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Thursday, September 29, 2011

REI Series of Talks is Over!

From BayArea

At a WorldCon seminar, Sandra Tayler told me that people get hung up on the bookstore signings, and that's why they try their darnedest to be published by a traditional publisher rather than being an independent publisher. Well, even if you're an indie person, there's no need to give up on doing the bookstore signings, you just have to arrange it yourself. An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups and Startup Engineering Management don't lend themselves naturally to public venues (though I've certainly given plenty of talks covering those topics in private venues), but Independent Cycle Touring was a completely different beast. I started off by giving a talk at the local Sports Basement, but after chatting with REI, was put in touch with Polly Bolling back in March about the possibility of doing a series of talks at various REI. Strung together over a period of about six weeks, this is about as close to a traditional bookstore tour as I'm likely to get. Polly had great insights as to what worked for an REI talk and what doesn't. She suggested that I focus the talks on Europe, and that destination-oriented talks really got people in the door, so I refocused the talk around Europe. You can see the slides as posted earlier.

Getting into REI is a long lead time process. It wasn't until late May that I was confirmed as booked, and it wasn't until June that I was given the OK to publicize the series of talks. I had no idea there were so many REIs: I could have done even more REIs, but at some point decided that I really didn't need to go to all of them.

The turnout at various REIs was widely disparate. I had as few as four people, and spoken to as many as 70 people in a fully packed room. The venues ranged from a professional looking classroom/community room to a warehouse where REI employees would make room in the space just an hour or so before the talk. With pleasure, I can say that the projectors and screens were always more than acceptable, and equal to what I found in industrial settings. The employees (including Polly herself) were always happy and enthusiastic and willing to do whatever it took to make the talk work. It was a good thing that I was given a few smaller venues to work with first before I started hitting the large ones (Berkeley/San Francisco/Mountain View/Saratoga). This gave me a chance to refine my talk, and let me get a good view of what played well with the audience and what didn't. I knew I had hit my stride when members from the Berkeley audience came to me after the talk and said, "Best REI talk I've ever been to, and I attend nearly every one." That was very gratifying. One reason I'd gotten good at talks, by the way, was that giving talks at Google was even more demanding --- if you did not proceed at a pace fast enough and fun enough to keep an audience's attention, Google employees would flip open their laptops and check e-mail instead. Authors/speakers who were used to a less demanding audience probably did not have a good time at Google.

Polly told me to keep my expectations for selling books low, saying that selling one or two books would be about right. Well, I kept my expectations low, but my conversion rate was about 12-15%: in other words, about 1 in 10 people who saw the talk would buy the book. That's far better than say, Adwords or classified ads, so I'd say that the talks were definitely worth the time. It was also interesting to see how every REI was different: some clearly catered to more cyclists than others, and it was clear that the North Bay had a wildly different demographic than the South Bay.

All in all, I probably won't try to do another book tour type event for the foreseeable future. I can see why some authors find them exhilarating: there's nothing like speaking to a fully packed room with an engaged audience, and the people flooding you with questions, asking to buy a book and asking you to sign one is extremely flattering. It's a lot like the high you get from getting to the top of a climb and facing a glorious descent afterwards. Ultimately, though, you still have to get back to writing interesting work for an audience that is willing to pay for it, and the talks and signings are a bit of a distraction from it, though I'm grateful for the sales and hope it sparks future sales!

(If you want to watch a short excerpt from the MTV talk, I've got one up on YouTube)

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