Thursday, May 03, 2007

Rock 'n' Roll Authors

I don’t want to be a rock star but I think authors could learn something from them. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were more joint author tours? I’m not talking about a couple friends pairing up for a few dates in the usual haunts: I’m talking about taking authors with books out toward the end of one month and just at the beginning of the next month and putting them on the road together – a couple ‘bigger names’ and a couple ‘rising stars’ doing the twenty city gig.

Before any reading authors groan and contemplate if there might be some way to virtually smack me, let’s just think about this.

I was talking to friend and author Toni McGee Causey (whose debut book, Bobbie Faye’s Very (very, very, very) Bad Day has just hit store shelves this week and is funny as hell). Toni and I both live in places authors don’t often visit when doing book tours.

I said I wished authors toured together more. Three years ago, I went to my first concert at the Saddledome. Sting and Annie Lennox. Why that concert?

When do you think I’ll get another chance to see Sting and Annie Lennox in concert together? Never. Evil Kev and I like Sting’s music. And we like Annie Lennox and Eurythmics. We were teenagers in the 80s – The Police and Eurythmics are the stuff we came of age on. Sting coming to town? Interesting. Sting and Annie Lennox coming to town? Must see.

Musicians understand this. Two-for-one sounds like a deal. It’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss out on. You might never get another chance to have that experience again. And for all those ‘middle-of-the-road’ fans, who might be interested in going to see X but it isn’t top of their priority list, finding out that if they go see X they’ll also see Y can make the difference in boosting it to a highly anticipated event on the calendar.

I was telling Toni about the fact that it’s so hard to find out when author events are. We have one main festival, and they don’t seem to feel it’s important to let us know who’s attending until September. The festival is in October, just after Thanksgiving weekend. Is September not one of the busiest times of the year? Add in Thanksgiving, and the fact that there are only so many nice weekends left, and it’s a wonder the festival doesn’t fold. In fact, of the two years I’ve gone to events, in both cases I found out who was attending before the festival released in the information and in at least one of those cases I wouldn’t have known if the author hadn’t told me they’d be in town themselves.

Locally, there’s one main independent that hosts events. When I say locally, I mean it’s an hour’s drive away. Each way. They don’t send out email bulletins about events. If you want to know if someone’s coming you have to read through their events calendar online - I have to make a point of checking their website regularly. And I have to admit that, even as an author and a booklover, I just don’t have that much incentive. I lose track of time. I forget.

So… if I want to go see an author I know I have two hours of driving involved. For the average 10-15 minute reading and then standing in line to get a book signed? And it’s up to me to find out when the author is coming. Do you want to guess how many author events I’ve actually been to here? I hate driving downtown Calgary, for starters. Parking’s a bitch. Then there’s the walking for blocks alone at night in some areas… Not a big fan of that. And the cost.

But as I was saying to Toni, if there was more than one author, if they didn’t come as often but when they did come it was a noteworthy event, I’d go.

Like rock concerts, she said.

Exactly.

Here are a few of the advantages I see:

1. It’s cost-effective. Look, it takes time to plan a big tour. A publicist usually does that. But it doesn’t take much more time to plan a tour for three or four authors than it does to plan a tour for one. You’re just booking more tickets and hotel rooms. As I suggested, take a couple authors who have books out at the end of one month, and a couple with books out right at the beginning of the next month. Put them on the road together. Focused organizational time, and focused promotional dollars.

2. It’s easier to get people talking about it. Like I said, for one author it may not be critical to attend an event. But for three or four? Groundswell. Everyone has their fan base. A group of authors on the road together? More likely to generate buzz on the listservs, the blogs, forums, etc.

3. Media coverage. Not just another ho-hum-yawn booksigning. An event.

4. Speaking of blogs… Three or four authors on the road together can take turns blogging. Put up a post every couple of days. (More and more want to smack me now.) Seriously, have a blog for the tour. Share the load. With four authors and a post every other day, on average, that’s only once a week for a few hundred words. People love to hear stories. A few weeks ago, Al Guthrie was in the US. Not even Canada. But I know he hung out in Philadelphia, and I know he hung out in NYC and I know he did an event with Swierczywonderboy and Denise Mina and Ian Rankin. And, thanks to Duane’s blog, I am left to wonder why Ian Rankin felt it was necessary to provide anything more than a one-word answer to the question, Would you snort a dead relative? I guess I’ll always be left to wonder what he actually said. You know what I notice from being on the blogs? They have a domino effect. Duane hosted Al Guthrie week on his blog. I linked to it at the start here. I saw other people link to it. The blog became part of the event. For all those far from NYC we felt tied in, connected. And I find from reading the blogs that bloggers like to support other bloggers and feel more motivated to go and meet people at events if they know them from the blog.


A word from my experience

The first time I bought tickets to attend an author event, it was to hear Ian Rankin, and Val McDermid. In town, the same weekend. Our wedding anniversary. Crazy-busy time for us. That time of year always is. On the Sunday Val McDermid had an event, in Banff, with Laura Lippman.

At that point I (ahem) had not read any Laura Lippman. She’d just come on to my radar. The festival event write-up was impressive. We were actually tempted to drive the 2+hours each way to go and see Val and Laura together. I regret that we didn’t, because I know now it’s unlikely there will be another chance to see them here together. I didn’t go but bought my first Lippman, Every Secret Thing, and became a fan of her work.

Last fall, I went to see Mark Billingham when he was here. I estimated I spent about $250 going to see Mark. Okay, I went to see him three days in a row, and once was for lunch (and I didn’t pay) but by the time you factor in gas, parking, event tickets and meals around the two events because the time of day required eating out, it adds up. Even if Evil Kev and I had only gone to the one event we would have spent about $100 for the evening. (Since Kevin had met me from work we had two vehicles to park.)

I wouldn’t shell out that kind of money for just anyone. I can buy a lot of books for that much money.

And the best thing was…
My experience of seeing Ian Rankin locally was the most impersonal of all my author experiences. It’s not his fault. It’s the reality of how popular he is. Hundreds of people were there, and before they let us in people were being turned way from the box office because the event was sold out. I had no expectations for the event going in.

A few weeks later I got a postcard from Ian Rankin. I have to say that, from the very beginning, I was impressed by Val and Ian, the best in this business. The personal touch goes a long way. So, don’t shoot me when I suggest a group tour and a group tour blog. Believe me, sending the same group of authors out on the road together for a few weeks could build a huge amount of hype around it. You think I was a Rankin fan before getting a postcard from him? Things like that take someone from the place of the author of books I love to a really nice guy who writes books I love. And I like to see nice people do well. If we have a personal experience, even on that level, with someone we admire we tend to feel a bit more devoted to them.

In this day and age…

Face it. We have a lot of competition for finding an audience. Drives me mad that Word on the Street here is in September and Wordfest in October. There are only so many nice fall weekends, add in Thanksgiving and the fact that a lot of people like us, have a wedding anniversary in September or October and it’s insane. That used to be the time of year I was going back to work. The last few weekends of camping in Kananaskis and snow-free hiking in the mountains are those weekends.

The festivals compete against the busyness of our schedules, against the weather, and against all the other things going on, like concerts. And they compete for whatever limited amount of ‘fun money’ the average person has to indulge in special events.

Look at how much money I spent seeing Mark when he was here. Now, I went to Boucheron. Spent a bit less on the cost of that event. Used airmiles, so that was free. Shared a hotel room, and other related costs. So, for not significantly more money I saw dozens of authors at a convention only a few weeks earlier, and now I can write a con off on my taxes because of the promotional aspect.

Even as a fan of books it’s going to take something special to get me to the city to see an author over the next six months. I have Murder in the Grove and Boucheron. Things are really busy and there are just two of us to consider, not even a family schedule.

I don’t believe it’s of much use to authors to spend time on the road for ineffective tours. By this, I don’t mean all tours are presently pointless, and I don’t mean authors should use it as an excuse not to tour. I do think it’s draining, time consuming, and ultimately discouraging to invest that much energy, be away from family and home for weeks on end, and not get a sense the tour was a success.

One other thing I learned about from the music business was market saturation. When Deric was here a few years ago, I was talking to him after his show. I asked if he’d be coming back for Stampede. He said no, because of market saturation… If an artist makes regular appearances in the same place it isn’t important to make the effort to see them. The mentality is, we can see them any old time, there will always be another opportunity.

The thinking is that if you stagger your visits, and tour with different people, fans are more motivated to make an effort to get out to see you because they don’t want to miss the chance. They never know when they’ll get another one.

Here’s another reality. We live in a celebrity-driven culture. I’m not terribly happy about it sometimes, but I understand that from my youth people have always asked who your favourites are – your favourite rock stars, your favourite actors. We’re cultured and conditioned to think about it, and to some degree, idolize them. There’s only one reason Britney’s in the news as much as she is and the press come up with silly names like TomKat and Brangelina – because people pay attention.

In no way would I advocate authors start fights, have high-profile affairs, divorces and such to generate media coverage. Like I said, I don’t want to be a rock star.

But it seems every time I turn around lately there’s talk about losing review space, talk about bookstores going out of business, talk about libraries closing…

Talk about the death of the author tour.

We aren’t just working for our own sales. We authors and fans of books are in it together. When Mark was here he hadn’t realized where I lived. We were going for lunch and he said I should pick, it was my town. I pointed and told him how far it was to drive to where I live. Miles beyond the reach of public transit. He thanked me for coming all that way, and I said it’s worth it to make the effort sometimes. If we don’t support the events, they’ll stop having them.

I know a lot of authors say they wouldn’t mind not touring, but I think that’s shortsighted. It’s important we support booksellers. As review space declines, who’s talking about books? What good is it to have some magazines (wonderful as they are) focused on the genre? People who subscribe to those magazines are already pretty serious about crime fiction. We need external coverage.

It’s about perception. Declining book coverage suggests declining relevance. Libraries close because it’s possible to sell people on the idea they aren’t important to taxpayers.

After all, if nobody’s talking about books, doesn’t that suggest nobody’s interested? Who’s reminding people out there that books are important?

I know a lot of authors don’t like the public aspect that goes with being published. I am not saying I blame them… But let me point something out, maybe something that those who haven’t punched a clock in years have forgotten. Almost every job out there requires people to do things they aren’t as keen about. When I worked in education I was required to do a certain amount of upgrade training per year. You get your first aid certificate and it’s only good for two or three years, then you have to take it again. Sometimes I’ve had to go to after-hours staff meetings. That happens to Kevin. They aren’t our favourite things in the world, but they are a part of having those jobs.

This is about more than just selling our own books to readers. This is about showing readers we know they’re important and worthy of our time and attention… and about showing society there’s still power in the written word.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Didn't Peter Roibnson and Ian Rankin tour together a couple of years ago? I saw them here in Toronto with Michael Connelly and you're right, a lot of people came out because it was all three.

John McF

Sandra Ruttan said...

They did John - you're right. And I remember reading about the event in TO because it attracted media coverage.

To add to my post a thought or two:
Conventions. You're preaching to the converted at cons. What percentage of people attending B'con are in the industry, booksellers, publishers, agents, editors, aspiring authors, authors? I would guess at least 50%. There aren't as many people there to sell your book to as you might think, and that has the problem on the other end - Farm Aid is known as Farm Aid, as is Live Aid. One or two big names might be associated with that - everyone else is filler. Smaller, targeted groups mean individual coverage. Great big events on a festival/con scale usually mean the con gets the press coverage.

I hate to pick on him, but... Rankin's recent US tour. The blog mention at Duane's is one of only three I've seen from after an event. (Hellblazer focus is here and here's a fan of the books.) I found the other two doing a search on google blogs, deliberately, to see if there was blog carry-over. I'm on Inspector Rebus, and there has not been one single post from someone who attended an event to the list as of yet. That's the fan base. These are the people interested enough to sign up to get the latest news. There were a few posts about not hearing about the tour dates, to which I added that this tour prep had been frustrating, at best. I kept sending info to my friend in NYC and she kept asking me how I was finding stuff out.

I mean, anyone got a date on the NY Times serial? Someone asked recently on a list. I was paying attention... no answer. And I couldn't tell you a date myself.

Now, I'm a die-hard fan, and I'm not going to stop reading his books or anything... but it's those semi-fans, the ones who like you, but you aren't top of their list, that you have to remember. Without reminders they can just as easily forget you. And don't discount them. Every author, for me, has a 'conversion' book - the one I read that moved me from 'I like their stuff' to 'Oh my God, must have their books right away.' With Rankin it was book #1 that I read, The Falls. With Billingham, the book that put it out of the park was The Burning Girl, which was the third one I read. John Rickards? Book 2, The Touch of Ghosts really sold me on him.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Great idea. I'd do it.

There should be T-shirts for sale, though.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Hell yeah, Patrick. I would buy the t-shirts.

One of the things that annoyed me the first year I went to Harrogate was they had a teddy bear on the registration table, with a t-shirt, designed for the festival. I would have bought one of those bears and shirts, but they weren't selling them. Now, okay, I collect bears. But I talked to some people about it and there was agreement- others would buy them too.

If I'm not mistaken the gals from Mark's forum are working on 'Billingham Babe' t-shirts for this year (or maybe they're kidding). But if I was going I'd get one of those too.

Sandra Ruttan said...

And I should point out I found out some of the Rankin tour stuff by luck, from other people he was doing events with. No inside track to the info. If I'd found a complete list in time I would have run it in the last Spinetingler, but I couldn't.

Laurie said...

Great post, as always, Sandra! Just to let you know, I "tagged" you on my blog for the "Thinking Bloggers Award". :)

Click back to see my post. I mean it as a BIG compliment, because I enjoy reading you every day.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Laurie, thank you SO much - I take it as a huge compliment!

JD Rhoades said...

Lee Child invited Cornelia Read to tour with him right after A FIELD OF DARKNESS came out. It's a good idea.

Sandra Ruttan said...

And I remember Lee joked that he asked Cornelia so that when he was on the way down and she was a star she'd remember and invite him back. A joke, yeah, but there's something to it. You help newcomers out, they remember.

angie said...

Funny you should mention Lee & Cornelia's tour. When I went to see them last year I'd (this is embarrassing) never heard of Lee Child. I know, I know, idiot. ANYWAY, I went to see Cornelia and ended up buying not only A FIELD OF DARKNESS, but 2 copies of THE HARD WAY - one for me & one for a friend who had wanted to attend but couldn't make it.

I've never understood why more authors don't do group tours, or at least partner up. It makes sense that you can reach a wider audience and that new people can be made aware of new writers. But, y'know, what the hell do I know?!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well Angie, both you and Dusty have mentioned Lee & Cornelia's tour, and I think you're dead on. And you prove the point - it works both ways in terms of generating interest and sales. I'm sure plenty of people went to see Lee, but others went to see Cornelia, and some bought books by both authors.

ORION said...

This is a fabulous post! I do SO agree.
Who wants to tour with me?
m g ya better get crackin' you'd be a hoot to tour with...um maybe John Grisham wants to hang out with me...or uh Steven King...
I can just start calling other authors...
"Hey my name is Patricia Wood and I've written this book and..."

Sandra Ruttan said...

You could do a coastal tour, sailing. I bet plenty of authors would be totally keen to do that!

Jack Ruttan said...

Sting and Annie: tour of the bottle blondes?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Very funny Jack! Also funny that I still think of Annie with the haircut she had in the Sweet Dreams video.

Robert Fate said...

Sandra -

It is probably too early in my career to tour with you, but at least I wanted on your panel at Murder in the Grove, but noooo. Even begging didn't help. So, I am settling for main heckler. See you there with the tough questions.
Your buddy, Bob from toasty California

Sandra Ruttan said...

Bob, I could actually use a scorekeeper for my panel! And that would preserve me from any heckling. You're on a great panel at MITG with Bruce Cook and Robert Crais - Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

And just remember, my panel is in the morning, yours is in the afternoon. So if you misbehave at mine you'll get it all back and then some! Can't wait to see you there - I haven't forgotten it's my turn to buy dinner, and I do hope (what did he get called?) Juicy Brucey's available to join us.

Sandra,
who still has her long underwear on, thank you very much!

Kris said...

I think giving writers a bit more of a public face is inevitable if we want the profession to stay in the least bit profitable. I remember reading that Stephen King refuses to sign photos of himself, and I can understand that, but I think publishers could do a lot more to make a book tour more of an event - like it used to be for the likes of Mark Twain.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Kris, I agree it's inevitable. And I think we have to work together (authors and publishers) to tackle some of the challenges.

Not that I have all the answers- I don't. Just ideas. More than anything, if people are enthusiastic about books and buying them, then it's fantastic. That's what I want to see.

Our culture has changed the level of expectations people have from "celebrities". I'm definitely not debating for better or worse or saying I'm all for it. I just think instead of disliking what is, sometimes we have to accept it and find a way to work with it.

Kris said...

Exactly. I'm fairly indifferent about the idea of 'celebrity' authors, but I think that's the way it's going to have to go. We're competing with music, film, television, video games and the internet for everyone's shrinking spare time. The more excitement we can inject into reading as a pastime, the better.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I just wish I had more constructive, and feasible, ideas of how we could do that.

Kris said...

I think the publishing world is very backward in the way it promotes its stuff. It's still stuck in the 19th century. Part of the problem is that writers and publishers like to think they are intellectuals (in varying degrees) and have too much pride to accept the realities of modern PR. I know, I'm one of them. But maybe we have to play by the rules, at least for a while. Here are a couple of ideas, just off the top of my head:

1. Sex it up. I'm loath to say this, because it panders to the instant-gratification, reality-TV, no-soul generation that I despise so much, but in the short term I don't think it could hurt to have some of the more attractive writers, male or female, getting themselves in the public eye - be it TV or celebrity mags. If the side-effect is that more people (especially teenagers) start reading, I think such whorish behaviour is worth it.

2. DVDs. With each purchase of a book you get a DVD featuring an interview with the writer where s/he talks about the book, and if they feel comfortable about it, a bit about themselves and their lives. Production costs on DVDs are tiny, and I think they could help publishers move a lot more books.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Excellent ideas Kris. In fact, perhaps promo dollars should be going to image consultants for some authors. And for some of us, trainers.

I was just saying to someone the problem is that, with books, there's no sense of immediacy. A book can be read today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. It isn't even like TV, where you can record it, but you know that tomorrow at the Water Cooler they'll be talking about the latest 24 episode. You don't want to feel left out or idiotic because you don't know what people are talking about. That's how I ended up watching Survivor, back in the days of Richard Hatch. Everyone at work was talking about it, so I had to find out what they were babbling about.

We don't have that with books. That's actually why author tours could be critical. And you know what? I'm more of the type that loves to hear the opening lines to a favourite song than to hear the new material for the first time live. When Rankin was coming here my husband tried to get me the book in advance, by ordering it from the UK. Unfortunately, I got it the evening before the event. I was disappointed, because I wanted to read the whole book first. I'm not an auditory learner and can really tune out a bad reading, and just didn't know what to expect from the event. Now, it was fine, and when I got to the passage in the book he read, I smiled. Same last summer, he read from the latest in July at Harrogate. In October when I was reading it I knew exactly when I hit that scene. I love that. Comfortably familiar.

And I love the DVD idea. Here we have Book TV - we have a taped episode of a special they did with Rankin three years ago. Something like that as an added feature with the next book would be gold. I'd pay money to see video of one of the events Duane and Al did in NYC. And every time I went to Harrogate I wondered what was wrong with them, that they didn't realize the money that could be made from audio sales.

I used to work at a residential Bible school and I created a tape catalogue - we used to make a good amount of money selling class session tapes to students, guests and people who attended the odd conference but weren't in a position to attend school. I don't really want to hear an author read their book so much, but I LOVE hearing them interviewed.

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