I recently did a signing at a major chain bookstore. Great. Kudos for me; I’ve done them before. It’s no big deal if you work it properly and do the right due diligence beforehand. Something didn’t quite set with me right, though, and as I got everything together I realized what it was: this store treated authors like music venues treated musicians. You might be thinking “I’d love to be a rockstar!” That’s not what I mean. Most modern venues typically abuse artists and seek to steal their platforms, or at the very least, profit greatly on it. It’s often called Pay to Play by bands not working the national scene and I’ll explain how it’s bad for authors and bad for music artists
For most venues since the rise of social media, the thought has gone like this:
1. Artist has friends/followers. 2. Require overtly or implicitly that their friends must show up. 3. Capitalize on the built in fan-base. 4. Require all promotion, advertising, etc. be done by artist; the venue might hang a flyer. 5. Collect money from fan-base for purchases (and possibly even require bands to pay in order to perform, some are overt, others as hidden fees for “equip/stage rental” sound-guy fee, etc.
It actually reminds me of a Spongebob Squarepants flashback episode where Spongebob gets the frycook job and negotiates an initial salary of paying Mr. Krabs $100 an hour.
Many bookstores have figured out that this model, while generating less sales, requires zero investment and no work on the part of the staff (and usually the person booking an author event is the same person who would have to do this extra legwork). This has always typically been the norm in smaller, Indie stores; it seems like relations managers at bigger chains have keyed in on this.
Here’s the story in a nutshell. The store was eager to discuss a signing and it’s in a medium-sized town about two hours from my home. The large store I was at continually asked me how much I was planning to spend on adverts and how many of my local friends I could expect to come and buy books in the store along with whatever other shopping they might do, (just like paying a cover charge and then buying drinks at the venue). After explaining how well I’d done in a sister store, I told them how many books I’d expect to sell (15-20) in my time there with a similar setup and gave them estimates on how many books they should buy. I got there and they didn’t have me setup anywhere visible to the customers as they entered, in fact, I was barely able to see or talk to a customer until after the shoppers had already checked out and headed back for the exit. (I should’ve probably asked to be moved—I did arrive early, so that’s on me, but I had assumed they would want to put me in the best place for success. That just wasn’t so, so I’m now explicit on what I’d like my setup to look like). They also ordered more than twice what I’d recommended they buy. I really tried to sell ten books—but didn’t quite make it. The store sent all the books back the next day, even though some of my contacts did go to the store mid-week looking for them (because they’d ordered so many I had to pay return shipping to the printer who destroyed the overstock and I actually lost money for every book they carried because of the slim profit margin on larger books+return shipping costs.) Was a pretty bad weekend if I was only going to make money (add in costs of travel, food, etc.)
Once the event wrapped up, I had the distinctly dirty feeling that I got whenever my band had a poorly attended concert because the venue had done nothing but hamper our cause with bad practices. I should probably note that managers aren’t necessarily intending to trip you up—they just want to do less work or perhaps don’t realize that they are turning a potentially successful event into a difficult one. Education and clear communication helps fix that.
There has to be a happy medium where stores partner with readers. Sometimes fans will come in to see an author (I usually generate a handful, but they usually have my books already) but an author is really there to help the store make more sales and connect with readers. Of those customers I did talk with, I sold more books by other people than my own via recommendations or helping direct shoppers to other parts of the store. If a store is relying only on your efforts to sell books to your existing fan-base and stick you in a broom-closet for the signing they shouldn’t be surprised when it goes poorly. To ensure better success, have a specific checklist of requests for them and be upfront that you are there to help them sell books, but will be most successful if they:
-Put you where you can make eye contact with people entering the store
-Make announcements every 30-60 minutes via intercom
-Take out a social media ad and/or tag local readers they know who might enjoy your book based on genre
-Have the signing area prepped and ready prior to my arrival (and perhaps set a copy of the books at the register with a sign stating the signing/autograph details and times—if they could do this a few days in advance that’s a bonus! You can even leave a note that you’re willing to sign books if they purchase the book prior to the event and leave them with the manager to be picked up later)
-Use wisdom and have reasonable expectations for book sales
Here’s the moral of the story: don’t do book signings to make money. In fact, be happy if you break even. Find the most economic ways to get to the signing, keep your costs down, and go with the attitude that you are there to meet, greet, and network in order to build up future success (I flew to Printer’s Row with free airline miles and split booth costs with other authors so that I pretty much broke even—do what you have to so you get out there; sacrifice, but within reason). Understand that the stores don’t really care that much about you—they are in the business of selling books. Help them do that, but also help them understand that you can’t help them if they don’t set you up to succeed. Be smart, and happy selling.