With declining visitor numbers, fewer books sold, and with rising cost, where’s the ROI for attending authors?

I just returned from my second trip to the US this year, to attend the largest LGBT book event in the world, or so they advertise it, the Rainbow Book Fair. This was the third time I attended after 2016 & 2017. Last year the event was canceled. Now, before you read on, sharpen your pen and reply, let me say this: my “data” is hardly conclusive and entirely anecdotal, yet it shows a trend in many of the shows that at least I have attended, a trend so to speak: fewer people attending, fewer books (paperbacks) being bought.

Different venus, organizational styles/capabilities, etc.

When I first came to RBF, back in 2016, the number of people attending was stunning, at least to someone like me. The place was packed all afternoon. This year, the room we were in was deserted most of the time. Is that because people no longer buy books or because of the venue? The date? The weather? The organizers? You see, it isn’t easy to pin down exactly what is what in these instances. All you can do is try to eliminate that which is constant and somehow make your best determination on the data available.

Personally, I don’t think the venues play a major role. We were at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice twice and yet there was a drop in attendance the second time around. And I hear from friends who attended more than one event down in DC that even though the venue is the same year after year, attendance changes. The weather? Time of year? I’m sure that can play a role, and I know organizers are quick to point to that. Unfortunately, I think the overall organization of an event (and particularly how it is marketed) is much more important, but that’s another story entirely.

So why do I believe it’s the readers’ “fault”?

My table at RBF last week

My table at RBF last week

Okay, maybe not the best term because it’s not a matter of being at fault. I think that several things seem to coalesce into the trend we see: fewer people read. Period. Sadly that is a global trend that is well documented. We prefer Netflix to sitting alone in the darkness with a book in our hands. Those of us who still love to read are increasingly turning to ebooks. They’re not interested in shlepping home twenty pounds of brand new hardcover and paperbacks from a book event. No, they’ll likely buy it on Amazon, the behemoth in the ebook industry, or on Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, or another site. Last, but far from least, audiobooks are increasing dramatically, and since most audiobooks are produced exclusively for either Audible or whatever other regional platforms you may use, the author can’t just make it available to readers.

Trust me, we’ve tried this approach with ebooks. I carry with me a beautiful stone pine rack where I can display each and every one of my ebooks to sell (and even sign), but I typically never sell more than one. Most people don’t trust that it works I guess. They’d rather just get the info and buy it from Amazon (regardless of how much less revenue I make) than risk buying something that might not work. Can I blame them? Probably not.

“My husband’s telling me to buy fewer books!”

WTF are you doing at a book event then? And why did you bring your husband along? Huh? Those were thoughts running through my mind as one of the visitors last weekend told me this. Why go to a book event in the first place if not to buy books? One of my neighbors at the Rainbow Book Fair suggested that quite a few of the visitors did not seem to have the means to buy books. I’d like to clarify that they meant no disrespect to the visitors in any way. But quite a few merely collected information, e.g. postcards, business cards, or leaflets. Whether that actually leads to a sale down the line is impossible to track.

Let me be frank: it is idiotic for someone like me to travel to New York or Washington all the way from Europe for a six-hour event. Regardless. I barely sell enough to cover the cost of the table (around $100.) If I were to factor in book shipments, hotel, flight, and food, any sane business manager would dismiss such a proposal for the insanity it is. I’ve done these events for different reasons and have been able to use air miles, collected over years and years, to pay for the trip. Still, I also visit with friends and try to do other publicity while stateside, e.g. this time, going up to New Haven to be live with my friends on the GayTalk 2.0 podcast. Mind you, I could’ve done that remotely, too, as I have in the past. But on the other hand, had I not met the hosts in New York a couple of years ago, had we not subsequently become friends, I might not have been welcomed back onto the show as often as I have.

The author and the cast of GayTalk 2.0

The author and the cast of GayTalk 2.0

And yes, physical appearances in your main markets are not unimportant, to reach out to new audiences, people you might otherwise not reach. Yet I wonder if maybe there is another, a better way to reach readers in 2020 and onward, rather than an event where we sell books? Allow me to contrast that with my most recent trip to Liverpool to launch Reckoning. Eight people in the bookstore, 107 watching live on the Internet. Three weeks later, almost 250 people have seen it. The latter had not been possible without the physical event, but do we need to travel for it?

I have ideas, but I’m also curious to hear what others think

I think the book launch is worth exploring further, I think podcasts are another option. It’s something I’m looking into as well, somehow. Personally, I also believe that physical meetings between authors and readers are still going to be important, but how? Will readers be willing to pay to meet authors they might not like? Will authors be willing to pay with no guarantee of sales? What incentives will need to be put in place? As the LGBT events are largely organized by volunteers, there is a certain charm to them, but also a lack of professionalism seen in larger events, both with regards to PR and the actual organization. The former is critical in attracting the public.

Maybe it’s as simple as just giving books away. I recall that is how the Millennium trilogy was first advertised in the UK, with the publisher distributing thousands of copies of the first book on the subway to riders. Compared to the cost of flight, hotel, etc.? But you’d still need a local presence to do it, not to mention it IS costly, and for many indie authors, the cost is prohibiting regardless. What is your take? If you are a reader, why do you attend book events? Why do you not? What would it take for you to attend an author/book event? As an author, what is your view on what works, what does not?

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