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How To Organise A Global Book Tour

Lynn Brown Posted by Lynn Brown, Digital Editorial Intern.

How To Organise A Global Book Tour

As a first time author, I didn't know much about the publishing industry. My publisher, the brilliant Berret-Koehler did their part in disabusing me of my vague, second-hand notions of how publishing today works.

In addition to what Steve, my editor and others at BK taught me, I learnt a lot from Guy Kawasaki's excellent "Author Publisher Entrepreneur" (APE) - which I would highly recommend to anyone publishing a book. APE in particular gave the clear message that being an author today also means being an entrepreneur.

I thought carefully about this and decided that one of the things I would do to promote the book was a global book tour. I decided that the best way of getting my message across was eye-ball to eye-ball, mano-a-mano, with potential readers.

When I decided to do this I didn't know if it would work - the exercise was, in part at least, a way of figuring out if there was a market out there for my book and my work. I figured that if no one was going to turn up, then we would just cancel any scheduled events. In the end though, I did pull it off - 20 cities, four continents, a year and thousands of books later, here's a little how-to for pulling off a global book tour.

A couple of caveats here.

I’m going assume that this how-to is most interesting for first-time authors who don’t have an extensive reader base. While I didn’t have an extensive reader base, I was a part of an organisation at the time Reos Partners, which had a mailing list that I made use of. However 90% of people who I met during my book tour were entirely new. I also didn't have an agent helping me. Finally, my book is non-fiction - so I don't know how this would work for fiction.

The Economics of a Global Book Tour

Unless you're JK Rowling, global book tours are not something your publisher is going to pay for. Why is this? It's pretty simple economics. Publishers make their money (all their money) from the sales of books. The only way they will recover the costs of a book tour are if you sell enough books. So what does that look like?

Here are some rough numbers.

Let's say that on average an intercontinental flight is USD$2000 and a local flight is USD$1000 - this is for an economy class/coach class fare. Some countries, like the US and Canada are so big that domestic fares across country are much the same as intercontinental fares. I did five or six big trips, cutting the book tour up so that the longest I was on the road was 2 weeks. Of course if you're hard-core, then you can tour straight for 3,6,9, or even 12 months. But I'll assume you don't want to do that.

So let's say 6 trips, each trip on average covers 3 cities, that's 18 cities. Each trip costs about $5-6k in flight costs and then assume maybe $200 per night on average for a hotel, 10 day trip, maybe about $2k and then maybe $100 per day on extras, so another $1k. So roughly USD $8k-ish per trip. (Let's set aside the costs of venues, catering or anything on the ground for a second.)

Here are some gross numbers (see here for source):

"Start with a $24.95 hardcover.

Discounts to booksellers vary, but for a rough estimate figure that the publisher receives around 50%.

Let's say the author has a 10% retail royalty, and the author has an agent who receives 15% of the author's share. This works out to (again, roughly):

$12.48 to the bookseller (50%)
$9.98 to the publisher (50% minus author/agent share)
$2.12 to the author (10% of retail minus 15%)
$0.38 to the agent (15% of 10%)"

So let's say the publisher get roughly $10 for each copy of your book sold. They have to recover their investment to date, which is all their overheads, from editorial to graphic design and so on. Ignore this for a moment.

For a 6 country book-tour at $8k per trip, that's $48k. That means you'd need to sell 4,800 copies in order for your publisher to break even on a book tour. If you factor in that the publishers overheads are already in that region (or more?), then you'd need to sell more like 10,000 copies of your book for the publisher to break even on a 6-country book tour. While that may not sound like a lot, the average sales of a non-fiction book are closer to the 1,000 mark than the 10,000 mark.

Obviously you can bootstrap so that you're costs are a lot lower, but even if you halve your costs by staying with friends or whatever, you're still probably looking at needing to sell 5000 copies to cover costs or approx 1000 copies per trip. That's a tall order for a first time author.

Berrett-Koehler sent me "10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing" that told me: "The average U.S. nonfiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime. And very few titles are big sellers. Only 62 of 1,000 business books released in 2009 sold more than 5,000 copies, according to an analysis by the Codex Group (New York Times, March 31, 2010)."

All this means that your publisher is highly unlikely to pay for an international book tour and you're unlikely to cover the costs of your book tour purely from the sales of your book.

So why do it if the point is not simply to sell books?

The point is to build a reputation and connect with an audience that will carry your message, ideally in the form of your book, to other people.

The point in other words, is mobilisation….which for a first time author with no reputation is no bad thing. This of course also tends to help sell books.

(It also helped me that my primary income came from being a consultant, which meant that I was not reliant on book sales for my income.)

So how do you do it?

Step One: The Offer

I decided that I would offer three things while on book tour: 1-day workshops for small numbers of people (10-20 max), public talks and small intimate dinners.

I set myself a modest target of 10-15 people per 1-day workshop and decided to charge on average USD$200 (plus or minus) per person. I planned on 2 x 1-day workshops per city. This meant getting 10 people per workshop meant revenues of $2k per workshop and $4k per city. I did a minimum of 2 cities per trip or 4 x 1-day workshops. In some cases I did more (for example in Canada I think I did 6 cities). This would comfortably cover all my expenses.

Now usually, venue costs eat into this, hiring a workshop space for one day could easily cost on average $500-1000 per day. Instead of renting venues I approached organisations, including universities and asked them to give us a room for free – in exchange for a few free places for their staff or students on the workshop. This generally worked as the subject matter of the book ("how to solve complex challenges") was broad enough to appeal. All that we had to pay for was lunch, which for 10-15 people wasn’t going to break the bank.

The second thing I offered was a dinner with me. This was typically around USD$100 per person and my assumption was people too busy to come to the workshop would come to the dinners. Instead what happened is that many people who came to the workshop also came to the dinners, but more on this later.

Finally, I gave public lectures wherever there was a host organisation willing to organise all the details. I decided not to charge speaking fees to do this.

Step Two: Decide what markets to target.

I decided early on to focus on efforts on the English speaking world, and in particular the global North. The reason for this was that I wanted people to pay to come to see me and engage with me. I figured that while there are lots of English speaking people in India, I wasn't sure the market would bear I wanted to charge, so I focused on North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

A number of my friends in the South complained about me not coming to Cairo or Nairobi. I figured that it was not really possible for me to charge people there USD $200 to spend a day with me.

In other words, I couldn’t figure out how to make the economics work in the Global South. I’m still pondering this. My guess is that the way to do it is to find a host organisation willing to pay for you to come - but that's harder to do than what's proposed here.

Step Three: Build A Simple Website

We build a very simple website, with an outline of the workshops, all the dates and links to EventBrite allowing people to register for the workshops. We put out a year of dates in advance with the first date being six months down the road. This allowed for a clear 6-month window to publicise dates and get the word out.

The first registration came through 15 minutes after the URL for the website went live via social media. It was someone registering for a 1-day workshop in Sydney 12 months down the road.

Step Four: Find a host

Ideally, for each city you want to go to, you'll find a host. A host is either a person or an organisation who will help you. At a minimum they will have a venue you can run your event in and at best they will do this and publicise your event through their local networks.

In some cases finding a host meant simply emailing an organisation cold...this worked more than I thought it would. I think this was partly because the request was very specific ("I/we would like to run a 1-day workshop, as part of a global book tour/on this date, for this time etc").

In many cases, I only did the work of finding a host organisation once registrations were in for a city. This might seem a little mad to people but sequencing this is important. There's no point doing lots of complicated logistical work if no one is going to turn up.

If no one does register, then I would simply pick different cities and see what happens. Paradoxically, I suspect it's much easier pitching this approach in smaller cities. The big cities, such as a London or New York have so much going on that you're competing for attention. Smaller cities are generally much friendlier I found.

Step Five: Tell People

One of the other advantages I had was a genuinely global network. Initially the main way I got the word out was to email people I knew to let them know that I was coming and asking them to help get the word out.

I also emailed people to ask them to help find host organisations where we could run the 1-day workshops. Over time, we got a newsletter going, started putting tweets out via social media and events on Facebook. All the marketing activities cost little or no money, it just took time and energy in terms of outreach.

I had a colleague, Leo, work all the logistics. This included making sure venues were confirmed, catering was arranged and so on. There were a few comic moments when caters in Sydney or Boston turned up asking for “Leo” – who was safely tucked up in bed in the UK. Having someone else manage the logistics was a huge help, as I could focus on turning up and figuring out what I was doing.

If all that sounds simple, in some ways it is. The most difficult part is the outreach, where people in a given city know that you're going to turn up. The most effective way of this happening is that people who live in that city spread the word. Ultimately this is the best form of marketing. If you don't have a global network, then you may need to spend some time mapping out who you know and who they know in what cities.

What Worked and What Didn’t Work

The book tour ran from February 2014 until November 2014.

I covered around 20 cities around the world, including Europe, the US, Canada, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

During this time, I probably spoke to a few thousand people virtually one on one.

Towards the end, I was pretty fried. I’m sure that at least a few people I spoke to in New Zealand, which was the last stop on my tour, probably wondered what was wrong with me. My desire to minimize time away from home and family meant that for a few of my trips things were very packed indeed.

In general the cadence I tried to adhere to was 2 days on, one-day transition, travel or rest, and then two days on again, with time off on the weekends. This didn’t always work and from time to time I found myself doing a workshop, a talk, dinner and then again the next day, before catching a long flight, arriving late and doing the same thing again. Fortunately this didn’t happen too often.

In general I avoided doing bookshops and the usual author-in-a-bookstore-with-a dozen-randoms. I did a handful of public lectures which were good on the whole, but I had no revenues coming from those events, which actually worked out fine from an energetic point of view.

The workshops, I think, mostly worked well. I had a spiel that I delivered, ideally trying to have a conversation with participants – rather than a straight lecture. I didn't use powerpoint but flipcharts, which might come across as a little pokey but I was talking to the people in a room and not reading slides. See The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint for more.

The format in general was me speaking to the whole group, then having participants talk in small groups to process what I was saying and then coming back to a plenary session for a Q&A. Obviously it helped me that my day job involves facilitating groups, but I think that a simple format could work for pretty much anyone, even if you’re not a facilitator.

One interesting lesson was around the dinner events. These did not go that well - in that it was unclear what people were paying for. In a number of instances, the venues were too loud for me to speak to people other than to move places during a course. This usually meant there were some people I didn’t speak to. That meant they felt they had just paid for an over-priced meal.

The times when the dinner worked well was when the venue was quiet enough for the entire table to have a conversation. And what I realised was that the thing that made it most interesting as an experience was when I told stories that I didn’t tell during the workshops or talks I gave. This took a while for me to figure out. I’m not sure I would do meals again, although it was a very helpful way for people to support the book tour. Perhaps in future I would make it clear to people that if they actively wanted to support the tour then come to a dinner.

I also discovered that getting distributors to provide books at events I spoke at was really hard work. It was far easier for me to lug a box of books with me. Inevitably I would run out of books and not have enough to sell. I’m not sure how to cope with that as demand is always uncertain. I guess bringing more books is the answer as there are a myriad of ways to get rid of them once you’re on the road.

People who registered in advance for a workshop typically got a book posted to them - included in their fee. This usually worked except for a few instances where people didn't get their books in advance due to some mess up at our end - I usually just gave them another copy if I had one on me.

As the tour went on, my public speaking got better, I felt clearer in my arguments and learnt a few things about myself. I learnt that while I can do public speaking - to large crowds - this isn't what I do best. My forte is smaller groups, where I can actually engage with people, listen and get into a dialogue. The one-sided nature of lectures feels too random, too hit and miss to me - I never know what people are thinking and hence if anything I'm saying makes any sense to the audience.

The best thing about going on book tour in this way was discovering a community of people in each of the cities I went to. These included many gracious and giving people who helped organise things on the ground, as well as the participants who came. People were, for the most part, kind, generous, supportive and patient. I was hugely grateful to everyone who turned up.

A final word. It probably helps being somewhat of an extrovert. Even so, I found the experience both incredibly rewarding and also very tiring. I can't remember when I heard this but the way to go on book tour is at speed with "low drag" - that is, crack on through, do what you need to do and keep moving.

Good luck.

Check out my website: www.social-labs.org and find me on twitter @zaidhassan