What Nobody Tells You About Book Tours


My latest blog tour is about to kick off. What are blog tours? A regular tour is where the publisher sends you around the country by train and pays for your hotel so that you can do events and meet your readers. A blog tour allows you to answer questions from popular book bloggers wherever you and they are, and is prepared in advance of publication.

At first glance you’d think physical tours were preferable because you can sign copies and have face time with readers. But it isn’t often as simple as that.

Almost every major town adds a literary festival to its annual schedule of events because they’re cheap and easy to organise, they’ll have a ready-made audience, it’s cultural and makes the local council look good if they add a few pence to the kitty, and authors will be lining up to attend.

In theory.

A book tour; what could possibly go wrong?

In practice there are way too many events, some brilliant (Harrogate, Whitstable, Charleston, Bath, Cheltenham, Oxford etc), some appalling (let’s just leave that there). Some litfests become obsessed with booking writers from other media, so a TV presenter who has written a book is fifty times more likely to be accepted over a boring old writer who has, er, written a book.

And too many authors are booked, so that you end up travelling four hours to do a one-hour five-way-shared panel on an inappropriate subject. Or the event is mismanaged and badly planned, so that nobody hears about the event and you find yourself with an empty room. Or it’s a busy festival but you’ve been booked in the same time slot as a rival writer.

How Neil Gaiman once accidentally destroyed a writer.

He won’t even have known that it happened. The writer in question was new and very shy, and had finally been persuaded to come to a coastal festival and launch his book with a signing. On that afternoon Mr Gaiman found himself with a free slot and his PR presumably dropped a public appearance into the festival schedule at short notice. Mr Gaiman has a lot of fans, and his slot coincided with that of the other writer, who was in a small room at the back of the hotel, where nobody – except me and one other person – turned up for his event. It happens.

Working for peanuts

And now some litfests have got a little too ahead of themselves. Buoyed by their success, they’ve introduced contracts with draconian clauses (demanding that the author must not appear at other festivals etc). Did I mention that most of them don’t pay?

I remember heading into an event with Joanne Harris, held in a youth centre (Huge sign upon entry; ‘Get Your Free Chlamydia Kit Here!’) at which the hearty organiser stormed up to us and said; ‘I do hope you’re going to enjoy yourselves!’ To which Joanne replied, ‘I’m working unpaid on a Sunday.’

Sometimes the smaller festivals are set up by a local busybody with literary aspirations who uses then kudos of the festival as a method of self-aggrandisement. Needless to say, these are to be avoided.

And there’s another hidden cost to tours which is intangible. How much good do they do? The publisher sells a handful of books, but not enough to cover the cost of the trip, but they can connect with booksellers, show support and build relations. It’s a loss leader, a goodwill gesture.

Gentlemen (and ladies) of the press

One could have the same argument about press reviews. I’ve been to press dinners where the attending hacks have all been on another junket earlier and are all pissed. I’ve sat next to reviewers who have no intention of covering your book but are here for the food. There are a certain number of freelancers known in the trade as ‘freelunchers’, who’ll turn up at anything and never write a word about you.

I once did an interview for a woman from Empire magazine in a trendy restaurant. She turned up drunk and insulted all the other diners. I did a disastrous event at the British Library which involved me standing on a freezing rooftop girder in a headset for three hours. But I’ve also been treated to the most wonderful hospitality, usually in public libraries.

Publishers have to take a chance with the notoriously unreliable press because the (not necessarily true) theory goes that readers trust press reviews more than online reviews. Certainly the Sunday Tiomes can change an author’s fortunes overnight, and when I received a rave review in the New York Times from a reviewer I greatly admire, my Amazon sales sharply spiked.

Having been own both sides, I know that press reviewers are continually being crushed for space, while bloggers have space to breathe. Bloggers and, increasingly, podcast producers are becoming ever more sophisticated (try the excellent timhaighreadsbooks.com) So if you get a blogger with expertise and good social reach, you can do far more good than, say, getting a two-line mention in a tabloid.

And blogs are fun – when they do their research and ask smart questions they can be a real mental workout. So, mine kicks off tomorrow – but this summer I’ll also be travelling about, hoping to physically tour a bit, and I’ll update you here.

6 comments on “What Nobody Tells You About Book Tours”

  1. Crprod says:

    Our son who is a history professor did a lot of book touring for about a year after his most recent book. Much of that was university lectures and visits to academic bookstores. What really made his book well known was a highly negative review in The Economist.

  2. Peter Dixon says:

    Oh crikey.
    I do history and creative writing books about local or regional subjects with a co-editor and contributors of poetry or prose. Launch events are good fun and shift a few copies, usually tied in with Heritage Open Days or significant anniversaries.
    We rarely look at a print run of more than 500 copies and are more recently inclined to use the likes of Lulu or other on-demand printers to fulfil wider orders.
    I often have authors who approach me with a ‘great subject’ and suggest print runs of 1000 plus. It doesn’t stack up. Most limited interest books will sell 250 copies within the first month, you then struggle to shift another 200 over the next 10 months. Books that mention particular names and family connections do slightly better than than pure history or places.
    Touring to libraries or bookshops is usually a chance for a random day out and a visit to a different pub. Audiences are great – its more of a social thing and worldwide sales can now be handled over t’internet. Far better now than when the big Arts organisations insisted on having writers (who didn’t have a clue) produce ‘business plans’ to produce 1,500 books that spent most of their lives under the writer’s bed until they were eventually skipped.

    Still love books; they grow up in the most delightful way; without them what would little boys (and girls) do?

  3. All I can say is…… I’m so pleased the new Bryant & May book is out. I’ve been an avid reader of all your novels ever since I picked up Disturbia many years ago.

    Thank you so much, Christopher, for continuing to create your magic.

  4. SteveB says:

    Some reviewers are really good, Max Hastings for instance. And some are terrible. Frederic raphael when reviewing would write pages and pages entirely dedicated to showing off his knowledge and in vain would one look for an indication of whether the book he was supposedly reviewing was any good or not.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I have a personal clipping service that provides me with both The London and the New York Times – The Sunday Review of Books and a few other things. I read it all and have bought some things – it’s how I came to read Wolf Hall, but a lot of my reading now is for complete relaxation. works as well as Tylenol.
    That event on the top of the British Library; was it in connection with the Alice in Wonderland Anniversary? Smaller libraries are better, then? I notice our library is having some YA author visits. The teens have their own notice board for their events and I counted 6 events of various sorts planned over the next month.

  6. Mike says:

    I’ve found Cheltenham is more and more sleb/meedja obsessed over the last few years.

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