Feature Article

A Modern Author’s Marathon

By Benjamin Busch

Debut books don’t sell them­selves. There are ways to make them easier to package, but something magical still has to happen during promotion. The center of gravity has shifted to online retailers and In­ternet advertising, and as publishers rush to innovate in a changing market, I decided to step back into the places that still sell books by hand.

While writing Dust to Dust, I did not follow many conventions. What I hoped the book would articulate about our individual and collective place in time required a new move in the genre of nonfiction memoir. Finding a successful commercial comparison would be a marketing challenge, and I worried that reviewers would enter the book’s pages with well-established expectations that my new structure would somehow have to overcome. It was clear that my book would not be an easily categorized product. When it arrived on shelves, my career in advertising began.

In recent years the publishing industry has lost much of its faith in traditional marketing techniques. Buyers are changing their habits, e-book sales rival paper, and online technology has modernized our relationship to commerce. As print-based book reviews draw less and less attention, bloggers are on the rise. Print ads and the author book tour are costs publishers see the least value in now. Instead, they are wading into the vast potential of the Internet and experimenting with social media platforms. The number of sales reps walking the beat has been severely cut, and publicity offices are working with skeleton crews, but their Twitter and Facebook posts are reaching more people than direct mailings ever did. Everyone in sales is scrambling, trapped between struggling brick and mortar businesses and online flea markets. Most industry adaptations are going from physical to digital.

Of course, this isn’t news to writers. It’s just how it is. Anyone who expects to sell a book now has to be an increasingly active member of the sales team. Given how few tools—beyond social media—were at my disposal, I looked to a tactic that few writers could pursue without the aid of a fully committed publisher: an expansive low-budget tour of independent bookstores across the country.

The initial plan was simple. Ecco offered me a generous eight-city book tour. Like all book tours, it targeted major markets and renowned independent stores, in hopes of attracting what national media we could. But, guessing that my book would be a slow burn, I worried that this kind of limited exposure would be too brief for the book to thrive. The media might give it some play, but without some unexpected cele­brity endorsement, interest would likely flag. Instead, I asked Ecco to support my plan for a solo trek, which would give the book time to be discovered. We prepared for months, reaching out to independent bookstores along my projected route and locking down events. We scrolled the list in each city until a store manager or events coordinator accepted our offer to visit.

On March 17, I set out on a 48-state road trip to 197 events with a plan to cover Alaska and Hawaii by air in the winter. The first leg of my cross country Odyssey more or less resembled a typical book tour, with stops in Ann Arbor, Minneapolis, Iowa City, Chicago, Washington D. C., New York City, Baltimore, Boston, and a flight to Los Angeles. The second leg did not. The road campaign began in earnest in Belling­ham, Wash. In return for Ecco’s support for such a long endeavor, I promised to keep expenses as low as possible. My economy was self-imposed, but I felt it to be a fair exchange for asking such a sustained favor of my publisher. I slept on couches, in the guest rooms of friends or in the car, showered in truck stops, and checked into cheap hotels when I could discover no other options. I bought bulk foods and avoided restaurants. Gas would be the constant unavoidable cost, but most of the tour would be driven in a Prius, getting 45 miles to the gallon.

My thinking was simple. If I kept expenses stripped down and moved every day, I could make small personal splashes in multiple markets. If I could do this throughout the entire country, the ripples from each stop would eventually intersect and I would have touched all of America. I went to bookstores—and regions—that publishers lost sight of long ago. Many had never hosted an author from a major commercial press, nor had they seen a publisher’s rep in years. I saw these outposts as friendly anchors. The objective of a bookstore is the same as that of a writer and a publisher. The purpose of reading in a bookstore is to sell your book to readers who turn up, but just as important is the chance to sell the book to the booksellers themselves, to give them a much deeper sense of the experience that is waiting for customers on their shelves. An audience of one gives me someone who will likely read the book and, if they like it, will recommend it. Word of mouth and hand-selling are the aspects of book marketing that an author’s presence can inspire directly.

Few established writers are interested in nomadic salesmanship. It interferes with writing. It can be exhausting. The immediate impact of an event is rarely apparent. We all know that after six weeks, the national press considers your book old news and that publishers will have moved on, as they must, to their next releases. But good bookstores exist because they have the support of their communities. I try to walk into every store with no expectations of an audience, no regional preconceptions. I hope for someone to come, to sit in a chair, and stay to the end. I’m selling my book and every copy that goes home with someone makes the journey I intended for it.

Since the tour began, I have spent just eight days with my wife and our two delightful daughters, and that is a cost that cannot be quantified. I have lived on highways for the last four months, but this path less taken is producing results. As I write this on July 16 in Tampa, Fla., I have met more than 2,000 readers, and that has been a true pleasure.

A week ago, still not halfway through my tour, I arrived at Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn. for my 80th event. Ann Patchett—a writer, one of us—rescued the store after an independent chain gave up its post in the city. As I set up for my reading, the President and CEO of HarperCollins happened to walk in, on a store tour of his own. It was proof that book publishers at the highest level remain aware of bookstores’ importance, and the value of paying them a visit. The digital age is upon us and that has as many advantages as frustrations, but in the end, if readers want to meet a writer, they’ll have to go to the bookstore. Let’s all go there together.

 

Author Benjamin Busch is a veteran of two tours as a Marine officer in Iraq and three seasons playing undercover narcotics cop Tony Colicchio on The Wire. He is also a photographer and filmmaker. Dust to Dust is his first book.