For all that I do to pitch books to a live studio audience, I have not done much by the way of book signings… primarily because of a lack of success in my early history with it. Most of those were smaller independent stores in non-metropolitan communities (I haven’t always been the font of self-confidence I am today.) I wanted to change that and while I was booking an event late fall in MN’s capital, St. Paul I contacted the local Barnes & Nobles in the hopes that I could possibly get in to double up on my promo travel dollars. No dice… but mainly because of other bookings, a snafu with my publisher’s listings within Ingram that didn’t have my title listed as returnable at that time (even to this day, the monkeys with typewriters have its size listed incorrectly and we can’t seem to get it corrected.)
After some pleasant conversation and asking for a referral from one manager at a store I used to frequent in my college days I was talking with the right person (that’s always key) – you want to talk to their Community Business Development Manager, or CRM. I set up a date and time to call her in a month to revisit the conversation and verified with my publisher that the changes were setup within Ingram’s catalogue before calling her back. We set a date for a few months down the road and I did some cross-promotion for the event at local cons and outlets (not many showed up from those efforts, but as a principle I try to interact with genre specific crowds to stay current and relevant—just don’t spam people with advertisements: two people actually recognized me as an upcoming guest from a huge Comicon two months from now, so that was cool.)
I knew I wanted to learn as much as I could to help me secure more bookings for my own success, but also to share with my readers and spread success. I picked the brains of two store managers and asked for honest feedback on what I did during my two hour timeslot in the store. My articles about pitching to buyers and browsers during conventions, festivals, and fairs turned out to all be accurate and relevant. “Basically, everything you did was perfect and the prime example of what we want to see,” the manager told me as I wrapped up my roller bag with promo tools inside. “Too many authors come in and sit at the table expecting people to stop, but they don’t. You engaged our customers and that is the number one thing.”
As I mulled over my thoughts, I was glad that I didn’t appear too ostentatious. My voice travels, especially when I’m adding enthusiasm or excitement to my voice—which I always do when I’m pitching my books. Deep down I was scared that they might prefer authors to remain hands off, but realized after his feedback that they bought a bulk order of my books and now own them. They want my help selling them so that they can make a profit (literally, they get more money per book then I do as the author—that’s how it sometimes works.) It makes sense that they want a free salesman to help move units. I thought the whole experience over on the long drive home and compiled a list of Ten Things to keep in mind when doing a Barnes and Nobles book signing:
- DO NOT use your chair. I didn’t sit down one during the signing. I’ve said this a bunch of times before. “Nobody buys books from you if you’re sitting unless it’s in a wheelchair.” The manager agreed my insight.
- Everybody eavesdrops. Be excited and boisterous when you explain your book to someone. It may pull in other potential buyers (even if your first customer wanders away.) About a third of my sales were to people who came over because they overheard me describing a book to someone else and it intrigued them.
- Be Visual/Be Seen. The manager appreciated the fact that I had professional, quality banners and signage that helped point out the event to customers (remember, THEY WANT YOU TO SELL A TON OF BOOKS!) Marketing materials are worth their weight in coin—and the best part is that they are usually reusable. Invest wisely in this area.
- Ask for feedback. Not only does it keep you humble and teachable but it strokes the ego of a manager. Helping make this or her day better is never a bad idea. Remember that you are there to help them sell books, not bolster your own self-worth. It’s a valid trade: you help them with a little slave labor and you receive some platform building/marketing clout in exchange. During your signing, mentally tell yourself that you work for them—so ask them how you can best meet their needs.
- Don’t make assumptions about the store or the staff. It should go without saying, but remember, the lesson above. It’s okay to ask for specific boundaries so you don’t accidentally break a local policy, etc.
- Don’t MAKE DEMANDS. Manager told me how many authors ask for a different location because they think it will put them in contact with more people/better visibility. Understand that they probably put you somewhere specific for a reason and are likely more familiar with what makes a successful event in their store than you are. Be grateful. They didn’t have to let you come and don’t have to let you return.
- Start random conversations! I often look for ways to engage someone. I saw an eleven year old in a Marvel Heroes shirt walking nearby and asked him who his favorite hero was. We bonded, he looked at my books, and became my biggest fan. His dad bought two of my four books. Sometimes I even catcall to people who try not to look at me because they don’t want to engage in conversation, are in a rush, etc. I’ll say “Hey!” and then something weird (but not inappropriate) and say in an awkward voice “Oh no! I was trying not to get suckered into a conversation with that guy by avoiding eye contact and now I’m stuck—somebody help me!” If you make someone laugh, sometimes they come back. Sometimes they even buy books—just don’t be dumb about it. Engage someone like a friend, not a crusty circus carnie. The key word is engage, not alienate.
- DO MAKE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT CUSTOMERS (but don’t ever, ever, ever tell them that.) When someone is carrying a similar genre title in the store it gives you a hint about their preferences (It’s not always right—it could be a gift—but hedge your bet it’s for them). The same goes for dress and appearance. People usually have a type. We’re all walking billboards for personal preferences—we just need to learn how to read them. Are they wearing a Final Fantasy T-shirt or have a Pikachu tattoo on their neck or sport an Ash Ketchum hat? Your historical fiction book may not be the best fit and if he is about to walk by at the same time as an older woman with bifocals who is carrying Killing Lincoln, I know who I’m going to try to engage. If you turn out to be wrong in your guesses, it’s usually enough to backtrack and take a new angle.
- Connect with people. People are only half-buying your book because they think it will be good. The other 50% is because they are sold on you. They are literally paying for this hunk of ink and paper because they met you and felt that an interaction with the author was worth an added value. Don’t discount the relationship opportunities! It’s why you’re in the store so make every effort to connect with people. Give them reasons to become fans instead of customers.
- Believe in yourself. Don’t be timid. The store CRM probably vetted you and your book at least to some degree… they went as far as to purchase some books, so they’ve invested in this thing because they believe in you. All those people coming through the doors? most of them came with money and the intent to buy a good read. Is your book good? Then sell it! It’s got to be good or you wouldn’t be at the store trying to pimp your story for nickels and 5-star reviews. If you’re afraid it’s sub-par then it was never ready for release and you need to pull it from the shelves, go back to editing, and not let it back into the wild until it’s got teeth. You need believe this book is the story that these people need to read. It’s your story. It’s the best story. They came to buy—so make sure you don’t deprive them of the greatest thing they’re going to read this year. You got this.
A few bonus ideas for the uninitiated.
– Have the customer purchase the book before you sign it. I learned the hard way that sometimes people will bail at the register or will have forgotten their wallet and then you have a personalized piece of merchandise that will never sell.
-Whatever you do, own it… just don’t be cocky, though. You’re probably doing these events because you’re not making six digits off your writing right now. If you did make a killing last year, feel free to disregard everything here and do your own thing. That’s cool… and email me what you’re doing so I can learn.
-Send a thank you to follow up.
At the end of my slot the manager told me I was welcome back any time. I also asked him for any outlets, stores, or people I ought to contact next. Don’t underestimate name-dropping or honest advice. I hope this article helps you. If you have any other insights, please leave them in the comments!