Making it hurt less: book tours

01 April 2019 Making

Author Adam Kay asks: what if there's another way to do book tours?

When marketing plans were being assembled for the hardback launch of This is Going to Hurt, my memoir of my days as a junior doctor, I agreed to absolutely everything my publishers asked of me. That way, if the book failed, no one could accuse me of being the reason why. (Except if they accused me of writing a terrible book, obviously.) I therefore found myself on a tour of countless dozens of regional bookshops.

For those authors who haven’t done such a tour, the mechanics are as follows…

  • I take a train (or get driven in a car, when I manage to break my ankle) to St Somewhere, paid for by the publisher.
  • I speak at St Somewhere Village Hall. The event has been organised and advertised (or not) by a local bookshop. There are between 80 and 200 seats, containing between 10 and 200 elderly audience members. The PA system is somewhere between non-existent and adequate-ish. There may or may not be a stage or any lighting. Each audience member has paid the bookshop a tenner to attend. I get paid nothing.
  • After an hour of yabbering on stage and a few questions from the crowd, I sit for half an hour, signing between four and 60 books, and listening to people’s opinions about how to ‘save the NHS’. One year later, I get paid £2.50ish per hardback by way of royalties, if I’m lucky enough to earn out my advance.
  • I stay at St Somewhere’s B&B, paid for by the publisher. The bloke at reception doesn’t understand the term when I ask about ‘WiFi’.
  • I take a train or car to St Elsewhere, paid for by the publisher. Rinse and repeat.

It’s a handy little earner for the bookshop, which gets an author delivered to its front door for free, then – with the wind in the right direction – sells a bunch of books and takes all the door money from the tickets. The economics for the publisher are harder to square. It costs them a lot more in travel and accommodation costs than they will see back in direct income. For me, the economics are flatly depressing: the royalties I eventually see from the event in no way compensate me for my time.

But in defiance of logic, a regional book tour can end up being an effective marketing tool. The people who hear you speak are a great little core audience. Catalysed by hearing an author speak, they end up telling their friends about the book. The bookshops are also personally invested and tend to hand-sell good numbers of the book until long after the event. I have no doubt that a couple of months of traipsing around the country had a significant role in launching my book, and setting it off on its journey to sell quite a lot of copies.

Another version of events

When it came to paperback publication, I suggested to the publisher a slightly different version of events. One where – to be blunt – I would get paid. An independent promoter would, on my behalf, book a tour of regional theatres and sell tickets at £12–15 each. The promoter would arrange all travel, accommodation and marketing, and we would split the profit (after costs, including venue hire) on a 75:25 basis, which is standard in the theatre world. The publisher would have nothing to do with this side of things and incur no costs. They would, however, arrange for a local bookshop to attend every event to sell books for a signing afterwards.

Pan Mac were more than happy to go along with this. I wasn’t surprised – they had always been flexible and keen to innovate, not part of the ‘that’s not how we normally do it’ brigade. And because they wouldn’t be paying for a tour’s-worth of travel, accommodation and subsistence, it meant they could spend their marketing budget for the book in other places. I got in touch with a promoter who I’d previously worked with at the Edinburgh Fringe and we started booking performances around the country, initially in 200-seater venues. The advantages to me were an ability to choose a venue appropriate for the evening, so as to ensure excellent seating, lights and sound. By listing the event with local press – physical and online – rather than just relying on bookshops, we achieved a younger audience, and by keeping a close eye on ticket sales (on the hardback tour I often didn’t know how many people I’d be speaking to until I arrived) we could spend a little on Facebook advertising to always ensure a full room.

All this resulted in a consistently better show, and therefore a better ‘conversion rate’ of people buying books afterwards, keeping the publisher and bookseller very happy. In addition, of course, the gigs were worth my time, as I was taking income from the box office – in the order of £1,000 for a sold-out room of 200, after all costs and splits. I couldn’t see any disadvantage of this model from anybody’s perspective.


'It is something any author can do in smaller spaces,
and without a promoter'


Learning how to plug

As the paperback went on to dramatically exceed expectations, we became more adventurous with our venue sizes – eventually going on to sell out performances at the Hammersmith Apollo. Remarkably, the conversion rate to book sales remained pretty consistent.

The model doesn’t just scale up, I would argue, it will also scale down. It is something any author can do in smaller spaces, and without a promoter. If you’re launching a book soon and are feeling a bit entrepreneurial (or if your publisher has decided not to invest in a book tour) there’s nothing stopping you arranging one for yourself and making it worth your while – even if you have no existing profile. The SoA warns that it may be harder for fiction writers to drum up interest and audiences, but I don’t see why this couldn’t work for fiction as well as non-fiction titles: there is a huge audience for live literary events.

Dozens of regional theatres in every corner of the country have studio spaces of 50–80 that would be perfect for book talks. Why not get in touch with a local bookshop to see if they’d be interested in selling books afterwards, and print off some flyers for them to leave in the shop? The theatre will tell their own mailing list about it and put it in their brochure; this alone is likely to sell a decent number of seats. You can plug it on social media and tell a local newspaper (they often seem desperate for stuff to print with a local angle); you can chuck some money behind a Facebook ad if needed. I suspect you’ll be surprised how many tickets you can sell – stand-up comedians with no TV or radio profile do those sorts of gigs on tour regularly and tend to sell well. Or alternatively I’m totally wrong and it’ll be a total disaster – who knows?

The SoA is, rightly, fighting back against unpaid appearances at book festivals – it’s time to rail against freebie book tours as well. Given that publishers are unlikely to start paying their authors to do them any time soon, could this be a new model worth exploring for your next book?

This article first appeared in the spring 2019 issue of The Author.

Visit our rates and fees page for SoA's guide on various types of author events (festivals, schools, bookshops) – and when/why we believe authors should be paid for events. Also see Where We Stand on festivals and appearances.

Adam Kay is a writer and former junior doctor. His book This is Going to Hurt has sold over a million copies in the UK and has been translated into 30 languages.