Planning a Book Tour Is a Pain in the Ass

Novelist Sarah Gerard shares what it is like to promote a book published by a small press.

Jun 4 2015, 4:00am

Photo courtesy of the author.

This article appears in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.

I write from Los Angeles near the end of the book tour for Binary Star, my first novel, which follows an anorexic astronomy student and her long-distance, alcoholic boyfriend on a road trip around the United States. Two weeks ago, I read in a Toronto bookstore and then left for the West: Chicago, Iowa City, Minneapolis, and through the Dakotas to Seattle. Yesterday, I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles. From here, I'll go east to Austin and through New Orleans to my hometown of Largo, Florida.

When I found out that Two Dollar Radio wanted to publish Binary Star, I began to think of all I could do on my own to promote it. Two Dollar Radio is a small team: just a husband and wife running a press out of their home in Columbus. I'm grateful for the opportunity to work with them; they're publishing some of the most innovative fiction out there today. But I knew without having to ask that there would be no budget for a tour. I also knew, as a former bookseller, how important independent bookstores are for authors and independent presses. I would need to travel to reach audiences who might otherwise never hear about my book.

The pub date was set for January 2015. By August, I was emailing event coordinators at bookstores all over the country. This is daunting for a first-time author because I have no way of guaranteeing an audience. Many emails went unanswered, and many times I followed up. I knew I'd have to travel by car because airfare was too expensive and I would only be able to take a month off from work—I wanted to hit as many cities as possible, many of them very close together. And, perhaps selfishly, I wanted to enjoy myself while doing it. Having a car would afford me some freedom in each city.

Once I began booking readings, the problem of getting to them became real. My pressmate D. Foy had recently funded his tour for Made to Break through Indiegogo and I decided to try crowdfunding mine. I made a budget for the tour as I'd planned it so far, calculating the costs of gas, food, and motels in cities where I couldn't stay with friends. The car needed new tires and other small repairs. Though I hadn't wanted to fly, some bookstores had policies of not booking authors more than two months after a book's release—Binary Star was coming out in January, but I'd decided to do the majority of the tour in April, to avoid dangerous weather conditions on the road. I'd have to fly a few times in February. All told, I would ask for $9,000—not a small number, but the lowest I could go.

Once I began booking readings, the problem of getting to them became real.

I debated for some time which crowdfunding site to use and finally decided Kickstarter was best. I had friends there who helped design the campaign, and I preferred Kickstarter's all-or-nothing approach. My husband is a filmmaker, so he made the videos, which we updated each week. I made rewards and wrote copy for the campaign. The night we went live, I emailed everyone I knew asking them to spread the word, including bookstores I'd booked on the tour. The campaign became a third job for my husband and me, something we talked about constantly. I wrote updates at night when I got home from work and reached out twice a week to people who hadn't yet pledged. In the end, we exceeded our goal by $197.

I've been on tour for three weeks now. Many nights, I've slept on friends' couches or floors and gotten up early to drive all day. In Brooklyn, I read with four other authors to an audience of a hundred; in Tacoma, I read by myself before an audience of five, including my husband and the bookstore's owner, a man who interrupted me and asked me to slow down, and another who wandered off before I finished. Afterward, a woman took me aside. An anorexic, she said she was trying to get healthy and asked me, "Is it better?" Had the audience been larger, we never would have talked.

Sarah Gerard's collection Sunshine State (Harper Perennial) will be published in 2017. Her first novel, Binary Star, is in its third printing.