy said book.

    So they want to charge the author a fee to have him come in and promote the sale of the things they’re selling?

    How the hell does this make sense?

    They say they’ve got additional costs when they have an author in. Like what? Printing a flyer? Getting some chairs? It’s not like an author is somehow causing them to use extra power or heat than they would use during normal business hours.

    Okay, maybe extra AC if it’s in the summer, but an author event goes on for, what an hour? Two?

    And sure, maybe they need to order books. But how is that an issue? If they don’t sell then they ship them back to the publisher unbought. Now, I don’t know who pays for shipping there, so that might be an issue, but is it really that big an issue?

    And if they’re worried about them being signed and un-returnable then don’t have the author sign stock.

    If a bookstore’s margins are so razor thin that they can’t handle the miniscle costs associated with bringing someone in who is essentially a free salesperson they have bigger problems.

    Clearly they need to be in another business, because bookselling sure as hell ain’t workin’ for ’em.

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