Monday, September 8, 2008

Pimpin' Your Book: The Economics of the Average Bookstore Event

So why is it that more and more publishers are relying less on the traditional author bookstore tour? Why are bookstore tours (with some exceptions) considered to be costly and ineffective? This is why:
Okay, let's say that you're a bookseller and want to host Author X at your store. Author X is pretty popular these days and everyone wants him, so the publisher may ask you to put together a proposal for the event. In the proposal, you'll outline in great detail all of the awesome stuff you plan to do to promote the Author X event. You'll also make a promise to bring in a certain number of copies for the event. A few weeks (sometimes months) go by and then you hear from your sales rep that the publicity department has okayed sending Author X to your store for an event.

Now you start promoting. Of course you'll place an announcement in all the free local online and print calendars, but that's not enough. You promised the publisher a certain amount of promotion for the event so now you're going to spend money promoting the event via your print and online newsletter, and probably place some sort of advertising in a local paper. You'll create in-store signage that is visible and prominently placed. (The publisher may also throw in a 24 x 26 foam-core blow-up of the book jacket that may or may not be destroyed by the time it arrives.) Let's say that all of this (except the foam-core sign) comes to about $400 (a low estimate, btw). Let’s count the cost of the extra two booksellers you add to the schedule to work the event (We won’t count the salary of the event manager). 4 hours x $9 an hour x 2 persons = $72. Now let's say that you order in 120 copies of the book. This is an optimistic order but you don't want to disappoint the author or the publisher, so you bring in enough books to create decorative stacks around the store.

So let's add things up: 120 copies of the book x $13.18 (the cost of the $24.95 book less your retailer's discount) comes to $1581.60. So far this event has cost the bookstore $2053.60 and it hasn't even started yet.

Now let's cut over to the publisher's end. The publicist must provide for Author X the following things: airfare - and remember that these are usually one-way tickets as the publicist is rarely flying an author back to the airport of origin after the event - $475; hotel room in city of event - $250; meals for day of event - $100 per diem; media escort for day of event (a media escort picks up the author at the airport and gets the author to and from all engagements while in the media escort's city) - $300. Oh, and hey! That foam core blow-up of the book jacket that I mentioned above? That bad boy is $100. So far the publisher has spent $1225 and this is one of the less expensive cities on the tour.

However, on night of the event, the store actually sells only 43 copies of the book (which is actually a higher than average number for an event), which brings in $1072.85 (43 x $24.95, the cover price of the book). The author signs another 30 for stock, and the bookstore returns the rest. We're assuming that the 30 he just signed for stock will sell, by the way. They usually do. So that another $748.50; gross earnings for the night = $1821.35. Now let's adjust the expenditures to account for the books returned: 73 books x $13.18 = $962.14 + $400 for promotion and $72 for the employees. Total actual cost of this event = $1434.14.

The net profit to the bookstore for this event? $387.21, which isn’t all that much when you consider the enormous effort expended. In reality, a bookstore would like to see about three times that amount for each event.

The publisher, however, which has spent $1225 to get the author to the event, has recouped only $962.14, making their net loss $262.86. (They’ll probably lose even more that if you consider that many publishers now also pay freight costs.) Consider that the average bookstore tour is usually eight to ten cities, and well, that's a considerable chunk of cash to throw away.

Does this mean all bookstore events are a waste of time and money? No, not at all. There's a lot to be said for authors partnering up with local booksellers to organize in-store events if the author is willing to do some serious self-promotion to get people into the store. Electronic mailing lists, blogs, handing out flyers, designing postcards or bookmarks for the store to give away. The more you're willing to really partner with a bookstore and meet them halfway with promotion to help them save money, the more likely you'll not only have a successful event but be invited back to do another for your next book.

Sometimes it's even worth losing some money on a series of events to help build strong word of mouth for an author whose career the publisher hopes to build over time. But this only works for the right author, however, a true extrovert who's also a dynamic speaker, someone charismatic who knows how to play to an audience. And sending authors on tour is often a solid way for publishers to build good will with bookstores and other partner retailers.

So what kind of books do warrant a big bookstore or media tour? Usually the best candidates for a finacially successful bookstore/media tour are the authors of news-worthy non-fiction (Thomas Friedman, Ron Suskind), celebrity authors (Bill Clinton) or best-selling writers who already have a large following of their own (J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, David Sedaris). These kinds of events can draw as many as 500-1,000 people at a time and are usually held in conjunction with national media appearances of some kind, making every moment of the tour pay for itself.

For the most part, however, you won't need a book tour to do effective book publicity. Thanks to the viral nature of the Internet, you can do an interview via a blog, podcast, streaming audio or YouTube and generate far more exposure for your book than a booksigning in Denver, Seattle or Minneapolis that may draw only 32 people. (And your luggage will thank you!)


Anonymous said...

Of course, the best means of promotion is to write a damn good book. You can't beat word of mouth.

I can't think of too many authors that I would go out of my way to meet at a book signing, but there are some that I would travel halfway across the country to see. If the author in question can't get that kind of response from readers, book signings are probably a big waste of time and money on everyone's part.

Jeff Crook said...

Having done a few awful book signings myself, I can sympathize. The bookstores I worked spent quite a bit less than this, and the publisher spent nothing. However, I am cool with that and with my next book I am hoping to talk my way into a two week east coast driving book tour - the Straight Talk Express! If I have to, I'll sell books out of the trunk, too.

If you live in a great book city, then you can do the local stuff and make a difference. If you live in B.F. Egypt with one Books-a-Million serving a 150 mile radius, sorry.

I happen to live in a rotten book region that has three fantastic local independent bookstores. They are three of the stores that John Grisham will sign at - Burkes in Memphis, Square Books in Oxford, and That Bookstore in Blytheville (yes, that's its name). But even then you have to have the right kind of book. If you've published a sci-fi vampire thriller, sorry, they probably won't even return your calls unless you're John Grisham.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, apparently my BFE is just a bit north of your BFE, as I'm about two hours north of Memphis. We have the same problem, though, with a small Books-a-Million in Jackson and nothing else between Memphis and Nashville.

Guess if I want to do a signing locally, I'll have to put my SF vampire thriller in the trunk and write about lawyers.

Jeff Crook said...

You could try SF vampire lawyers.

Or would vampire lawyer be redundant?

(rim shot)

Nicola Griffith said...

It seems to me that the point of a book tour is awareness. If I do an event in, say, Madison WI, then local radio gives me an interview, the local paper runs a review, I also drop by and sign in at least two other book stores. So I sell far more books than just those counted at the event store. Even so, yes, I think book tours are not an efficient use of publicity/marketing $$$. But, oh, they're so much fun!

Dustin said...

That looks about right Lindsay. The figures vary, of course, but the gist is correct. One thing you've left off: advertising co-op. Bookstores get money, and the rates vary, from larger publishers for hosting and promoting events. Certainly this is the case for the larger chain stores, where such fees are very negotiable. Often this money can push the bookstores over into the black for an event.

Our store does things a bit differently, but then the figures you're quoting might be more appropriate for a smaller scale chain store or a larger independent, though there aren't too many of those.
We tend to spend less on promotions than those figures, but because we are in the city it is often less expensive for publishers to send authors our way anyways. Most of our readings are not part of a larger (expensive) tour but just one-offs, meaning all the hotel and transportation costs are less or don't apply. Of course, one hopes that the pub is still springing for dinner. Even if they are on a tour through New York they can usually hit a few stores while they're here. Open Letter, for instance - a tiny new press that I'm damned excited about - is flying in two authors to the city in early October but they'll be rocking three stores (including mine) in two days.
Because we do events nearly every night, and because our promotions (and space) are limited, it also gives us leeway to book smaller presses and, least lucrative of all, poets.

Anonymous said...

Ah, so my dreams of traveling the world at the publishers expense to do a reading in Europe are far fetched?

Damn. You squish my dreams.

JeffV said...

Colleen: I understand the point here, but I don't know many writers with more than one book under their belt who go at a bookstore signing head-on. Or who spend money promoting the ones they do. There are so many subsidiary and creative ways these days to advertise and to find readers, and so many ways to make a bookstore liaison successful in other ways. Like, you rarely go to a city or area *just* to do a signing. The signing/reading is always some add-on to whatever else you're doing. Etc.


clindsay said...

Jeff -

As I say in the title, this is just a snapshot of a typical author event as set up by a publisher. I'm using it as an example of why publishers are backing away from what used to be one of the biggest expenses in the publicity budget.

Having set up several hundred of these in the course of my book career, both as a bookstore event manager and as a publicity director, I've sort of got an idea how it usually goes. :-) In fact, I could probably set up an author tour in my sleep by now.

Yes, many authors do add-on events; I've mentioned elsewhere that I used to set up events for Greg Keyes wherever he went for fencing tournaments. It was an easy add-on. That's why I stressed in the earlier post that an author should always communicate travel personal travel plans to his or her publicist.


(And welcome back!)