Reading the book tour revolution through the XP lens

Former First Lady Michelle Obama (L) discusses her book 'Becoming' with moderator Rachael Ray during 'Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama' at the Frank Erwin Center on February 28, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)

Is this a book tour or a rock concert? Or wait, is this a virtual conference? One could be forgiven for not quite knowing the difference. Book tours, a publisher-funded promotional mechanism for new releases, are a bit all over the place these days.

In recent years, the number of authors on tour has been shrunk. However, at the same time, tours for celebrity-authors are the scale and excitement of a Britney show in Vegas. And, of course, with the disruption wrought by COVID-19, publishers and booksellers were forced to reimagine author events for the Zoom age. Like we said, a little all over the place.

Naturally, it felt important to try to make some sense of it. Below are experiential insights from the best of today’s book tours, whether super-sized, virtual-only or somewhere in between.

A little book tour backstory:

People assume that book tours exist to sell books. That they’re financially beneficial for authors, publishers and bookstores. But as literary agent Kate McKean wrote on her Substack last year, this isn’t always the case. She provided one example based on a “successful” book event. A local seller welcomed 100 guests and sell a total of 30 books, which resulted in around $75 in royalties for the author. Then, after expenses, the publisher lost a few hundred bucks.

What your average book event can do more reliably than drive sales, however, is drive awareness. When an author’s tour is planned, each stop in each new city is also an opportunity to promote the book on social media, try for interviews or a review in local news outlets, and generally just put the book and the author on the local radar.

But of course, publishers can’t afford to lose money with no end in sight. Like many marketing programs, there is often a balance between the engagements that are worth it for awareness and those that are worth it for the financial returns. Enter: Michelle Obama.

“That level of media attention is typical for a memoir by a former first lady or president… What’s utterly new is that book tour.”

The stadium-sized book tour:

It was a surprise to exactly no one that Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir, “Becoming,” was a hit, selling over 10 million copies to date. As the Tampa Bay Times put it, “That level of media attention is typical for a memoir by a former first lady or president… What’s utterly new is that book tour.”

Live Nation, the entertainment behemoth generally known for producing tours for musicians like Shakira and Kiss, was tapped to produce “that book tour.” Obama sold out 20,000-person stadiums with fans clamoring to see her interviewed by a lineup of A-list guests, including the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Stephen Colbert. Plus, there was the constant possibility of a special guest appearance by her husband, who stopped by her D.C. event.

A percentage of tickets were given to local community groups and charities for free and the remainder ranged in price from $29 to $3,000, with those packages on the higher end of the cost spectrum including exclusive meet-and-greets. Events included gift shops selling not only copies of the book but T-shirts, candles, and other memorabilia, and the tour’s soundtrack was curated by Questlove and made available for streaming on Spotify. But as far as we can tell, that was kind of… it, XP-wise.

As Vox aptly highlighted, “Michelle Obama’s superpower is her ability to create intimacy at scale.” In other words, people paid to listen in on a personal conversation — a slightly less-filtered version of the “mom-in-chief” they’d admired from afar for the previous eight years.

And, it turned out, the “Becoming” experience was precedent-setting.

Just recently, Live Nation announced it will also produce arena-sized book tours for Katie Couric and her new memoir, “Going There,” as well as for Jamie Foxx’s “Act Like You Got Some Sense.” While neither tour will feature quite as many dates or stops in different cities, they follow the Obama-tested approach of special guest interviewers and intimate experiences. Couric will “bring attendees into her personal and professional life;” Foxx will tell you about “his no-nonsense grandmother and the glamour and pitfalls of life in Hollywood.”

Rocker Dave Grohl, of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame, had a slightly more theatrical approach to the tour for his memoir, “The Storyteller.” Grohl’s stage appears set in vignettes that bring moments from his memoir to life. Including playing the sofa cushion drums and performing acoustic renditions of his biggest hits. This approach is a bit less repeatable than the Obama tour, but the goal is still to create a sense of intimacy. (“Join Dave Grohl for an extremely limited run of intimate evenings…” sound familiar?)

Presumably, the books will tell you the stories of these icons as well. So why the clamor to hear the tales recounted live? It’s a great argument in defense of in-person XP. IRL feels more personal. No matter how pre-planned the conversations on stage may be, people get more out of the experience when they hear the words in their voice.. And, with a book included in every ticket purchase for this level of tour, they deliver on the promise of sales.

The virtual-only book tour:

This Esquire article offers poignant perspective from authors whose tours were cancelled or driven entirely online due to COVID-19. Some authors found that they had larger audiences online than they typically would with in-person events. Others report diminished stage fright and a more opportunities for audience contribution. There were, of course, drawbacks. Traditional book tours represented were a chance for authors to escape the isolation of writing and discuss readers’ reactions IRL. Check out this WIRED piece on the subject.

Get creative and go beyond a straightforward interview with audience Q&A, while still respecting the limitations of a virtual environment. As Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of “The Third Rainbow Girl,” put it: “Whenever I try to make [the virtual book tour] like what it would’ve been like in person, it’s disappointing. But, whenever I lean into what a digital platform can offer that an in-person approach can’t, it feels really fun.”

One author mentioned an event where the host created custom avatars for the speakers. And another where the content was presented like a game show. For his virtual book tour, Antoni Porowski of Queer Eye fame offered attendees cooking demos and conversations with notable friends like Olympic skater Adam Rippon. In another example, novelist Meg Cabot, who was on tour with her 2019 book “No Offense,” used Facebook Rooms to co-host a virtual watch party for “The Princess Diaries.” And, how’s this for finding some creative inspiration amid constraint? “Meg Cabot was sad COVID canceled book festivals, so she wrote a novel set at one.”

In Eisenberg’s words, “lean into” what digital offers. Think video and visuals, broad audience reach and instant e-commerce integrations. Then, add unique glimpses into the life of an author — often, literally, their living room or writing room. With a little creativity, the opportunities are endless.

XP takeaways:

  1. With the hybrid approach comes the flexibility to optimize your experience. Hosting virtual events enables authors to reach more people, sell more books and feel more comfortable speaking in public. If IRL events are beneficial to authors looking for feedback and deeper engagement around their project, create a forum for that, too. COVID-era limitations have illuminated the importance of creating experiences that bring out the best in talent and audiences.
  1. Content is king, but delivery is just as important. While Michelle Obama was selling out rockstar-sized arenas, she wasn’t filling them with rockstar-like antics. And that’s a good thing. The intention of her tour was to give readers a deeper glimpse into her story. Not lose the story in some fancy lighting tricks or major stage sets. Too much spectacle would have only detracted from the audience’s sense that they were there with her.
  1. Let “the end” be only the beginning. For as long as books have been around, readers have been excited about getting signed copies. Yes, that’s still true, but it’s crucial to think about what comes next. Is there an additional line of merch related to the author and their book that can be rolled out? Another commemorative book recounting the best moments from the tour? A community that can be built and stay connected to each other online?

Subscribe to the XP Land newsletter. Follow us on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Welcome to XP Land

The digital news platform covering the art, science & impact of the experiential world.

Get the insider's take on all things XP,
delivered weekly to your inbox.

FOMO yet?
Subscribe for free.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter