Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mary Louise Kelly proclaims the book tour not dead yet

HALLIE EPHRON: Every once in a while, an article “goes viral” behind the scenes here on Jungle Red. Last week Hank sent us a link to an essay by Mary Louise Kelly (author of THE BULLET) that ran in the Washington Post. It had the long and provocative (especially to an author) title:

What she had to say struck a nerve. So true and so funny. Timely, too, because one of the Reds is invariably “on tour.” (Rhys is out with MALICE AT THE PALACE; in October Hank will be launching WHAT YOU SEE and Susan will be launching MRS. ROOSEVELT'S CONFIDANTE)

And on tour, the one… make that TWO things we invariably ask ourselves:
- Are we having fun yet?
- Is anything that I’m doing making a difference?

Along comes Mary Louise Kelly’s hilarious essay with a few answers of her own. She’s just coming down from launching THE BULLET, her tour taking her from Atlanta to Seattle to Damariscotta, Maine, and she shares her insights and 7 stellar tips.

I especially love this quote she got from David Baldacci, whose books will hit the best seller lists whether he goes on tour or not: “It’s far better to go out on book tour than it is to sit and tweet.”

Mary Louise, Now that you’re back from book tour, do you agree?

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Most definitely. There's always a moment at a reading where I have to stop and pinch myself, because it hits me all over again: these people are here to talk about a book that I WROTE! And look, there it is, my book! Sitting there all perky on the shelf in an actual bookstore!

I don't know how many bestsellers you have to write before you stop being struck by that sense of wonder, but I'm not there yet. Speaking of bestsellers, my favorite quote from Baldacci was that he once flew to Nebraska for a pot roast dinner, served at a book club with all of three members. Now, THAT is book tour dedication.

HALLIE: You advise us NOT to read from our books, unless we pick a really provocative passage. Just wondering, can a passage be too provocative?

MARY LOUISE:  Yes, it does make you wonder how E.L. James (of Fifty Shades of Grey fame) fares on book tour, doesn't it? I did a book event in Atlanta recently, and the venue was a lovely big hall inside an Episcopal church. My books aren't especially racy, but the passage I'd chosen to read contained some, ahem, shall we say salty language. I got halfway through it and thought -- I can't read this out loud to all these nice church ladies! I toned down a couple of words and just let roll with the rest. The crowd appeared to enjoy themselves, they bought lots of books, and I'm happy to report I was not struck down by lightning.

HALLIE: I laughed when I saw your advice #6 Don’t say yes to every invitation followed by #7 Say yes to every invitation. That nailed it.

MARY LOUISE:  It's like Whitman says:  "Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." Walt Whitman must have been a force to be reckoned with on book tour, by the way.

HALLIE: And I love your advice, “Don’t wear stilettos.” I only wish I still could. Any advice about sharing the stage with other writers?

MARY LOUISE:  One reader complained to me about that stiletto comment, harrumphing that I was being sexist and setting different rules for male and female writers. I assured him that I would advise male writers to stay away from stilettos too...

As for sharing the stage with other writers, I love it. I always learn something. I did an event this spring with Julia Dahl (author of the clever Brooklyn-based thrillers Invisible City and Run You Down). We hadn't met until five minutes before we climbed onto stage, but we hit it off and had each other doubled over in giggles. I can only hope the audience had half as much fun as we did. Afterwards we sneaked off to a French bistro, polished off a bottle of good wine and swapped book tour stories until she had to run for the train.

HALLIE: SO jealous! I'm a huge Julia Dahl fan. We hosted her in this very space not that long ago.

I’m betting that your Washington Post article sold a lot of books, more than an appearance for sure. But you’d never have been able to publish the article if you hadn’t done the appearances. Another Catch-22 of book promotion.

What feedback have you gotten?

MARY LOUISE: The thing is that it's impossible to measure, right? I hope the Post article sold a lot of books, but other than furtively checking my Amazon rankings -- a bad habit I fight valiantly to suppress -- there's no way to know.

I do believe, though, that book publicity is a cumulative affair. Meaning: maybe no one buys my book because I wrote an essay in the Washington Post. But maybe they read that essay, and then they find your way to this Q&A on Jungle Red (which only happened because of the Post article), or they come hear me talk at a big mid-Atlantic book festival (an invitation which arrived because of the Post article)... And all of it adds up to convince people that they want to read my book. And if not, well -- as an author I can only say that I feel extraordinarily lucky to have the chance to do all those things, and that I'm having a heck of a good time.

HALLIE: What a fantastic attitude. For me, events and book groups are the silver lining of a writing career, and boy aren't we lucky!?

Today's question: Do you think tours are worthwhile or would authors be better off to just sit and Tweet?

ABOUT The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly
   Two words: The bullet.
   That’s all it takes to shatter her life.
   Caroline Cashion is beautiful, intelligent, a professor of French literature. But in a split second, everything she’s known is proved to be a lie.
   A single bullet, gracefully tapered at one end, is found lodged at the base of her skull. Caroline is stunned. It makes no sense: she has never been shot. She has no entry wound. No scar. Then, over the course of one awful evening, she learns the truth: that she was adopted when she was three years old, after her real parents were murdered. Caroline was there the night they were attacked. She was wounded too, a gunshot to the neck. Surgeons had stitched up the traumatized little girl, with the bullet still there, nestled deep among vital nerves and blood vessels.
   That was thirty-four years ago.
   Now, Caroline has to find the truth of her past. Why were her parents killed? Why is she still alive? She returns to her hometown where she meets a cop who lets slip that the bullet in her neck is the same bullet that killed her mother. Full-metal jacket, .38 Special. It hit Caroline’s mother and kept going, hurtling through the mother’s chest and into the child hiding behind her.
   She is horrified—and in danger. When a gun is fired it leaves markings on the bullet. Tiny grooves, almost as unique as a fingerprint. The bullet in her neck could finger a murderer. A frantic race is set in motion: Can Caroline unravel the clues to her past, before the killer tracks her down?


  1. Although I have absolutely no experience with book tours, I think book tours would be far more worthwhile than sitting and tweeting. The opportunity to get together with folks who are interested in meeting you and who want to read your books would, I think, be the obvious choice.

  2. If three people read your book, and those three people each tell three friends, and each of those people tell three friends....I think David Balducci is right, it's better to go on book tour. Plus, you get all those thrills and fun moments...and you can always tweet while you're waiting for your train or plane for the next stop on your tour!

  3. Mary Louise, welcome! so excited to have you here and the premise of your book sounds amazing!

    But maybe the better question is whether it's better to sit home and WRITE rather than sit home and TWEET?

    Because that's another theory--the best publicity is to write another book...

    I love meeting readers--it's my favorite thing about this business, but always having to weight the costs and benefits of staying home versus traveling...

  4. Yes, WRITE THE BOOK should definitely come first. So here's a question, is there such a thing as too much "product"? (If only I had that problem!) I do wonder sometimes. I know that there's such a thing as too many events in the same geography.

  5. It is working Mary Louise. Your book came to my attention when I was planning blog coverage for the late summer/early fall. I was intrigued, but the timing just wasn't right, so I had to pass. Then I read the Post article and thought, "this lady speaks the truth and writes well, I need to check out this book." So I made a note of it. Then today, I run into you here on JRW and my interest is further piqued. So, after I finish this comment, I am off to order The Bullet. This is how it works folks!

    I think book tours are essential, but I also think that in today's world, Tweeting and Facebooking(?) are essential. And as, Lucy said, so is writing the next book. I think conferences and festivals are best, because you can cast a wider net, but at the same time, one person at a bookstore meet/greet can love your book so much that the word of mouth recommendation is golden. I say, all things in moderation.

    As for too much product, I used to think that was impossible, but now that I have BOLO Books, I do think that it's possible to have too much out there. I see so many writers writing 3-4 series and I know they are doing it to make a living, but I also think "wouldn't it be better to write 1-2 and do it so well that you can make a living that way?" Of course, I'm not the one struggling to feed a family in that way, so I don't really know what I am talking about. ;)

  6. most memorable book signing: I hauled the kids off the beach one afternoon so we could meet Marc Brown. He talked to each kid in turn, asked about their interests, held the baby, and signed each book with his name and drew their favorite "Arthur" character. I wish every book signing could be as low-key and unrushed.

  7. Kristopher, I completely agree... that's how it works. Sometimes it feels like flailing ... just doing whatever you can, pulling out all the stops and hoping something sticks. And then... when it does... WHOA! You can act like you knew exactly what you were doing.

  8. Margaret, you talking about Marc Brown reminded me of the first time I'd ever heard of Jeff Kinney and Diary of a Wimpy Kid ... a line literally down the stairs and out the front door at the BEA convention center in Los Angeles.

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  10. Having a sense of humor about it all is crucial, isn't it?

    Non-fiction writers go through the same thing, and sometimes in creative, roundabout ways. I traveled to consumer shows for more than 15 years, selling my books, which qualifies as a sort of book tour. Instead of reading from them, though, I taught related classes, and either sold "from the back of the room", or through a booth. Or from people using the handouts I gave them, which always included a handy order form listing all my products on the back. They could either buy things right there at the event, or go to my website, or just send the form in via mail.

    The thing is, you have no idea how many times someone has to see or hear your name for it to sink in and prompt action. There have been a lot of marketing studies about this, and the consensus seems to be that every single instance of a potential buyer being made aware of your existence makes it that much more likely that they will act on the buying cue.

    In other words, it's all good, all grist for the mill. Personally, I'm more likely to buy a book from someone with whom I've had a relationship, however brief. I think most people are the same.

  11. Such a wonderful topic, and Mary Louise, I read your essay about twenty-seven times, and knew the Reds would connect like mad. I'm try big on book tours--the friends and readers I've met are incomparable treasures, It is grueling--but my favorite quote is the only thing worse than book tour--is not going on book tour.

    Every writer has horror series to tell---yikes! but why is it so much fun to share them?--and each event seems like an exercise in potential humiliation. But I look at it like Chatauqua, or a traveling Broadway show. YOu do the very very very best you can each time, each audience gets 100 per cent. And you never know what wonderful thing will happen.

    (Too many books a year? Ah, well, yeah, I've judged contests, and authors will enter the three books they wrote that year, and I think--you think every one of these is an award-winner? But I've heard that "geography" at the boost is a good thing.)

    But yeah, book tour. I'm there. And I'll keep this essay tucked in my phone and read it for fuel Thank you! ANd yes, KAren, a sense of humor is the big key. And wine. (Not whine.)

  12. The comment about whether to sit home and TWEET or sit home and WRITE pretty much nails it. Because book publicity, done well, takes time... and every hour that we're on book tour or tweeting or writing op/eds or blogging is an hour that isn't devoted to getting the next book written. And of course, the deadlines on the tweeting/book touring/blogging are always more urgent. Deadlines for novels tend to loom months away, and that's if we're lucky enough to have a book contract. The result being, in my case at least, that I can fritter away entire weeks tweeting and prepping for book talks, etc. and not writing one word of fiction.

    On the flip side, all of these "extracurricular" activities are a). FUN, b). useful for selling books, and c). generate new material for the novels. You meet all kinds of crazy and fascinating and inspiring and weird people on book tour, for example, and damned if some of them don't show up as characters in the next novel!

    Meanwhile, a hearty thumbs up to Hank Phillippi Ryan's comment that the key to book tour (indeed, life??) is a sense of humor, and wine.

  13. Oh, and here's another gem of a tale from book tour: "Junot Díaz Nearly Causes a Riot at New York City Book Signing."

    My mother sent me this article, which appeared a few months before the start of my first book tour. She was worried that I might need to hire security for my events. If only we all had such problems!

  14. I like seeing authors "in person." But I've also "met" authors via Twitter or Facebook or a blog, which has led me to their books, and someday I might meet them in person. So yeah, it's all cumulative.

    But yes, Rule #1 is Write a Great Book. Everything else is kind of besides the point if the story doesn't hold me.

  15. That plot summary for The Bullet had me tapping your name onto my phone's "to buy" list, Mary Louise. Wow!

    I loved your Washington Post piece as well. Where did you speak in Damariscotta? I hope you got a good crowd - it's a wonderful community up there but I know that summer involves a lot of competing events.

    The social media thing is not particularly pleasurable for many of us. Visiting bookstores and libraries feels more rewarding. I like that your article challenged the emerging conventional wisdom that in-person events are not the way to sell books. Selling anything is all about connecting with people, and tweeting from the couch is such an antiseptic approach.

  16. So I was on this book tour financed by Penguin, and at a fabulous stre in Lexingtin, KY, I had 35 people show up to see me. Wonderful! I was thrilled! I went to the break room afterwards to thank the staff. That's when one of the new clerks blurted out, "oh, you should have been here last week! We had 3500 people!" Who was last week's author? Paula Deen. Now, at the time I was a little deflated, but see how the world turns? Would Paula get 3500 people today? Okay, maybe i wouldn't either, but I'm still writing books.

  17. Nancy, love that story. 35 is GREAT! Esp when it's not your home town. And they buy your book.

    Sadly I think Paula Deen would even now draw more than just about any mystery author. We're living in a Karadashian world. (I LOVE that Karadashian gets marked as a misspelling when I type it in)

  18. I used to pay attention to authors who were coming to stores for book signings and go if their books sounded interesting. I found a lot of authors I love as a result, so it is another way to get your name out there and get people to read your books. Every little bit helps, right? Especially with so many books coming out all the time.

  19. Roberta is right that writing the next book is the first priority. Given that, I totally agree that meeting readers in person is better (and more fun) than via social media (especially if there's wine, as Hank says), but no one here (except Nancy M, in passing) has mentioned the finances of book tours. Leaving the local area is expensive. If an author's publisher is not touring her, she has to sell a lot of books to justify the expense of a plane ticket, hotel and rental car/taxis. I'm sure we've all done the math before and figured out that we're never (unless we're Paula Deen, apparently) going to sell enough books at a single event to offset the $500+ cost of getting to it. I tell myself that it all goes toward building awareness, reputation, brand, etc., but it's hard to know if it's worth it.

  20. Mary Louise, I LOVE the description of your book. Going to order it now. And I love the sort of cascading synchronicity of you writing about books tours which brings you to JRW which sells books to new readers... That's how it should work.

    I've never thought book tours were about how many people show up at an event. But, you can post on your web page or Facebook or Twitter or your blog that you're touring for a new book. And then the next time someone who happens to have read any of the above sees a review or your book in the bookstore or a suggestion on Amazon, they think, "Oh, I know about that. It sounded good." Then, maybe, hopefully, they have another look and buy your book.

    Book tours are also about meeting the people who do show up. And about your poster in the book store window, and that "Signed by Author" stock that goes in the front of the store. And most of all they are about meeting the people who sell the books, because then they will remember you, and maybe they will hand sell your book next book to their customer...

    It's all dominoes falling, isn't it, and the wine is nice, too:-)

  21. Love the discussion.

    Please. When referring to adoption, the only "real" parents are the ones who raise the child.
    The term you want is " birth parents' or "biological parents".

  22. Brenda, I read at Maine Coast Book Shop in Damariscotta, Maine. A really lovely store that anchors the main street in town. Not only did they put out nice wine and nibbles for the crowd, but they had one of the nicest perks I've encountered anywhere on book tour: a big "Reserved for Author" sign blocking a prime parking spot by the door. How awesome is that? Especially in the middle of a busy tourist town on a Friday night in August?? I teased them that I was considering taking the sign home in my suitcase, because it would come in handy trying to park around downtown DC... I highly recommend visiting next time you're in Damariscotta.

  23. Libby, you are absolutely right. "Birth" or "biological" parents is correct term, and that's what I used throughout The Bullet. Thanks for the catch.

  24. Mary Louise, your article caught my eye as it was circulating on FB, and I was happy to see that you encourage book tours. The authors with whom I've come into contact on book tours seem to sincerely enjoy meeting readers, and I can tell you from the reader's perspective that meeting the authors and hearing them speak is a huge thrill. The author and reader interaction is a major selling point for me, as I have been known to buy all the author's books displayed, along with the one currently being publicized. That happened with Carl Hiaasen. I first heard him speak, and he had me laughing from the first word to the last. Then, when it was time to get books signed, I loaded up on ones of his I didn't already have, as well as the new one.

    Debs brought up an excellent point, too, about the authors meeting and getting to know the people selling their books, which creates the possibility of the booksellers remembering and recommending that author's books, and that might even influence placement in the store or on the shelf. Of course, I've been known to alter a placement of a favorite author, making a book more noticeable.

    And, as others have stated, the selling and buying of books is truly a network of personal and online connections. I think one of the most important contributors to my TBR pile is the Jungle Reds blog, where I have become aware of so many amazing authors. Of course, FB and Twitter are great resources, too, and other blogs, like Kristopher's. And, I also have a blog, so I use different sources to keep in the loop. The online book community is quite a force in getting the word out about favorite authors and new authors (who become favorites). But, those personal meetings of authors on tour or at conventions create special memories that result in a tenacious loyalty.

    Mary Louise, you mentioned in your Washington Post article about the special circle of Hell for those showing up with a library book and a bookmark to sign. Hahaha! One bookstore where I've attended some events has a solution to that, although it seems to be only for the "big time" authors. In order to attend the event, a person must have a ticket, and the way to obtain a ticket is to purchase a book through the bookstore, which they can send you or hold for you until the day of the event. I'm not bothered by this approach because I'm going to buy the book anyway, but I do think it unfortunate that there might be people who can't afford to buy the book wanting to hear the author.

    Now, off to buy The Bullet! Connection made.

  25. I really don't mind signing bookmarks. Or the back of Kindles (which I've done quite a few times). I realize not everyone can afford to buy hardcover books, nor do they have the space to store them. When people come to one of my events and tell me they get all my books at the library, I do understand. I tell them libraries are wonderful and they buy all my books.
    I do sometimes wish we were like UK and writers get a small stipend every time a book was checked out of the library. Someone emailed me to tell me that she was #106 on the waiting list for my last book. I suggested she ask the library to buy another copy, but it certainly would be nice to be rewarded for hundreds or even thousands of people checking out my books.

  26. Can I just say I'm ot crazy about bookstores requiring people to buy a ticket to hear an author (even when it gets deducted off the price of a book they might buy) or buy a book in order to attend. Because it just cuts off anyone who might be curious, interested, a friend of someone who's curious interested. It's just counterproductive. (Unless we're talking an author who an fill an auditorium.)

    (I also wish indies more often discounted the books they sell at author events. But then I'm not trying to feed my family off the books I sell.)

  27. I love book tours, despite being the shy and retiring person all the Reds can attest I am. I particularly love doing appearances with other authors - I think it's great for the audience, the bookstore, and at the end of the evening, you have a friend with whom you can get a drink and catch up on gossip!

    Rhys - #106 on the waiting list?!? You'd think at that point she'd just break down and buy the book. A standard hardcover is going to cost about as much as five iced coffee drinks at Starbucks, and I can guarantee it'll last a lot longer and give the consumer more pleasure!

  28. Rhys, how does that work in the UK? Who pays the author's stipend for checked out books? The library? Or the publisher? I live in a small town, small library system--there's no way the budget would stretch to paying a stipend to authors, unfortunately.

    I do donate books to the library, especially if it's an author I haven't seen on the shelves. Oftentimes, the library will then invest in more books by the same author.

  29. I agree Hallie. It's just counterproductive to require a ticket (or book purchase) for an event. That said, I am all for a policy of "no books from home" seeing as how the stores goal in hosting the event is to sell books.

    The ticketed events I have seen are basically for the signing portion of the event. I have not seen one where they would not allow folks to enter the store to hear the author if they haven't purchased a book - if that exists (and I don't doubt it does) that is just wrong. Like you said, how would you discover a new author that way?

  30. My missus and I love to go see our favorite writers when they come to town, or somewhere not too far away. Have I ever mentioned the number of wealthy mystery fans here in the Research Triangle area? Well, mystery fans anyway. Would love to see more of y'all coming through here. Of course we hope to see all y'all (which is the correct way to say the plural) at B'con!

    Jim in Durham

  31. Library stipends in UK are a government funded program, I believe funded through the lottery. The amount is small... A few pennies a time and the max an author can receive is about 6000 pounds a year, but it shows that an author is being read and appreciated.

  32. On the subject of ticketed book talks, I will say that some of the most successful talks I've done have been ticketed. What has worked for me has been a nominal charge -- say, $5 -- and not requiring a book purchase. The act of buying a ticket forces people to commit, put the talk on their calendar, and actually show up. Otherwise people really, really mean to come to your book talk, but then they get tired or have to work late or their kids need driving to soccer or life otherwise gets in the way. (And yes, I've been guilty myself, more than once).

    Another approach: the talk that Julia Dahl and I did together was free, but it was by invitation, and you had to RSVP. We got great turnout. The drawback, of course, is that readers new to your work won't discover you. And this wouldn't work in a book store that is open to whichever customers may happen to wander through. But I recommend it for readings held, say, at a university or local school or museum or think tank or whatever. People LIKE to get invitations to fun-sounding events! (Tip #2 from my WashPost article...) And again, if people have RSVP'd, they're way more likely to show up...

  33. Laura brings up the cost of touring, which can be substantial if you're paying your own way. But I think touring is a better use of funds than, say, conventions, which can be fun because you're rubbing elbows with your peers. But having a peer group may not be as useful as having a solid and growing group of readers. It's harder to go out and meet new people, forge new relationships, but maybe it's a wiser use of resources.

  34. TAKE the parking sign! YES! A place to park, wine, and good friends. What could be better? Oh, and finish the book. xooxo

  35. Hi, Mary Louise. I really enjoyed our second book, THE BULLITT. Very clever plot and great writing. I hope you will make your way west to Houston's Murder by the Book next time. Also, I enjoyed your observations on your current book tour. Write on!