Sunday, May 5, 2013

Lessons From a Book Signing

A couple of weeks ago, I was "volunteered" to set up a joint book signing here in Dallas as a charity event to benefit Kevin Tipple and his family in Plano, Texas. The signing would include Earl Staggs (mystery author from Fort Worth), Jenny Milchman (best-selling Ballantine author with her first novel now out in hardcover), and little old me.

I jumped for joy. "WOW! What a score! I get to sign books and have a little party with well-known authors! And all I have to do is find a venue, make the food and decorations, get the door prize/raffle basket ready, call everyone I know to attend, and invite any other authors who'd like to join in (I invited Janis Susan May Patterson). Oh, and keep track of how many books are sold so we can do the charity donation. Simple, huh?"

How tough could it be?

First, to set the venue. I'd get the biggest bookstore in the fancy part of Dallas, for sure.

Um. It turns out that Barnes and Noble is not impressed with your idea of a book signing unless you are employed by a New York City publishing house and you are offering Stephen King. Other bookstores (including Half Price Books, believe it or not) rebuffed me as well. I began to despair--but then I realized that a funky independent store, Lucky Dog Books, would be perfect. They have three gorgeous locations, and the one on Garland Road has an excellent Event Room. After a few false starts, I finally got in touch with the proper authority and got clearance for us to sign on Sunday, April 28th.

I set the agenda with input from the others. We would start right at 1 PM, have Jenny Milchman talk and do a Q&A session, let the other authors stand up and give a brief hi-ho and hold up their books, sign books, and schmooze for a while until 3 PM rolled around, at which time we'd raffle off the basket of donated books and pick ten extra names out of the hat. Those ten would get to have a special 20-minute session with Jenny so that she could talk to them about her path to publication and how they should proceed. Then all the authors and their families would exit with alarums and excursion to El Fenix for lunny-dinny.

Ha. HA. HA!!

We did have a blast. However, it was more of a salon/flash mob than an official signing. My intended agenda went bye-bye. After I set up the food, the decorations, the raffle basket (into which everyone threw a couple of books), and my own books (ahem), Earl and Kevin sat down with me and my entourage (all right, just my mom) and waited for the action to kick in. Several authors marched in as 1 PM rolled around and the event opened. They plopped down in the comfy chairs and proceeded to talk about their books and themselves. (LOL) Not really, but we all began to schmooze and compare notes. Everyone contributed to the overflowing raffle basket until there were 22 books in total for a prize!

Jenny brought two clerks from the Grapevine Mills location of Books-A-Million, and they carried copies of her book from their store. They were recruited by my 83-yr-old mother to blow up balloons. Children began to arrive, and they immediately started bouncing balloons off authors (politely, of course). We put balloons on the store's sign and arrows pointing to our signing (in the back room where they hold events--it is REALLY NEAT and you should set something up there the next time you're in town! Tell John I sent you.) We might have been a little noisy, but that's why they have a special events room. Jenny did get to give a brief talk, but it wasn't organized. I was too tired to stand and supervise, so I just let things roll, and it turned out fine.


Notice my mystery NICE WORK, available for perusal. . . .

(You can read more about our event at

Despite the signage, the joyful noise, and all the FOOOOOOD (I took home several bags of cookies and candy). we didn't have a super-huge turnout. The people we had were incredible (a reporter, two Facebook friends, and one of my best friends from high school along with her entire family) and bought books. But we didn't have media coverage and everything was done on somewhat short notice. It could have been a far bigger event.

So that this doesn't happen to you, keep these points in mind when you are setting up any sort of promo event:

* START FAR IN ADVANCE. I didn't have this luxury, because I got the heads-up about two and a half weeks early, but you will probably have a lead time of a month or more. Use this time to set up publicity and recruit people. I had planned to have a couple of my good-looking teenage cousins in the store as plants who would direct unsuspecting shoppers back to the signing room, but they couldn't make it at the last minute. You might be surprised how many people will do what a cute young thing suggests--I mean, when they're directing you to notice an event in a store! Also, I think that if we had been able to publicize it with schools, churches, writers' groups, or wherever, we could have had a cadre of young aspiring writers who'd have loved to hear that 20-minute special talk. Jenny's publicist managed to snag one reporter, but with notice, we might've had the Dallas News.

* HAVE BANNERS AND SIGNS! I had somehow assumed that an author who is on a cross-country tour would have lots of banners, signs, and decorations, so I didn't try to do too much. But as it turned out, our star author had nothing of the kind (except her husband and two young children), so we went without the usual junk that I hang up at my own signings. I should have brought my own BOOK SIGNING TODAY and FREE BOOKS banners and the red/white/blue bunting that I generally hang up. I should have brought the three-way folding cardboard display sign that has all my book covers on it. But I hadn't wanted to usurp whatever she normally used, and I was soooo exhausted by the time the Big Day rolled around, so I didn't. Don't be me. When you do an event, even if you are told that others will bring stuff, bring banners and signage yourself. The worst that can happen then is that you'll leave it in the car. I don't think you can HAVE too many signs and banners. (You know what I mean by banners: those HAPPY BIRTHDAY letters that are on a string that you hang from the front of your signing table or from the ceiling? They are standard. Have them. But have them say BOOK SIGNING TODAY, of course.)

* BRING PRE-MADE FOOD. Originally, my mother was all pumped up at the idea of getting to feed a mob of readers and writers her special Cream Cheese Swirl Brownies and Snickerdoodles. However, my husband absolutely forbade it. The two of them wrangled for some time about this, and I finally invited a lawyer friend of ours over to make the call. He verified that if you feed the public something you've made with loving hands at home and someone says they got sick, you are liable and may be sued for everything you've got. The schools even prohibit kids from bringiing homemade treats to the classroom. So we had to go out a couple of days in advance and get Girl Scout cookies (they aren't good any more, sob) and cookies made by the elves in the hollow tree and wrapped candy and a deli tray that was sealed. Fortunately, we didn't have to run next door to Dallas' premier bakery (the Casa Linda Bakery, rated #1 by the Dallas Observer and other authoritiews) for more food. But you should have some sort of back-up plan in case your people get the munchies.

* NO BEVERAGES. This should go without saying. Even bottled water can ruin books and tables.


* HAVE A WAY TO TAKE CREDIT CARDS AND CHECKS. Lucky Dog was cool! We arranged to sell through their counter. They took the standard 15% commission. This way, we sold more books to people with credit cards and didn't have to worry about rubber checks. You can get a device called "the Square" that'll let you process credit cards through your smartphone if this is not an option for you at your venue. You're on your own with the checks (your bank will charge you $25 and upwards if a check is returned, so be wary.)

* HAVE YOUR PROMO MATERIALS ON THE TABLE AND PRESS THEM ON PEOPLE. I pressed my business cards (both Denise and Shalanna) and promo postcards on everyone. Earl Staggs had a neat laminated page with info about his books. Janis Patterson had a pamphlet that looked really snazzy. If people aren't ready to buy when they meet you, be sure they can look you up on the 'net, read your blog, and see your Amazon page. I have a symbol on the back of my business cards that'll let people "flash" it with a smartphone and go directly to my website's page with my books' descriptions. I think this sort of promo is really valuable.

Be sure to have a good time! Don't worry too much if you don't sell more than, say, ten books or so. People are now aware of you. You got that exposure that you want! You ate ten cookies! You made contacts in the book world. Go forth and rest. You've earned it.

Nice work, eh? If I do say so myself.


Julie Luek said...

Sounds like fun but a lot of work-- thanks for sharing your learning curve with us.

Kit Sloane said...

Really good article on where most of us have been there and done that. It is frustrating, even when you have lots of lead time, to find that lots of people are just not interested. In fact, my publicist found that many people are shy and turned off by events in bookstores and do everything but hide in the stacks to avoid being approached.

What's the answer? We never found it. Luck, I think, is prime. Denise certainly covered the bases, but as one profound mind once said, "You can do everything right, but you still can't force someone to buy something they don't want to buy." I think that was my pithy saying after many, many experiences as related by Denise.

Keep on truckin'!

Kit Sloane
The Margot and Max mystery series from OTP

Shalanna said...

@Julie--yes, it was SO MUCH work. I had no idea what I was getting into. Add in the doctor's appointments that I had the week before, the various crises that cropped up, and my neighbor's sudden illness (my husband had to go over there to help out--I felt like a heel for not being available), and you have a recipe for stress. Still, it was lots of fun. And next time--LOTS of BANNERS! (Balloons were a big hit, as well.)

Shalanna said...

@Kit--we're on the same page. I am at a loss to explain it, too, because I like to go investigate events in bookstores and I never feel pressured. But people have changed over the years, and (gasp) let's face it (no, no, I don't WANT to face it), nowadays authors are a dime-a-dozen and no longer rock stars. Actors, singers, dancers, and politicians get all the good adulation. We're not exciting. *SIGH* We're NICE, though. That has to count for something.

I don't know how to get more people interested in reading, though. One study has shown that 20% of the people buy 80% of the books. In other words, there are some inveterate committed readers who read all the time, and they are the people we need to reach. The other 80% are watching television, looking at videos on the 'net, tweeting and texting their friends and acquaintances, gaming, or getting plugged into some other sort of technology. They weren't brought up on reading, and they probably will not be converts. They like us, but they just don't "GET" reading. *sigh*

After this wake-up experience, I am more committed than ever to learning how to promote and schmooze online the way Sunny does. I think we will have better luck with online venues where readers come to discuss their reading. After all, they have come there to ask about books that others recommend. No need to wear a lampshade on my head and do the dance of the seven veils on the table while offering caviar on rye!

(I'll bet people would pay to see *that*, wouldn't you? I could make a YouTube video of me doing that and juggling copies of my books. It would go viral!)

And so we beat on, boats against the current. Thanks for commenting!

Kit Sloane said...

I remember the big banner my PR gal had made of the cover of that year's book, Extreme Cuisine. It was gorgeous, and not costly. After one event two people wanted to buy it for $50. Why did I say NO???! That was more than I made from the two signings.

I still have the banner...



Beryl Reichenberg said...

Thank you for your post and list of suggestions. I especially like the idea of the folded display board and am off to Staples to get one. Writing children's books, I find that having an activity helps. The signing turns into a mini workshop.

With children, I demonstrate and let them make accordion books and write their own stories. If I am out front of the bookstore instead of in the back room, I engage children and their parents as they walk by. While the kids are making their book, the parents can look at my display and hopefully buy a book. If not, I figure the exposure is good. Balloons and banners help. Brochures and cards do too. Stuffed animals draw in the kids.

A small independent bookstore has a back room where they set up after school workshops for kids, charge $5 for a pizza snack. Publicity is through the usual media and through their school contacts. I had 17 energetic children during my last workshop and sold a couple of books. But we all had fun. I'm scheduled to go back for another workshop in June.
And anything we can do to connect with our audience is helpful. Beryl

Shalanna said...

@Beryl: Great! Your workshop sounds wonderful! That's just what we need to do down at Lucky Dog . . . a workshop to bring in some children and preteens. (For my YA urban fantasy/adventure.) I wish you luck in June. I know everyone will have a blast and will remember the time they spent with you (so they can get your books later)!

Beryl Reichenberg said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Shalanna. I certainly hope it is a success. A lot has to do with group chemistry. I thought having some mothers stay would be a problem, but actually, it worked out fine. They were very helpful and most participated. Good luck on your next endeavor. Beryl