Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bumblebees to the Rescue

Sharon Wildwind

The ideas of book tours and book signings come out of a past when there were virtually no other way for writers to reach readers, and when almost every book “worth something”—that is, we can eliminate pulp fiction—was published by a major publisher.

The publisher would pay for a train ticket and the author would get on a train and make stops in major cities. The signings themselves were mostly considered the icing on the cake. The real reason for getting the author to those cities was so they could be interviewed by the local newspaper book review editor, and have a review appear in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, or the Boston Globe, etc. Major big-city newspapers where the real power in selling lay.

Today, many writers do signings because that’s what other authors do or because they know they have to do something and they can’t think of anything else.

The realities of book signings:

They don’t have to take place in bookstores. Most mystery writers today niche market. If the book has a golfer in it, they sign in pro shops. If it has a dog, they sign in pet stores. If it takes place in the American Revolution, they sign at historical re-enactments.

If you ask 5 people about the feasibility or even the possibility of signing at XYZ bookstore, you will get 8 different opinions about if that bookstore treats writers well and would consider your book. Recently there has been a huge discussion on some of the mystery lists about certain bookstores charging authors several hundred dollars to hold a signing or other bookstores requiring that the author guarantee an audience of (pick a number) will attend their signing.

The biggest single factor as to if you will get a signing slot is your personal relationship with the person who picks the people to sign. Personal as is knows you as a person, has a working relationship with you, maybe you’ve been to coffee, etc. Sometimes the people who make these decisions actually work in the bookstore, sometimes they are thousands of miles away in a centralized office. Yes, all independent stores and chains have policies, but it’s the individuals who know how to bend those policies.

The biggest single factor as to if you will be welcomed and your book signing will go well depends on who is the front-line store manager. That’s not the person called “manager,” but rather the person that’s in charge of running the store on the day you have your signing. This can range all the way from a savvy person with tons of experience with signings and a love of authors to a sixteen-year-old work-study student has never been to a book signing, has no idea what they are, and no one told her you were coming today.

Many bookstores schedule their signings a year in advance, but at the same time they want authors to sign the same same day, the same week, etc. that their book is released. This creates a catch-22. You have to convince the store to give you a signing date long before your book comes out, but you haven’t got a track record because the book isn’t out, and you can’t bank on the projected release date being the real date your book is available.

There are all sorts of lists, some of them humorous, some not, about why you should never arrange a signing on certain days of the week or at certain times of the year. The reality is that any day, any time, is a crap shoot. You might have done wonderful market research and picked an ideal date, only to discover when you get there that the local sports team is unexpectedly playing their biggest rivals in a death match for first place or that there is a tornado warning and everyone has been advised to stay home. Or both.

Just like the number of review spots is limited and declining, so the number of signing dates are limited and declining. If stores schedule signings at all, they will do a limited number each year, usually somewhere between 40 and 6. Unless they specialize in mysteries, you are in competition with all of the celebrity authors, cookbook authors, children’s authors, local authors, and how-to-knit-a-sweater-in-15-minutes-a-day authors, etc. The people who will get preference are the ones who are either celebrities or who can put on a show—a cooking demonstration, a interesting workshop, a knitting class, etc.—in addition to signing books.

Never, ever be lulled into thinking your books will be available, in the store, on the day of the signing. Always bring books with you.

Outside of a book signing that you can pack with family and friends, the average book signing attendance, 50 people. Average sales 3 to 10 books. Anything over 10 is gravy.

Bottom line: every signing is a crap shoot. Some you win, some you don’t.

Having said all of that, like the bumblebee who doesn’t know he can’t fly, so he goes ahead and does it, authors still have successful book signings, even in this e-age. Here are some ways to do it:

Get a map. Draw concentric circles around your town, a 1-hour drive from your town, and a 3-hour drive from your town. If you live in a really big city, your first circle should be around your part of town; the second circle the entire city; and the third circle a 1-hour drive from town.

Don’t rely on the Internet or the phone book. Drive, walk, or take a bus around as much of your inner circle as you can. Note the booksellers—that’s different from book stores because grocery stores, drug stores, department stores, etc.—may all sell books. Think outside the box. Is there a merchant who sells something that has a tie in to your book? Are there schools, libraries, or community centers, etc. that you might approach?

From your tour, make a list of between 5 and 10 places you might approach for a signing. Now use the phone book and/or Internet to get their addresses. Phone them and ask for the name of a person you might contact. No e-mail: it’s likely to be deleted. Make a phone call or send a letter. Introduce yourself and ask questions about their business or services. Get to know them first before asking them for something. Once they know who you are, they will read your e-mails instead of deleting them.

Offer a class or a workshop instead of asking for a signing. I have a short presentation on “What’s Hot in Mysteries,” where I talk about what current mystery trends are and which mystery writers have won awards this year.

After you’ve seen how this goes in your inner circle, decide if you can and want to approach businesses and groups in your second and third circles.

Take advantage of places you’re going to visit anyway. If you spend a week with Aunt Myrtle in Great Falls, Montana every summer, aim for a signing there. But don’t expect to show up at a local store and sign. Start on your trip this year to build a relationship with someone in Great Falls for a signing next year.

Bring a shill with you. Chester Campbell does this go great advantage. His wife stands at the book store door and asks people as they enter, “Do you like mysteries? There’s a mystery writer signing right over there.”

In addition to bringing your own books, also bring your own promotional display material. At the very least a mini-poster, with your photograph and the name of your book(s), and a table-top easel on which to set it. If you’re driving to the signing, bring your own table and tablecloth as well. It pays to be prepared.

If the signing comes apart and there’s only you and the three store employees there, make it a fun time for the employees. Get to know them, make them feel okay that no one showed up, help them shelve books if you have to in order to pass the time. If they remember you as a good-natured person who was out to help them, they will hand sell for you long after you’ve left the store.

If all this sounds impossible, or too much trouble, always remember nowhere is it written that an author MUST do book signings. Unlike our hapless author who was put on a train by their publisher, there are tons of ways out there to publicize a book without doing a single signing.
Promotional quotes for the week:

The sign of a rookie is, “But so-and-so does it this way.” What matters is what you do.
~Denise Tiller, mystery writer

Do what you have with what you’ve got where you are.
~Theodore Roosevelt, writer, soldier and U.S. president


Kim Smith said...

Seeing as how my book has been released in Ebook form first, I am thankful to have this post to read. I felt sort of left out on the booksigning thing, with no book to sign! but I see now that much promotion can be done virtually and can be quite successful. thanks!

Sofie Kelly said...

Great advice, Sharon. And I love the Teddy Roosevelt quote.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Anonymous said...

This is such good advice! Thanks for taking the time to talk about it.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Kim, there are tons of ways to promote. You might check out some of the guerilla marketing books by Jay Conrad Levinson. If you google his name, you'll find his site.

Everyone should take today off, but tomorrow we'll be back out there flying with the bumblebees

Happy New Year

Dana King said...

This might be the best post about the pros and cons of signings I have ever read. Thank you, much to be learned here.