Today we are going to talk about personal appearances, such as radio/television/print interviews, appearing at conventions, and presenting at conferences. Please note that most websites that push these concepts as good ideas are run by people who have been in publishing for over twenty years, who may not understand why publishing is so massively different today than it was back then.

Let's take a trip in the way-back machine

We have to take a diversion here. Some of us are old enough to remember the publishing world before 1993, but since most Millenials were born around then, let’s go back and explain what happened then, and why the time before was so different. In fact, let’s go back to the beginning of publishing.

Originally books were handwritten and copied in the same style as scrolls, which were in turn the same style as stone tablets. This lasted for centuries. Then came the Gutenberg Press, and pamphlets became easy to write. However, if you wanted to be published you had two options: work an operating a press and write pamphlets at night, or as books became bound a writer had to network to find a sponsor who could pay for the printing.

Yes, it was a little like that, but classier

Oh, those were the days. You met a rich patron who loved your art, sometimes a fellow writer, sometimes a Mr. or Mrs. Moneybags. They would pay a writer’s bills and rent, and then pay for their work to be published. Of course this meant the reach of a book was only as far as the patron’s money could take it: the richer they were, the more copies would be printed, the further they could be shipped. 

This led to brokers across Europe who could print and/or ship books by the early nineteenth century. When a patron bought printings in bulk they’d get a discount, making it a bit easier. But there was a dark side: some of these brokers could reprint books without author permission. One could be seated in, say Paris, get a copy of a book selling well in London, and reprint it. For many years, these sneaky printers kept the money, all the profits. This lasted and grew until the end of the nineteenth century.

Courts caught up, copyright laws came into being, and interestingly enough these former literary pirates became officially publishers in many cases. Look to any major business that has lasted many generations and the origins are almost always illegal. As the copyright laws grew more complex, this gave rise to literary agents who originally functioned more like shipping agents, simply there to travel to printer/publishers and negotiate printing costs and profit splits.

Over time, publishing houses grew and grew, until one could have offices all over the world. Once the industrial age was modernized into mass production, printing could be centralized on each continent. 

Then came the 1920’s and in America, a new phenomenon was spreading like wildfire: comic books. Many companies from then have come and gone, but the biggest was always Marvel. By 1949 they were frustrated: centralized printing of numerous very small pamphlet-length comics was not cost effective to print in a single location and ship all over North America.

This once changed the world every bit as much as the Gutenberg press, but they won't fucking teach that in school

So Marvel led a cabal made up of the major rising comics publishers and came up with a new system: the companies would be national or international, but printing would go by districts. Books printed in Chicago would only be sold in the Great Lakes region, printed in Atlanta would sell in the south, and so on, and this system even went international.

The Marvel system lasted until 1993, which we’ll momentarily address. As a note, this meant the bestseller lists were calculated differently. For those of you too young, before 1993 you could walk into any gas station or convenience store and find a circular rack of books. New books, almost none of them bestsellers. Contrast that to now where you can find books at your pharmacy, but they are all national bestsellers. Remember these old circular racks, they will soon be important.

Then came Safeway. Safeway and Albertsons together own the majority of grocery stores in America. Sometimes they change the name of their new stores to the that of the new parent company, or in the case of Chicago they keep the names of the local chains we know and love. 

Safeway loathed having multiple districts in the USA alone. It meant their accounting department had to do seven times the transactions for books than, say, for pots and pans. 

Marvel was very weak in 1993, and the larger publishing houses saw a potential for profit by centralizing cost (and narrowing the overall number of titles they would produce) in the Safeway plan. We’ll explain that in examples soon to illustrate the difference. Overnight, because Safeway wanted to reduce a few hours a week of accounting time completely revolutionized publishing, and made it thousands of times more difficult to become an author.

In short, they returned to centralized single-location per continent publishing, or how it was before the Marvel revolution in the 1920’s. But the hunger for books was greater, and now in 1993 fewer and fewer magazines and (at the time) comics were being printed, and the nonfiction world exploded with the advent of self-help books. So it was a different beast than the industry in 1910.

Pictured: Stan Lee's Satan

The Safeway publishing revamp of 1993 happened with no press, no contest, no fanfare, no notice at all. As now there were far fewer publishing companies, an agent became 100% necessary for the first time. Contracts became limited to two books rather than a lifetime, the number of contracts shrank, and as such the number of new authors shrank. And with these changes and no more districts, the way bestsellers were calculated changed and it became much more difficult to get onto the list.

As a note, if you watch movies about writers either filmed before 1993 or set before 1993, you can get a better idea of how it used to be. More prominently, in movies filmed before 1993 where writers are portrayed, they tend to be older (over 40), the agent’s role is minimal (if there, and if so, they usually function more like a publicist), and they are constantly doing personal appearances. Those of the current age portrayed in movies? They are young, too young, their agent is their BFF/parent/enabler, and not a single one of their friends is a fellow writer. Remember that.

Then in the early 2000’s publishing was shaken up once again by the eBook and the explosion of self-publishing. I don’t think we need to continue as we’ve all been here for that phase which gave birth to Taken By the T-Rex which, if chosen to be the first book read by our alien overlords when they come, while literally be the doom of humanity. In short, the self-publishing explosion ripped away the barrier-to-entry, but narrowed the traditional publishing world and raised its barrier to entry even more than the 1993 Safeway shakeup.

So what the fuck does this have to do with personal appearances? The short answer is this: before 1993 personal appearances were cheap, smart, and effective. From 1993-2005 personal appearances were expensive, difficult, and not always a good idea. In the modern day personal appearances are prohibitively expensive, nearly impossible, and a completely stupid idea.

Of course who among us is immune to stupid ideas?

Let’s take a look at a reasonable example of a writer’s life in 1985:

John would plot out a book and begin writing it. He’d edit the first three chapters heavily and send it to a publisher. A reader would review what was there, the synopsis for the rest, and the cover letter estimating when it would be finished.

The reader would like it, and pass it along to the editor who would review it. The editor liked it so much he signed John to a contract. It would be open-ended, John would agree to publish all his mysteries with the editor’s publishing house for a term of ten years.

John would be given a large advance. They would calculate what he needed to live on to finish writing and calculate the average expected income from his first three books. John got a check, lived comfortably, finished his book and turned it in.

It would be edited as it is today, but then released in just one market, or one district. Mysteries sell very well on the West Coast or Midwest, and let’s sat John lived in Detroit, so it was decided his book would be released in the Great Lakes region.

It went to book stores and catalogs, but appeared on circular racks at hundreds of stores in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. John’s book sold well enough there his publisher took it to the West Coast district. It sold well there and gathered buzz, so his publisher then took it national.

At this time reviews were written by critics, the “buzz” had already been put in motion. John was set to radio interviews, magazine interviews, and once his book became a national bestseller, John was asked to appear on television.

His sales were calculated by rank. Not only were total number of copies sold calculated, his ranking among the Great Lakes region was figured in as well as his ranking in the West Coast.

Basically, another book could have sold more copies in the same period, but if it’s rank in it’s first two territories was lower, it entered the list behind John’s book.

That was how a bestseller could happen in 1985. Let’s contrast that with the modern post-eBook-revolution age:

John writes his book completely, edits it carefully, and sends it to agents. He gets no bites, so he decides to self-publish. He gets a website, social media accounts, enters a lot of contests to gain fans.

He drops his book on Smashwords and Amazon. It sluggishly sells maybe two copies a month. John keeps blogging, promoting himself, and commits to writing another book. Over two years, he writes and self publishes two more.

He gets some good customer reviews, gets listed on a few indie promoter sites. He attends a few writers groups and conventions, makes friends, does a couple blog tours.

Finally, he writes his fourth book. Now, with a padded resume, he finds an interested agent. He sends the agent the final book, and the agent refers him to a copy editor. John has to pay out of his own pocket but gets it polished.

His agent, Alan, used to be a senior reader at Bantam. Alan calls up a friend, a former reader now an editor who enjoys mysteries and convinces him to read John’s book.

The editor likes it and offers John a two book contract. John’s advance is calculated at the total expected royalties for his first book. It gets mailed to the agent who holds it up for two months, takes his cut, and passes it along.

John’s publisher edits the book further, without his consent, chooses a cover without his consent, and prepares promotional material without his consent. 

The book is released, buried in a catalog book sellers look through. Sales are sluggish. Oh, they are better than what John has known, though he must wait a year to find out what they are, but they are less than the publisher wants.

John is beholden to turn in a second book and the process repeats. There is no advance, his royalties do not add up to the first advance, so he is offered no money up front on the second. Sales are slightly worse, and he is let go.

Alan, his agent, believes in him. So together they plot a new book. Meanwhile, with five books out, new readers are discovering him. John is still blogging, still promoting on social media, and all told he’s making enough money off all his books it’s a part-time minimum-wage income.

Alan goes to a new publishing house with hungrier editors. The process begins anew. As the sixth is being edited, Alan convinces John to hire a publicist. The publicist costs John a lot of money, but she is smart and connected.

She convinces John’s new publisher to include him as a panel member in a mystery round table at a future conference. She finds reviewers willing to look at his prior books and create a buzz about them.

John’s prior books begin to sell better and better, and his publicist gets him interviewed by a literary magazine. Enough buzz comes out that his new publisher goes into overtime producing promotional material for his forthcoming book.

While the iron is hot the sales reps target the local mom & pop booksellers and presale orders are high. The buzz grows. John’s sixth book hits and it climbs the best seller list, reviewers trip over themselves to offer analysis, and John is trotted out on television shows.

Now, that was a very long route, but I want you to notice a few things:

1) The trip up was much faster/easier in 1985
2) There are many more if/thens that must happen now
3) It costs much more money now than it did before 1993

So you’ve made it this far, you’ve a come a long way, and you’re probably screaming “SO WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH PERSONAL APPEARANCES?!”

It’s simple: DO NOT DO THEM.

The longer you stare, the funnier it gets, but at least by staring you're not off wasting money on public appearances

Back in 1985, it was worth it. Why? Because John’s book was only being sold in one district. It was being sold as a sundry. For those of you who never worked retail, a sundry is any small high-profit item sold near the registers. Since John might sell well in one district but be unknown in the other thirteen, it was only by promoting himself in interviews and other personal appearances that he drove up interest in other districts.

That world is gone. Dead and gone. There is one thing we haven’t mentioned yet, book tours/signings, and it’s a special case because those will soon be dead as a doornail.

This is a the simple rule of thumb: do not ever consider ANY kind of personal appearance until your agent or your publisher suggests hiring a publicist. And then ONLY DO IT WHEN YOUR PUBLICIST SUGGESTS.

If you are a first-time author, know that anyone who would want to interview you or have you present at their event is desperate small potatoes. This is a business, and you have to be part mercenary. When you’re a small fish, don’t trust anyone desperately trying to reel you in. They’re either scammers or idiots, and often both.

Remember this above all else: never set out on a joint venture unless the other party needs you exactly as much as you need them. It’s true in writing and life.

Basically, you’ll need to have five books and a promising publishing contract under your belt before you need a publicist. Let the publicist direct you on personal appearances, if/when/what is right. Honestly, now that you know the history of publishing, and why it used to work, you know why now it’s a different ball game in the twenty-first century.

Now we come to book tours and signings. Frankly, it’s not even worth discussing in this series where we’re talking about becoming a first time author. You really need to just focus on writing, free writing, entering contests, blogging, social media, and promoting yourself as a brand.

All you need to know about book signings/tours is that they are only for those already on the bestseller list, when you make enough money to pay for them. Every flight, car rental, meal, and hotel room comes right out of your own pocket.

This may seem like a depressing lesson, but by now you should know there are too many depressing things about writing. It’s why so many writers drink and/or kill themselves.

You know what is good for first time authors? Not trying to present at conferences and conventions but attending them. And in our next lesson, our final lesson, we turn to networking.

By now your book has been published, your brand is coming along, and you know that all that is left is to keep publishing and promoting, and now to network. Because one day, if you keep at it, personal appearances may become important. But they will be much easier if you know somebody, so next week, let’s unravel that mystery and begin making useful friends in publishing.

Now you're thinking like a writer!