You’ve seen it on the silver screen, the Hollywood stereotype of the writer pecking away at a manual typewriter in an office filled with books. I bet you’ve also seen in the movies the author signing a gazillion books to adoring fans with lines around the block in New York City. I received an email the other day from a woman who had written and self-published a children’s book. She wanted to know what I thought of book signings and I thought it was a good topic to launch into.
Alas, most of Hollywood’s visions of the author are a little more than a scriptwriter’s pipe dream and the reality of book signings is lackluster at best. Book signings, in my not so humble opinion, are a hit or miss operation. New authors, myself included back in the day, seem to hang a lot of ego and hopes on book signings, when in fact, they’re not that productive, unless you have a name that’s a household word like Stephen King, Tom Clancy, or Bill Clinton. After you get your friends and family to come through begging, cajoling and blackmail — assuming they do! — very few people actually come to see an unknown author. What usually happens is that you show up at a bookstore and bookstore patrons try to avoid making eye contact with you so they don’t have to buy your book. If you garner interest, you might be lucky at the bookstore and sell about 6-12 books over a half day.
That’s on a good day.
Yes, I have made sales at bookstores, but I had my secret weapon with me, Kiana the wonder Malamute, who was beyond impeccable in manners and would do agility at a drop of a hat. People oooohed and awwwed over her and occasionally I made a quick sale. But as I said, she was the sales gimmick and even she couldn’t part those with the hardest of hearts away from their well-earned cash.
Even if you do manage to sell books at a bookstore, the chance of you “hitting it big” is pretty infinitesimal. Even a self-published author would find it hard to justify sitting in a bookstore for a couple of hours and selling 2-3 books.
So, why do authors do book signings at bookstores at all? Beginners do it because they don’t know any better. Pros do it because 1. They have a big enough name or 2. They want to foster goodwill among the bookstores. The second is important because even though you may not have sold a single copy there at the bookstore, the bookstore will often have you sign the stock and your books will sell afterwards. It’s common for me to go into a bookstore, look for any of my books and sign them right there. It’s a nice political thing to do.
You may note that I talk about book signing at bookstores, but what about at other places? I will sign at Science Fiction cons because I have fans there. I do that because quite often I do make enough sales there to justify my existence at the signing. I’m there talking on panels, yapping away and promoting myself and my books as well, so I usually have enough of a fan base to have a real signing. If there’s a book signing at a bookstore, I tag along too because I’m there and it’s worth my while. I’ve done signings at agility events with my agility book (go figure!) and sold a couple dozen there. Targeted book signings often work. Not so targeted, not usually.
So, you’re a self-published author and you want to do book signings. Most likely, you’ll have to stick with independents because unless you have distribution, the big chains aren’t going to carry your books. You need to have distribution with Ingrams, Baker and Taylor or a recognized distributor. Even if you do have distribution, many indy authors can tell you horror stories about various distributors and how they just can’t get their books to the signing on time. Some big box stores just aren’t going to carry your book, period, largely because they want returns and most authors and small presses don’t do returns.
Most big box stores won’t buy the books from you either, which means you’re effectively screwed trying to do a book signing with them anyway. Small indy bookstores may buy books directly from you, but expect selling them at a 45 to 55 percent discount. When you consider what you’re getting your books for, you’re really not making a lot off of that. In fact, if you count in shipping, you might actually be making less.
If I do sell my books directly to fans, I do discount. It seems fair as I can take a few bucks hit and still make a few dollars off the sale. I get a new fan. The fan gets a signed, discounted book. Everyone is happy.
My thought is that a new author can do more to promote their books than simple book signings. Look at setting up a webpage, get involved in social media, and figure out who is really your fan base. Once you have those figured out, you can then determine how to make a book signing work for you. Until then, you’re simply not using book signings effectively.