Is touring worth the tsouris?

By P.J. Parrish
Yesterday we wrapped up the Michigan Fingers Tour. Those of you from Michigan might get what this means. The rest of you just need to know that we Michiganders locate our place on earth by holding up our hand and pointing to the spot on our palm from which we hail.
The “fingers” of the Michigan mitt is the northwest area of the state up near Traverse City. It’s home for my sister and co-author Kelly – the lovely village of Elk Rapids. I, who have been rooted in the south Florida sand for 35 years now, have been “up north” for the last two weeks as Kelly and I wended our way through the great little towns of the fingers, promoting our latest book HEART OF ICE.
Our book is set in northern Michigan, so heading up north here was a no brainer. But the experience also left us going back to an old question: Is touring – and its lesser kin, signings– still worth the time and effort?
We authors debate this question endlessly. In these days of diminished expectations and budgets, only the big guns get the promotional blastoffs. And with all the social networking options (you can even do virtual signings now), does a writer still have anything to gain from taking his act on the road?
Touring used to be one of the essential tools of promoting your book. The “national tour” was a benchmark of arrival in the traditional publishing world. Even if you didn’t have enough clout with your publisher to have them pay your way, we authors often planned and paid for our own tours.
Kelly and I have done it both ways during our career. For our fourth book, A KILLING RAIN, our publisher sent us on a big-time tour that had us crisscrossing the country for two weeks. It was the full treatment, complete with escorts greeting us at airports holding up our covers, nice hotels with room service, and even business class on the last leg coming home. It was fun, exciting, rewarding. It was also disappointing and frustrating. Some stores had healthy crowds waiting for us; a few had none. By the time we hit our final Barnes and Noble (I think it was in Nashville?) we were numb with exhaustion but grateful for the crowd who turned out in what should have been a killing rain.
Now, I can hear you saying, “What’s she bitching about? At least she GOT a paid-for tour!”  Well, yes we did. But every other tour we have done, like the huge majority of authors, came out of our own pockets. Those tours have been exciting, rewarding, disappointing and frustrating. The point being: There doesn’t seem to be much difference whether our pub paid for it or we did. The effort and time invested – and results achieved – seemed to be the same.

There’s a difference, of course, between whether you are doing an “event” where you are speaking, and a signing, where you are just meeting and greeting for two hours. Sitting behind the old card table isn’t nearly as demanding, of course, as giving a full-scale talk. (That’s me above signing at the Island Bookstore on Mackinac). On our current tour, we had a big adoring crowd at Saturn Books in Gaylord, a town in the middle of the state that no one would expect to worth the time. But the owner, Jill Miner, is a genius at cultivating readers; she could give indie owners lessons. Here’s the great folks at her store:
On Mackinac Island, we did a ticketed author event and had an enthusiastic crowd. Here they are. Plus the view you get if you go out the library’s back door.
Sometimes, you just can’t predict what you’re going to get. Two days after Mackinac Island, we were dreading a signing at a Books a Million because our past experience with this chain had been sort of meh. But we sold out all our stock.  At one other store that we thought would draw well, only two people showed up. (We discovered later the store had done nothing to promote us.)
The nadir was a store that, when we arrived, told us they had none of our books because they had sold out for days ago. Hello? A phone call or email would have been nice before we drove two hours. We had an emergency box of books in the trunk but the owner told us she couldn’t figure out how to charge them against her inventory. We went down the street, had a glass of wine and drove the two hours back home in the dark woods, me watching for deer the whole wretched way. (I’m paranoid about hitting a deer and wrecking the car.)
Before this, we hadn’t toured in a long time. But we did this one because our book is set in Michigan (on bucolic Mackinac Island) so we knew we’d get the regional bump. But we also did it because northwest Michigan is rife with really top-notch independent bookstores. These stores have owners who cultivate their readers and treat visiting authors like royalty. They don’t just set up a table in the back of the store and leave you to fend for yourself. They send out newsletters, pre-stock and hand-sell your backlist, do email blasts and get you local media interviews.
If you are ever in Michigan on tour, here are some of the stores you should never miss (plus most of them are in pretty towns):
Saturn Books, Gaylord. 
McLean and Aiken, Petoskey
Island Bookstore, Mackinac Island
Schuler’s Okemos/Lansing
Bookman, Grand Haven
Book Nook and Java Shop Montague
Cottage Bookstore  Glen Arbor
And downstate: Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor.
So was the Michigan Finger Tour worth it?
In the plus column: we met a lot of great bookstore owners whose hand-selling helped us immensely. And we met some terrific readers, and gained many new ones. Is there any better feeling than meeting face-to-face a person who tells you they love your books? Touring gives you an infusion of confidence and affirmation that you can never duplicate on Facebook.
In the minus column: It’s tiring, often deeply discouraging, expensive, and unless you are one of those writers who can crank out chapters on a plane, you lose valuable writing time.
One final thought: They say indie stores are making a small comeback. If the ones we saw are any indication, there is, indeed, hope. And maybe hope is what is really the most important thing we get from going out on the road these days.
Just watch out for the deer.
p.s. The picture leading off this blog is in the old Paradise Pines hotel in Kelly’s hometown of Elk Rapids. We did not stay here while on tour.

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11 thoughts on “Is touring worth the tsouris?

  1. Michigan is my home away from home, I blogged about my trip to the Gaylord area a couple of weeks ago. Trips to Mackinac and St. Ignace (Keyhole Bar can be an all day event)are a yearly occurrence, as is Petosky and Traverse City.

    I look forward to visiting each of the bookstores mentioned. I’ll plan it for September. Probably a good idea to introduce myself, in anticipation of my book being published.

    Thanks, Ms. Parrish, I’ll enjoy this trip.

  2. I have long believed that the old fashioned national book tour is largely a waste of money and time. (I even thought that back when my publisher paid for such things.) With the contraction of B&N, the decimation of the independents and the obliteration of Borders, even the little stores are scoring the Big Names, and with noted exceptions, us midlist folks don’t get enough of a bump to justify the heartache and expense.

    For me, the best bang for the marketing buck comes in the form of an event, being a featured speaker at a Rotary meeting, or teaching a few days of workshops as I’ll be doing tomorrow in New York as part of Craft Fest, and again in 13 days at the Midwest Writers Conference in Muncie, IN. That kind of one-on-one interaction doesn’t just build a fan base, it builds friendships.

    John Gilstrap

    • Could not agree more John. I used to accept almost any gig that came my way but learned that some groups just want free entertainment. I make acceptions for libraries…always go when invited. And yes, writers conferences are wonderful not just for networking but helping others up the ladder. Karma….

  3. I think it’s worth the effort to meet readers face to face. However, as more of us turn to small press and indie publishing, our books won’t be available to booksellers as returnable stock. Thus our opportunities for signings like yours will diminish. It’s one reason to become a hybrid author, so you can still make public appearances and have books to sell.

    • Thats a good point Nancy. One thing that struck me during our tour was that some stores easily got our back list titles and others could not. When the regional distribution system collapsed years ago, so did our chances to make our books more widely available. In the “old days” an author could become a regional bestseller, which was a pretty effective ladder to bigger success. Now, with only 2-3 major distributions working nationally, we have lost that option.

  4. So glad you didn’t stay at the hotel in the photo, Kris. I do a modified national tour, starting with the debut of my book at Malice, a stop at the Festival of Mystery in Oakmont, Pa.,(where good writers go when they die), then to a few bookstores in my hometown of St. Louis that I know will draw crowds, a B&N, an indie and a library events. It helps if I combine a charity event with the tour. The bump in publicity helps get the book talked about. But I agree, touring is expensive and tiring and it’s a strain to have to smile for two weeks straight.
    Looking forward to reading your latest.

    • To others: I have been with Elaine on the Malice-Oakmont circuit. Very effective, esp Oakmont. If you ever get a chance to go, do it!

  5. It was nice to make connection with indie bookstore owners and customer (esp. at the late, great Mystery Bookstore in LA), but the ROI was always sketchy.

    These days, social media, rightly used, is a better alternative. It sells more books than a single appearance (which was never a high bar), but more importantly it creates massive goodwill among future potential readers.

    I also agree that events, such as teaching at a conference, is a good thing to do on occasion.

  6. I love meeting readers, but you’ve described the hit or miss nature of these tour events. When my house sent me on Levy tours, I enjoyed the rockstar treatment and networking with fellow authors, but these days you can stretch promo dollars more online and the internet presence stays forever. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

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