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Dreaming of Writer's Cramp: Signing at Bookstores and Beyond...
by Peter Bowerman

Return to Public Speaking · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

I had a bizarre book signing experience a few years back. I had two signings scheduled in a Northwest U.S. city, on a Wednesday and Thursday. I didn't double-confirm the first one, and when I showed up at 6:30 p.m. for a 7:00 p.m. start on Wednesday, I discovered that for some mysterious reason, the manager (off for the night and unreachable) had suddenly decided that the signing was Thursday, despite emails back and forth that very week discussing and confirming the Wednesday date.

He hadn't checked with me before making the change, but his store signage had all been changed to Thursday, and one sign even had a bright yellow note pasted over the top announcing, "The date in the newsletter is wrong!"

The manager on duty had no clue why the change had been made. Of course, I had another signing across town the following night, and given the embryonic stage of cloning technology, we had a problem. What partially salvaged the situation was that the strange voices in the manager's head (I have no other possible explanation) that inexplicably compelled him to change the date had only piped up the day before, meaning that most people weren't aware of the change and showed up anyway, giving us a nice crowd of close to 20. We'll never know how many were turned away when they called, or showed up, the next night. C'est la vie.

Reality Check

Unless you're a big-name celebrity, don't expect book signings to sell a ton of books for you; look at them as building brand awareness in that market area. As for going on a book signing road show, want my opinion? By and large, they're a waste of time (again, unless you're a big name). If you're just a regular Joe/Josephine, I say there's no way you're going to make a book signing tour, by itself, a cost-effective exercise.

Assuming a $15 retail book, given the 55 percent discount you'll be giving to Ingram, plus production costs, shipping, etc., as a self-publisher, you'll likely gross roughly $4-6, depending on lots of things we've already discussed. If you have a niche topic, count on selling less than 10 books at a typical signing. If you've got a hotter, more mainstream subject and you've gotten the word out far and wide, you'll probably do better.

Remember: just because 20 people show up at a book signing doesn't mean you're going to sell 20 copies. You've got the curiosity-seekers and tire-kickers, and the people who've already bought the book and just want you to sign it. And of course, that old standby favorite (I can already see the authors' heads nodding -- ): the guy who sits and listens raptly, asks a zillion questions, thanks you profusely for so generously sharing your expertise, and exits the store, book-less. Often the ones who buy books will surprise you, so be careful about investing too much attention on the mirages.

So, all that considered, let's be generous and assume you'll sell 10 books at each signing and make $6 a book. $60. Woo-hoo. Even if someone was putting you up and feeding you at every stop, it's still peanuts. Suffice it to say, your time is infinitely better spent staying at home and pursuing other marketing options.

Collateral Exposure

Yes, playing devil's advocate on the side of doing author "road shows," the true power of a book signing is in its promotion -- the word you're able to get out about your book in both the bookstore and into the larger community. Many more people will read about your book (and often buy it) than will come to your signing. You've probably done it yourself many times. So, any media coverage you get will help you sell more books.

You can boost those collateral sales by making every effort to get your web address listed in any coverage. You definitely can't count on newspapers to get it done, but one thing is certain: it won't happen if you don't ask or don't provide it. As newspaper people will be happy to explain, their job is not to promote your book; it's to provide interesting stories to their readers. If they can end up doing both (though rarely by design), great, but they don't make it a high priority. But, even with those "hidden" sales, I still assert that the time you could spend on marketing efforts in one day will earn you more money in the long run than you could make doing signings on the road.

Part of a Bigger Plan

My books have done well for niche books, but my personal best at any one book signing is 20 copies (and that was with my own active media promotion efforts as well as the store's). The average is a lot less than that. Why did I bother? Well, all my out-of-town book signings were scheduled around all-day seminars, which were the focus of my visits (and which we'll discuss more in Chapter Thirteen). All my promotional efforts and any push for media coverage emphasized the seminar first and foremost, and the book signings as secondary events.

So for me, signings became an opportunity to promote my seminars. In probably 50-60 percent of cases, I picked up one or more enrollments for my seminars at the signings. So in that sense, it was always worth it. Needless to say, book signings in your local area are a different story. With none of the typical travel costs associated with an out-of-town book signing tour, there's no reason not to do as many as you can.

As we discussed earlier, if you're shooting to get a newspaper to write an article about you, make as much effort to woo the smaller weekly papers as you do for the big dailies. Yes, the big daily papers have huge circulations, but chances are good that you'll have a hard time getting more than a mention out of them. Even if they do write a story, you're a one-day wonder. Tomorrow, you're lining birdcages. The weeklies, however, as mentioned previously, have a seven-day shelf life.

Eleven Tips for More Successful, Fun, and Worry-Free Signings

1) Do Advance Planning. Visit http://www.ersys.com for some travel planning. Plug in any major metro area and it'll provide links to their Chamber of Commerce, Visitor's Bureau, and all kinds of media links (click Local Media off to the left) serving that area. For more detailed media lists, check the Gale's directory or Bacon's Newspaper Directory in your library (they do have an online presence, but it can be hard to figure out how to get at the info); in most cases, both will include actual names of key personnel and editors, often with phone numbers and email addresses. Of course, info can be outdated, so make a quick call to the media outlet to confirm before sending releases. Don't forget http://www.newspapers.com and http://www.onlinenewspapers.com.

2) Mass Email Releases. Contact PRWeb (http://www.prweb.com), the budget-conscious marketer's best ally for emailing press releases to hit lots of media outlets with a single release. You can choose to distribute your release in a specific metropolitan area or nationwide, for anywhere from $0 to $80, depending on the transmission bells and whistles you select.

3) Book Early. Generally speaking, most bookstores -- both the big chains and the independents -- book their author signings at least 75-90+ days in advance. Don't think you're going to call B&N or Borders on a month's notice and snag an open date.

4) Identify Busy Nights. When calling to schedule a signing, ask for the store manager, or in the case of B&N, the CRM (Community Relations Manager), or simply "the person who books authors for signings." But, before you get connected to that decision-maker, I suggest asking the store employee who answered the phone which nights are busiest in the store. The busy nights for a downtown store might be very different than for a suburban location. I found that out the hard way when I sat in a very quiet store on a Wednesday night, only to find out that Friday would've been far busier. Of course, every employee knew it, and would have been happy to share it with me, if only I'd asked.

5) Schedule Later in the Month. If you have the flexibility, try to schedule your signings later in the month. This way, a signing scheduled for, say, the 25th of the month gets nearly a month of promo time in the store newsletter and any monthly publications in which you've gotten it listed.

6) Send Postcards. If you've made up four-color postcards with your book cover and details, put together a list of any friends, colleagues, and other contacts in the area who might be interested in coming. Even if they don't come, you've let them know you've got a book out, and that could lead to referrals.

7) Confirm in Advance. Always call the store a few days in advance to confirm the signing. You'd think a manager of a big chain bookstore would be on top of things when it comes to a calendar of signings. But, as the chapter's opening story demonstrates, it ain't necessarily so. So, call before. You dig?

8) Be Proactive on "Positioning". When it comes to setting up the signing, be gently assertive with store personnel about location. They'll often go with your suggestion. If they stick you in the back of the store, there's less chance of people finding you. The ideal spot would be near the front (and close to the café), so you'll pick up walk-by traffic. Though I've experienced the exception, as a rule, don't expect store managers to be savvy about all the marketing strategy of signings. They're typically nice, earnest people, but they're not going to get a bonus if they sell a few more of your books. Your signing is just another event for them, not an income opportunity. You have to be the proactive one.

9) Create Eye-Catching Signage. I discovered a trés cool (and trés cheap) strategy to get some pretty slick signage for your book signings -- not to mention any other public appearance. Using the graphic files of my book cover artwork, I had FedExKinko'sâ print out some 11" x 17" sheets, laminate them, mount them on foam core board and attach a cardboard easel at the bottom. Ta-dah! Attention-getting visuals that can be seen from at least 100 paces. I also made up another one, listing the book accolade highlights: book clubs, awards, etc. These great visual aids will set you back less than $20 each (at press time).

10) Do Discussion/Signings. If you have a non-fiction or how-to book, definitely do a discussion/signing: talk for 30 minutes or so, open it up for Q&A, then sign books. If it's fiction, do a reading, then a Q&A. Tell people you'll stay around as long as they want to talk. Figure on 90 minutes for a typical event, from start to finish. Chat with people while they're waiting for you to start. Introduce yourself, shake hands, ask their names, what brought them there, etc. Don't cop the typical "Author Attitude." Friendly authors sell more books, and earn brownie points with readers (who talk to friends).

11) Collect Testimonials. After the signing, get some comments from store managers about the signing/discussion and load them up to your web site, so it's easier to sell other managers on what a great author you are to deal with. This is obviously more important if it's a discussion type signing, but good feedback on any appearance is a positive.

Your "Inner Alpha Dog"

Point #8 on "positioning" underscores how you need to be politely assertive about where they place you in the store. This assertiveness also extends to meeting your guests, and the small talk before and after. I realize many authors consider themselves introverts, but work on ratcheting up your gregarious, in-charge persona. I know, not necessarily easy for many, but remember what's required to be successful as a public speaker: know your subject intimately, and be passionate about sharing it with others.

Chances are, that will be the case if you write a book, so don't worry about it. A few months back, I went to hear Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point and Blink) do a talk and signing for his second book. Malcolm definitely comes across as bookish and somewhat shy, yet his enthusiasm for his subject came through like trumpets, and he ended up being a fascinating and engaging speaker. You can, too.

Other Signing Opps

So where else besides bookstores can you do signings? Look no further than your friendly local library. A word of caution: don't rely on your local library to handle all the marketing and publicity efforts. Like bookstore folks, librarians are uniformly nice, helpful people, but their goal is simply to provide some decent programs for their patrons. No bumps in their paychecks for nice turnouts, either. If you're doing an event for free through a library, then by definition, the only way you're going to make money is if you sell books. And that means a lot of "butts in seats."

If that means contacting a few local media outlets and pitching them on your appearance, then do it. Again, not the event per se, but the angle represented by the event: why their readers should care, why the event addresses some need or desire on the part of a potential attendee, etc. Remember, you've got the imprimatur of "The Library" bestowing a glossy layer of credibility on you (i.e., in much the same way that bookstore signings boost your seminar creds), so they're already more inclined to pay attention. I promise you, the library won't mind. They'll likely be impressed, be eager to invite you back and, heck, they might even learn a thing or two.

Keep Talking

Bookstores and libraries are just two possible speaking venues. If you're an expert on a particular topic (whether the subject of your non-fiction book, or writing in general because of your fiction work), there are always groups who'd love to have a "real author" come speak. Sometimes you'll get an honorarium, sometimes not, but there's always the chance to sell books. Also, check http://www.allconferences.com for possible speaking opportunities at conferences spanning the gamut of industries and subjects.

As an author of books on making more money as a writer, I've been asked to speak before any number of local writing groups (bookstore-based and independent), business and technical writing associations, marketing groups, etc. The smaller the group, the less likely it is you'll get paid, but book sales can often net you $100-150. Remember, when you're self-publishing, direct sales are usually about 80-85+ percent profit. $100-150 isn't a windfall, but doing two or three talks a month can make for some decent walking-around money. If it's all local, you've got little overhead. Besides, they're fun.

Road Shows

Speaking of which, while the limited financial potential of talks like these don't make them a good bet for out-of-town gigs, if you know you're going to be headed somewhere on vacation, why not try to slot in a talk or two somewhere, and in the process, spread the word a bit more, make a few bucks, meet a few of the locals, and perhaps give yourself some possible write-offs come tax time?

To land some of these events, do a search of larger national organizations related to your subject (you probably already know most of them) -- ones with lots of local chapters. Look into local business organizations, whether Kiwanis (http://www.Kiwanis.org), Rotary (http://www.Rotary.org), Jaycees (http://www.jci.cc/local/media/usa), or one-off local groups. Women should check out local "ladies' clubs", Junior League (http://www.ajli.org), and others. All represent potential speaking opportunities.

Check out local historical societies. Home for Christmas last year, I was talking with my Mom about our local small town historical society that brings in speakers (usually authors) for their monthly meetings, typically paying $150 honorariums. Definitely explore this direction if you have a historical subject (whether related to the local area or not), but even a broader, topical subject could work for these entities. Listening to her, it was an ongoing challenge for them to find engaging, interesting speakers.

When milling around with attendees after your talks, especially local ones, ask them if they know of other groups that might appreciate hearing you speak. If your talk was well received, don't be surprised if you get approached before you even have a chance to ask.

Multi-Author Events

Another great idea is to partner with other authors -- either of related books or not -- and do a richer, more broad-based event. Sure, if it was all writing-based, it'd be a "Writers Conference" or "Writers Boot Camp," but it could also just be a single afternoon or evening event. Events like these -- with more to offer to a broader audience -- are obviously easier to promote than solo appearances and can be a lot of fun. In the same issue of Book Promotion Newsletter mentioned above was this:

Michelle Ailene True (author of True Reflections, PublishAmerica 2004) finds teaming up with other authors among her best promotional gigs:

"I found out first hand that participating in multi-author receptions and book signing events brings bigger crowds, which means more exposure for all participants. I participated in a multi-author event last night at the Vernon Area Public Library in Vernon Hills, Illinois. There were 11 authors, representing a wide variety of genres as well as writing experience. The event drew over 50 attendees - not bad for a rainy Tuesday night in the north suburbs of Chicago!

Sidebar: Bookstores are Terrible Places to Sell Books

Came across a great article with the above title a few years back by Fern Reiss, the author of several great books on publishing (http://www.PublishingGame.com). This excerpt underscores the necessity to get creative about thinking of other more potentially profitable outlets for your book:

[In bookstores], the margins are low -- you gross less than $4.50 on every $10 book. You get crummy display space -- just the spine of your book shows. And let's face it -- the competition is awful. But you can sell thousands of books each year to non-bookstore outlets. Here's how:

  • Think audience and think niche. Whatever the topic of your book, the audience hangs out in places other than bookstores. So think about that audience, and think about where they're hanging out. If you have a golf book, think golf courses and golf pro shops. If you have a golden retriever book, think pet stores and dog shows. Any venue that isn't a bookstore is a great place to sell books-- because you can display your books as you like, get a larger cut of the retail price, and best of all, you're often the only book! So take your book to the sci-fi convention -- the firemen's ball -- the ski shop -- the writing convention. Bring it anywhere there might be an audience for it. And see how well it will sell in markets that aren't bookstores.

  • Think about building reality into your book (especially with novels, which can be particularly difficult to market.) Put in real place names, real restaurants, real hotels, real associations, real websites and organizations. And then market your book to those venues. If your book mentions the local neighborhood Italian restaurant, try asking the owner if she'd like to sell copies at the register. If it mentions a real association, find out if they'd want to consider a quantity purchase for their members. If it mentions a corporation, find out if they'd like you to give a talk-- and then sell your books at the back of the room. All possibilities, and all pay better than bookstores.

    My Publishing Game series were all written at my local Seattle's Best Coffee. Because they were so nice to me while I was writing the books, I mentioned the Seattle's Best Coffee staff in my dedication. When the books were published, I brought them in as a thank you, and to show the staff. The books were left sitting behind the counter for a few days, and the next time I came in the manager asked me if they could sell the books in Seattle's. "So many people have come in asking to buy them," she noted.

    At the local bookstore, they only stock one or two of each of my books. They shelve them spine out. They pay me 45%. At Seattle's, they stock ten copies of each of three books. They shelve them attractively on bookstands and in carefully arranged stacks; they're the only books in the store, so they stand out next to the coffee paraphernalia. And they pay me 75%. Guess where I'd rather be selling my books?

So, you starting to see that bookstores are just the beginning as far as places to speak and sell books go? Now, let's turn to an area where confusion, misconception, and excess hype often rule the day, and see if we can't shine a little light on things...

Find Out More...

40+ Ways to Make Your Next Book Signing an Event! - Larry James

How to Have a Successful Booksigning - MaryJanice Davidson

How to Make Your Booksigning a Sell-Out! - Judy Azar LeBlanc

Tips and Tricks for Booksignings - Kim Headlee

Copyright © 2006 Peter Bowerman.
Excerpted from The Well-Fed Self-Publisher

This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Peter Bowerman, a commercial writer and business coach, is the author of the 2000 Book-of-the-Month Club selection, The Well-Fed Writer and its 2005 companion, TWFW: Back For Seconds (both self-published), how-to "standards" on lucrative commercial freelancing (http://www.wellfedwriter.com). In 2006, he released The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living (http://www.wellfedsp.com). With 55,000 copies in print, his books have provided him with a full-time living for over five years.


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