Bookstore Shtick

By John Gilstrap

I consider myself to be an extrovert, yet I confess that bookstore appearances are a source of stress for me. Don’t get me wrong—I love meeting booksellers and fans (and future fans), and the signings themselves are great fun; but the rest of the show concerns me. I worry that I’m going to bore people.

Let’s be honest: not all author appearances are created equal. Nonfiction authors have the advantage of being able to lecture about their topic, but those of us who write about made-up stuff don’t really have that luxury. Somehow, we need to make ourselves interesting to people who know us more for the figments of our imagination than for ourselves. Along those lines, I had occasion to share an afternoon with Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon), a famous recluse. When I asked him why he never gives interviews and why he never does bookstore appearances, he told me that as a thriller writer, his reclusiveness made him more mysterious and helped to sell books.

Could this be true? I hope the answer is no, but who am I to judge? Maybe it’s not even relevant, because one way or another, I want to meet people. But what’s the best way to do that when you’re also trying to sell books?

The most obvious option would be to read from my book, but I rarely do. Why would people want to hear me read what they’re later going to read for themselves? I’d rather tell them the stories behind the stories. If pressed, of course, I’ll be happy to read, but rather than reading directly from the book, I’ll probably read a section of a special edited-down version of my novel, created specifically to be performed to an audience. Any and all Big-7 cuss words will be eliminated from the read-aloud version, and the scene will be one that really rocks. There won’t be a lot of dialogue because I’m not a very good actor, and I suck at characterizing the voices. Out of respect for everyone’s time, I keep the readings to a maximum of five minutes.

In addition to content, I worry about the length of the show. Since bookstores rarely put out comfortable chairs at these things, I’m concerned that the audience’s butts will go numb even more quickly than their minds. I shoot for twenty minutes total shtick, followed by maybe ten minutes of questions and then the signing. Left to my own devices, I’d go on and on and on; but out of respect for the audience, I think they should be able to hear me say my piece, say a few one-on-one words with me at the signing table and be on their way home within an hour.

What about you? What do you expect of authors at book signings? Are readings important? Is there a perfect format that I and my colleagues should be shooting for? For you writers out there, what has worked for you and what has bombed?

16 thoughts on “Bookstore Shtick

  1. I’ve never been a big fan of reading from my books nor do I enjoy hearing other authors do it. I think that should be left to the professional actors hired to read the audio versions. I’ve also found that there’s a huge difference between speaking to a group that is not familiar with my books as opposed to a book club for instance that has already read my work. At book clubs, I’ve actually had people get into arguments with each other about the hidden meanings of what I wrote. It’s amazing to stand back and listen to fans speak about my characters as if they were real people and defend them for their actions. On a few occasions, I’ve been told some interesting hidden meanings about my writing that even I didn’t know. Of course, my response is always, “Yeah, that’s what I meant.”

    Regarding Thomas Harris, I think staying out of the spotlight has worked for him, especially because of his subject matter and his characters. I believe his strategy is to keep his characters vivid and strong in the minds of the reader without him taking the risk of stepping on them.

  2. John, I’ve seen you speak (at a Northern Virginia Writers meeting about a year ago), and you need not worry about boring anyone. I learned a lot and had a good time that day. You never ducked a question, which is rare.

    I think reading depends on the author. I saw Robert Crais on his tour for The Watchman; he read the prologue, which sets up the story without giving anything away. He’s a good reader, and there was no dialog, so acting skills were at a minimum. I’ve also seen authors go straight to Q&A. Depending on the skills and comfort level of the writer, I think anything can work.

    I like the idea of a specially distilled excerpt for reading to groups.

  3. So far merely showing up at a bookstore has always insured I’d bomb.

    The sole three exceptions were when I signed my first book at book stores in Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi, because old friends of mine and my parents showed up in large numbers (over two hundred in Jackson who bought books and about half that in Oxford. When I signed at a festival in Cleveland, Mississippi I signed a hundred paperbacks. But that’s my home state and they actually know I write books.

    The experience is traumatic usually because the few people who wander in don’t buy and each has a reason I’m sure. I’d sooner take an ass kicking from a woman than sit in a bookstore and not sign books.

  4. My best signing almost didn’t happen because I was pretty sick that day; I didn’t want to be a no-show for the signing, so I recruited a friend (who happens to be a well-known comedy writer), and the two of us wound up regaling the audience with off-color stories about the wacky fat farm that inspired my first book in the series, DYING TO BE THIN. I didn’t throw up, it wound up being a great success, and I guess my take-home lesson is that I should always bring a funny side-kick to signings, forevermore.

  5. Probably one of the most interesting for me was a comedic series of “journals” about the process of writing the book that Jeffery Deaver read. It was funny, loosely touched on the book without giving anything at all away, and showed a side of him which many of his fans were unaware existed. And even then it was 20 minutes of talk/read, 15 min or so of questions, and then line up for the signing.

  6. Ten things I have promised myself I will not do at my first book signing:

    1.Drink half bottle of expensive brandy before walking into nerve racking public humiliation – (best to finish it)

    2.Talk for sixty minutes about how I came up with character names

    3. do whole signing in Chippindale tie and thong. (ew..need brain scrub after thinking that one)

    4. eat mouthfuls of chips and salsa and pizza as I sign, leaving greasy finger prints on books

    5. relieve nervousness by rapidly chewing and popping gum really loud the whole time

    6. eat beans a broccoli for breakfast that morning

    7. sing first chapter of Faithful Warrior as if it were a Broadway musical (the scene takes place in Somalia and involves a captured Marine tied to a post and about to be flayed alive, quite lyrical if you think about it)

    8. put whoopie cushions on chairs of unsuspecting attendees.

    9. Offer free snacks of Kimchi and Sardines on pumpernickel crackers

    10. attempt to hypnotize people as they walk in front door, using my “magical mystery stare”

  7. For the record, Basil, your list comprises everything that I do at signings.
    This time around Mark Coggins and I are actually doing brief powerpoint presentations in lieu of readings. Mine has photos of specific settings from the storyline, background information on the genesis of the idea (hate group rallies, dirty bomb simulations)…that sort of thing. It’s been going over well so far.

  8. My bookstore events tend to more closely resemble John’s, but I’ve done a fair amount of speaking events at libraries, Rotary Clubs, 6th grade classrooms (an appreciate audience, oddly enough, maybe because the parent who spoke before me was a car dealer). I’m one of those whose preference is to talk a little bit then launch into a Q&A. I’d rather interact with the audience. But audiences differ, so sometimes I talk for a few minutes, do a Q&A, then when that whittles down I’ll talk some more or do a reading, then more Q&A. For me it’s the interaction rather than the presentation and I don’t like to over prepare and I’m fairly comfortable thinking on my feet.

  9. John – I’ve heard you speak and you have nothing to worry about.

    As I recall in Muncie, you basically had to throw us out of the room to get rid of us.

    Talk about your background and how you know how stuff blows up. We, as in your readers and readers of this genre, can’t get enough of that. The Grave mythos also has such a great beginning in your non-fiction book.


  10. I enjoy doing bookstore events and have had success with powerpoint presentations (about Edwardian suffragettes) as well as reading from my books. My main worry is whether anyone will actually turn up!

  11. For one of my first library talks, I tried to plan out my talk and I picked one of those readings that you talk about, John.

    Five minutes before the start, the Library Events Manager approached and asked about my trips to China. She had visited my website and read a bit of my biography. As I talked about it, she asked if I’d start out the talk about China and how it influenced the book.

    An hour passed in a wink, I never read a lick and never got into the planned presentation. There was a big applause and all 42 people in attendance bought a book and had me sign.

    From experience I seem to always do better when I wing it.

  12. Michelle – What a great idea to show images of story settings and discuss how you gathered background information with regards to various topics. Sorry that I missed you in San Mateo!

  13. I’ve never been to a reading, book signing, but for me the important points would be to understand where the story came from, what it means to the author, any hidden secrets or interesting stories involved, etc. Also, as a writer, I like to know about the technique and writing process. Getting to meet the author and possibly chat is probably the biggest reward. Interesting article. I like your take on this topic.

Comments are closed.