Tips for Authors: What I learned by giving 100 author talks in 10 months

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Let me share 10 lessons I learned by giving 100 book talks in 10 months.

First, some background:

The book I am currently promoting is The Faygo Book, the story of a beloved soda pop company that has been bottling in Detroit since 1907. It has limited reach outside Michigan, where it is treasured and celebrated and has a nostalgic appeal among Baby Boomers.

Those qualities made it possible to get these first 100 bookings. They are also the reasons why all the bookings were in Michigan, which helped me to physically reach to so many places. I gave more than 100 talks in the first year the book was out, even with two months off while I did other projects.

My publisher for this book, Wayne State University Press, is like many in that it weighs the willingness of authors to hustle books when it decides which ones to publish. I said I would give talks, but exceeded even my own expectations. “The talk” has evolved far from the first ones I gave, based on how audiences received it. Listeners made the talk better. Local librarians made it go viral.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The public appearances have been directly related to Amazon sales. When I stopped appearances for two months, my Amazon sales tanked. As soon as I resumed public appearances, my Amazon sales went back up.

Faygo bottles a rainbow of more than 50 flavors. From the 1907 originals of grape, strawberry and fruit punch, the company has grown to include black cherry, pineapple, orange, cotton candy, candy apple and my BFF (Best Faygo Flavor): rock & rye.

Faygo’s colorful, carbonated nature meant that the program had to be fun and interactive. It lent itself to videos of vintage commercials, “pop quizzes” and a trove of photos old and new.

With those natural advantages in mind—

Here are 10 lessons for selling your book

STOP BEING AN AUTHOR: As soon as your book is published, your days of authoring it are over. You must become a performance artist. I learned this listening to and watching author Karen Dybis. Nobody wants to watch someone sit there and write, and it is not much better to watch someone talk about that. You have to sweep people up in your passion for your subject with stories, secrets, activities and interactivity. You must engage people in a whole new way. This is a grand opportunity to share your content in new ways.

PLAN YOUR PROGAM: There is a saying among professional speakers that they don’t wing it—only turkeys wing it. Compose your program with at least as much care as you wrote your book. It should not be a stripped-down version of the book. Build a narrative arc, plot twists and foreshadowing into your show to hold people’s interest and lead them to a satisfying conclusion.

SHOW, DON’T JUST TELL. I often tell this to my journalism students. For articles, it means using examples to show the story rather than to just tell what it is. For a book show, it means a heavily illustrated slideshow. Add audio if you have some.

OWN YOUR PASSION: Connect with people emotionally. The Faygo Book lends itself to humor and nostalgia. Not every subject has that. But my talks also touch on sadness and surprise, doubt and deprivation. Put your passion for your project on stage. The best talks I have seen are by people who clearly love their subjects. It is impossible for them to be boring. I have been excited for all 100+ talks. It is real.

LOOK THE PART: I learned this from Jeremy Steele, one of my colleagues at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He watched my first TV interview. It was sad. Basically, Jeremy said I looked like an old man in a standard blue jacket and tie. He was right. Nothing about the way I looked said anything about the book I had written. I upped my game with bright shirts, a candy-striped barbershopper jacket, hats that helped me role play, costume changes and props. I began to look like the performance artist I need to be.

LOVE THOSE LIBRARIES: If it were not for librarians and their networking, I would not have had all these speaking engagements. I started out by sending postcards to 150 libraries, but the librarians became the wind beneath my wings. About a month into giving talks, I had a week in which I received 15 requests, several from places I had not written to. I emailed one and asked, “What’s happening?” She said that a librarian at a place where I had spoken raved about the Faygo talk in the librarians’ group chat. As it turned out, this library was one that I spoke at for free, but these rewards were huge. Most of my engagements came from this kind of sharing among librarians.

SEND THEM A SIX-PACK: I knew my hosts would want to promote the event, and I wanted to have as much influence over how they portrayed the book as I could. So, given that I was talking about a pop company, I created a “Faygo six-pack of promotional material.” It included:

  1. A note about what they could expect,
  2. Descriptions of the program in three lengths
  3. An introduction to that talk, also in different lengths
  4. A photo of the book cover
  5. Photos (formal and informal) of the author
  6. A piece of “wild art” from inside the book.

These all go out in one email. It helps them publicize and, if done well, connotes professionalism and whets the appetite for bringing you in.

ASK TO BE PAID: The real money for many authors is not in sales, but in performances. It was tough for me to ask for money at first, judging from how my fees have risen. Mileage expenses make it easier. Not only do most libraries have some money for speakers, they expect to spend it. I try to get the library very interested in having me out before we talk money. This includes sending them the six-pack at our earliest encounter. I don’t confirm a date before, I ask, “What is your usual honorarium?” Libraries usually pay $100 to $500 for a program.

NO PLACE IS TOO SMALL, BUT SOME ARE TOO FAR: If I get a call from a nearby Rotary Club or senior center that has no money, I usually figure out a way to go, provided they will let me sell books. I consider the distance I have to travel and my schedule. Many places that don’t pay have off-peak times such as early mornings or midday. They might have to wait through a delay as I try to piggyback that talk on another nearby, but I try to fulfill every reasonable request. It’s a nice thing to do, you never know how many books you will sell, and people sometimes invite you to a paid event somewhere else. You cannot predict the precise reach of your publicity. 

USE TECHNOLOGY: To stay organized, I keep both a spreadsheet and a calendar for bookings and other databases on where I have sold books, earnings and mileage. I have set up an email folder for Faygo correspondence and I have a W-9 tax form ready to email. I triple-check dates and times, including drive time. I carry audio speakers, extra flash drives with the program on it, including one in my car’s glove compartment, and a copy in the cloud. A boxful of cables has helped me through many different kinds of library setups. You must be ready to take payments from people who attend your programs via their credit cards (I use the Square), Venmo, PayPal—everything people want. If they leave the event without a book because you can’t accept their form of payment, your chances of closing that sale are about nil.

AND AN 11TH LESSON: Keep smiling. Even if you drive a hundred miles to give a talk and don’t sell a single copy, smile. I once drove that far to speak at a bookstore where no one even showed up. At another bookstore, the audience was the owner and the store’s cat. The cat looked bored. At a restaurant event, the only people paying attention were the organizer and another speaker who came to talk about her book. We bought each other’s books and, to come close to breaking even, let the restaurant buy us lunch. At one library, there were so few sales a volunteer bought a book and told me to keep the change.

Before expenses, mostly for my poor car, my programs have brought in about $15,000. They have given new life to some of my earlier books as libraries ask me what other programs I can deliver. I am working up a program on a book I published several years ago that did not sell well, but that I think could be good for programming. We shall see.

The talks have helped sales. We went to press in October 2018 with a press run of 2,000 books. By December, we had to do an emergency run of about 150 copies to get through the holidays. We came back in January with a larger run. I do not know how many times we have gone to press by now, but the publisher sold about 3,000 books in 10 months. I bought more than 400 of them. You need some to give some away, and it helps to pass a display copy among the audience, so some get damaged or lost.

Work for your book and it will work for you.

Care to read more?

Check out our latest coverage of Joe Grimm’s ongoing Bias Busters series with the Michigan State University School of Journalism:

Dealing with prejudice? Here’s how to become part of the solution.

And:

What we learned by asking 1,000 questions.

 

About Joe Grimm

Joe Grimm is Editor-In-Residence and Professor at MSU School of Journalism. Along with students in his Bias Busters classes, he developed the popular series of 100 Questions & Answers guides to cultural competence.