It was almost ten years ago, but I can still remember it clearly. (Okay, I know that is a total cliché, but that’s how it is, so live with it!) My first book had just come out, and I was attending the LDSBA (LDS Booksellers Association) annual conference—the equivalent of Book Expo America for the LDS crowd. My publisher, Covenant, was doing a big bookseller breakfast at the Mayan restaurant. One of the bookstore employees at my table handed me a napkin and asked, “Would you sign this?”
I don’t know if hosts of heavenly angels actually did appear above my head, singing and rejoicing with me, or if it was just in my head. But it was one of the coolest moments ever. A person was actually asking me to sign something that wasn’t designed to remove money from my bank account. I looked at my wife and we both beamed at each other. Since that time, I would conservatively estimate that I have signed over 20,000 books, posters, pieces of paper, shoes (lots of elementary kids’ shoes have my name on them), hats, jackets, flyers, binders, and even an arm. (The last one was actually breaking my rule of not signing body parts in permanent ink, but it was Julie Bellon’s daughter and her mom was right there and gave her permission.)
Has the thrill worn off? Yes, and no. I still absolutely love to sign whatever I am asked to. I’ll admit that at least part of that is the implied notion that whoever is asking you to sign their book or paper or whatever believes you are someone worthy of giving a signature in the first place. (You like me, you really like me.) To me at least, the more important part is that it’s a kind of way I can say thanks for following me. You are spending the time and money to read my books, the least I can do is to give you something back—even if it’s just an autograph. That part is great. And based on how much most authors light up when you ask if they’ll sign your book, I think the joy never really fades.
Book signings themselves have become kind of a mixed bag.
I’ve had great ones. Three and a half hours at the American Fork library, where a mom very politely asked if she could skip the line because her son had broken his arm, but they came straight from the hospital, because her son wouldn’t go home without getting a signed book. The Barnes and Noble in California where they told me the only bigger lines they’d ever had were for Stephanie Meyers and Janet Evanovich. The tons of great times I’ve sat next to other authors laughing and talking the whole time. Great times.
But I’ve also had the bad ones. Ask any author and they will recount horror stories. The store isn’t even expecting you or seems less than enthused that you are there. The stores that are out of your books (or never ordered them in the first place.) The times you sat alone for two hours watching every second tick off the clock. The customers who come through the door, see you, and instantly head in the other direction.
And, trust me, the big authors have the same experiences. I walked through a Barnes and Noble door one day to see two authors sitting side by side just inside the front door with a huge pile of books and not a single person waiting to talk to them despite the fact that it was nearly Christmas. The two authors? Brandon Mull and Brandon Sanderson.
So yeah, signings can be exciting and they can be really, really depressing. Last week two great authors, Julie Wright and Frank Cole, had signings for their launch parties. Both went really well. So what is the trick to a good signing and what should you avoid? Let’s go to some experts and see what they have to say.
Michael Knudsen of Writing Fortress (a blog of Cedar Fort Publishing authors) has some excellent advice. I like his quote on being prepared to pitch your book.
Are your prepared to answer the question "What's it about?" in a compelling way? This should be the shortest and strongest of pitches. If you hit those who approach your table with "It's YA dystopian fantasy about monsters that eat kids for lunch," you might get some blank looks. On the other hand, "It's an exciting and scary story about a world where a small group of brave kids discover that they are being raised as food for giant alien invaders!" might grab more interest, especially if you say it with enthusiasm.”
As an author it can be daunting to “sell” your book to a stranger. But if you have a great pitch and you’re excited to tell it, that takes away some of the “car salesman” feel. (No offense to those of you who might sell cars.)”
Janette Rallison doesn’t give advice about book signings, but she does capture the feeling of thinking about a signing on her post from a couple of years ago.
“Do you remember getting ready for dances in junior high? The anticipation . . . the dread? You never knew whether it was going to be a really fun night where lots of guys asked you to dance, or a really humiliating experience where you felt invisible.”
Also, a couple of years ago, Tristi did a great post on self promotion, where she talks about creating displays.
“If you feel uncomfortable approaching people, you can make them come to you with a cute table display. Kerry Blair has to be the queen of this – when “Mummy’s the Word” came out, she even had a stuffed crow on her table. I went to Michele Paige Holmes’ booksigning just this last Saturday, and she had created a darling display with star-shaped magnets on a metal board. If you picked the right star, you won a free book.”
For me, I think book signings, like almost all marketing you do, come down to a few key points.
- Know why you are doing it and what you hope to get out of it. Most book signings do not pay for themselves on books sold in the couple of hours you are there. There are exceptions: big launch parties, signings tied to specific events, Costco, etc. But an average signing will not earn you enough in royalties to offset the cost of gas, time spent, possibly a meal, and so forth. If meeting store employees is the goal, take time to talk to each one of them, tell them about both your book and yourself. If they like to write, give them some advice and maybe a pep talk. If you are doing the event because your publisher asked you to, great. Goodwill with your publisher can go a long way. If you are going there to sell books, don’t spend your time sitting. Get up and talk to everyone who comes in the door.
- Consider your time use wisely. If you went back and read my blogs from six or seven years ago, I was the marketing king. I tried everything I could imagine to get my name out, make connections, sell books, etc. Did it work? Maybe. I really can’t quantify it. For me personally it felt like I was doing everything I could to help make my books successful. Now I do a lot less formal “Marketing.” I blog, I tweet occasionally. I have websites. I do school visits. But I’ve stopped doing a book signing every weekend. And from what I can see, most LDS publishers feel the same way. They are still scheduling signings. But I don’t see as many of them as I used to, and more of them are tied to specific events.
- Book signings are one of many marketing tools in your arsenal. I often hear from LDS authors who live outside of the “Jell-O Belt” worrying that because they aren’t here, they can’t market as effectively as those of us in Utah, Idaho, Arizona, etc. To a small extent that is true. But there are so many other things you can do to market your books. Consider the authors who are selling tons of e-books. They’ve never done a signing, because there is nothing to sign. Bookstore visits are pointless because there is no tangible book to carry.
Finally, and this is going to seem totally contrary to what you will hear in other places, do what feels right for you. If you can’t stand going out in public, that might hurt you some. But it doesn’t mean you can’t blog, Tweet, Facebook, etc. If the whole social media thing makes your stomach churn, don’t do it. Will it hurt you? Yes. Can you succeed without it? JK Rowling doesn’t have a Facebook page and never has to the best of my knowledge.
Life’s too short to spend your time doing something you absolutely despise. (Exhibit A, the weeds that are already sprouting up in my flowerbed.) If all you want to do is write, write the best books you can. Then maybe you can hire someone to do all the marketing for you.
Jeffrey Savage is the author of eight published books including the Shandra Covington mystery series, The Fourth Nephite series, and the Farworld fantasy series (writing as J Scott Savage.) You can visit his personal blog at www.jscottsavage.com. Or e-mail him at jsavage at jeffreysavage.com. He does school visits, firesides and book clubs.