15 November 2008


Distance is, of course, relative. It is roughly 21.7 million miles from the Earth to the Moon. Since 2005 I have driven 43,223 miles flogging my books. (That's only 1/502 of a trip to the Moon.) My most recent book tour, from which I got home yesterday, was a mere 4,779 miles.

It seemed longer. I knew it was getting time to stop for the night Thursday when toward the end of 12 hours behind the wheel I cranked up The Grateful Dead on my car's stereo. I was passing some very colorful trucks. Hallucinating, perhaps? (I hadn't listened to The Grateful Dead in, oh, I don't know, maybe ten years.) So I pulled in at Harris Ranch, just south of what a friend of mine refers to as "Cowschwitz" - the gigantic Central California feedlot. Steak, whisky, sleep. It was an easy 2-1/2 hour drive home the next day.

In Portland, Salem and Seattle I kept company with Bill Cameron a very fine writer - LOST DOG and CHASING SMOKE - and a swell traveling and book eventing companion.

He even managed to exert some sort of parental control and convince his obviously well-raised (she bought a copy of my book after all), daughter to show up for our book event at Portland's Murder By the Book. And the event was well-received. You can read about it from the perspective of the bookseller here. (You may have to scroll up to actually read the blog post.)

So, once more I'm confronted with trying to decide whether or not book touring is worth all the time and expense. (That's right, unless you're with a big publisher who has forked over a fairly large advance for your book, you pay for book touring yourself.)

On the plus side:

It's fun. What could possibly be bad about driving around one of the most beautiful and diverse countries on the planet, stopping in at bookstores to talk with people about your own book, and other books, and whatever else comes to mind. At this point it is like a holiday spent visiting friends.

It's educational. I learn a lot on book tours. About the places I drive through, the people I meet, the book business, all kinds of interesting and useful stuff. After my eleven years living in Asia I didn't feel really re-connected with home until I'd driven all around and across the U.S. Getting out of my comfortable, "elite" existence in Southern California, is one of the only ways that I feel like I can even begin to understand this country. And the more I understand it, the more I love it.

It gives me time to think. What else is there to do on long drives?

I listen to a lot of music. Again, what else is there to do on long drives?

I hear really bizarre stuff on the radio. Yet again, what else is...?

I eat. Sometimes I encounter really great, regional or unexpected food. (Sometimes I don't.)

I sell some books that I might not have sold otherwise.

I meet some fans. And that's great for my ego.

I get to know booksellers. And as a type of people go, they are among my favorites.

Booksellers get to know me. And I like to think that if they get to know me, they'll like me and do a better job of "hand-selling" my books.

I could probably come up with a few more if I spent some time thinking it over, but those are the plusses that come to mind.

On the minus side:

Well, there's really only one minus - it's expensive and it probably isn't effective.

The chances of it paying for itself in sales is pretty slim. If I look at it in terms of my royalties, I would have needed to have sold around 900 hardback copies of FLIGHT OF THE HORNBILL simply to break even on this book tour.

I took pictures of everyone on my tour who bought a book and had me sign it. (Two people managed to slip through the cracks.) Here's the 90 photos. Now some of these people bought several copies, although most of them bought paperbacks. (Accounting for royalties, my break even point was about 1,500 paperbacks.)

Every store I went to had me sign some stock for them before I left. Four books in one store, as many as 40 in another. If all the stores I visited eventually sell all the stock I signed, I'm still not at the break even point. If they order the same amount again and manage to sell all those, I'm still not at it.

There is a lot of talk in the book business about "hand-selling" - store clerks recommending your books to customers, to book clubs, etc. That can account for a whole lot of extra sales, but do the numbers actually add up if you're hoping to make a living at this?

No, they don't.

Many small press books, mine included, don't show up in most of the big box chain bookstores such as Barnes & Noble or Borders. They don't show up in airports or drugstores or at supermarket checkout counters. Where they do show up is in independent bookstores, and independents are where most hand-selling takes place.

At most there are 50 or so Mystery specialty bookstores in the U.S. There's another two hundred, at most, independents that carry enough mysteries that there's a chance they'll sell my books. Let's pretend that 200 stores sell, on average, 50 copies each of my books. That's 10,000 books - not enough to make much of a dent in anyone's best seller list. But 50 copies each is wildly inflated. Even if 200 stores do carry my books, the average is likely to be no more than five books each. (Some stores will sell a lot more than that, others will sell none.) That's nothing.

These days the biggest number of my sales are likely to come from online sources such as Amazon and B&N online. You can, in a sense, tour those places by being very active online and linking to your sales pages. But that's just not as much fun as going out and doing it in person.

My next book, SHANGHAIED, will be out in June next year. Am I going to be dumb enough to do a big book tour for it?

Probably. Look for me at a bookstore near you in June and July 2009.

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