We all hear how important it is for authors to help market their books. Today I’m going to discuss one of the key marketing tools in the author’s bag of tricks—book signings. I’d especially like to focus on signings at independent bookstores for reasons that you’ll quickly see. As an independent bookseller who schedules a fair number of book signings, as an author, and as a publisher, I speak from years of direct experience. First, why should an author consider doing book signing appearances? What are their purposes?
- Sell books
- Introduce yourself to the bookstores and their staffs
- Introduce yourself to the book buying public
- Develop your platform or fan base
- Meet nice people and experience new places
If you are extremely lucky, you might sell enough books to pay your expenses to the event, ie. gas, vehicle wear and tear, meals, motel if far enough away, and most importantly your time. So, why bother? Because a good signing experience can be like a gift that keeps on giving long afterwards. If you are a self-publisher or an author writing for a publisher, this is really important. It is a way to give your books long legs, as we say in the industry. No one wants their books to “go out of print” in a few months. You would like to become recognized and desired for a long time. Book signings go a long way toward that goal.
First of all, never just do a signing. Always do a 20-30 minute book chat to start out. Explain how you came to write this particular book. Tell an interesting story about its writing or about the topic. Keep the stories positive. Nobody likes to listen to “downer” types of information. If you feel you must do a reading, keep it very short. I find that if you have a really good hook up front to lead out the book, read that. Pull your audience into your book’s pages. Whatever you read, leave them hanging—wanting to learn more.
Make your event memorable and entertaining—so much so that the attendees will buy books as gifts to family and friends as well as for themselves. I remember one wonderful cookbook author who surrounded her recipes with quaint stories about the recipes and the culture and time period from which they came. Several people bought one copy for themselves, left and took the time to scan the book, and came right back in to buy 4-6 more copies as gifts. What a great experience that was for this bookseller. I hand sold a copy to one lady after the signing. Two weeks later, she came back to shop at our store again, and I asked her how she liked the recipes. She said she had been too busy reading the food stories to have had time to try any of the recipes.
Don’t assume you’re going to sell a lot of books during the signing. You may not sell any. So, why do it? For all the reasons I will explain below. Our best signing ever was a Kansas University basketball star who had a autobiography written with the help of a ghost writer. He had appeared on a radio sports talk show the day before and mentioned he would be at our store for a book signing the next day. We had folks lined up around the block. We had to give out numbers to help keep order. Young teenage girls were hyperventilating as they approached him, and I thought I was going to have to catch a couple if they passed out.
We sold 350 books that day. To counter that experience, we’ve had signings where nobody came and no books were sold. One lady was a popular speaker. She had authored six books and was signing her latest. She had been a very popular speaker and trainer for several organizations in our community—in other words a well known and liked entity. We fully expected a really good turn out, but only two happenstance drop-ins attended. There had been way too many conflicting events scheduled in our community that Saturday that drew people away from ours.
We usually like to pre-order several copies of books for up coming signing events so we can display them in the windows and around the store. We try to hand pre-sell these before the event. We also ask the author to sign several books before he leaves so we can offer autographed books to our customers later on. Bookstores expect a 40% discount, just so you know. There are several ways they will purchase your book. Here they are in the order of preference:
- From their primary distributor (usually Ingram or Baker and Taylor) (no shipping costs involved)
- From the author
- From the publisher
If you would like to get credit for royalties but want to bring some books with you just in case, bookstores will be more than happy to replace them for you from what they order from their distributor or your publisher.
Introduce yourself to the bookstores and their staffs
This is the best reason I can think of to do a signing. Earlier I mentioned I’d focus of independent bookstores. Here’s why. Independents are passionate about books. They know their stock, what’s coming out soon or is just out, and what kinds of readers will like which books. The big chain stores just don’t do this. Their staffs are far less knowledgeable as a rule and they seldom do any hand selling. Books not displayed in the expensive high traffic areas (yes, publishers pay dearly for the right to be specially displayed) are doomed to compete with all the other books on the shelves, generally displayed with only their spines showing.
On the other hand, independent bookstore staffs love to hand sell. I have certain books in my store that I love to draw my customers’ attention to because I’ll have a better than 50% chance they will buy the books I point out to them. As an author, you stand a better chance of booksellers getting behind your book and passionately hand selling it if you make an appearance at the store and make friends of the owners, managers, and staff. I can’t stress this enough. It’s so important. Be on time, be helpful, be courteous, and don’t push too hard. Help customers be glad they met you at that store.
Introduce yourself to the book buying public
This is your public. give them positive memories and good impressions. Be clean, neat, and pleasantly interesting. Encourage writer wanna bees without committing to reading their works (you just don’t have time). Help them connect with you on a positive personal level. Be grateful they took the time out of their busy schedule to honor you with their presence. Do not hassel them, but if there is a lull, it’s OK to get up from your seat and gently let customers know you’re there for a signing. Usually they will ask you what your book is about. Be ready with your elevator synopsis. (In the 30 seconds it takes you to ride up to the 10th floor in an elevator with someone, be able to describe your book in a powerful way to them).
Develop your platform or fan base
This is one of several ways to get the word out about you. You’re not just there to sell your book, you’re there to sell yourself. Ideally, you want to create a viral movement centered around you as an author. You want folks to like you well enough to tell their friends about you. have literature about your book, which includes interesting information about you. Have little strips of paper with your social addresses such as Twitter, Facebook, blog, and your website. Have a guest book to capture their contact info so you can send them periodic information about yourself and your books in an email newsletter.
Meet nice people and experience new places
Have smell-the-roses moments. Enjoy the travel. Develop funny, if not good memories. I’ll never forget a Christian science fiction author from the Detroit area who drove 14-15 hours out to our bookstore for a signing where we only sold two of his books. I was devastated for him, but he was happy. he said, “I made this trip so I could personally shake your hand to thank you.” When I asked him what for, he said, “The book review you wrote for HeartlandReviews.com where you compared me favorably to the Left Behind series sold 5,000 books for me.” Wow, talk about a positive experience! We always like to point out our various excellent restaurants and museums in the immediate area that our authors might find pleasing—anything to make their visit memorable in a good way.
Hooking up to other events
- Book Fairs
- Community speeches
- Media Appearances
If you have a book of interest to children in schools, try to book yourself into schools as a lecturer. Contact a local independent bookstore and invite them to sell your book to teachers, parents, and even children. Try to arrange a signing at their store before you leave town.
Do the same at libraries.
See if one of the bookstores in attendance at the fair would be interested in an exclusive right to sell your book at the fair. Make it easy as possible to obtain and sell your book. DO NOT FORGET TO PICK UP ANY UNSOLD COPIES FROM THEM BEFORE LEAVING!
Invite an independent bookstore to sell your books at any public appearances you make. You should focus on your talk and not worry about the book sales. They’ll handle it well for you.
Don’t forget to mention upcoming book signings—where and when—whenever you appear on radio, TV, or in the newspapers before the events. Take advantage of this free publicity.
In conclusion, book signings are necessary and can be fun. Do not be an introvert! Shy? FAKE IT! Best of luck on your real life book tour.