This month’s column was inspired by a discussion thread on one of the LinkedIn groups I follow. The question was something like: Are book signings dead? The question inspired a number of responses, including from yours truly, and also got me thinking . . . y’know, I never did do a single signing for my own most recent release, The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, and it’s been out for three months now. Shame on me, I thought—what was I thinking?
Here I am, then, with a quick apology then a whole article that can fall under the heading “Do as I say, not as I do.”
If you’ve published a book—any book from any publisher in any category or genre—you should expend some effort into setting up your own signings and other events. Do not wait for your publisher to send you out on tour.
My friend R.A. Salvatore will just be finishing up a Wizards of the Coast-sponsored signing tour as this article goes live. That one eleven-city tour accounts for 100% of the signing tours that will be set up and paid for this year by Wizards of the Coast. Those results are typical. They might sponsor a few authors to go to a few events like the American Library Association conference or Gen Con. Still, the publisher-sponsored event is limited to a rare few authors who have already achieved best seller status or are celebrities, politicians, and so on.
For the rest of us, we’ll have to make our own luck. Unless you want to spend more than you’ll make from the book, your “tour” will cover a much smaller geographic area—pretty much as far as you’re willing to drive in an afternoon. The events will not be as well advertised, because you’ll be doing the bulk of the advertising yourself almost exclusively via social networking sites. Very few people you don’t already know will show up. The event will feel a little self-aggrandizing, like you’re throwing yourself a party.
And if you’re at all like me, I’ve probably lost you there. Who wants to be thought of as someone who throws himself a party? Not I, but then, what if you think of it not as throwing a party for yourself, but throwing a party for your book.
“Book signings,” according to Jim Fallone, Director of Publishing Coordination and Client Publishers at Andrews McNeel Publishing, “are tools just like web sites and Twitter accounts for authors to engage their audience, preach their message, and build their name and reputation. If you don’t do them you leave audience and opportunity on the table.”
A MEDIOCRE TURNOUT IS BETTER THAN NO TURNOUT AT ALL
Please have realistic expectations. Chances are you will not attract huge crowds cheering your every move. Most likely, the book store or other venue won’t bother to turn the music off while you do your reading. There will be a homeless guy snoring in the back row—and the back row will be about five feet away from you. The manager of the store will mispronounce your name and tell you how the last author had a crowd that was twice the size and the weather wasn’t even as nice. There will be a crying baby. There’s always a crying baby.
But if all goes well you will meet as many as four people who actually know your work and are delighted to see you, are excited that you’ve signed their book, and will hang on your every word. Seriously, you can raid your gaming supplies and bring a d4 with you. It’ll be 1-4 people.
But as Jim Fallone says, “The impact of signings is cumulative. It is a long haul thing. It is a slow build that is proportionate to the effort put into it. Make yourself known in your local stores. Speak at your library. Alert the local paper. Talk to as many people as you can because reading is viral. The one person you convince to buy your book at a lonely local signing tells a friend who tells another and another. The good impression you make to the local bookseller may even keep them from pulling your book for return too soon.”
This is especially true in the current era of online social networking. A few key fans who manage to get to a signing in the far corner of an out of the way bookstore wherever you managed to schedule it, will then go on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, LinkedIn, Amazon, Suvudu, Grasping for the Wind . . . who knows . . . and sing your praises.
Assuming I’ve sold you on the idea, you’re probably asking, “Okay then, I’m sold on the idea, but how do I set up a signing?”
There’s pretty much one vital step:
Go to your favorite local book store, ask for the manager, and when you meet him or her say: “Hi, I’m [state your name] and my book [title of book] was just released by [name of publisher]. I live in the area and would love to set up an event here. Do you guys do signings, readings, and/or Q&As?”
The absolute worst possible outcome is that the manager will say no. Unless you’re naked or holding a gun the police will not be called. Your response should be a smile and something like, “Okay, doesn’t hurt to ask.” Then go to the next bookstore and keep going until someone says yes.
I have recently signed up for a service called BookTour.com, but I haven’t really tried it yet and can’t vouch for its effectiveness, though an author friend did give it high marks. It’s worth a click over to see what services they offer.
WIDEN YOUR NET
The sun doesn’t set on your local book store. Try them, for sure, both independents and chains, but libraries often set up events like readings and workshops that depending on your book and your comfort zone could be terrific opportunities to “press the flesh” even if they don’t result in over-the-table sales.
I tend to prefer signings at conventions and conferences. Generally, the audience at conventions is more specific. If you’ve written a science fiction novel, everyone walking around at the World Science Fiction Convention is at least philosophically disposed to like your book, whereas it’s hard to peg the ratio of SF fans to non-SF fans at any given Barnes & Noble on any given day. Many people come to conventions specifically to meet authors they already love, find new authors to love, and collect as many signatures as they can get. And talk about social media hubs. People who go out of their way to get to a convention, pay sometimes hefty sums of money to travel there, get in the door, and feed and house themselves for the duration, are highly committed fans who very likely have a large circle of like-minded friends both physical and digital. Make a fan at a convention, and watch that fan multiply before your very eyes.
Christopher Dunbar, co-author of the Morrigan’s Brood Series, published by Triscelle Publishing, takes that a step farther. “Instead of doing signings at book selling venues,” he posted on LinkedIn, “my focus has been setting up a signing booth or tent at events where my target audiences go to buy stuff. Because I write dark fantasy/historical fiction/adventure novels with elements of mythology, history, folklore, and ancient beliefs woven in, I have several types of venues where I have sold books. These types of venues have included, and will include, Scottish festivals, Irish/Celtic festivals, book fairs and festivals, fantasy conventions, Renaissance festivals, historical reenactments, New Age events and shops, and other types of venues.”
BRING YOUR FRIENDS
Another benefit that conventions have is that there are other authors there. A hundred people may not carve out an hour to come to see you, but they might just come to see you and three or four other authors of similar bent. Make friends with other authors in your category and genre and rather than setting up a signing just for yourself, work with them to set up group events.
Also on LinkedIn, Owner/Chief Strategist at Wonder Communications and BookMania, book publicist, editor, and writer Linda White suggested sitting multiple authors at different tables rather than lined up like a senate subcommittee. “Having multiple authors in the store makes it feel like a party and even if the tables are only separated by a few feet, it is much easier for the customer to approach.”
MAKE IT A SHOW
Just a straight-up signing is better than no signing at all, but the more you can add to that event the better. The appeal of lining up to get an autograph and a thirty-second salutation from an author might not bring out the crowds, but if there’s a reading and a Q&A it feels like an event—an interesting way to spend an evening. I recently went to the University Bookstore in Seattle to see fantasy author Paul Park, who I worked with at the tail end of my time at Wizards of the Coast and who was a contributor to The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction. He read a steampunk story that was delightful, and we had a chance to meet in person for the first time. Even if we weren’t already acquainted, I would have come for the reading. Though the event ran late and the store was closing, he answered a few questions from the modest crowd, and as they say in the local press: A good time was had by all.
And he sold some books in the process.
Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and ten other fantasy and horror books including the just-released The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction. Born in Rochester, New York he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook (http://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/), is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He now resides in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.