Book Signing Jitters

By Elaine Viets

I still remember my first signing for my first mystery, Backstab. It was a frozen January afternoon in St. Louis, and the streets were slick with ice. I didn’t expect anyone to show up, but there was John Lutz in the bookstore, stamping the snow off his boots. Yep, that John Lutz, the thriller writer whose novel SWF Seeks Same became the movie Single White Female.

I was a recovering newspaper reporter who’d crossed over to novels. “Congratulations,” John said. “You’ve managed to find a business even more screwed up than newspapers.” The copy I signed for John was my first book signing sale.
Mystery writers support one another. That’s still true. Since then, I’ve had too many signings to count, but I still remember how nervous I was at that first signing in 1998.

 Now mystery writer Patricia Hale is facing her first signing for her new novel, The Church of the Holy Child. “It’s my first signing ever, so I’m a little nervous,” she wrote. “I know there will probably be no one there and I’m mentally prepared for that. Do any of you experts out there have some advice?”

Congratulations, Pat. Be sure to tell your audience this is your first signing. They’ll love the idea that they “discovered” you. Here are some things you should be doing:
Right now. Publicize your event. Publicity for an event starts at least six to eight weeks out, but it’s not too late to send an e-newsletter or an e-blast to your friends, family, co-workers, and potential readers. Post your news on all the mystery lists and on Facebook. Tweet it. Send a notice to your community papers and radio stations. It may be too late to make the news columns, but many of them have local events pages that will list your signing for free. Check their Websites. 
Food and treats. Check with the bookstore about its policy. Some don’t allow food because chocolate thumb prints can ruin a book. The damaged novel will be sent back – and charged against your royalties. Other stores allow cupcakes, veggie trays or other snacks. A little alcohol can liven up the event and pry open wallets, if the store permits it.

If you can’t bring food for your audience, don’t forget the sales staff. I often bring cupcakes or Krispy Kreme doughnuts for the booksellers’ break. They’ll remember you remembered them, and maybe recommend your work to their customers.

If the bookstore has a cat or dog, bring it a treat. Unless you’re seriously allergic, take time to pet and praise the bookstore cat. I had a signing where the store’s big orange tabby plopped down on my table in the middle of my talk. The audience laughed and photographed the cat sitting on my books. Afterward, readers brushed the cat hair off the books, and bought them.

Bookmarks are a good way to publicize your books. A less expensive option is business cards with your cover in color on one side and your name, Website, and author e-mail address on the other.

The day of the signing. If you don’t have an audience. You said you were prepared if no one shows up – but if no one comes to your signing, you’ll be rattled. At least, I am. It doesn’t help to tell myself it’s happened to Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark: those empty chairs feel like an accusation. If no one shows up, talk to or help the bookseller. I also do guerilla signings if no one shows. I’ll go up to people entering the store and say, “Hi, do you like mysteries?” If they say yes, I’ll hand them a copy of my new book and tell them about it. Stalking customers works.

If you do have an audience. Even the kindest readers look scary at your first signing. Early in my career, I was told, “If you’re scared, just imagine the whole audience is naked.” That idea was too traumatic. Instead, imagine the audience is your friends and favorite relatives. After all, some of them will be. While waiting for the signing to start, talk to the people. Ask them about themselves. Compliment them on a pretty piece of jewelry or a fun T-shirt. Ask what kind of mysteries they like to read. Once you get people talking, they’ll be your fans.

During your talk. Be prepared to give your readers two or three fascinating facts about your novel, or an unusual bit of research. Tell them why you chose this subject.
Should you read from your novel? Only a short selection, no more than a page or two. And practice first.

               Bring a notebook. Ask readers to sign up for your free e-newsletter.

                    Do not be surprised if someone asks you where the bathrooms are. Just tell direct them. You may also be mistaken for a bookseller. In that case, find a staff member who to help the person.

After the signing. Thank the bookseller for the signing and the nice display. Ask if you can sign your stock. Signed stock can almost always be returned. Often, after the signing, the bookseller will display your signed novels on a table, an end cap (the display on the end of the shelf rows) or best of all, next to the cash register. This is prime bookstore real estate.

Help clean up and put things away. If you brought food, ask the staff if they’d like it.

Have fun. I know, that sounds easy to say. But you’ve worked hard to write your book. Now, enjoy showing it off.

If you’re in Newburyport, Mass., Patricia Hale’s signing is Thursday, August 17, from 5:30-7 p.m. at The Book Rack, 52 State Street.

Good luck, Pat. See you on the bestseller lists.

               TKZ readers and writers, what advice would you give Patricia?

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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.

15 thoughts on “Book Signing Jitters

  1. Elaine,
    Love the post and thanks so much for helping me get the word out about my first signing. I’m so lucky to have the support of a great group of writers. Will let you know how it goes! Best, Pat

  2. I know I’d love to come to one of your book signings, Elaine. They sound gracious, cozy, and interesting. Thanks for giving us an insight into how to pull off a successful signing.

  3. I’ve done book signings to small audiences (under 10 people) in little indie bookshops and libraries and they are quite lovely and intimate events. I’ve attended other authors’ book signings where I was the only person in the audience, but the author read his book to me as if ten people were sitting there. Authors are brave souls. The harsh reality is unless you are James Patterson or Jodi Picoult, you’ll likely have a small group, and that’s okay. These days for a new or unknown author, book readings and signings are not well attended, especially with so many authors reading their excerpts on YouTube appearances, in book trailers, and Facebook videos. Even if you have a ‘no-show’ event, which lots of indie authors have, there’s no crying in baseball, right?

    • I once sat next to Brenda Novak; another time next to Craig Johnson. At least there were people to chat with while they waited in line to get their books signed.

    • Amen, James. My first signing at the Malice Domestic Conference, I was near Mary Higgins Clark. Her line was out the door — and we’re talking about a ballroom. When someone finally showed up in my line, I felt like a boat had arrived when I was stranded on a desert island. I should add that the extremely successful Ms. Clark is one of the most gracious and generous people in the mystery world.

  4. Elaine, I bet your signings are fun. Love your idea about the notebook. I’ve wondered how to stay in touch with fans I meet at signings. Thank you!

    Wishing you a wonderful signing, Pat!!! Remember to breathe. At my first signing, the poster listed the title of my book wrong. Really wrong. “Married” instead of “Marred.” Seeing the wrong title kicked my nerves into overdrive. Turned out, it helped me. I told the customers about the mix-up, and we all had a good laugh. My point is, don’t worry if things go wrong. As long as you have bodies in the chairs you can use it to your advantage. Signings are a blast! You’ll get hooked. I have a signing/reading tomorrow (in Wolfeboro, NH, an hour or so from you). For added fun, I bought gummy body parts and chocolate eyeballs for the table.

    Hope you sell truckloads of books!!!! Are you from the Newburyport area?

  5. My most mortifying event was at Jo-Beth Books at the big store in Lexington for my second book. They had fifty chairs set up in the middle of the store, on the atrium floor. With a podium and microphone. Did I mention it was an atrium, so all the people looking at books could stare down at petrified me and all those empty chairs? An older couple, friends of mine came. That was it. So it was the three of us and the nice woman who set up the event. And she encouraged me to read from the microphone, so the whole store could hear. After I started, I realized the passage had curse words and some pretty dark stuff in it–fine for the intimate crowd I envisioned, horrible for people shopping with kids. I stumbled through, sanitizing what I could. Then it was over. Thank God.

    My advice is…roll with it! Elaine’s ideas are all dead-on, particularly food for the staff and the email sign-up. Business size cards are good, too. If it’s a very small crowd, now I encourage everyone to move up to the front or even sit in a circle. Makes it much more intimate and fun. Good luck!!!!

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