Friday, June 17, 2011

Notice to Appear

Once upon a time, years ago, there was a crazy author who spent a lot of time, money, and energy visiting forty different states in the US.

He signed at over 1200 bookstores.

He spoke at over a hundred libraries.

He attended dozens of conventions and conferences.

He went to many book fairs and literary festivals.

He spoke at schools and universities.

In short, he did what he felt he needed to do in order to succeed. Namely, meet as many people as possible, handsell books, and spread his brand.

It cost lots of money to do this. Lots of money and lots of time.

As a result, all of his books are still in print, while many of his peers (who didn't do as much) went out of print.

These days, he does very few appearances. He doesn't speak in public. He doesn't travel.

Yet he's still selling well. Better than he ever sold before.

So are appearances still worthwhile?

Have they ever been worthwhile?

One of the things about being a writer is knowing that in order to continue writing, you have to sell books. Because of this, many writers try to do things in order to boost sales. Some buy ads. Some have contests. Some blog. Some tweet. Some use Facebook. Some give away stuff.

Some make public appearances.

I've always believed that face-to-face time is valuable, and that there is no better salesperson for my book than me. But I never considered myself a salesman. I considered myself an ambassador, spreading information and good will. Often I taught what I learned. Sometimes I got paid, but mostly I dished out money for travel and hotels and convention fees.

And because of this, I've sold more books than I would have if I hadn't done anything at all.

That's the key. Doing something will help you sell more than doing nothing.

But for every book sale, there is a cost to pay.

The cost, of course, if both the monetary cost of travel, and the time cost of making an appearance.

Not too many writers openly talk about the costs involved in self-promotion, though all do it in some form or another. There is a reason for this.

Because all of us are failing. At least, when it comes to tangible returns on investments.

Writing is a solitary profession. But we need people (readers) in order to continue to write. So we try our best to find these readers, and appearances are one way to do this.

A damn expensive way.

I was just at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago. The cost to me was $25 for parking, $10 for gas, and five hours of time.

I sold about a dozen books (paperbacks), and the royalties totaled $7.68.

So my personal appearance left me in the red almost thirty bucks, not counting the five hours I could have spent writing.

Walking the fair, I saw many of my peers, none of them doing any better than I did. Some traveled from out of state to attend. Some dished out major bucks and bought their own tables.

That's a lot of time and money for a few dozen sales.

Rewind to Bouchercon 2010, the biggest mystery con of the year. I attended, but not as an author. I'd just begun my hiatus from public appearances, and I wanted to hang out with my friends without the pressure of having to be "on."

Some authors sold a few dozen books. Most didn't even come close to that. Considering the hotel was $199 a night, and travel to San Francisco isn't cheap, I wouldn't be surprised if some writers were in the red several thousand dollars.

So why do we keep doing this? Why do we invest so much for so little in return?

Here are my thoughts.

1. We feel as if we have to do something. Doing nothing means asking for failure. So even if the costs of doing something far exceed the sales we make, at least we can say we tried.

2. There is a bit of peer pressure and "go with the crowd" mentality. Gathering together with fellow authors is a cathartic experience. We're all in the same boat, and to see others doing what we're doing makes us feel better about what we're doing, even if it is ineffective.

3. We count on intangible benefits. Even if a bestseller goes on tour, they're losing money. Pretend a big shot sells 100 hardcovers at an appearance. That's $300 in royalties--not even close to the cost of plane fare, hotel, and an escort. But meeting a fan once can make a fan for life, befriending booksellers can help your titles sell for years, and giving a good talk could help spread word of mouth, selling many more books than were signed. This can't be gauged, however.

4. We think this will be the "big one" where we sell in huge numbers. And big ones do occasionally happen. Unfortunately, there's no way to know which appearances will be worthwhile and which won't.

5. There's an ego aspect to appearances, especially at the beginning of a career. We want to make fans. We want to sign books. We want to hear how people enjoyed our writing. Having someone hug you and say they love you is a heady experience.

But eventually, like all good things that became spoiled once dollar signs were attached to them, dealing with fans becomes work. It's good work if you can get it, but it has diminishing returns that increase the more fans you acquire.

I do very few appearances these days. And it hasn't hurt my career.

While I don't advocate doing nothing, and I stand by my original position that the more you do, the more you'll sell, I've come to realize that one person, no matter how hard they try, can't make themselves a bestseller. Luck always plays a part.

The harder you work, the luckier you tend to get. But there comes a point where you can spend too much time trying to promote old work, when you'd be better served writing new work. That point can vary, book to book, person to person. But it is something to be aware of.

So next time someone asks to to speak someplace, or when the yearly convention sends you an email asking to attend, try to weight the pros and cons before automatically saying yes. Because while you will sell more books, it will probably come at too high a cost.