The Blessing (and Curse) of Mild Success

(Here’s a post from CWC-Marin board member John Byrne Barry about his recent book tour in support of Wasted, a “green noir” mystery set in the Berkeley recycling world. Cross-posted at greennoir.com.)

Anatomy of the Wasted Author Tour

When my recent book tour ended — “not with a bang, but a whimper,” to borrow from the Hollow Men — I was relieved it was over.  Now I wish I had more readings scheduled.

The “Wasted Author Tour,” which included ten event in Detroit, Berkeley, Mill Valley, San Rafael, Corte Madera, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, was stressful, turnout was disappointing more often than not, and it didn’t generate enough audience or book sales to justify the time I devoted to it.

But I would do it again.

I always enjoyed giving the talk. And the people who showed up seemed to as well.

My goal with this post is to share an honest account of the tour. This is not advice, because I don’t consider myself an authority. However, it may be useful for other authors who are wondering if a tour is worth the trouble.

When I launched my first book — Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher — I scheduled one reading, in February 2014, and more than 50 people crowded into Mo’Joe Cafe in Berkeley. I even ran out of books to sell because I didn’t want to tempt the gods and bring too many.  

It helped that Mo’Joe was a block from where I lived for 25 years, and at least a dozen friends were able to walk to the reading from home. It was also my only reading, and I pulled out all the stops to get people there.

At Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael, my third reading on the Wasted Tour, the store manager had to unfold more chairs to accommodate latecomers. (No one sat in the front row, however.) The audience of 30 was the biggest turnout of the tour and, coming on the heels of a turnout of 25 in Detroit and 17 at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, I was feeling pretty good. Well, the Ecology Center was a disappointment, particularly given that the venue and my book, set in the recycling world, were a good match and the Ecology Center actively promoted the reading. Maybe it was just they set up too many chairs.

The week of my two readings in Berkeley, at Urban Ore and Mo’Joe Cafe, I managed to get an interview in Berkeleyside, and several strangers who attended the Mo’Joe reading told me they learned about it from that interview. (I also sold ten books on Amazon the day the interview was posted, my best day ever.)

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Mo’Joe Cafe in Berkeley. Photo by Ned Felden.


Looking Big

In early August, I set my goal: Plan, promote, and execute six public readings in 2015. Sell 100 books.

I talked up my tour to everyone I know, sent out targeted emails to several hundred people; shared posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; and listed the readings on craigslist, SFGate, Berkeleyside, and more. Several of the venues made their own posters and promoted the reading through their newsletters and social media. I also designed a bookmark with all the readings on one side and a brief blurb on the other, which I passed out throughout the tour.

author tour bookmark both sides

I heard an ad on the radio for a website builder that promises to “make your business look bigger than you really are.” That was not my intention when I promoted my readings, but my emails and website and bookmarks did create that effect. To be honest, even I was impressed that I had lined up ten readings.

Setting Up the Readings

Setting up the readings was easier than I expected. All it took was persistence. And more persistence. I started with an email. Sometimes, I had a personal contact, like Mo’Joe Cafe, where I’d met the owner years ago and did the Bones in the Wash reading in 2014, or the Ecology Center, where I’d served on the board back in the 1990s. Most of the time, I didn’t get a response, but I followed up with another email and/or a phone call. There were also five or six venues that never responded or said no. Like the Berkeley Library, where I had met two of the librarians and I thought it would be a sure thing.

Urban Ore was a bit of a stretch, though I learned they had hosted a few poetry readings over the years. But the epigram of the book is from Urban Ore co-founders Dan Knapp and Mary Lou Van Deventer: “Waste isn’t waste until it’s wasted.” I had also interviewed Dan decades ago, when I was writing about garbage and waste for the East Bay Express and other publications, and I interviewed him again this fall as part of promoting the tour. (See From Sociology to Salvage.)

The Tam Valley Cabin is in my neighborhood, and familiar to me because I’ve been a food tent volunteer for Creekside Friday concerts the past two summers. I paid $25 to rent it for an hour. My wife and I brought refreshments — wine, cheese, and crackers.

My siblings hosted two of the readings, and while I designed flyers and postcards, they did all the work promoting it locally, and setting up the venue and food.

Ten Percent Better

My presentation evolved with each reading, but I gave the same general spiel. On my first stop, Detroit, I was surrounded by English professors. My wife and I were on a family-and-friends vacation in the Midwest, and I had tried to set up a reading at a bookstore or cafe in Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, where my brother Michael lives. No luck on that front, but Michael organized a panel at the University of Detroit Mercy, where he’s an English professor and chair of the English Department.

UDM

Hemmed in as I was between two English professors — there were also several in the audience — I started by disavowing any presumption that Wasted is literature. “My goal is entertainment,” I said, “and if there’s any literary merit in the book, it’s a fortuitous accident.”  That got a healthy laugh. I started having fun.

But that’s not really true. What I aimed for with Wasted was that sweet spot between literary fiction and trashy beach reading. Where the story races along and you can’t put it down, but the characters are three-dimensional, the writing is tight. Wasted, set in the gritty and malodorous world of garbage and recycling, is also rich with resonant themes of reinvention, transition, and discarding that which no longer serves us. “Still,” I said, “it’s not the kind of novel you’re going to study in literature class,” 

Although I called these events “ readings,” I usually read for less than 10 minutes. I talked first about how I came to write the book, which took about 15 or 20 minutes, then read the first chapter, eight minutes long, before taking questions. I always had a second excerpt prepared, but read it at only two of the gatherings. I wanted to keep the readings under an hour, and there were usually enough questions to fill the time.

One story I enjoyed telling was about my singular experience reading Wasted as a reader, not an author. I started writing Wasted back in the late 1990s, and after finishing it and sending it to 60 or 70 agents and getting nibbles, but no bites, I set it aside and got on with my life. I wrote a second novel, Bones in the Wash, and published it in 2013. Then, in the spring of 2014, I read Wasted again, for the first time in years. I remember one day when I was about two-thirds of the way through the book, and I was hungry and it was lunchtime, but I couldn’t put the book down. I couldn’t remember what happened next, and I couldn’t wait to find out. That was pretty exciting, to read the book as if weren’t its author.

I always talked about the importance of the novel writing group I was part of for more than a dozen years. They read both my books, often in two or three chapter chunks, months in between chapters, sometimes many versions of the same chapters. I could never have completed the books without them, let alone had them turn out as well as they did. One of the group members came to my Urban Ore reading, and before we started, I assured him that Wasted was at least 10 percent better than when he read it last. “Oh, you cut 10 percent,” he quipped. (I repeated that line at every subsequent reading.)

Many of the questions were about the mechanics of self-publishing. I talked about how self-publishers used to have to print up books in advance and ship them out from boxes in their basement. But now, the book is not even printed until it’s ordered. There’s no inventory sitting on a shelf. The online retailer, Amazon or otherwise, has the template in its database, and when you buy the book, then they print it. A lot of people were surprised by that.

How Much I Make

The economics of books are not straightforward. When I sold 11 books at Copperfield’s, I made less than $10, but the 13 books I sold at Mo’Joe Cafe netted more than $100. Like most bookstores, Copperfield’s purchases the books through Ingram, which wholesales books for bookstores and allows them to return unsold books.

I self-published my first book, Bones in the Wash, through CreateSpace, which is owned by Amazon. That makes it all but impossible to get bookstores to carry it. So when I published Wasted, I did so through Ingram as well as CreateSpace. Now anyone can ask their local bookstore to order the book. (Hint, hint.)

At Copperfield’s and the other three bookstore readings, a store employee rang up the books through the cash register for $12.99, the same price as Amazon. I got 74 cents for each book.

At the non-bookstore venues, I sold the books myself, for $10 to $20 sliding scale, or two for $25. I had $60 in change in my pocket, plus a credit card reader I plugged into my phone. More people gave me $20 than $10, so I averaged about $16 per book. The books cost me $5.60 each, including shipping and handling, so I made more than $10 per book.

When customers purchase the e-book online for $2.99 (from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble or iTunes), I make about $2. When someone buys the trade paperback (from Amazon or Barnes & Noble) for $12.99, I make $2 for Bones in the Wash and $3 for Wasted. (Wasted is 324 pages, Bones is 418.)

It’s a good thing I’m not in it for the money.

New Mexico — it’s Not New and it’s Not Mexico

Two years ago, my sister and her husband, who had lived their whole lives in Chicago, within three miles of where they grew up, moved to Santa Fe to retire. We had been planning on visiting them, and settled on November, which was after my book tour. But then I scheduled more Bay Area readings in November, and since my first book was set in New Mexico, I thought I’d try to add a New Mexico stop to my tour. I asked my sister if she’d be willing to host a house party, and I also scheduled a reading at the Flying Star Cafe in Albuquerque, where I knocked on doors for Barack Obama in 2008. Not only did I hang out at the cafe seven years ago, I set two scenes in the book there.

No one came to the Flying Star. Not for the reading, that is.

I invited a number of people I knew in Albuquerque, from working with them in 2008, and the Flying Star had posted notices in the print and online edition of the Alibi, the local weekly. I also designed and posted a flyer on the cafe’s Facebook page.

My wife and I sat in an visible corner behind a stack of books. Anyone looking for the reading could have easily found us. As 7 o’clock came and went and no one showed up, I began hoping no one would. Reading to one or two people would have felt more like a failure than just slinking out.

We struck up a conversation with a couple at the next table and even sold them a book. They had tickets to a concert, so they couldn’t stay for the reading. The café food was excellent, so it wasn’t a total waste.

Fortunately, the house party two days later at my sister’s in Santa Fe made up for the Flying Star flop. It was wonderful — not only did I meet a bunch of new people, it was so comfortable to do the reading in her house. Plus I had a lot of engaging conversations before and after the “official” reading. Anne did a great job promoting the party, which was open to the public — they had to RSVP to get directions — but as with most of my readings, everyone who came were people she knew.

Bones launch Santa Fe postcard 6 x 4

Attendance and Sales

In retrospect, the early readings of this tour, where I was unhappy with turnout, like 17 people at the Ecology Center, or 20 at Urban Ore, well, that was pretty damn good. What I know now, what I knew already, but conveniently forgot, is that small audiences come with the territory, unless you’re a name author. And no matter how well an event is promoted, few strangers show up. At every gathering, except the two hosted by my siblings — the panel at the University of Detroit, and the house party at my sister Anne’s in Santa Fe — I knew almost all of the people who came.

Here are the raw numbers — reading dates, locations, attendance, and sales. (The links are to blog posts or photos.)

Date Venue Attendance Book Sales
Sept. 11 Detroit — University of Detroit Mercy 25 5
Oct. 8 Berkeley — Ecology Center 17 6
Oct. 17 San Rafael — Copperfields 30 11
Oct. 22 Berkeley — Urban Ore 20 8
Oct. 24 Berkeley — Mo Joe 20 13
Nov. 1 Tam Valley Cabin 10 12
Nov. 12 Albuquerque — Flying Star Cafe 0 1
Nov. 14 Santa Fe — House Party 17 10
Nov. 19 Mill Valley — The Depot 5 1
Nov. 14 Corte Madera — Book Passage 20 1
Total 10 Readings 164 68

So I exceeded my goal for scheduling readings, but not for sales. (Unless I count online sales during that period.) I didn’t set a goal for attendance, but it would have been higher than 164 if I had.

What’s Next?

One of the most common questions at the readings was “What’s next?” At the Santa Fe house party, I I felt like I spent as much time talking about the book I haven’t written yet as the two I have.

The next novel follows Lamar Rose, a secondary character in Bones in Wash, as his father, who has cancer and dementia, demands that Lamar help him end his life. Lamar refuses at first, but then does the deed, and is accused of murder by his sister at their father’s memorial. What follows is a high-profile public fight, pitting the death-with-dignity movement against the right-to-life movement, with each sibling an unwilling front person.

I’ve written half a first draft, and I have already churned through three working titles — Edgewater, Quality of Life, and Cheeks as Smooth as Ice. (I welcome feedback on the titles.) You can read a draft of the first chapter here.

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Copperfield’s Books in San Rafael. Photo by Nanette Zavala.

 

Urban Ore friends romans

Urban Ore reading. Photo by Marilyn Tuilius.


You can see more photos on Pinterest. And like my greennoir.com Facebook page.

— by John Byrne Barry, author of Bones in the Wash and Wasted