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I wish I hadn’t done that: Tales from the book promotion road

While driving back from a recent American Society of Journalists and Authors chapter meeting, Randi Minetor and I started talking about her recent book marketing experiences. This helpful “lessons learned” guest post is the result of that conversation. Randi is the author of more than 60 books on national parks, travel, American history, birds and birding, trees and wildflowers, psychology and sociology, and a wide range of general interest topics. See the whole list on her Amazon Author page. You might also enjoy Randi’s earlier guest post here, Amazon sales rank: What the heck does it mean?

I wish I hadn’t done that: Tales from the book promotion road

By Randi Minetor

We sat at the six-foot table in the middle of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in a small Connecticut town, and we waited.

The owners had invested in 15 copies of our latest book, our magnum opus: Birding New England, an overhaul and relaunch of publisher Falcon Guides’ Birdfinding series. The new format replaces the text-grayed pages and black-and-white photos of the original series with hundreds of full-color bird photos and specific information on where to find each species.

They’d also bought a plate of Italian cookies.

The cookies, it turned out, were the more popular investment.

book promotion road

Schedule a talk, not a signing

In the two hours we sat in this store on a Friday morning in June, exactly one person came in to purchase a book and have us sign it.

Despite our luring people to the table with the cookies, chatting them up as they munched, and opening the book to selected pages so they could see my-husband-Nic-the-photographer’s gorgeous photos, they walked off without a copy.

I should have known better than to schedule a signing instead of a talk. When Nic and I have the opportunity to perform—our tag-team presentations are filled with photos, tips for finding bird species, and funny stories from the road—the stacks of books dwindle as happy customers buy multiple copies.

Book signings with no talk, however, rarely result in sales for a midlist author whose name does not spark instant recognition.

Pay your own way promotion

In an age when 75 percent of all books are sold on Amazon, face-to-face book promotions have lost much of their power and luster.

Publishers only pay for book tours when the book has a chance of reaching the New York Times bestseller list. As a result, authors who want to travel to promote their books receive little to no financial support to do so.

We who write about regional nature, history, and other nonfiction topics can build our own book tours, paying for transportation and lodging out of our own bank accounts. We can even generate our own publicity for these events. Or … we can stay home and find better, more effective ways of promoting our work.

What doesn’t work, and what does

My first book, Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry, had the remarkable benefit of being the first book about women who make more money than their husbands do.

I paid to have a video made of myself speaking at a meeting of professional women. Sadly, it was scheduled for September 12, 2001, so it was attended by exactly six women. Nonetheless, I put together a snazzy hard-copy speaker package, built a list of women’s professional association chapters across the country, and approached them for engagements.

Not surprisingly, many of them responded favorably to my offer to speak to their clubs.

Also, not surprisingly in hindsight, not a single one would pay a speaking fee. Some did offer to arrange for hotel accommodations, and all but one paid for a meal (yes, one of these organizations would not even buy me lunch at a lunch meeting). I scheduled more than 40 gigs from Long Island to San Diego.

On one tour, I barely broken even

I stayed with friends where I could and took advantage of whatever meager hospitality these organizations offered. (This included a stay in one member’s home, where the shower door and walls were covered in black mildew so thick, I thought it was paint.)

I sold hundreds of books at cover price that I had bought from the publisher at a 55 percent “author discount.” Even so, the cash and checks did not quite cover the overall cost of the endeavor. Worse, I learned that the sale of books at such a significant discount didn’t count toward royalties, so in the end, I barely broke even.

I swore then that I would not be sucked into the not-so-glamorous whirlwind of a book tour again.

Put the focus on publicity

book promotion road 3Since then, my book promotion efforts have focused on publicity, especially in print.

I create media lists by hand and contact newspapers and radio stations in the areas near the national parks that are the subjects of my books. With luck, such stories attract the attention of the Associated Press, which can take an article in the Kalispell Daily Interlake in northwestern Montana and spread it to newspapers in hundreds of markets.

This strategy helped my first book in the “Death in the Parks” series, Death in Glacier National Park, sell enough books to generate royalties in its first year.

“I wish I’d listened to my own instincts”

In spring 2019, with the release of both Birding New England and Death in Acadia National Park at roughly the same time, Nic and I received invitations to speak at libraries in Bar Harbor, Me. and Barre, Vt., with accommodations included.

What the heck, I thought, let’s try scheduling some other dates around these. I put together a road trip with additional gigs in Maine, Vermont, and Connecticut, and Nic and I spent late May and much of June darting from one place to another.

“I wish I’d listened to my own instincts,” I said to Nic as we drove away from the Wild Birds Unlimited in Connecticut, our last stop on the tour. Other bookstore appearances had been slightly more successful than in the past, but not enough to warrant the effort it took to get there.

So, no more unreimbursed road shows for me.

From now on I heed the excellent advice you’ll find here on Sandra Beckwith’s BuildBookBuzz website and blog, and I will work to promote my books via interviews, guest blog posts, and online promotions while sitting in my home office in Rochester, N.Y. It beats cheap hotels and countless tanks of gas literally burning up my book income.   

What’s your take on Randi’s experiences? Does any of this ring true for you? Please tell us in a comment. 

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  1. Yes, I have found that true on numerous occasions. One positive of book signings without speaking is when the venue buys the books for the signings. That has a positive income, even though I still have to pay for my own expenses. I usually include a trip to see the grandkids with this venue.

    1. Penelope, you’re right—every book sold is income, so visiting the bookstores and trying to help them sell will be remembered and will eventually lead to sales. We stop at bookstores wherever we travel and offer to sign any of our books that they may have in stock. This gives us the opportunity to chat with the owner or manager, and this often leads to better positioning of our books in the store.

  2. Sadly, I find these conclusions so true. Our books and their subjects resonate to as many people as have opinions on what they like and do not like to read.And in this day and age even less people read than watch television and what comes scrolling across their iphone screen.
    I attended the Atlanta Book Fair many years ago. I rented a space at a table with two other authors and set up my books, a historical romance trilogy and over two days spoke enthusiastically to anyone who stopped by. I sold a total of 21 books. My book bank account dropped by $2600 dollars. But I sure got to know the two other authors. One is a friend to this day.
    But we cannot stop, can we? We must plod on, so it is what we do, while we reject some ideas and file others away.
    But if you asked me if I were still writing, I would have to answer, yes.

  3. You said it, Donald. I have found that speaking at libraries as part of an Author Series draws much larger crowds and results in more book sales than in-store signings and book fairs. I was stunned to discover, for example, that publishers give away hundreds of books at Book Expo in NYC for free, including more than 50 copies of one of my books when I was invited to the publisher’s booth to sign them. It’s tough to be profitable in the publishing business. That, however, doesn’t stop any of us from writing. I have toe write; on days when I don’t, I actually feel anxious and unsettled. We just keep on, boats against the current …

  4. Thanks for the tips, Randi and Sandra. As a kid lit author, I have moderate success selling books by visiting schools and their libraries. I break even doing local community book fairs (especially before Christmas!), and still pursue them because I enjoy getting out and talking to people. Yep, food and bookmarks are my biggest draws.

    I once approached a local merchant’s call for authors to come into her store for a signing, BUT she wanted 60% of the sale. Didn’t happen.

    1. Cat, I know what you mean. There are a lot of good reasons to get out and do events beyond actual sales—but we can’t afford to just relinquish all of our profits for “exposure.” We have done several events more for the fun of talking to readers than for the income, and they also tend to be break-even deals.

  5. Thanks for your insights! There is a saying in Spanish that “no one learns through another person’s head.” I beg to differ. We need to learn from each others’ experiences and yours are most helpful.

    While it may seem glamorous to tour around with your book, it is an expensive proposition. I tag along my husband’s business trips and walk around carrying my book “Solve the Divorce Dilemma: Do You Keep Your Husband or Do You Post Him on Craigslist?” I get more interest talking to people at restaurants while eating alone, and that has resulted in more sales than Amazon ads! I don’t leave the house without it.

    Speaking engagements can also be a waste of time and money. I agree that staying put and focusing on publicity is the way to go.

    Thanks, Sandy, for your support and excellent resources!

    1. Sonia, that’s a clever way to get attention and interest for your book. I’ll have to think about how to do that myself.

    2. Sonia, I love, love, love that pros like Randi are willing to share their experiences with us here! I’m glad you found it useful, too!


  6. Randi,thanks so much for sharing your experience. I’ve never done a book tour, but I’ve had lots of booksignings where very few people show up. I’ve had the most success at craft fairs where people are looking for holiday gifts. Those cost something too in terms of table rental and raffle prize, not to mention time and energy. I’m sometimes ready to give up, but like everyone here, I’ll just keep plugging away.

    1. Sally, craft fairs and other appearances during the holidays can be much more productive than random appearances in stores the rest of the year. I’ve had particularly good luck just before Mother’s Day, with one gift store five minutes from my house where the owner invites us back every year. Books about birds and gardening are big hits for Mother’s Day. Happily, they don’t charge us for the privilege, but we’ve been to conferences and other events that do. It’s darned hard to make a living this way.

    2. Sally, I feel your pain, but please don’t give up. The secret to success, especially when your time is limited, is to find just one tactic that works, and learn to do it really, really well. You always want to do more of what works, and way less of what doesn’t. It can be trial and error.

      Hang in there!


  7. Thank you so much for your revealing account of your experience. I have not tried a book tour, but I have travelled to book fairs around our local area. I find I sell best close to home.

  8. I will qualify this stance with a couple of thoughts. Bookstores are not my friends, except my local indie. If they order their own books, rather than on consignment directly from me I always lose money. Why? They order a lot, and can end up sending extras back as returns. Also – without local contacts, it is a harder draw.

    I am a library geek so favor libraries, even if unpaid, and have worked on my public speaking skills through Toastmasters. I measure success in more than sales, e.g. I add names to my email list, it spreads grass-roots awareness when the library publicizes the event, and usually the library adds at least one book to their collection. I have been featured in media because of talks. My last library talk drew 75 people. However, I focus on my own metro area. Or, if I am visiting family out-of-town, I do local outreach in that area.

    With that said, someone who is a whiz at marketing and can promote online will reach thousands more with potential to go viral. But I wouldn’t discount the power of grass-roots support in your own metro area as a companion strategy.

    1. This is downright profound, Katrina. I think online marketing is highly over-rated, in part because most don’t know how to do it properly. Let’s take Twitter: It’s not built to sell. It’s about building relationships and making connections, which is what you’re obviously good at in person. Grassroots support can be huge, for sure. Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your perspective. It’s helpful!


  9. In my new book (spring 2019), “Surviving Self-Publishing or Why Ernest Hemingway Committed Suicide,” I conclude that marketing in your own metropolitan region and/or places you frequent for work or family, are a self-pubber’s best bet. The touring thing is a fiscal farce; I recount my perambulations and laughable results. But I explain why it doesn’t and can’t possibly work; and I sincerely wish someone had outlined it for me before I ambushed the wild west with a carful of books. Working one’s own region is totally the way to go for in-person selling.

    As for book-signings, again I think local or close-to is the solution. I’m able to appear monthly at a bookstore where I live, and though sales aren’t over the moon, I get email addresses and sincere connections. And it’s near home!

    Write on, comrades.

    1. Thanks, Ava.

      Staying local initially, even with publicity efforts, gives you a chance to figure out what works and resonates before you expand geographically.


  10. Thanks for hosting Randi’s post, Sandy. I totally related to her account of book signings in particular.

    In my innocence I actually booked a (self-financed, despite having a publisher) book tour for my first book in 2014.

    As an unknown, I wasn’t exactly magnetic. Like Randi, I sold way more books when I spoke. But nowhere near enough to finance the travel.

    At one signing in a bookstore in Seattle, I was standing near the entrance with my books when a woman approached me and said she was looking for a book about self-acceptance. Perfect! My book was the answer to her prayers!

    But before I could say that, she added, “… It’s by someone called Brene Brown. Can you tell me where I can find that?”

    For my next book, I’ll be flying to my home town for a VACATION during the launch, and I’ll do some speaking between visits with friends and family. That’s my new version of a book tour.

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