Finally I got up the nerve to start asking my stupid-person questions. Not so long ago MJ Rose at Buzz, Balls & Hype told me about something called a "virtual book tour" that she'd had success with. Huh? Then last week I saw that a company called Virtual Book Tours (VBT) was putting together a "tour" for a novelist named Tom Dolby. Terrific, I thought--but what's that actually mean? What are the mechanics? Who comes to the party, and in what numbers? How much does it cost? And--the big question--does it actually sell any books?
So I went to the source, and asked the author--Tom Dolby--if he'd give me the low-down. He agreed to provide a first-hand accounting of his "tour," which follows. At the same time, our friend MJ interviewed the man behind Virtual Book Tours, Kevin Smokler; Tom's chronicle, below, serves as a useful complement to MJ's terrific interview, "Betting on Bloggers" --or perhaps it's the other way around? Whatever--point is, even a technospaz (like me) can, by reading these two pieces, come away with a clear picture of what, for the right kind of book, is an exciting and innovative approach to marketing.
One such book is THE TROUBLE BOY, a Bright Lights, Big City-like novel about (to quote PW) "A Yale-educated gay freelance writer [who] navigates the shark-infested waters of Manhattan hoping to score a screenplay deal and a loyal boyfriend." PW concluded that "Dolby's writing is smooth and his flashy scene-setting spot-on. "
I'm pleased to introduce Tom Dolby, who has agreed to take us with him on his journey through the blogosphere--a case study, if you will, of his first Virtual Book Tour.
THE VIRTUAL BOOK TOUR: A CASE STUDY
My debut novel, THE TROUBLE BOY, was published in hardcover a year ago (2/04) by Kensington Books. It's the story of a young man's coming of age in post-millennial Manhattan; considering that it was a first novel--and one with a gay main character, at that--it was a successful launch. It received coverage on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section, was excerpted in the New York Times, and was mentioned in both the Page Six column and the Lifestyles page of the New York Post; it was also covered by Publisher's Weekly, Out, The Advocate, Instinct, Genre, and many others. I went on a five-city tour which attracted excellent crowds, in several cases standing-room only. The novel was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, a #1 Amazon.com Gay & Lesbian bestseller, and was the highest-selling Main Selection ever of the InsightOut Book Club, shipping more than 5000 copies. In the end the book netted roughly 10,000 copies in hardcover. My website had strong traffic, and I had received hundreds of emails from readers begging me to finish my second novel and/or to come to their hometowns and make an appearance. All in all, a good showing for a first novel.
As I prepared to have my agent go out with my second novel, tentatively titled THE SIXTH FORM--an exploration of the relationships between two teenagers and two adults (one gay, three straight) at a New England boarding school--I felt sure that it had the potential to reach an even bigger audience than did THE TROUBLE BOY. It has become, over the three years I'd been writing it, a complex investigation into (as one friend put it) "the fallibility of personal narrative." In the meantime, though, the paperback publication of THE TROUBLE BOY was approaching...
Everybody knows that trade paperback releases historically receive little or no press; short of publishers putting money into marketing (which, no surprise, only happens for really big books), there is scant fanfare. Yet because of my positive experience with the hardcover--and my desire to build a larger audience for the eventual publication of THE SIXTH FORM--I was determined to find a way to get it noticed.
That's where the the Virtual Book Tour came in. Kevin Smokler, a San Francisco-based literary organizer/editor/writer, came up with the concept of the Virtual Book Tour a few years ago, just as the blogging craze was gathering steam. The idea is this: for a modest fee--far less than a one-month retainer for a good publicist--Kevin "places" his authors on a dozen or so high-traffic blogs over the course of one day. Once he agreed to take me on as a client, he put together a roster of eleven different blogs, all of which would be linked together and accessible from his Virtual Book Tour site, as well as from my author site. He attracted such notable literary blogs--the bold-faced names of the blogosphere, if you will--as The Elegant Variation, Beatrice, Backstory, and Zulkey. To reach the gay market, Kevin booked me on such popular blogs as Towleroad, Bradlands, and OhlalaParis. And just for fun, on Largehearted Boy, an MP3 blog, he had me create a "Trouble Boy mix" of music that I had rocked out to while writing the novel. Kevin set the date of my tour for February 15. Passwords in hand, I started on my journey.
Being a confirmed workaholic, I spent a good portion of the week leading up to the VBT preparing content, writing essays, answering Q&As, and making sure everyone had images of the book cover and an author photo. (So many decisions: Did I send one that was serious? Smiling? Sexy? The beauty of the VBT was that I got to choose.) Aside from a few conversations with Kevin and a tutorial from Mark Sarvas on using The Elegant Variation's blogging interface, everything was done online, via email. Though I am neither, the Virtual Book Tour is a perfect vehicle for misanthropic, interview-shy writers--as long as they're willing to spill their guts over email.
Figuring that the lit crowd likes to read about lit stuff, and the gay crowd likes to read about gay stuff, I tailored the content for each site according to its demographic. For the literary sites, I wrote critical essays, including one on the connections between gay fiction and chick-lit ("Bright Lives in the Big City") and another on what it was like to write in the voice of a straight woman in my new novel ("What It Feels Like for a Girl"). For one of the gay blogs, I wrote a piece called "Just How Real Is It, Anyway?" about the similarities between my life and that of my main character's. I did Q&As with several of the blogs in which they got to pick the questions that would appeal most to their readership. (A favorite from SFist, a San Francisco-based blog: "In your opinion, what's the most debauched club on the scene today?" Hell if I know. Lately, debauchery for me has consisted of drinking too much green tea. Read my novel instead.) Two of the sites took the content into their own hands, and posted reviews that were snarky, yet also astute. At The Elegant Variation, I was the guest blogger for the day; I posted nine entries, from interviews with writer friends of mine to commentary on current events to personal posts, such as one about my second novel arriving on my agent's desk that day. The readers at TEV were a fabulous bunch, a virtual version of the Algonquin Round Table, except that instead of being vicious, they were all unfailingly polite.
After I had posted the majority of my content, the actual day of the tour was relatively low-key. Touring virtually isn't a job for the technologically averse, but I wouldn't say it was all that difficult, either. During the day, I fielded emails, read and responded to comments, and judged contests on two different sites, the winners of which would receive a signed copy of my TROUBLE BOY paperback. I posted an "end of day" entry on TEV around 10pm EST, and I was done.
According to Kevin Smokler, on February 15, 2005, content about me and my book reached more than 50,000 readers; this made my tour the second most successful he has done to date, trumped only by that of novelist/web guru M.J. Rose (and I'll take second place to M.J. Rose any day). What kind of sales did this effort result in? It's difficult to say exactly, but I do know that my Amazon numbers shot way up, and booksellers that I visited in Manhattan over the following several days appeared to be constantly in the process of restocking their copies, so I know it had a positive impact.
More importantly, as an author, I am interested in building a long-term audience. Naturally, I want to sell books, but most of all, I want to create allegiances with my readers, those fans who will continue to buy and read my novels years from now. From the emails I've received and the comments I've read, I know I'm developing a fan base who will tell their friends about my books, will attend readings, and will write about my work on their own blogs. As with much of book marketing, energy begets energy--not simply hype, but that ineffable phenomenon called word of mouth. To be able to create that from the comfort of my laptop, all through the medium of writing, beats sitting behind a table at Barnes & Noble any day.
Click here to order THE TROUBLE BOY, just out in paperback from Kensington Books.
"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
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