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The Cost of Self-Publishing, Part 5
It’s tempting as a self-published author to fantasize about that glamorous cross-country book tour. But is such a thing practical, or even necessary?
In previous installments of this series, I dived into the costs of producing, publicizing and peddling my 2015 memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary. This week we’ll examine my related travel expenditures and legal fees.
It’s April 24, 2016. I’m behind the wheel of a shiny red late-model Mustang, windows open, speeding north across the Golden Gate Bridge under a sky as wide and blue as heaven. The road ahead ends in Marin County, at Mill Valley’s venerable Throckmorton Theater, where for years Robin Williams used to drop in unannounced, where Mort Sahl still performs on the regular, and where I will take the stage tonight before rapturous throngs of adoring new fans at the final stop on my coast-to-coast tour.
At least, that’s the hope.
In reality, the Mustang is a rental, I’m one of six performers on the bill, and the only other stop on this “tour” came a couple of nights ago at a book club in southeast Pennsylvania. Oh, and Robin Williams has been dead for nearly two years.
Welcome to the life of a small-time self-publisher hustling to make a buck.
When Opportunity Knocks, Check the Peephole
As a self-published author—heck, as any kind of author—it’s your sacred responsibility to flog your book whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. You can’t count on anyone else to do it for you—at least not unless you happen to be paying them, and you can’t always count on them then. If the chance to do an interview comes up, you jump on it. If the chance to make a personal appearance comes up, you jump on it. If a topic even remotely related to the subject of your book comes up in conversation, you jump on it.
Of course, these are not blanket rules. Every writer must tailor them to their own temperament and circumstances. Unless an appearance is guaranteed to lead to a certain number of book sales, it might not make economic sense to drop everything and fly across the country. If you’ve written a book about scrappy, mixed-race trans kids with a secret plan to fight climate change, you might take a pass on that interview from The Daily Caller.
When it came to mentioning my book in conversation, I had limits too. I did not talk about it at the office.
Big Brother and Sister Are Watching
As of November 10, 2015—the day my memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, was officially loosed upon an unsuspecting public—I had been in my new job for exactly three months. I was lucky to have it. That summer my then-wife had discovered a massive outstanding balance on one credit card and declared my days as a full-time writer at an end. I found a good job fairly quickly, though because it was in the financial industry I had to undergo a rigorous background check as part of the hiring process. And that meant I had to disclose my Canadian felony conviction from nearly 30 years earlier.
I was not trying to hide it, of course. That felony and the misadventures leading up to it were the very backbone of my book, and I wanted the whole world to know about my book. I began tempering that desire about a week into the new job, though, when the company’s chief technology officer summoned me to his office. The vice president of Human Resources was already there.
“Don’t worry, you’re not in any trouble,” said the CTO, taking in my obvious trepidation and immediately quadrupling it. “We understand you’re soon going to be publishing a book. A memoir.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And we understand that this memoir details the commission of a crime. A felony, in fact.”
“That’s right,” I said slowly. “I disclosed all this before I was hired. I never concealed anything.”
“You did, yes,” said the VP of HR, patting the air with her hands. “Such an exciting phase this is in your life. We want you to bask in the enjoyment to the fullest extent.”
The way she said it reminded me ickily of Arrested Development’s George Michael telling his cousin Maeby:
“We’re just concerned about any publicity you may be planning,” said the CTO, holding out a thick, bound folder. “We want to be sure nothing reflects poorly on the company. This is the Policies and Procedures manual you agreed to follow as a condition of employment.”
My stomach lurched as I took the folder. “Are you saying I can’t publicize my book?”
“Oh, no no no, not at all,” said the VP. “We want to remind you that as a condition of employment you are expressly forbidden from discussing this company or your work for it with the media.”
“That’s not going to be a problem,” I said.
She handed me a sheet of paper. “And I’m going to need you to keep me informed of all your publicity efforts, including sharing any press links for my review as early as possible.” She held out a pen. “Just sign there to acknowledge that you’ve been informed of the policy and will comply. And please enjoy every moment of this most thrilling chapter of your life!”
What a fun, sexy time for me.
The Floggings Will Continue Until Sales Improve
So, feeling surveilled, claustrophobic, and more than a little freaked out, I did my best from then on not to talk about my memoir and its attendant publicity campaign with my coworkers—especially not with the vice president of Engineering, who kept a Book of Mormon on prominent display on a shelf in his nearby cubicle.
I did not tell anyone about the spoken word gig I did at the celebrated Hi-Fi Bar in October, backed with bass and drums and hawking advance copies of The Accidental Terrorist. I did not mention my long weekend trip to Salt Lake City the next week or my seller’s table there at the 2015 Exmormon Foundation Conference. I did not discuss my quick trip to Chicago at the beginning of November to appear at Tuesday Funk, a monthly literary series I myself had co-hosted from 2010 to 2013. I did not bring up the indie bookstores I visited in both cities, hoping to convince them to stock my little book.
And I certainly did not invite anyone from the office to the big launch party on November 10th. That was strictly on a need-to-know basis—and no one there needed to know.
Outside of work I did flog the book at every possible opportunity, though my travel plans were limited by both my budget and my dearth of vacation days. As I booked interviews, I dutifully kept the VP of HR up to date. I forwarded reviews and articles and podcast links and audio files and even a Google Talk and a Reddit AMA to demonstrate how utterly impervious my publicity toolbox was to mentions of my employer.
I wanted to be on the road hyping my book, not tethered to an open-plan cubicle. The last thing I wanted to bring up in my fleeting moments of public attention was my book’s failure to sever that tether.
Is It Better to Travel?
I may not be the most representative of writers, but I will travel almost anywhere to promote a book. I love to visit new places, I love to read from my work and perform in public, and I try to take advantage of every chance to do it.
But the sad fact is, from a purely economic standpoint this is rarely the best idea. Unless you have a publisher invested enough in your success to underwrite a promotional tour, you’re probably going to pay more out of pocket than you stand to make. A lot more.
This is true not only for self-published writers but for traditionally published writers too. My friend Michael Libling had a supportive publisher for his novel Hollywood North (an excellent coming-of-age thriller which even curmudgeonly Publishers Weekly liked, and which you should read now). Even so, he estimates that he probably barely broke even on the book when he factors in what he spent himself on promotional travel.
Bigger names these days will often include the purchase of a book in the ticket price for personal appearances to help ensure that the travel is worth the expense. This was the case when I attended a 25th anniversary screening of Get Shorty in March 2020, about a week before the coronavirus pandemic shut New York City down completely. The showing included live commentary from director Barry Sonnenfeld, a copy of whose brand-new memoir came bundled with admission. Nice work if you can get it. (Of course, the theater that night was only about a quarter full, since so many people were already beginning to shelter in place. Bad timing can be a killer!)
A ticketed event of that sort was never in the cards for me, but I still yearned to keep doing on-the-road publicity. That’s one reason my desk job stuck so deep in my craw.
And it’s also the reason I jumped so hard at the chance to play Mill Valley.
My Caffeinated Confessions
In January 2016 I was chatting online with my old, old friend Bengt Washburn when he floated the idea of my joining him and his crew for a show in California. I didn’t have to think. I said yes immediately. Duh.
Bengt is a standup comic, and an excellent one. (Check him out on Conan if you want proof.) I met him when he was starting out in Utah in the early ’90s. He is one of the hardest-working people I know, touring incessantly and always writing material. Like me, Bengt grew up Mormon, an experience he often mines for his act. He knew several other comedians with backgrounds in the Church, and occasionally he would bring them together for a special show called “Caffeinated Confessions of Mormon Comics.”
When he messaged me, Bengt was in North Dakota for a couple of shows and had brought along a copy of The Accidental Terrorist. He knew I had done some storytelling at events in Chicago and New York. Reading my book, it occurred to him that I might want to join the bill for the next “Caffeinated Confessions,” in April.
“We need you,” is how he put it, in fact. “You would make it more than just a standup comedy show.”
I didn’t know about that, but how could I say no?
Despite my excitement, the idea of speaking on stage without notes brought on acute anxiety. I threw myself into preparation. I wrote and rewrote a ten-minute version of my arrest story, trying to find the right tone and the perfect ending. I boiled it all down to short points on index cards and rehearsed relentlessly. I started taking pieces of the story to open mics, which filled me with a kind of shaky, crippling terror I’ve rarely felt.
I had just enough vacation days to make an extended weekend of the trip. A friend in Pennsylvania (who no longer speaks to me) had been wanting her book club to read The Accidental Terrorist, so my wife and I drove there for first leg of my whirlwind tour. It was fun to hear twenty smart readers discuss the book, and even more fun to answer smart questions about it. I ended the evening with a practice run-through my monologue. (Our friend’s teenage son commented, “I thought standup was supposed to be funny.”)
Early the next morning I flew alone to San Francisco, where I rented a red Mustang that I promptly dubbed the Midlifecrisismobile. I did some sightseeing and met a friend for drinks. The next day I picked up one of my fellow performers, Spence Roper, from the airport, and together we cruised up to Mill Valley for a date with destiny.
Look, the audience that night was smaller than we all had hoped, and the best I can say about my performance is that I don’t think I sucked, but it was an incomparable thrill to stand up on that stage and tell my story. I loved being part of a show with so many talented comics, I sold a few books afterward, and Bengt even paid me $300 for performing.
Sure, I lost money on the trip overall, but there is not a single thing about that trip that I regret except that I didn’t find a way to make it happen again and again.
Tips for Travelers
As I’ve said, for most authors it’s unlikely that promotional travel will yield huge dividends, so I think one of the prime considerations when considering a trip like this should be how much enjoyment you think you’ll derive from the experience. Writing is an occupation with so few tangible rewards that you should take what pleasure you can where you can.
At the same time, it’s a good strategy to squeeze as much juice as you can from every trip you do take. Arrange to speak with local media if you can. Visit bookstores that might be interested in stocking your work. If you can make more than one appearance while you’re in town, all the better. And if you have friends in the area, conspire with them to pack your events so the venues remember you.
Robert Louis Stevenson said that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.” If you don’t take joy in the journey itself, in other words, you’re doing it wrong, friend.
That’s true as far as it goes. But with all respect to Mr. Stevenson, it would be nice sometimes at the end of it all to feel like you finally have arrived.
Don’t Forget to Write the Fine Print
Speaking of arrivals, before we bring this long journey to a close let’s quickly touch on the last of my self-publishing expense buckets—legal fees.
There’s not a whole lot to report here. When I was discussing my fulfillment costs, I mentioned that I had to register with the New York Department of Taxation and Finance to be able to collect sales tax on direct in-state purchases. I paid LegalZoom $224.00 to prepare my doing-business-as filing, then paid $2.00 for it to be notarized. Once my DBA was processed, it was free to register with the state for a tax certificate in that name.
My only other legal expense was $35.00 to register The Accidental Terrorist with the U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright is automatic in the United States, so you don’t need to take this step to claim the copyright in your own work, but I liked the idea of my book moldering for posterity somewhere in the dusty innards of a Library of Congress warehouse.
It helps me feel like I’ve left my mark on the world. That’s why we write in the first place, isn’t it?
The Travel Tally
This is a rough tally of what I spent on three promotional trips for my book: Salt Lake City in October 2015, Chicago in November 2015, and the Bay Area in April 2016:
Car rentals: -$508.30
Other transportation: -$51.09
Appearance fee: +$300.00 (hey-o!)
Travel subtotal: -$2,281.68
All in all, not bad. I wouldn’t change a thing here. In fact, I would have done more traveling if I possibly could have.
The Legal Tally
I feel like I got off easy with my legal expenditures:
DBA filing prep: -$224.00
Notary public fee: -$2.00
Copyright registration: -$35.00
Legal subtotal: -$261.00
When you write a memoir that involves other people’s questionable behavior and not just your own, the obvious worry is that someone will sue for defamation. I guess there’s still time for that, so I won’t close the book on this category just yet.
That’s a total outlay of $2,542.68 this week, which means our overall red ink so far plumbs a depth of $22,282.01. In next week’s final installment, we’ll look at the other side of the ledger, add in our royalties, and ask ourselves if the destination really was worth the journey. ∅
My memoir, The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary, is available from all the usual sources online, though I would encourage you to order it either from your local independent bookstore or from Bookshop.org.