I spent the last weekend in Alabama with readers and fellow writers and my charming daughter. I had a wonderful time. I sold a goodly number of print books, and I promoted the heck out of my ebooks. Nevertheless, if the net income that I can directly attribute to this trip turns out to be better than if I'd worked a minimum wage job all weekend, I'll be astonished. I'll give you details on that minimal income below, since you people love dollars and cents so much, but first let me tell you what I did to earn it. In short, I worked really, really hard.
Why do we writers do such things? Because without the marketing oomph of a major publishing house that has decided to make you a star, the only way for a writer to get the attention of readers is to get out and meet them. It is my impression that authors who are only published in ebook form are doing less of these meet-and-greet things than authors who are published in print. I'm watching closely to see whether this changes. A booksigning for an ebook feels strange, when you don't have a physical book to hand attendees, but the book is not the point of a personal appearance. Personal contact is.
When people meet an author whose work they enjoy, they go home and talk about the experience. Maybe electronic contact--emails and blogs and websites and forum conversations--meets the psychological need for human contact, but I'm not sure about that. So whether my sales continue to skew toward my print books, or whether my ebooks begin to dominate, I'm not ready to stop going out to meet people quite yet.
So what does a weekend of two personal appearances in another state look like? First, I drove to Birmingham, arriving after 11 pm, because I had to leave at 3 pm to avoid taking my daughter out of school. Color me exhausted. We rose early the next day and went to the first event, Murder in the Magic City. This is one of the best-run events in the mystery world--thank you, Margaret Fenton--and they treat their authors well. They can't afford to pay an honorarium or travel expenses, but they feed us and transport us and, most importantly, they showcase us well to attendees. And this is why we go, to meet people who will read our books and tell others about them.
I moderated a panel, so I spent an hour helping my panelists showcase their work without neglecting my own. People seemed to enjoy it, so I think we did well. Here's my panel: Vicki Lane, CJ West, Jeri Westerson, and me.
I signed a bunch of books afterward and was gratified to see that the bookseller sold out of a couple of my backlist titles. We went back to the hotel and the conference provided us a nice dinner. I collapsed into bed at 9:30.
We were up early again the next day so we could drive to the next event, two hours south. Murder on the Menu is another of the best-run events in the mystery world--thank you, Tammy Lynn. It's a luncheon during which authors circulate among the tables being entertaining, after which we sign books. Think of it as speed dating for writers. This is what it looks like:
After we finished speed dating, books are sold. I sold a lot of them. The bookseller didn't have all my backlist, so a lot of the books we sold came out of the trunk of my car. (This will be important in a minute.) Then I crawled in my car and drove home, arriving at 11:30 pm and falling right in bed. Color me exhausted again.
Before I lay out the numbers for you, think a minute. I make royalties on my books that range from 9% to 12.5% of a retail price of $14.95. So call that $1.50-$2.00 per book. My travel costs included gasoline, food, and two nights in a hotel. It would take sales of 150 to 200 books to cover those costs. I did not sell that many books. How did I manage to pull down that minimum wage salary?
Here's how. The IRS helped. (And my accountant says this is all perfectly acceptable, but please check with your own before you file your own taxes.)
The per diem rate for a hotel in Birmingham is $88, which is about what I paid. Assuming a tax rate of 25%, then my hotel only cost me $66 per night, or $132.
The per diem rate for meals and incidentals in Birmingham is $56, but they only let you deduct half of that, because they presume you would have spent something on food at home. (I think that's the rationale.) I was on the road three days, so $56 x 3 is $168. I can deduct $84. Assuming a 25% tax rate, that nets me $21. But the event organizers fed me all weekend, so I get to keep that $21. Bonus! (I'm not going to count the ten bucks I spent on garbage food at McDonald's on the road, because I *would* have spent money to eat at home.)
The IRS allows $0.51 per mile for travel by car, which is way more than it costs me to put gas in my little bitty car. The lesson for starving writers is this: Never fly when you can drive. Your tax deduction for a flight is only about a quarter of the actual cost, but your mileage allowance can actually pay for travel with a little left over. I drove 920 miles this weekend, for a mileage deduction of 470. In the 25% tax bracket, that's a net of 117.50, but I get 32 miles per gallon, so I only spent $86 on gas, netting me $31.50. Bonus again! (Yeah, I know I'm ignoring wear and tear on my car. Humor me.)
So let's tally up my travel costs
Meals: -$ 21
Gas: -$ 31.50
Fortunately, I sold some books to soak up that eighty bucks, about 50 of them. These are excellent sales. I'm not sure anybody other than the guests of honor at these events sold more. However, if all I'd collected on any of them were the royalties, my whole weekend would have been a wash. Remember that I get $1.50-$2.00 in royalties per book. However, 20 of the books sold were mine, because the bookseller ran out. (I told you I sold well.) I made about $4.50 on each of those books. So let's say I sold 30 books at $2 a book and 20 books at $4.50 a book. Subtract the 80 bucks in travel costs and lets call it seventy bucks...for a weekend of work.
Do you know how long it would take me to earn seventy bucks as an engineer?
However...there are unseen profits to these events, and this is why I keep doing them. For example, every one of my books showed a bump in its Amazon ranking last weekend. My guess is that people come see me speak and they don't care if they get my autograph. They go home and order the book from Amazon, where they can get a 25-32% discount. That's fabulous, since I make the same royalty no matter where they buy the books, but from a businessperson's standpoint, I can't track it. I have to presume it's happening and hope for the best.
And then there are the big payoffs. After my last trip to Murder on the Menu, I got a call from an attendee offering me $1500 to come speak at her school. $1500! This one gig made the entire trip to Alabama more than worthwhile. I saw the same woman last weekend and she's trying to get funding to bring me back and hand me another big check. Score!
Almost every short story and essay I've sold has been to someone I met at a conference. I'm co-writing a math literacy book with someone I met at a conference. This is why I think ebook authors will eventually find that they've got to go out and meet people in person, even though it costs big bucks.
You've got to spend money to make money. But that doesn't make it fun.