Anatomy Of A Book Signing

By John Gilstrap

With the publication of White Smoke last month, the third book in my Victoria Emerson post-apocalyptic thriller series–the past couple of weekends have been consumed with signing events. On March 11, I was lucky to be a part of the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival in Suffolk, Virginia. Hank Phillippi Ryan was the guest of honor, and I was one of 50 other authors representing every corner of the mysteryverse. Then, on March 18, I hosted a public signing at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, WV. I am pleased and proud to report that I sold out of books at both events.

Having been in this business for a long time, I have some observations to share about the art and science of book signings. What follows are my own experience. Anyone who disagrees or sees things through a different lens are heartily invited to chip in.

The purpose of a live book signing has less to do with the author making money on the day of the event than it does about making the bookseller pleased and proud to have been involved in the event. Think about it from their point of view. Irrespective of how much of the promotional burden you choose to carry on your own (and that should be a lot–more later), the bookseller has to order the books in, promote it within the store and do whatever they can to build buzz. You don’t want them to feel as though they’ve wasted their time.

My book signings look a lot like cocktail parties. In the case of the signing at Four Seasons Books, since I’m new to the community, I bought a gorgeous charcuterie platter from Graze Ful, a local caterer, and we brought in red and white wines from Grapes and Grains Gourmet, a wine merchant located a block away from the bookstore. My wife is instrumental in making tables look lovely. To that end, we bring our own tables, tablecloths, napkins, glasses, trash bags and cleaning solutions. When the party is over, we want the bookseller to be left only with profits–not with a big cleaning chore.

I always bring extra books–especially for the first event with a new bookseller. It’s always hard to estimate how many books is the right number for a signing, and for reasons that make all the sense in the world, booksellers often underestimate. If they run out of their stock, they can dig into my author’s copies, which they sell at list price and then just backfill my copies with the next order from their distributor. This saves a lot of embarrassment.

Show loyalty to your bookseller. I have it on good authority that when John Grisham was just starting, trying to sell A Time to Kill out of the trunk of his car, only a handful of booksellers would allow him to do live promotional events in their stores. Among them, I am told, were That Bookstore in Blytheville (Blytheville, AR), Burke’s Books (Memphis), Square Books (Oxford, MS) and Quail Ridge Books (Raleigh). There might have been a couple of others. But here’s the cool part: after his career went stratospheric, those were the only stores where he would hold signing events. In the lead-up to his live event, he would sign (maybe he still does, I’ve never met him) thousands of pre-orders from each of those stores. Think of the windfall for the booksellers!

Now, I’m a mere bottom-feeder compared to that other JG, but I love the fact of his loyalty. So, now that I have settled into my forever home, I now have a forever bookstore. Anyone who buys my books through Four Seasons Books can get a signed copy mailed to them. I’ll even do personal inscriptions.

Promote, promote, promote. I’ve got something like 4,500 subscribers to my newsletter, and another 2,500 Facebook followers (presumably with quite a bit of overlap there). About two months ago, I sent out a save-the-date announcement. Two weeks before the event, I sent out invitations for the world to attend, and then a few days before the signing, I sent out yet another invitation, this time with parking instructions because street parking in Shepherdstown can be a bit dicey on the weekends. From all of that, I figure we had about 50 people come to the signing over the course of two hours. In addition to that, I signed a healthy handful of pre-orders.

You don’t need swag. As one of 50 authors at the Suffolk Mystery Authors Festival, my job for the day (1-5pm) was pretty much to sit at a signing table and wait for attendees who paid $30 apiece to attend to choose which books they wanted to buy. As I mentioned above, I was fortunate enough to sell out, but the sales per unit of butt-numbness was pretty low. I had lots of time to observe my book-hawking colleagues, taking note of what seemed to work and what did not.

Three or four had massive, five-foot-tall banners with their book titles and the authors’ likenesses, which they set up next to themselves–as if their flesh-and-blood presence is somehow reinforced by a printed image. I don’t understand the theory. Frankly, I think it projects a weird desperation.

While everyone loves candy, I don’t believe that miniature Snickers bars–or even Twix, the gold standard for candy–have ever sold a book. I watched countless attendees snag candy out of authors’ candy jars without even slowing. Not once did I see an author use the passing instant of candy-grabbing to engage the grabber in conversation about their book.

Engagement is everything. In the mind of your readers, your status as an author makes you a celebrity. Because of your talent and hard work, you are engaged in an activity that others dream of performing, and that makes many people uncomfortable to even say hi. It’s perfectly normal, and extremely humbling. As the focus of a signing event–irrespective of the venue–the responsibility lies with you to engage with attendees. When I’m stuck behind the table signing, my wife works the room to greet people and make them feel comfortable. Would they like something to eat? A glass of wine?

The enormously talented Lisa Scottoline actually stands in front of her signing table and greets every fan personally, often with a hug. I’m not a huggy guy, so that won’t work for me, but it’s very impressive to watch.

So, is handing out candy your thing? Bookmarks, maybe? That’s fine. If you find yourself sitting at a lonely table in a big box store where people are avoiding eye contact so they don’t have to talk to the author they’ve never heard of, consider filling your pockets with the swag from your dish and personally hand it out to customers in the aisles. I do this with bookmarks. “Hi. I’m John, the author at the front table. No pressure. I write thrillers. Here are a few of my titles if you want to look me up. Have a great day.” Every single person went right to their phones to look me up. A few then went on to buy books.

Okay, TKZ family, what am I missing?



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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

21 thoughts on “Anatomy Of A Book Signing

  1. I can’t speak to any of this from the book-signing perspective, but in my day job, when we do events, we also do the save-the-date blast and then a reminder email a few days before–it is invaluable in keeping the event at the forefront of people’s minds to increase attendance. Probably now more than ever given the number of distractions we all face on a daily basis.

    • When I hold signing events at my house–which I will start doing again in September with the release of HARM’S WAY, the new Jonathan Grave thriller–I add the additional step of an RSVP, followed by a reminder a day or two before the event.

  2. Morning, John.
    I can add my recent experiences at Left Coast Crime, where after each panel session, during which there were four panels of four or five authors, thirty minutes were set aside for signings in the book room. It was easy to see who the “popular” authors were, as they were the ones with lines at their tables. The rest of us pretty much chatted amongst ourselves. I told attendees at my panel I had a few ARCs of Deadly Relations that I would give away, and I did create the semblance of a line, but overall, there wasn’t a lot of action at any of the signing sessions I looked at if you weren’t one of the conference biggies.
    As for swag, my lip balm has always been a decent conversation starter. That, rather than any of my books, seems to be my “claim to fame” at events.
    Advice from Robert Crais many years ago was to know where the restrooms are because that was what most people who stopped by his table asked.

    • Many times, those mass signing tables are arranged alphabetically. I have spent more than a few hours watching Heather Graham’s line stretch out the door.

  3. Excellent suggestions, John, thanks for sharing your insights. Your wife sounds terrific. I’ll hire her as my event planner! Great that you provide the refreshments and esp. clean up afterwards.

    As you say, engagement with readers is paramount. Ask what they like to read, who is their favorite author, etc. Get them talking and show you’re interested in them.

    I’ve found it’s easier to promote an event featuring a panel discussion with a couple of other local authors, followed by sales/signing. That draws more interest than a lonely writer sitting behind a table. Radio and newspapers will publicize a “community book event” where they won’t give much attention to a single author hawking their books. The followers each of us has becomes a force multiplier for all of us.

    May you always sell out!

    • “May you always sell out” is a wonderful greeting among writers!

      I’m not a fan of combined signing events, unless the other parties are good friends and we can entertain the crowd with banter. It’s different at a conference, where panels are expected. But at the local bookstore, I don’t like sharing the limelight. That said, Reavis Wortham and I have done some pretty entertaining events together. I’m not sure we sold a lot of books, but we sure had a great time!

      • In my opinion, my job is to entertain. I do that through the books of course, but as John said, he and I are comfortable with each other and our conversations seem to both be fun and informative. Even if we don’t sell many books at that particular event, we make sure folks have a good time through exposure, and that’s what it’s all about.

  4. Good morning, John.

    I haven’t done many book signings, but the most successful and fun were the ones where I gave a short talk, showed the book trailer, and then played a game where I presented cryptic clues for the audience to guess the name of a famous person.

    I’ve sold a few copies at book signings at Barnes & Noble stores and at writers conferences, but not many. (I’ve never sold out.) The best part of book signings for me is meeting people and talking about books in general.

    • Lord knows I like to talk to a crowd, but here’s my problem with a presentation during a book signing: I lose the curious drive-by reader who doesn’t know who I am, and certainly won’t want to carve 20 minutes out of the shopping excursion to hear a stranger talk about himself. I find that by working the room, I can interact with established fans, and make a personal connection with the curious passersby.

  5. Great post, John. Good ideas. I like the way you initiate engagement with readers and potential buyers. You’re fortunate to have a wife with the talent to work the room while you sign books.

    Good luck with White Smoke.

    • “Working the room” makes it sound more organized than it really is. What she really does is establish contact and try to make people feel comfortable. And she’s very good at it.

  6. Write down your speaking points. I have attended many signings. Good presenters have notes, even when they are talking about things they know like, themselves and their latest release.

  7. Great stuff, John, and the rest of you!

    I’ve done a few signings. It’s the only time spent with strangers that stokes me. Just knowing they are there because they’re interested in my book(s) is enough to make the jitters flee through the back door.

    People like to talk about themselves, so a signing is a perfect time to ask questions and let them. If they do most of the talking, what’s there to be jittery about?

    Eventually, they get around to asking the usual, i.e. “where do you get your ideas?”, etc., then I get to talk.

    Win-Win. 🙂

  8. Your tips are great, John. I’ve never looked at book signings as a way to sell books (even though I have sold out at a few), but rather a way to connect with readers. I usually bring tea cakes and will offer them as I say, I didn’t bake the cookies, but I did write the book. Usually, a friend goes with me and she passes out my bookmarks and talks up my books. I’m going to look into lip balm, Terry!

  9. Late to the party, once again. I’ll just apPENd a reminder to use a blue pen, or other color, to readily distinguish your book signature from one that is xerographed. I thINK using your nom de plume for autographs is generally best or at least using a form of your signature that you never use on legal documents.

    • That’s an interesting take. I use black Sharpies for hardcovers and whatever ballpoint is on hand for paperbacks. I don’t have the dexterity to alter my signature.

  10. My favorite book signings are at local fairs. I deck out my booth with crime scene tape, toe tags, evidence tape, etc. When things are slow, a friend poses as a reader and within minutes, other readers line up. Besides fairs, I only do book signings at one local library and two bookstores, the same ones every year at the same time. Readers look forward to seeing how many new books I have. I sell out at most events, but it took several years to build a local following.

    Hank Phillippi Ryan is so comfortable in front of crowd, she puts all the other authors at ease. Love her style.

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