I’m sipping coffee in a cute café in the tiny mountain town of Quincy, California, 90 miles from my home. Tonight is the last signing for my new book, The Forest House. For nearly three months, like a traveling peddler from the Old West, I’ve spent my weekends driving from one town or city to the next.
This is my second book tour—and I did it all wrong.
My memoir about a year spent healing in an isolated forest retreat is with a prestigious, but small, publisher: Counterpoint Press. My publicist, sweet and professional, set up about half of my “events”—readings, radio interviews, guest blog posts, a college class and a book club visit—and I arranged the other half.
What I feel, as I wonder how many will show up tonight (3? 6? 10?) is relief. It’s the way you feel as you spy the corner of the last lap of the race. You’re tired, but the knowledge that it’s almost over is like an espresso shot of energy.
Of course, everyone’s tired after three-plus months of concentrated effort, of being “on stage,” of meeting new people and always being polite and punctual.
Before I continue, I will admit there’s something annoying about authors who complain. This is mostly true for authors who’ve made it—who never have to worry if the room will be empty. When reading about book tour advice, I’m come across heartbreaking laments like this: “My toddler kept me up the night before I had to go on the Today Show!” Really?
My first tour, in 2002, was for The Territory of Men, a coming of age memoir about growing up in the wild 70s California with several stepdads, and the legacy of that life on my adulthood. It was a sexy book that struck a lot of chords about the culture of that time. The book was reviewed well in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Elle, the Los Angeles Times, and I had my 15 minutes of fame on NPR’s Fresh Air.
Fast forward 10 years, and the The Forest House came out to relative silence. I did get fine reviews in Kirkus and Booklist, and a few bloggers gave the book high marks, but it was nothing like my first book.
Instead of the 75 people who filled the room at Northtown Books in Arcata, Ca., to hear me read from my first book, 5 people wandered in for my second. I sold two books at this event that required a 14-hour round trip drive, two tanks of gas, meals, a pet-sitting fee, and a motel stay (all on my dime). The people who did come were enthusiastic and lovely, but would I do that again? Probably not.
For a few weeks I blamed the quiet response to my book’s release on the nature of the book itself—it wasn’t sensational. It was reflective, literary, full of deer and doves and serene, snowy morning walks. Nature memoirs are a lot of things, but sexy ain’t one of them.
Then I finally realized how different the media landscape is: it’s a blizzard out there. All I had was a website and a Facebook page with 290 loyal fans.
According to BJ Gallagher in “The Ten Awful Truths About Book Publishing,“ “it is increasingly difficult to make any book stand out. Each book is competing with more than ten million other books available for sale, while other media are claiming more and more of people’s time.””
Publishers are quite aware of this, which is why even selling The Forest House in the first place was a grind because as the big presses told me and my agent, I had no “media platform.”
Today, in addition to having your own blog or at least writing guest blogs regularly, you need an author website, a Twitter and Tumblr following, regular witty podcasts, clever dispatches on your FB author page, a catchy YouTube book trailer—and then you must stride up and down Main Street with a bullhorn.
Guess those publishers had a point: it’s hard to launch anything off a nonexistent platform.
What I would do differently next time? I’d customize my book tour to myself.
Just as there’s a surprising and wonderful difference between a one-size-fits-all outfit and a tailored one, there’s a stark contrast between the traditional, paint-by-numbers book tour and a contemporary, custom one.
So, given that it’s a blizzard out there, what kind of snowflake are you? Here’s what I’d do next time I brave the storm:
1. I’d set up more visits at book clubs, college writing classes, and women’s clubs in my community (such as the Soroptomists). These events meant captive audiences who were excited about me and my books. I brought books to sell and flyers to hand out so people had something to take home.
2. I’d plan more parties with family and friends at houses, restaurants, nightclubs—wherever people can gather to celebrate. Again, books and flyers would be on hand.
3. I’d get my media ducks in a row well before launching—or even selling—the book. That means not just creating an online presence, but ramping up the one I already have by blogging, posting on social networks and YouTube, and doing interviews with other authors.
4. I’d limit my actual “tour” to bookstore events at a few nearby stores where my reading would count as news in the local paper and on the local radio station. If I wanted to visit a faraway bookstore, I’d bring my son and make a vacation out of it.
5. I’d set up “paired” readings with author friends so we could double our promotion and hopefully our audience.
What I’ve learned is that a book’s release into the world should be fun and worthwhile. In the end, I stay gracious—and grateful that I’ve gotten to experience this wild and crazy life as an author. I can’t wait to see what happens with book # 3.
Joelle Fraser is the author of the memoirs The Territory of Men (Random House 2003) and The Forest House (2013). A MacDowell Fellow, she has an MFA from the University of Iowa. She teaches writing and lives in northeast California with her son. Find her at www.joellefraser.com.