(Editor’s Note: Author and New Yorker cartoonist Bob Eckstein recently set out on a book tour of his own devising. He outlines his experience, lessons learned along the way, and what up-and-coming authors might expect from their own tours.)
It has a sexy ring to it, book tour. But I can tell you most writers afterward are doing more bemoaning then regaling and for that reason publishers are pretty reluctant nowadays to send their authors out there unless they’re a celebrity, and even then it can be dicey. I actually did mine totally on my own and while it’s not a full-blown book tour, stopping at major cities every other night, it probably resembles what the majority writers’ book tours look like. That said, I’d like to share the lessons I personally learned from the road of hard knocks.
Sept. 5-6, 2018, Brimfield, Massachusetts, Brimfield Antiques Show. This is the country’s famous flea market and one of the largest. It’s a weird way to kick off the release of my new book and with sweltering heats reaching the ‘90s that week, shoppers were not thinking of snow nor ready for a book on the history of the snowman. My publisher had no knowledge of this. I begged a friend, who was dealer, to join them at their booth. I drove there five hours each way and stayed with a cousin for a week.
Almost everybody who came by to stop and talk with me bought a book but, unfortunately, very few found their way back to our remote tent selling Christmas decorations located a half a mile off the road in the two days I waited. And I spent more money shopping than I made on my nine book sales. 1) Never believe anyone who promises a ‘ton of sales’ because anyone who really knows publishing knows you can’t make that promise and 2) people don’t want to carry a book the rest of the day at a fair or flea market.
On the plus side, I did a paid piece for a magazine on the flea market, which I illustrated (the magazine asked me to do more as a result). I was interviewed by a TV show and two publications. I met the Steampunk King and crashed out one night in his amazing Steampunk home. And last, but not least, I dined twice at Bernie’s Dining Depot in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Dinner is in a vintage railroad car with old-school portions and prices. Prime rib lunch was $13 and the size of a Buick. The best diner I’ve ever been to and almost made up for the two lost days.
Sept. 30, 2018, Milford, Pennsylvania, The Milford Readers & Writers Festival. I was invited to do a one-hour panel at the Milford Theatre for four figures. I decided to invite two other New Yorker cartoonists and share the paycheck to assure I filled the 300 seater, which we came close (tickets were $35). I even had cartoon legend George Booth as a special guest in the audience. I figured if my show was a hit, it would be worth it because I’d be invited back and it would attract more book buyers for afterwards. It was a hit, and I have been invited back.
The headliner was Alan Alda, who was amazing and a delight to meet. He is a young 82, but it was still unsettling to see that at his age he was schlepping to book events. He had just a little more in attendance. Book sales-wise we were represented by a local bookstore (Black Dog Books, Newton, New Jersey). They brought mostly new The Illustrated History of the Snowman book and ran out of the small handful of my New York Times bestseller Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores — the attendees were more aware of my book-themed book. I ran to my car to get more bookstore books I had stashed in the trunk while the bookstore was stuck with two boxes of snowman books. Kind of out of guilt, I offered to do a book event at their store in December to help move them and I bought 10 copies myself (at a discount) as I needed more anyway.
The takeaway here? Book fairs are filled with people ready to buy books, especially if they’re about books and bookstores. That is their wheelhouse. I’m reminded of this lesson every time I get snookered into selling books at a brewery or a zoo. Also, I was smart to ignore the money and focus on the product. The CSPAN crew told me it was the funniest program they’ve ever filmed.
October 10, 2018, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, The Cooperage Project Theatre. From the start I told the organizers I thought a Wednesday afternoon was a bad idea for a time. It was a fundraiser for the public library and there was a $10 charge. I braced myself for eight people showing.
The small Cooperage Theatre was filled with 80, including my mom who never saw me do a book event before. I waited 30 years for that moment of validation, but it was a little trickier having to host her (she stayed at my house which is 30 minutes away) while juggling what I was going to do, which is setting up my computer and sound with the venue’s projector. Even though I bring a back-up on a thumb drive and have a Dropbox link for the venue in case of an emergency, there seems to almost always be a moment when for whatever reason the computer and projector can’t make a handshake or something is off. I’ve been to other book events reliant on a keynote show only to watch the whole audience waiting for an hour for the projector to work. So I always plan a time in advance to visit the place and try out the equipment because even then you will be hit with surprises (“someone took the projector.” I also pack in the car a TV to play the show as a Plan B. I’ve had the blood drain from my face when showing up to a bookstore to learn the screen and/or projector disappeared.). I use the pre-visit to always drop off handmade posters for the event, bug them about contacting local radio stations to arrange interviews with me, collect details for visitors like the parking situation, and make sure they ordered enough stock. For this event I brought my own and sold close to $1,000 in sales. The library raised an equal amount. They had spread the word among the community and were correct that the seniors showed up in force. Another key was that there was an enormous spread of cake, cookies and refreshments. Library volunteers made most of the baked goods into snowmen keeping with the theme of my book.
As I do with every event, I sent a thank you to the organizers later and shipped thank you gifts to all the public library volunteers (in this case a box of books for the library and seven framed cartoons of mine.).
It’s more stress to deal with equipment for a book event, but once it’s up and running, it’s far easier to have visuals playing to entertain your audience behind you than just reading from your book. At each event, the crowd was laughing at one of my cartoons within a couple of minutes and one can feel the audience lean back and relax. You want your audience to feel you’re very confident without being cocky.
November 7, 2018, New York City, Upper West Side, BookCulture. I always tell the audience when I start what the schedule is going to be and what to expect. This along with humor eases your crowd and gets them on your side. That’s a tip I learned from seasoned bestseller Tracy Chevalier (Girl With a Pearl Earring). I also learned from her that authors at that level do an exhausting schedule of book events and don’t let their foot off the gas pedal. The lesson I learned talking shop with her was that it was never enough.
I got this gig at BookCulture because I did a packed event there a couple of years ago and I am just an email away from getting another date here. That confidence disappeared fast. This time I was reminded of something a writer advised me about book events: 99 percent of the audience are your family and friends. Despite a mention in The New York Times in the morning, this was my smallest showing and raised the question, “Don’t you love me?” My inbox was filled with apologetic friends explaining they couldn’t make it. I had been unable, for the first time, to land any radio spots, something that I noticed has become exceedingly more difficult within this Trump news cycle authors compete with. I let the disappointment of a smaller crowd affect my performance, something I promised I would never let happen again.
And signed the extra stock left over and thanked them profusely. They gave me a nice BookCulture tote bag and told me they considered the night a success.
— Bob Eckstein
Bob Eckstein is a Writer’s Digest and New Yorker cartoonist. He has been trying to raise awareness for independent bookstores and came out with the NY Times bestseller Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores and World’s Greatest Bookstore postcard gift set. His latest book is The Illustrated History of the Snowman. The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop named him Humor Writer of the Month in December 2018.