Signings, with tips to help new authors keep their sanity

This coming weekend (Dec 11th/12th) I’ll be signing with other authors for the benefit of non-profit organizations. On December 11th, I’ll be at the Park Meadows Borders, where any purchase (not just our books—and even online purchases with this coupon) will benefit the Pikes Peak Writers. For December 12th, I’ll be with a group at the Who Else! Bookstore, for a canned food drive to benefit the Food Bank of the Rockies (each canned good you bring gets you a raffle ticket for prizes).

I love group signings and benefit signings, because they reduce the “it’s all about me and my books” feeling (a nightmare for an introvert like me). Groups of authors and benefit signings also widen the interest, hopefully attracting more readers.

Running the Numbers

Early on, I figured out SF is a niche area by running the numbers, which is an exercise every new novelist should do. Fiction is barely 10% of the book market (really! non-fiction is king) and SF/F varies from 7% to 12% of fiction sales. (Note: there’s no central place to find these statistics; I’ve scrabbled around dark corners, from old Bookscan releases to Locus to Publishers Weekly…. interestingly, the percentages haven’t varied much over the years).

What does that mean for book signings? It means the chances that an average shopper will walk through the doors and be looking for a novel just like yours, is small. Then there are other factors: the customer may be in a hurry, in a bad mood, and have no inclination to browse or even make eye contact with you. That’s why signings at general bookstores aren’t the best way to get your book into the hands of readers.

Then Why Even Bother?

Every author has experienced good signings and bad (sometimes very, very bad) signings. But a good signing gives you a chance to talk with your readers, which can be inspiring. Booksellers appreciate authors who sign at their stores and may be more likely to recommend your book, particularly if you’re a local author. You may get the cover of your book and even your mugshot displayed at the front of the store. So it’s still good PR. But if you’re a debut novelist and you’re starting the signing grind, here are a few tips for keeping your sanity.

Parameters You Can Control

  • Venue: Many authors aren’t as selective as they should be when choosing venues. Understand that each signing requires your energy and time, as well as a large order of your books (which may be returned when they don’t sell—and your publisher hates returns). It’s best to do some research and pick your venues carefully. For instance, I know the store that stocks the most SF, hosts a local SF group, and also sells the most SF in my city. I always schedule a book signing there soon after release. Be sure to hunt down any independent booksellers who specialize in your genre (this should be a no-brainer).

  • Date and time: For my SF book, I wouldn’t chose to sign it on a day when, across town, there’s a SF convention engaging my readership (rather, I should be attending that convention). Holiday shopping time can be good (or not, see below). You can also ask the bookseller or Community Relations Manager what days and times would be best for attracting readers of your type of book.

  • Freebies: Some authors have had luck laying out cookies or sweets, particularly if their novel involves baking or food. Unfortunately, customers have run away from my candy (really, just because there’s a girl with a gun on my cover doesn’t mean I’m going to poison you!) Surprisingly, bookmarks don’t seem to be in much demand in a bookstore. However, I’ve had good results handing out free magnets at my signing table. I’ll also bring a chunk of bookmarks for employees at the cash registers to use—although I figure most customers throw those out when they get home.

  • Getting the word out: Yes, publicize the signing. Announce it on your web site, your blog, and your writers list. Get it in the local paper (that’s actually been effective for me). However, don’t pound your friends and family with invitations and announcements. With each release, I try to tell friends and family about one signing that’s convenient for them. I have great friends, many of whom buy copies of my books, but I try not to abuse their friendship or make them feel obligated to come to my signings—after all, they can ask me to sign books whenever they want.

  • Your behavior: Reading fiction is a matter of personal choice. You might be able to convince a customer they need your nonfiction book Ten Efficient Habits of Lazy People, but you can’t force SF on someone who only reads historical romance. Respect the customer’s reading choices and don’t be pushy.

Best Laid Plans Will Go Awry… What You Can’t Control

  • Your friends have lives, too: Nobody you know shows up, even though you put out the word. C’est la vie.

  • Pre-holiday madness: People should be out shopping for holiday gifts, right? But mob behavior is really chaos theory. I had a signing one December night in Littleton but a Christmas Parade of Lights sucked everybody into downtown Denver. My husband went down the mall and came back to report that every restaurant and store on the street was empty. The bookseller had promoted the signing, but all she could mumble was, “This never happened before.” But when it happens, you just have to laugh (with a smile on your face, because nobody likes a bitter author).

  • Post-holiday depression: The store manager told me that the first Saturday in January would be great, because there’d be tons of people exchanging gifts and using gift cards. The store was incredibly crowded but in the end, I only sold to friends (this was one signing I told them about). Employees manning the cash registers said there were mostly returns that day and… I’ve never seen such grumpy customers (with that wild stay-away-from-me look in their eyes). Again, gotta laugh and move on.

  • Private parties: This odd problem was something I couldn’t avoid, and I expect it doesn’t happen often. I had a signing at a store that specializes in carrying SF and Fantasy. The local SF group always attends signings at that store but this time, I found out they’d all been invited to a private birthday party. Only three people showed up, making this my worst signing evah

Basically, you just have to accept the fact you can’t control everything. Things happen, both bad and good. Just shrug, laugh, and schedule the next signing… I’d be interested in hearing other tips for keeping sane during booksignings.

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