Wednesday, October 21, 2015
By Lisabet Sarai
In the (good?) old days, before ebooks and social media, publishers would organize book tours for their authors. The author would travel to various cities for readings and signings. She’d give interviews and appear on local TV and radio. The goals of this expensive (and exhausting) activity were to sell books, of course, and to generally make potential readers aware of the writer’s existence and her body of work, in addition to her new release. (Please excuse my exclusive use of the female pronoun. It’s just a convenience. I don’t intend to ignore all the male authors out there.)
These days, for all but the most famous authors, the physical book tour has been mostly replaced by a “virtual tour”, also known as a blog tour. What’s a blog tour? It’s a marketing activity that involves making arrangements with multiple blog owners—often though not always other authors in your genre—to feature a post about your book. Usually, like a real world tour, a blog tour will take place during a set period of time. One or two weeks is typical. Each day during that period, your book will appear in different places in the cybersphere. The schedule, arranged beforehand, will be included with each post (along with links to the tour stops), so that readers can surf to earlier appearances if they want.
Many tours (at least in the erotic romance genre, the one most familiar to me) offer prizes or other goodies to entice readers to follow the tour blogs. Most commonly these days, the grand prize will be a bookstore gift certificate, in amounts ranging from $15 to $50. I’ve seen tours that really go over the top to offer a Kindle or Nook. Free books and swag (pens, notebooks, coffee mugs, and so on with the author’s logo or cover) are also prevalent. Tours are usually set up so that readers can enter the giveaway at each stop. Thus, the more posts they read (or at least, the more sites they visit), the higher the chances that they’ll win. In my blog tours, I sometimes give away a small gift at each stop, in addition to the grand prize.
What sort of material appears in the tour posts? This varies quite a bit depending on the author, the book and who’s arranging the tour. At a minimum, the post will include the book cover, book blurb, buy links, author bio, and author website and social media links. Often an excerpt will be added. Some blog tours (the ones I enjoy most) have additional material written by the author prefacing the book information. This can be anything from an essay on the background of the book to an interview with either the author or one of the book’s characters. If there are prizes on offer, the post will also explain how readers can enter the giveaway.
There are two popular methods for handling blog tour contests. One simply asks readers to leave a comment on the blog. While this is easy for readers, it has the problem that it may be difficult to locate winners if they don’t include an email address in their comment. You have to repeat this instruction multiple times in your post. The other method uses third-party services like Rafflecopter. While this is convenient, I personally don’t like it because it exposes readers to potential privacy risks. (Don’t try to convince me that Rafflecopter isn’t using all the emails and FB logins it accumulates, from the thousands of contests it manages.)
Some authors require visitors to sign up for their mailing lists, “like” their pages on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter in order to enter the drawing. In my experience, this results in fewer entries. Readers are busy, and to some extent lazy. You’ve got to make things really simple for them.
Of course, just getting your content on someone else’s blog isn’t enough to pull in readers. It’s critical that you promote the tour using other methods: via your mailing list, Facebook, Twitter, your own blog, Yahoo groups, whatever you can do. I don’t mean just one announcement, either. You need to remind people, at least every few days, that the tour is going on and that they could win wonderful prizes and read great excerpts. Your promotional material should include active links, so that recipients can simply click to view a post.
Finally, if at all possible, the author should drop by each stop, thank the host, and respond to comments—if not individually, then at least with a summary comment that refers to some of the more cogent separate comments.
Sound like a lot of work? It is. However, it’s probably less exhausting than a physical tour. At least you don’t have to worry about hotel bed bugs and jet lag! However, it’s probably worth doing only for relatively major releases. To me, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to invest this sort of energy and time to promote a $0.99 short story.
Suppose you want to do a blog tour. Where do you start? There are two main options: organize it yourself, or hire a service. I’ve used both alternatives. Either way, you’re looking at significant work. (Your publisher may organize a tour, as well. That’s always nice, though in my limited experience, the services have done a better job.)
The advantage of organizing everything on your own is that you have total control. You can pick blog hosts who you know are reliable, who have attractive blogs, and whose blogs are compatible with the theme and genre of the book you’re promoting. Of course, you save money too (see below).
There are two disadvantages to organizing your own tour. First, it’s more work, because in addition to writing the posts, you have to “wrangle” the hosts: get them on the schedule, send them the post material, follow up to make sure they’ve got it, make sure you’ve got their links right, etc. It takes a lot of organization.
The second disadvantage is that your tour may have a more limited reach. You’ll probably be contacting bloggers you already know. Chances are their readerships overlap with yours. You want your tour to reach as many new people as possible, but that impact might be reduced if you have your friends act as hosts.
On the other hand, using a service can be pricey. The services I’ve worked with charge anywhere from $50 up depending on the type and length of the tour. Generally, the longer the tour and the more stops, the higher the price. In addition, although you might think it would be a lot less work, using a service doesn’t reduce the effort much, at least if you’re writing individual posts for each stop, as I prefer to do. (If you want readers to stop at multiple sites, I believe that you really should give them new content at each site.)
The biggest advantage of a service (potentially at least) is greater exposure. Established promotion companies have a large pool of blog hosts, often in many different genres. Chances are that you’re not personally familiar with many of these blogs. Usually that’s good (though I’ve had my posts appear at blogs that made me really cringe due to their poor graphic design or their cheesy advertisements). Readers who may have never heard of you will learn about your book and perhaps be tempted to buy it.
Once you’ve created the blog content and sent it to your service, they handle the host wrangling. The one I’ve used most does a really good job of follow-up with blog hosts. You still need to visit each stop, though, and promote your tour. However, the service should be doing this in parallel, so ultimately more people should get the word. Some services will create tour-specific graphics for you (buttons or banners) as an added benefit. Most include Facebook and Twitter promo as part of their package.
I should mention that some services offer “review-only” tours. This means that the hosts agree to read and post a review of your book on their blogs. I’ve never done this—it tends to be more expensive, plus I know from experience that the quality of many reviews tends to be poor—but this is one possible way to get your book read.
Remember when you’re considering a blog tour, you should factor in the cost of the prizes (if any) and your time, as well as the fees for any promotional services. I’d say that on average, a tour organized by a service will cost at least $100.
So, is it worth it? Do blog tours sell books? Alas, we’d like to know the answer to that question for every marketing activity, but it’s damnably difficult to get reliable information.
Personally, I use blog tours as a way to expand my email list. (I will personally invite people who comment whose names I don’t recognize to join; you should never add people without permission.) Also, it gets my work in front of new readers. I usually give away a free book at each stop (a short story formatted in PDF, with a cover), not just as an inducement, but also to increase the number of people who have actually read something by me. My hope is that they’ll like my writing, and want more.
At this point you may shrug and say to yourself, “What’s the point? You can’t tell if the tour is actually increasing sales. It’s a huge amount of work. It’s expensive. Why bother?”
Well, you can say the same thing about every kind of marketing. The hard truth, though, is that if you don’t market your books, nobody will read them. This has nothing to do with quality. It’s a matter of visibility. You have to make your audience aware that you, and your books, exist. That doesn’t guarantee sales by any means, but it’s a necessary precondition for sales.
You don’t have to market. You’re free to choose. However, you can’t complain about obscurity if you never try to shine the light of publicity on your writing.
As for me, I enjoy doing blog tours, despite the work. I know that I’m skilled at writing engaging posts, so this activity draws on my talents. I like meeting new authors (hosts) and new readers. I find the sort of interaction that occurs during a blog tour far more meaningful that “Likes” on Facebook or snippets shared on Twitter.
I’ve probably done at least ten tours over the years. I’m nowhere near a best seller. Perhaps you shouldn’t listen to my advice at all. However, if you have questions about the process, I’m more than happy to share my experience.