A classic strategy for selling books and finding your publics is to go on the public speaking circuit. Charles Dickens may have invented this particular m.o. and other authors followed. But Dickens was more than an inventive (and longwinded) author, he was an actor (I’m not sure he was a longwinded actor). It’s possible he would have preferred a career on the stage rather than writing books. Mark Twain became another champion of the comic circuit; and in Canada it was Stephen Leacock. Hmmm, all humorists.
In the days before social media, or any electronic media, the marketing kit was a lot narrower: mostly it included newspapers and magazines, word of mouth, and, public speaking. Surprise, surprise, public speaking is still on the list.
Every author of every generation has had to adopt the whole array of marketing strategies and devices available to them if they wanted to make a go of it as an author. But to go on the speakers’ tour? That’s not in most authors’ comfort zones.
I’ve done my share of public presentations – lectured at Carleton University and Algonquin College for ten years, facilitated dozens and dozens of strategic planning sessions, lead many training sessions, delivered a few tear-filled eulogies – but to give a talk at some public event to entertain and inform the literati crowd?, well, that’s pretty intimidating.
Talking to a group of readers at a book club meeting isn’t quite so daunting, though it’s still a good idea to prepare oneself for the inevitable questions: What brought you to write this book? Why (when, how) did you decide to become an author? Where do you get your ideas for your books? Did you know there is a typographical error on page 197? What’s the hardest part about being an author? (That one’s easy – promoting your books!)
Delivering talks is challenging enough for most authors, but when you’re first starting out you also have to find those speaking gigs yourself. Once you get to be a ‘best-selling author’ you have a publisher and publicist and agents to do the research and arrange the tours, but as an indie author you’re on your own. And it seems a lonely business – making the calls, making the trips (2-plus hours in the car with only yourself and your second-guessing mind for company). If the trip is more than four hours, both ways, you begin to think overnight accommodation and commercial travel, and that means expenses, and the calculation of whether this speaking gig will eventually sell enough books to cover the costs. And that may be all the excuse you need to duck out of this marketing strategy and go back to blogging.
For most successful writers – even a hundred years on from Leacock’s days – the tyranny of the tour is part of the challenge of marketing. Stephen Leacock, like Dickens perhaps, had a knack for performance, but it couldn’t have been easy. I’m oft reminded (I’m readily reminded – I have a poster) of Leacock’s own aphorism, borrowed, or stolen, from others (Twain? Seneca?): ‘I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.’
Here’s the story of another of those hard working, talented, and maybe lucky people.
I follow Terry Fallis, a Canadian humourist who has now produced nine books. His first were self-published and he must have hustled to get them in front of a critical mass of readers. (I mean critical mass in the nuclear sense, not that the mass of readers were critical.) (Okay, his books are entertaining too.) But it was only after he had sold a goodly number of copies – and won the Stephen Leacock Award for humour – did he finally get noticed by a major publishing house. In a recent Substack blog post of his (Terry Fallis – A Novel Journey) he speaks of having done at least 1000 public speaking gigs promoting his books. One thousand gigs. Most of those through small venues – libraries, book clubs and Probus Clubs and book signings at indie bookstores. He has logged in more than 100 gigs a year (mostly driving himself around Ontario). No doubt he sold a few copies of his books at each gig so maybe they were worth it, but who organized these engagements?, who paid the travel and accommodation costs?, and the promotion? At first it would have been Terry himself, later his publisher. And to do all that in his early days as an emerging indie author he had to have a day job. And he does, or at least he did. He was a communications and strategy consultant who worked with Hill & Knowlton and then formed his own firm with a partner. He was in his early 40s when he [self-published] his first book, Best Laid Plans, in 2007. Now he’s a full-time author and part-time chairman of his communications company. Those talks must have paid off. Obviously he was lucky.
Now that he’s a successful published author, he has speaking gigs all over the country. I’m not sure if his fame has reached the US. He mentions enjoying Whitehorse very much, but no mention of Wabash. I imagine he no longer drives himself to give a Wednesday afternoon talk at the Campbellford Public Library, but I could be wrong.
I mention Terry Fallis for a couple of reasons. One, he is a rarity in Canada, an actual, successful Canadian author (and yet I’m sure most of you have never heard of him). Second, his journey has included many appearances at bookstores and book clubs – somewhere along his journey he developed a relationship with the iconic Blue Heron Books (in Uxbridge, of all places). Third, that intimidating number – 1000 speaking engagements, 100 gigs a year over ten years. But fourth, that he started on his journey of becoming an author in his forties.
By starting in his forties, Fallis had a twenty-year runway and gas in his tank to build an audience. He was taking a risk (good thing he had a day job, and presumably a supportive spouse) but at least he had twenty years to invest in himself and his future as an author, and the stamina to do all those speaking gigs.
I started in my 60s. And I wish I had started earlier. I would have had time to cultivate courage and persistence in promoting my books through every channel possible. Including speaking gigs.
I wonder if it’s too late to check out those Probus Clubs.
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Trece Martires, Philippines
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 I actually met Fallis back in the day. His eventual business partner then worked for Hill & Knowlton and I was engaged to coach him. Must have worked too as he left H&K to start a communications firm with Fallis.