Industry pundits have been saying for years that the author tour is dead. And yes, most authors, even famous authors, don't draw crowds the way they used to. But at least for the young adult and children's market, it is still possible to put together an author tour that sells books. How do I know? Here's a list of the top ten markets for my debut novel, ASHFALL, in late November last year as my physical book tour was winding down. The data is from Nielsen Bookscan:
St. Louis, MO*********
Salt Lake City, UT
Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo/Battle Creek, MI*****
Cedar Rapids/Waterloo/Dubuque, IA*********
The asterisks in the list? The number of events I held at schools, libraries, and bookstores within that market last year. I visited about a dozen markets during the fall, and eight of them wound up in the top ten for ASHFALL sales.
This March I'm going on an east coast tour. Already, in January, places like Vermont, New York, Boston, Rochester, and Washington, D.C. are in the top ten for ASHFALL sales. Why? Stores are ordering extra copies of the book and putting up displays. Teachers, students, and libraries are ordering books in anticipation of my visit.
Here's a weird fact--you can have a successful bookstore signing even if no one shows up. How? Stores will order your book and put it on display, leading to impulse sales long before and after you're there. If the store allows you to sign stock, it becomes non-returnable, which is obviously a big plus. If a few of the people who buy your book like it, word of mouth will propel further sales.
But the best audiences for children's and young adult books are captive audiences--schoolchildren. When you're starting out, I suggest offering your presentations for free, provided there are book available for sale. Later, when you're better known and better at presenting, author visits can be a lucrative sideline.
Realize that you've got a dual audience: to satisfy the kids you have to be entertaining, to satisfy the teachers you've got to teach something relevant to their curriculum (and entertain the kids, so there aren't discipline problems).
I learned to be an effective presenter the same way I learned to write--by observing other presenters and practicing. I volunteered in my wife's 4th grade classroom for a year, trying different things and soliciting her feedback. I attend other authors' presentations and signings at every opportunity, and freely borrow what works. I also shadowed a friend and particularly effective presenter for a day.
So, that's my take on book tours. Anything else you want to know about this topic? Let me know in the comments and I'll edit this post or publish a follow-up. Thanks!
Edit 3/11/13: Karen Sandler, author of the fabulous YA novel Tankborn, emailed to ask me how I was able to get so many school visits set up right after ASHFALL came out. So I'll answer her question here, so anyone reading this post can benefit.
1) Even though ASHFALL was my first novel, I've been in the book business for years. My mother owns Kids Ink Children's Bookstore in Indianapolis, and I worked for her for almost a decade. My first school visit and first talk at a library conference were booked because of her. So, I chose the right parents. If you weren't so foresightful in your selection of parents, read on.
2) Tanglewood Publishing has been marvelous to work with. They hired a publicist, Rebecca Grose of Socal Public Relations who solicited many of my early school visits. She sometimes works with authors directly, too. Tanglewood also sent me to ALAN, ALA, and BEA where I met many booksellers, librarians, and teachers who later invited me to speak at their schools.
3) I do a great job at my school visits. They're entertaining enough that I have no trouble holding students' attention, but informative enough that the teachers and administrators appreciate them from a curricular standpoint. After most school visits end, I ask the organizer two questions: What could I do different/better in the future? and Would you be willing to refer me to other schools & teachers you know?. Almost all school visits are set up based on referrals. Teachers want effective speakers, and the best way of knowing if a speaker is any good is to hear them or get a referral.
4) I make my contact info easy to find. My email is and address are right on my website. You don't have to fill out a form or jump through any hoops to contact me. I send my phone numbers out with every school visit contract. My website also has a thorough description of my talks, my prices (I don't do them for free any more), and a bunch of quotes from past schools I've spoken at. here. Check it out here.
5) If you don't have some of the advantages I did, here's what I'd suggest. Write to your local school librarians. Let them know you're offering free school visits. Contact your state school library association (The Indiana Library Federation in Indiana, for example) and ask them to spread the word. Do a bunch of free visits--when you start to get good at it, librarians will help you book more.
Hope that helps! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have more questions.