Are Book Events Worthwhile?

Nancy J. Cohen
I’ve been doing speaking engagements for many years now. It’s a way of giving back to the community and meeting new readers. But after this last one, I’m wondering if they are a waste of time in the digital age. I gave up three hours to speak to this group, had my hair done, painted my nails, and chose my wardrobe with care. Fortunately, it was local, so I didn’t have to travel far.

Sixty women attended this book and author luncheon, so you’d think they would all be readers, yes? The tables were beautifully decorated, with homage given to my latest title, Shear Murder. In this story, Marla the hairstylist discovers a dead body under the cake table at her friend’s wedding. Witness the cake motif on the centerpieces.

JCC Centerpiece   JCC Event

It was a lovely event. People were friendly and welcoming. But when I finished my speech, and after the raffle ticket numbers were called—an event as long as my talk—people left. Oh, a few came over and complimented me before asking if my books were available on Kindle.

Now, I wouldn’t mind if they went home and some of them ordered my titles. Most ladies took the brochures that I designed and had printed in two-sided color, but I did not sell a single book. Had they spent their money on raffles and ran out of cash or didn’t want to spend anymore? Was that it? Or do readers expect books on the cheap now and a signed copy means nothing?

I’m all for going out and meeting the public to increase readership, but consider the value of my time. I lost three hours of work and more, if you count the prep time. This is why I started charging a speaker’s fee if I go out of town for a talk. But even locally, is it worth the time and effort? Should I cease ordering my books to sell at these events? Already I have cases full of books stocked in the house. How will I get rid of them, other than donations? And even that means paying postage and a trip to the post office. It’s easier to do a giveaway with a digital copy.

If you are a multi-published author, and not a newbie looking to build a readership, do you still seek out speaking opportunities in the community? Would you go if—as one woman suggested to me—you’re invited to talk at her gardening club across town? Or will you suddenly have deadlines that prevent you from accepting?

I love speaking at libraries, but groups looking for a free speaker? Not so sure anymore. I know it’s not so much about the book sales as it is about meeting new readers, so I guess it’ll depend upon the circumstances. Or I might, in lieu of an honorarium, request a minimum book purchase agreement. Your comments?

50 thoughts on “Are Book Events Worthwhile?

  1. How about setting a five book miniumum? If you sell five books (or whatever you think is fair), then there will be no speaking fee. If you only sell two, they make up the difference and if you don’t sell any…well, they’re taking the risk of paying the full amount of the five books.

    I do agree your time is worth something.

  2. I think meeting local audiences is worth the time. It’s nice to build up a local network of contacts, even if a particular event doesn’t translate into sales. Probably wouldn’t make sense if it involved unreimbursed travel, however. And you never know what an event will lead to–John Gilstrap wrote about a chance encounter that bore fruit. I’ll try to find it and post the link.

    • Yes, that is so true. And these ladies might still order the books online. I was just disappointed as this was specifically a book and author luncheon. You’d think one person might have valued a signed book.

  3. Nancy, I’ve seen your presentation many times. You always look impeccable and your promotional materials are terrific and professionally produced. Is it all worth it in the digital age? IMHO, probably not. I also think your idea of a minimum book purchase is the right choice. At least it puts your work into someone’s hands.

  4. Hi Nancy,
    I hate to be pushy, so I’ve given up trying to “invite myself” to book events. And when I attend as a member of an audience, I have to bite my tongue to refrain from commenting on stupid questions, or adding to answers of good ones.
    On the other hand, I’m always open to local groups inviting me, alone or with others, who want to discuss my work or the writing business in general. Outside the tri-state area, I’d expect some compensation, at least for travel expenses. I’ve found in casual conversation with members from the reading public that some questions are very interesting and stimulating–others, not so much.
    Internet PR and marketing has changed so much of what we do.

    • A busy author has to balance the time you lose at a speaking engagement with the venue. As for book sales, I won’t order so many copies anymore if nobody is going to buy them. These hardcovers and POD titles cost me over $10 each.

  5. My ears were burning. (Thanks, Kathryn.)

    While not all public speaking events are created equal, I think that, on balance, they are worth their weight in gold. I do as many of them as I can, and I try to alter my topic to the interests of the audience. If I’m speaking to a student group or a ladies’ group, I try to inspire the people in the room to embrace their creative side (or that of their grandchildren). If it’s a group of writers, I add elements of craft to the inspirational parts. Sometimes, I present on technical stuff like explosives and bullet behavior and hazardous materials, which plays to my professional background.

    The speaking gigs rarely pay for themselves in book sales, but they more than pay for themselves in terms of contacts and exposure. Once you make a splash on the Rotary circuit, you’ll have as many gigs as you can handle, so long as you’re willing to go to the 7 a.m. breakfast meetings. More times than not, I don’t even bring books with me. It’s a pain to schlep the boxes around, and I’d rather get to know people during the social time than sit at a table signing books.

    Which brings me to the contacts part. The one Kathryn refers to, I think, was a chance encounter I had (online, actually) with Adrian Kurre, the global brand manager for Hilton Garden Inn. He ended up buying 750 copies of my book as gifts for each of the chain’s general managers and senior staff. Other chance encounters have led to tours of both the Navy SEAL compound in Virginia Beach and the Delta Force compound at Fort Bragg. I’ve picked up countless sources (cops, spooks, journalists and even one former hit man) who are happy to share insights into their worlds. One speech I made at summer writers’ program for teenagers led to a gig as the commencement speaker for a huge DC area high school. Commencements are attended by a lot of influential people. Next fall, I will be the keynote speaker at the annual professional development conference for the American Society of Safety Engineers, where my topic will be the value of creativity in creating a safety culture. That will be my first cross-over presentation, combining my Big Boy job life and my writing life, and it was born of a chance encounter.

    The trick, I think, is to remember that a speech is primarily a show, a good time for the audience. Being well-coiffed is nowhere near as important as being memorable (particularly for folks with my hairstyle). The real work is done–and the real sales are made–while chatting up your table mates and while working the room before and after the actual event. Even if my stories are not the cuppa tea for anyone I meet, there’s a good chance that they’ll tell their friends about this friendly, interesting author they heard speak at the luncheon.

    John Gilstrap

    • This is a wonderfully inspirational reply, John, and I am grateful to you for sharing your wisdom. Maybe the trick is to bring very few books as a courtesy in case someone does want to buy one, but to focus on the meet and greet as you say.

    • It is truly amazing the contacts one can make with this kind of networking, John. You’ve made some awesome ones. Even up North here I am surprised at who can sometimes show up to a talk and then introduce themselves.

      Like you said, it’s a show. Stick in their memory and someday they’ll mention your name to someone else who will look you up and fall in love with your work.

    • The Hilton Garden Inn –that was it, John! Spent half an hour searching and could not find that sucker for the life of me. Thanks for stopping by–you are missed at TKZ!

    • I think you nailed it, John. Thing is, you never know where the big IT will come from. For me, it’s mostly out of the woodwork somewhere, and I benefited by just showing up, instead of staying home. Our expectations can be a booger and so is schlepping stacks of books all over the place. Whaddaya gonna do?

  6. You raise some excellent questions, Nancy.
    I’ve had luck with my talks at writers’ conferences generating book sales, but then my books are on the craft of writing, so it’s a much more immediate connection/need, I guess.

    I’ve heard elsewhere authors saying it’s just not worth their time to do book signings in bookstores or book talks like this, anymore, with so many people buying e-books instead.

    Also, some people are hesitant to buy on the spot. They feel they should think about it first. So let’s hope they bought or will soon buy the e-book version of your book, or the paperback online!

    And I think the idea of an honorarium or minimum book sales is excellent!

  7. Great piece. How about simply making purchasing the book contingent on attending the event? You want to participate, you buy the book. Of course at a discount.

    As a new writer, I tend to do small book clubs where the book has been pre-bought and read by the group. I love the connection with the readers. Just to see how people have internalized your thoughts, and what it means to them. But I guess when you are more established, perhaps the novelty of that wears off and you start being more efficient with your time!

    • You have to be more efficient with your time when you are multi-tasking with more than one project at a time. Some authors have success including the price of their book in the venue’s ticket price That hasn’t worked for me when I’ve suggested it.

  8. I have to agree with you on this one, Nancy. But with one caveat…that John Gilstrap alludes to. I, too, used to do alot of speaking events and signings. But I stopped. It just takes too much time and valuable energy for very little in return. Now this is going to sound ungrateful but it’s the truth: Many of these events are structured so the invited author is merely the monthly “entertainment.” And there is no built-in mechanism for the writer to sell books and by extension GROW HER AUDIENCE. Well-run events include a book in the price of the admission so you at least get minimum guaranteed sales. But these groups that just expect you to show up, set your hair on fire and tap dance your little heart out are off my list.

    The caveat? I always do library events because libraries were important to me when I was growing up and want to pay that debt. I also never refuse bookstores where I have an ongoing relationship and where I know they are good at cultivating readers. Like Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor and Saturn Books in Gaylord MI. But some bookstores, even some indies, are clueless about how to do this. And it is heartbreaking to have people come up after your speech and ask if your books are on Kindle. I’ve had folks do that as the bookstore owner is standing there right by my side. It’s so incredibly crass.

    In short, I say do the events that can guarantee pre-sales or those that are only dear to your heart.

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head with what I mean. I have no problem with libraries, bookstores, and writers conferences. But community groups where you’re the free entertainment, that’s different. Then as you say, the writer has to judge if the venue is worth his time and effort.

  9. So it appears for community events that we have several options:

    1. Accept and have a good time and focus on meeting readers and making new contacts
    2. Request an honorarium or a minimal book purchase agreement
    3. Ask that the cost of a book be included in the event ticket price
    4. Evaluate if it’s worth your time to speak to small, local groups.

    This dos not include events at libraries, bookstores and conferences which most of us agree are an honor to accept.

    Again, it all depends on who invites you to speak, where, and what else you have on your plate at the time.

    I do feel it was a valuable use of my time to speak at this book and author luncheon. I met readers who hadn’t been aware of my series before. It was just disappointing not to sell even one book.

    Signed books don’t matter anymore, and that’s what surprises me.

  10. Nancy,

    This is really a tough call. My husband and I have actually argued about this very topic. He’s opposed to me doing speaking engagement, paid or not. I feel it’s a good way to meet potential readers. Since I remain mainly unknown, I’d love to meet and great more readers. But it is all time-consuming.

    • It’s especially important when you are a new author to meet readers by doing speaking engagements. That’s how I’ve built my mailing lists, by meeting a few fans at a time over the years. And as John said, you never know who might be in the audience.

  11. Nancy, a writer can get run ragged speaking to local groups. I write two books a year, so I can’t afford a non-productive 3 to 4 hour hole in my day. I either ask for an honorarium or for the group to buy a case of paperbacks — purchased in advance — or 20 hardcovers.

  12. I love speaking to anyone who will listen, about pretty much any topic, books or otherwise. Being way up here in AK I don’t have nearly the opportunities folks in the rest of the continent have, but still get to do half a dozen or more writer’s events a year plus radio and church events seldom for pay.

    If they buy my books great! But I don’t really go into it with the idea of selling books specifically. If I don’t sell any at an event, it’s just as good.

    I treat it like being invited to a party and everyone just happens to stop what they’re doing and listen to what I have to say. I’ve been contemplating John’s suggestion of the Rotary circuit, but am leery of the time it would take from writing & narrating while I’m still holding on to my big-boy job.

    I think the value is found more in the desires and motivations of the individual. You may not have noticed but I am somewhat of an extrovert. Writing is an introvert’s paradise, which I love to live in. Speaking engagements large and small and meeting strangers with similar interests feeds the extro-beasts in my soul.

    • I like meeting people and chatting about the book industry, too, but not if I’m regarded as the free entertainment for an afternoon. I’m struggling to keep pace writing two books a year like Elaine. My time is valuable. This group I just spoke to was worthwhile but the fact that someone suggested me for their gardening group? What does that tell you?

  13. Hi, what a great topic. Way back in 2005, I had a humor book published, (by a tiny publisher), wasn’t any sizable distribution, we remained essentially anonymous. Plus, truth be told, I was published before I was legitimate “good.” LOL. We decided to promote our humble book via library presentations, and wrote SNL-like skits that were actually laugh-out loud funny. And my collaborator and I could ham it up somewhat, he could write song parodies and I could sing. Lots of work, lots of fun. We poked fun of ourselves. At our first library appearance, we had 100 women show up. Shocker. Thing was, they liked our “show” more than our book, and we might have sold 4 to 5 copies.

    At the time, I felt very blessed – and clueless at the same time. There was so much I didn’t know.

    Recently I went to a library-sponsored event featuring two bestselling historical romance authors and 85% to 90% of the women in attendance were unpublished writers. Yes, they were also romance readers and fans, but also un-pubbed writers. I’ve felt for some time that – well, it seems this way – there are more writers than readers.

    Maybe literacy took a nosedive for awhile, and now it’s stabilizing, (I could be wrong). The Internet is making us website surfers, not readers, reading online also means “movable type,” which the brain processes very differently from a stationary book. There’s a great book called, “The Shallows” which chronicles this disturbing trend of being too – spastic – to read anything of length. The author himself said that the more time he spent online, the less he could “focus” on a long novel. My son’s high school English teacher told me that she cannot assign a lengthy novel – kids can’t handle it.

    But I don’t know about book signings anymore. Sure, the big names draw lots of fans – Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin – but the rest of us? I think the people who show an interest in us – are interested in how we got published, and who represents us, etc.

    Comic-Con, blog conferences like BlogHer (– all of these are changing the landscape of fans, ‘creators,’ and so forth. Being a humor writer, I’ve deeply admired the careers of Erma Bombeck, Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor. But those glory days are long over. Keillor wrote a great NYT piece on this… if I had the link, I’d share it.

    Audiences are changing, too. Read an interesting article on cable TV and how audiences are fractured today – you can find like a super-specialized audience for one certain niche. It’s why “The Walking Dead” is a pleasant shocker, because it appeals to the young, like my teenage son, and to me, the Crypt Keeper. “Mainstream” seems to be harder to achieve today, especially if you’re coming out the gate.

    So reading habits have changed, and how we receive information, for sure has changed. The Chicago Tribune just cut 700 from its staff. There’s a website devoted to “the death of newspapers.” While I think newspapers are different from novels, it’s hard not to watch Barnes & Noble struggle. I have no idea of eBooks are still a revolution or sales for eBooks are flattening now. Sure wish I had stats to access.

    I will say – there seems to be an up-tick in used book shops, because of the bad economy.

    So in my long-winded, meandering way, I guess I’d have to ask, “Do you go to a book signing to make money or connections?” Probably making an appearance helps. But traveling expenses can be so expensive if you sell just 4 or 5 books.

    Yet it’s a still a real honor to be traditionally published, to make it past the slush pile and rejections… and reach folks who take the time to read and appreciate your work.

    • I never go to a book event to make money. Hopefully attendees may take away my promo stuff and look up the books online if they don’t want a signed copy. The problem is that readers today want books cheap. Why pay $20 or more for a hardcover signed copy when they can order my ebook for $3.19?

      Yes, things are changing and it’s hard to predict the fallouts.

    • Nancy: I hope you didn’t take offense at what I said, I know you enjoy doing your presentations and meeting readers. But it is expensive to travel and time is precious. I have heard this, that eBooks are many times cheaper, and I’m sure in the clunky economy, that’s it’s a stark contrast… who has disposable income these days? Also, I have heard that hardbacks will eventually be seen as “collectibles,” and signed hardbacks will be seen as a status symbol. Might have read that in an article about the Pulitzer-Prize winner / writer-cartoonist of “Maus.” One of my prize possessions is a book signed by Dave Barry, who wrote, “Dear Cheryl, I’ll never forget Prom Night.” (LOL!!)

  14. Nancy– As a successful writer, you travel in different circles. But I think John makes a good point. I am sure the people who come to hear and see you are later happy they did so. And I would bet the next time they see a book of yours, the earlier encounter will improve the odds. By not worrying about sales at the event itself, you free yourself to have a good time and “work the room.”

  15. This is a topic of endless discussion between me and my fellow cookbook authors. I am a newbie (I have a year old book under my belt). What I have experienced is that book events (for me) rarely lead to sales that literally pay for my time and effort (as far as sales at the actual events). Therefore, I am approaching invitations to speak or to do a demo as opportunities to make connections with and meet with readers and potential readers.

    What this policy does is release me from the expectation that I need to have an exact monetary exchange for my time and effort. It allows me to just enjoy meeting people and talking about my book and my field. And it allows me to decline invitations that don’t sound fun or satisfying for me (while realizing that I still need to hustle for my book).

    And, I reserve the right to change this policy should I magically become a famous author with people clamoring for me (lol).

  16. Oh, also, can I just say how much I hate schlepping cartons of books around everywhere? And having to ship them to out of town events?? What a pain in the rear. My least favorite way of selling books. I would prefer to send everyone to my local bookstore (or even Amazon).

  17. I am a newbie, but I attended a conference where a well-known agent said he did not send his authors on book tours. He said the sales made did not make it worthwhile. Being a typical introvert, I thought, “That’s the agent for me!” I think I would only attend groups where it made sense financially and the group consisted of people I would enjoy meeting even if I wasn’t the speaker. IMHO.

    • When you’re starting out, I feel it’s important to accept as many local speaking invitations as you can. Later on, with deadlines and marketing expectations filling the hours, one has to be more selective.

  18. Dear Nancy, Sorry to hear how disappointing your experience felt. As a business consultant, I’ve done the ‘local club talk show circuit’. And, have seen the disconnect between audience and speaker, leaving the speaker feeling overlooked/slighted. I appreciate the feedback given by authors here not to schlepp the books and to play the crowd. How freeing. I hope this doesn’t sound harsh but it’s clear the experience still rankles. E-books are here to stay, cheaper and easier to buy. Draw people to you and your writing, bring 2-3 books and talk them up as precious. I must admit, the only signed copies I care about are from authors I truly adore.

  19. The tables really are adorable.

    I’m not a published author yet, but the idea of speaking in front of other people literally makes me sick. I’m actually glad that it’s not 100% required anymore.

    Who knows, maybe you’ve planted seeds for people who will buy your books in the future. Now they “know” you.

  20. Like it or not, the ebook market is here to stay. If a person attending a speaking engagement asks about Kindle, I’d be glad to show them the way. A sale is a sale. And a future reference.

Comments are closed.