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?