First, let's define "successful". A successful book signing is when you show up, your books are there, you have a place to sit, and you sell just one book.
Sound nutty? Or, worse, like evidence of poor self esteem? It's not, really. The purpose of a book signing isn't to sell your books, it's to sell yourself. Any time you can sit in a bookstore for an hour among people who love to read, any time your face and your name are in front of the reading public, that's great promotion.
I defined successful as showing up, having your books (and business cards, and pens, and ice water, but I'll go into that a little later) around you, and selling a book. But depending on the market, genre, and attitude of the writer, an author can make anywhere from five to 100 sales at a signing. There's a myth going around that book signings don't make money. To that I say, Liar, liar, pants on fire. As with any promotional idea, you'll get out what you put in.
A book signing can be (is!) terrifying. It's like throwing a party and being certain no one will come. But there are ways around this. To wit: don't do it alone. I lost my book signing virginity in a room with two hundred other authors. We were all in the same boat: sitting behind our little piles of books, pens clenched in sweaty hands, smiling brightly (baring our teeth, anyway) at every would-be buyer who strolled past us. Agony? Try ecstasy... it was wonderful fun. And with so many authors in the same place, no one was counting how many I did or didn't sell. Alice Duncan, author of My Wild Irish Rose (http://www.aliceduncan.net), backs me up on this one: "Make sure you're signing with another author, so you don't have to sit there looking lost and scared and stupid all by yourself. Of course, if you're Nora Roberts, you don't have that problem, but most of us aren't."
However, some authors, like Lisa Hendrix (To Marry an Irish Rogue, http://www.lisahendrix.com) prefer to fly solo: "I always sell more books when I'm by myself, at least if I'm in a store with a lot of foot traffic. When someone else is around, I end up talking to them, and I think that makes people feel like they're interrupting if they come over. When I'm on my own, I avoid the 'lonely author sitting at a card table' syndrome by working the passers-by: 'Do you like books set in Ireland?' 'You look like a romance reader.' 'Have you ever thought about mixing up a love potion?' Anything to get a reaction/connection and not look like a depressed vulture waiting for something to die at my feet. However, this is not a technique for the faint at heart: you get an amazing number of truly rude snubs in addition to the sales. The guy who said, 'Those are women's crotch books' takes the cake. I didn't have the heart to tell him that his butt crack showed over the top of his pants, which pretty much eliminated him as a judge of culture in my mind."
Say, thanks for the visual, Lisa! On to a butt crack-less paragraph: Here are tips for a smooth and successful signing, whether you're by yourself or in a crowd of fifty writers.
Call, and keep calling. The first call is to set up the signing. Subsequent calls are to find out if the store has ordered your books, if they're promoting the signing, if they've got you on the calendar. Ask if there's anything you can do to help. Apologize for bothering them, but don't be too apologetic... your book signing helps their business.
If you're bringing the books yourself, you'll need to be in contact with your publisher to make sure the books are en route. I have several publishers, and one of them never misses a signing and always gets my stuff to me in plenty of time. That's the one I only call once. Another of my publishers must be asked, reminded, reminded again and, in the end, nagged unmercifully. Be prepared to go either route.
Promote on your end. Tell your friends and family. Tell their friends. Make an announcement on any list serves you belong to. Even if no one on your list is a local, they might have friends who are. Make up an insert to slip into every bill you pay, every letter you mail. On the insert, put your name, your book, the date and time and place of the signing. You could do it on your computer for nothing, or get fancy and have something made up at a copy shop. Send a press release to your local newspaper. Post the info on your web page. There are several inexpensive ways to get the word out. Obviously, the more effort you put in, the greater chances of increased attendance.
Dress comfortably but nicely for the signing. I prefer the nicely vague term "business casual" to describe my preferred way to dress for a signing: comfortable pants or skirt, nice shirt, understated makeup and jewelry (especially if you're a man). Who wants to watch a sweaty author squirm in an uncomfortable suit (or shiver in shorts and a tank top)? Not I. Probably not you, either.
Bring stuff. I like to bring a water bottle (or can of pop, or glass of blood, or whatever tipple suits your fancy), my business cards, lots of pens (you'd be amazed at how many people walk off with your pen), and any promotional items you want to show or share. Author Lisa Hendrix has this to say about things to bring: "I take a blowup of my cover, autographed copy stickers, a pen plus a spare or refill, breath mints, glitter or confetti to sparkle up the table, a paper table cloth just in case, and stuff like tape and markers to make my own signs if necessary (sometimes the store owner just has no clue at all -- or, as happened to a friend, the person who set up the signing has embezzled money and is now on the lam and everything is up in the air). I do not take candy or cookies. If the store owner wants to do treats, that's fine, but I find that candy attracts mostly kids and deadbeats who want to eat for free, not buyers. This is especially true in a mall situation, where you're sitting out in front of the store. Stella Cameron once had to fend off a woman who came by and dumped a whole bowl of M&Ms into her purse -- and later swooped back in for seconds!"
Talk, talk, talk. Don't afraid to smile and wave and greet customers. I like a cheerful, "Hey, come over here and check out my books!" I never fail to be surprised at how many of them walk over like obedient zombies.
I know it seems scary, but please don't sit there in a huddled lump. Talk to people. At the very least, make eye contact. At my first signing, I hid in my chair with my nose in a book for the first half hour, until someone bought a copy. That gave me the confidence to look around and talk to people. The result? In the next half hour, I sold four more books.
If the person you're talking to isn't a fan of your genre, try to recommend books in a genre they are interested in: "Oh, my husband loves True Crime! Have you tried any of Ann Rule's books?" You might not make a sale, but you'll make a positive impression... and who knows where that could lead?
Brenda Ray, author of The Midwife's Song (http://www.karmichaelpress.com), shares her tips for engaging customers: "At a book signing you are not promoting books so much as yourself. I try to focus on people. I stand and speak to people passing the table. If someone stops at the table and looks at the books, I put one in their hand, then engage them in conversation: "This is my new book. It's about... Do you read romance?" If their answer is negative, I might say, "Well, I'd appreciate you telling your friends and family who do read romance that you met me and my books are available." This may be a good time to hand them a promotional business card or bookmark so they can pass it on to others who are interested. By putting the book in their hands, I'm not telling them to buy it; I'm making them feel comfortable picking it up and reading the back blurb if they so choose. I even talk to the kids. That lady in a hurry, who does not read romance, may not ever pick up your book but she will remember you were nice and down-to-earth and will tell her four sisters who are avid romance readers that she met you. No act of kindness is ever wasted. I live by that and it's never failed me."
Go to other book signings. Observe the authors and how they interact with the public. Check out their promotional stuff. How'd you find out about the signing? If it was a newspaper ad, consider investing in one. If it was through the bookstore, think about doing your next signing through that chain (or through the independent). Smile and look over their book. If it's even remotely interesting, buy it (if it's not your cup of tea, autographed books make swell presents). Introduce yourself as a fellow author and trade marketing tips. Everything you see and hear at a book signing can be directly applied (or firmly crossed off your list of Things Never To Do At My Own Signing) to your book signing.
Fellow author Traci Bell had this tale to share: "Beside the bank of elevators I took to get to my floor there was a small chain bookstore. At one of those tacky plywood tables sat a lovely older lady with a stack of romance novels in front of her. There was no signage whatsoever, and no one else around. So being friendly, and a fan of romance, I inquired if perhaps there was a special on the books on the table. The lady beamed and blushed and said 'Not really, my dear, I wrote the books, and am here to sign them for people'. I glanced down at the titles. Completely embarrassed, yet in utter awe, I replied, 'Yours were the first romance books I ever read, Ms. Woodiwiss, and I am honored to meet you.'" Yet another reason to attend book signings... you never know who you'll meet!
I'll tell you one more not-to-be-missed benefit of book signings: they make you feel real. I've sold ten books to various publishers, and still worry someone will write fraud on my forehead when I introduce myself as a writer. But at a book signing, with your own books in front of you... well, it's the real thing. It takes care of the fraud fretting quite nicely.
As I said earlier, setting up your own signing can be a daunting thought. But once you do it, you'll wonder what you were fretting about. This is the pot calling the kettle black, by the way: I have yet to do a signing in my home town. I'm mortally afraid the former head cheerleader from my high school class will throw gum in my hair, as she was wont to do in Geometry. But I do plenty of non-local signings, and I've enjoyed every one. I'm urging you to do the same. Don't deny yourself the chance for promotion, sales, meeting readers, and great good fun.
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