Advice for Scheduling Your First Reading Tour
Writer and good person Andrew Squitiro emailed me recently, asking for some tips on setting up a book tour. He hosted me in Norfolk at his own series one time, so I started writing him back and didn’t stop, then I revised my thoughts for mass consumption. If Andrew emails you, hook him up!
How many cities are you trying to go to? Do you have particular places you want to hit? Are you traveling with anyone? Driving? How much flexibility do you have, timewise? How many people do you think will attend your events? Do you prefer certain types of venues? These are a few questions to start with. Below I’ve written 1600 more words of advice for scheduling your first reading tour.
My favorite readings are the ones like at your place in Norfolk—a casual setting in a house. I prefer this for a couple reasons, like: it’s quieter; refreshments are free (or cheap) so people still have cash to buy a book; you don’t need a mic, which are usually shitty at readings—especially when it’s at a bar and the host brings the 20 watt Gorilla amp his parents bought him when he was 14; it’s easier to talk to people; and you keep all the money you make selling books (as opposed to bookstores, which generally suck); they also commonly pass a hat for donations. Don’t underestimate the $7 – $67 you might earn this way.
If you know people who run a cool reading series or schedule the readings for a college, hit them up. Colleges have money and a good reading series will have a built in audience, so this is the first thing you should do after answering the questions above. If you can land one big event at a popular series, or a paying gig at a school, build your tour around that.
Like, say you get on the bill at Dylan Kinnett’s Infinity’s Kitchen series in Baltimore. That will give you the pivot to schedule everything else around. By that I mean, say Dylan’s series is the first Thursday of the month, now you want Richmond to be on Tuesday, DC on Wednesday, Philly on Friday, NYC on Saturday. And don’t forget to schedule stops for the return trip!
Also don’t forget smaller towns. A lot of times they have vibrant scenes, and also they might be where your friends live, and tour is a great time to call on friends.
Another thing about smaller towns is it’s not as hard to get their local paper to write about you. Eight column inches in the York Daily Record are easier to come by than the Philly Enquirer. And at this point, it’s all about having something cool to link to from your website and Facebook event pages. Relatedly, though, while the Chicago Reader has no reason to review your book just because it exists, a reading in Chicago will justify an article or a mention on the short list (which you can pillage for a blurb, at the least).
So yeah, reach out to your friends in different cities and ask them to throw a party where you can read. Make sure they’re cool with it being open and advertised to the public, but even if they aren’t, it’ll still be more fun than reading at a bookstore where only a retired Navy guy shows up because the bookstore owner misprinted the flyer he put in the window.
If your friends can’t hook you up, maybe they can give you a sense of what the scene is like there—which bar would be open to an event, or if there’s a reading series you could ask, or a coffee shop or whatever. Don’t expect too much of your friends, though. This is important. Get the info, say thanks, and be on your way—unless your friend says they’re happy to email people on your behalf. But then you have to follow up with them and you might end up doing everything anyway.
When you have a few dates set, write a status update on Facebook saying you’ll be in X cities and if anyone in Y cities can help, you’d love to go there, too.
It might be cool to choose a touring partner, so you can coordinate a bit of an act. Plus you double your network. It can also be easier for local organizers if you’re bringing a self-contained performance. Then, if you limit it to just one person, the organizer can still add local performers if they want, and if not, you can expand your act to fill a time slot. And obviously this way you can share expenses.
NOTE: in the event that you do score a reading at a popular series—you can scratch the part about having the touring partner for this particular show. The coordinators of that reading series might not have room for both of you. If it doesn’t work out for one night, no problem! Just buy your partner a beer and introduce them to people and be a good person. Keep in mind that the same thing might happen to you if your partner sets up something at a place that only wants her.
Also, locals show up to see their friends, so ask the hosts to put local people on the bill if possible. Coordinators know who to ask, keeping in mind the various considerations (has this person read too much lately; are they a good fit aesthetically).
Be clear about what you expect from the people who host you. Do you want them to introduce you? Do you only want them to introduce the event, then you take over hosting? You can talk about this stuff when you get there, if they’re your friends. If they’re the events coordinator at a venue, talk to them about how they run everything. And if they run a series, you’ll just need to make sure you understand their format.
When you email strangers and casual acquaintances, especially in the initial email, be brief and let them off the hook easily. I don’t mind when someone follows up with an email asking for some ideas after I say I can’t host them. That’s fine, totally normal; I’ll happily list some other opportunities in the city, and also if the person seems genuine and sane and reasonable, I might email an introduction to a person who might be a good fit. But I’ve done this and then had the person come back to me saying, “Justin couldn’t set something up. Who else could I ask?” That’s being a nuisance.
Also when emailing, indicate that you know who the person is and what they do. This is obvious, but a lot of wingnuts don’t do it. So research who you’re emailing and don’t be ingratiating. Most importantly, don’t make the mistake of asking for a reading on a night on which their series doesn’t occur.
Never pay for a venue unless you know they’re reputable and cool. Mellow Pages is worth $50 bucks. Webster Hall might be worth $500 if you can bring in enough people. But a local bookstore that charges $25 can be read as: no one will come to this event and the employees at the store won’t know about it when you arrive. But what am I talking about? If this is even on your radar, I bet you’re not reading this post.
After you get all your dates and events scheduled, you might also reach out to professors or other educators/librarians that you may know in the area. They might love to have a guest speaker, and might pay.
Here’s some advice for the big night: Don’t read for more than 15 minutes. Also, read Mike Young’s performance how-tos.
It’s very sad when you think about how you just drove 4 hours after sleeping on a new friend’s dank love seat, spent $24 on food and beer, and suffered who knows what other exhaustions, all so you can read for 12 minutes—but the reading and the traveling is about so much more than that. I mean, obviously, you’re traveling and visiting old friends and making new ones, which is awesome. It’s partly about that, and it’s partly about spreading the word about yourself, of course (which should cost money—gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent [thanks Malkmus]).
But another thing touring should do is make you think about your writing. Is it worth this much effort? I’m not just talking about whatever response you sense from the audiences, which is impossible to interpret. Going on tour should be a private opportunity to evaluate why you write, and to figure out what the new thing is that you’re proposing to the world. And if you don’t have a new proposition, stay home till you do!
Personally, I attend readings because I think it’s where I’m going to hear new ideas. I expect touring readers to have fresh things to say, things that they haven’t even been able to publish yet. By that, don’t infer that you should write a new poem to read each night. It’s just something to keep in mind throughout the whole process. It’ll help you remember the tour isn’t about the 12 minutes you’re on stage. It’s also about all the time you get to talk to people who go to readings, to hear and process their ideas into your work.
Finally: be very, very on time. Communicate from the road. Be gracious to your hosts. Give them your book, or bring something else you can give away, like a handmade chapbook, or a tee shirt, or a bottle of wine. Thank them profusely. And if you’re staying at someone’s house, for heaven’s sake make the bed or dank loveseat. What am I your mother?
These are the tidbits I’ve amassed over the years and tours I’ve set up with bands and with Publishing Genius. What am I missing? What are your tips, successes, horror stories? What’s the most books you ever sold on a tour? What are your highs and lows?