Thursday, November 6, 2014

Authors against book festivals

By Steve Weddle

Brian McClellan, an author I knowest not but seems like a decent fellow, wrote a post the other day about the economics of book festivals -- from an author's perspective.
The event itself was six and a half hours, and we were asked to be there a half hour early. The drive from my house was an hour and a half each way. That's ten hours of my time. It was a 78 mile drive each way, at an assumed 25MPG, at an assumed $3/gallon of gas for a cost of $18.72 in gas money (which is tax deductible).
I made $9.08 in profit over ten hours. $.91 an hour. So, uh, not looking so good for the use of our time is it?
The question he has, the same as many authors, is whether going to a book fair as an author makes economic sense. My take is that being an author doesn't make economic sense, but what do I know? Some folks make a living doing this writing stuff. Good on 'em, I say.

The travel to the festival. The time spent at the folding table in the tent. The hotel. The eating. The buying of a nice shirt. This stuff adds up. And if you're getting a couple bucks for each hardback you sell, then you have to sell about 750 books just to cover the hotel and the nice shirt.

Brian McClellan does a quick and dirty breakdown in his post.

If you're going to a book fair to make money, you'll probably want to come at it from a more sophisticated angle than I do, which is, you know, pretty much just the showing up.

You'll need to schedule readings around the fair itself, I'd think. Maybe a radio interview. Maybe a group reading with some other folks one of the off-nights. I dunno. Merchandise? Get a cool saying from your book and put it on a mug and then sell the mug in the parking lot. Hell, I don't know. The internet probably has someone going on and on about "The 23 Things You Need To Do At A Book Fair To Earn Your Keep." Your Google-Fu is probably good enough to find it. Have fun.

That said, I use the Being An Author thing as a good excuse to get to places. I've been to book fairs and festivals to read, and it's swell to have been invited and I muchly appreciate that. The thing I really dig, though, is getting to see other authors and getting books signed and hanging out with folks around the edges of the festivals for dinner and bar talk and all.

This past weekend I was a the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge. I read from a story called "South of Bradley," which is scheduled to appear next year in Playboy. That was great because I got to see some friends I hadn't seen in a long time and catch up for, well, not long, but still. And then my lovely bride and I were able to have dinner with some nice authors and their families. And we were able to spend some time with my family eating shrimp po-boys and drinking cafe au lait (made correctly) and travel around the area. And, at the fair itself, I was able to buy a stack of books from some great authors, meet them, have the books signed, trade stories and contact info, and on and on.

I had a great time at the Baton Rouge festival and would recommend it to anyone who digs books. Sign up for next year when you can.

Was it expensive? Damn right it was. Did I make that money back? Hell no, I did not.

A friend of mine asked me who the book festivals are for, if not for writers. Again, hell if I know. Who makes the money? At the Louisiana Book Festival, a team of folks worked their butts off VOLUNTEERING to make the event a success. Heck, they didn't even make the two bucks a book, you know? Barnes and Noble had the book tent there and sold, by my estimation, 17,237,863 book on Saturday. And I bought 14 of those. The food tent people? I paid seven bucks for a cup of jambalaya, so I'm sure they did fine.

So for me, the question isn't whether it makes financial sense to go. Does Bouchercon make financial sense? Can you put a price on networking? (If you can, email LinkedIn. They'd like to know.)

If you're looking to make money, authoring is a tough way to do it. I mean, I love ya as an author. We can hang out and talk shop after. I'll buy your book and you'll make two dollars from it. That's cool. But going to a book fair to sell books doesn't usually make economic sense for an author whose name isn't Evanovich or Child or Rowling or Charbonneau. You want to make money at a book fair? Sell shrimp po-boys. You'd make a killing of me alone.


Kristopher said...

I can certainly see your points Steve, but I would caution against only placing the financial value on sales that happen AT the festival.

Many folks go to book festivals to be exposed to new authors. They may not buy the book that day, but that doesn't mean they didn't order it online, tell a friend who might enjoy it, or suggest it for their next bookclub meeting.

Obviously, not every author can (or should) go to every book festival. But authors should surely support local ones - and by local, I mean not only in their town, but drivable. Not every year, and not more than a few each year, but this is how most authors build an audience.

I will use Louise Penny as an example. She did not burst on the scene as a New York Times Bestseller. But she did go to festivals, and Malice Domestic, and Bouchercon, and every year her name was more recognized than it was the previous year.

Certainly, financial considerations need to be taken. And your suggestion of planning other events around the festival is wise. But there is value in going to these events when possible.

That said, for most, the writing life is not the way to millionaire-hood. (He says as he just renewed his blog contract, from which, I also make $0)

Dana King said...

I don't look at book festivals--or signing events, for that matter--as profit-making ventures. I look at them as investments. Build a reader here and there, sell the next book without my personal intervention, build some goodwill with booksellers.

That being said, I have no idea if it's a worthwhile investment, either. They can be fun, though, and we're entitled to some of that.

Steve Weddle said...

Absolutely. I think that connecting at the festivals and then selling a book later is a great example, as you point out.
McClellan mentions this in the post I linked to.
The math, though, is still tricky.
Let's say you impress a number of folks at the reading/signing. Maybe it's 10 or maybe it's 100. Let's say it's 100.
Let's say all 100 go home and, in the next month buy your book. If you're along the "industry standard" then you're getting a couple bucks per book. So there's $200 back into your pocket, which is cool. Does it pay for hotel and gas and food and all? Probably not, but maybe folks get better deals on hotels than I do.
I totally agree that there's value in going to these events, but that value can't be just monetary. At least, it isn't for me.
You mention Bouchercon, which is a great event, so let's look there.
It's $200 to register and the hotel rooms are $150 per night. With all the extra fees and taxes on that, the room rate will probably be closer to $200. And let's say you spend $50 on food per day. You're there for three days. Add in some books and a clean pair of socks, you're around $1,000 without air fair or gas or whatever.
Now, will you make back your $1,000 that weekend? Heck, I wouldn't. Would you make it back over a month or two of book sales? I wouldn't.
But Louise Penny is certainly a great example, and there are others. Authors connect with readers and build a fanbase at these events. That's great.
I think it's probably better to not consider the economics of it, now that I think about it.
I don't think you and I are disagreeing. I just think that if you're spending a few years -- as you say -- going to these things and building your brand, as it were, and you nail down a nice contract, then the two or three grand per year you're spending was probably economically worth it. For me, heck, it's worth it just to meet cool folks and talk nonsense over dinner.

Steve Weddle said...

Yup. Building goodwill and having a good time. Can't put a price tag on that. Well, I guess you can add up the costs.

John McFetridge said...

Are you guys sure Louise Penny didn't burst on the scene with her first book? I was at a festival with her here in Canada and there was a pretty huge crowd out to see her. Maybe it took two books to break through in the US...

Anyway, I look at my writing the way my brother looks at playing golf. Sure, a few guys have become crazy rich and a bunch of others make a living as club pros but most people play it for fun. My brother goes on golf vacations and I go to Bouchercon.

John Kenyon said...

My experience is with running a festival, the Iowa City Book Festival, in fact. We pay travel and lodging for authors who participate, so other than the cost of getting to and from the airport and feeding themselves, their out of pocket is minimal. However, that means we must go out and secure sponsors so we can afford all of that. It also means we have far fewer authors on our schedule and are much more selective about those we invite. I looked at the Louisiana schedule and was amazed at the number of authors. Knowing that all (or probably most) paid their own way tempers that amazement.

Our vendors, then, are usually area booksellers or small press publishers. I constantly urge them to see the outlay for a tent (which doesn't even cover our costs) as a marketing expense. If they sell some books, that subsidizes that expense, and often tips things toward a profit. But even if it doesn't, it is a way for them to show what they have on offer to an audience of folks dedicated enough to reading that they devote a fall Saturday to it.

In some ways, regardless of the outlay, authors ought to see it the same way. It's a chance to get your name in front of a lot of people in one day. Give them a reason to remember you, and do that as often as you can, and you might build and audience (having a good book, of course, goes without saying).

Kristopher said...

I agree Steve, we are pretty much in agreement.

I think Brian is probably right, certainly for the smaller festivals. If I were an author, I would focus on the bigger, targeted festivals (Bouchercon, Thrillerfest (which is obscenely expensive), Malice, etc) and limit the "town" festivals to the local area and anyplace where I didn't have to get a hotel room.

I attended these conventions for years before starting the blog, so I just consider them my vacation. Now that I have the blog, I do try to think about the building of an audience and how these conventions help, but really none of that will cover the costs I incur from the blog and the conventions together. But then, this is not my career, just a hobby.

However, all that said, I'm not sure an author could "make it" (whatever that means) in this modern day without attending some festivals. I can't think of an example of someone who fits that bill.