By Chris Mandeville
The author book signing: you sit behind piles of your gorgeous books, surrounded by adoring readers who buy your books and have you autograph them. Awesome right? But unfortunately not always realistic.
Unless you are very famous, book signings can be dull affairs where the author sits alone twiddling her thumbs, smiling nervously and hoping someone will stop to chat. When someone does stop, it’s indeed awesome to connect with that person, even if they don’t buy a book. But frankly there can be a lot of time spent sitting alone.
Before a signing I find myself anticipating this “alone time,” and not in a good way. Normally when I have a quiet moment to myself I use it to write or brainstorm. But at a signing I can’t be writing or lost in thought because I won’t look inviting and approachable to potential visitors, and those visitors are the whole point of being there.
This notion of sitting idle while my enormous to-do list screams my name is highly distressing to me. In fact, I find the prospect of sitting idle at a signing so distressing, I rarely (never?) schedule a book signing solo. Instead I choose to do group signings with other authors. That way even if no readers stop to talk, I still have the opportunity to connect, network, and learn from other writers.
“Book signings can be fun and fantastic, but I try never to do one alone. Group signings guarantee that even if the public doesn’t swarm, you’ll still have another author to talk to, which is huge to me. Everything I know I’ve learned from other writers, from writing to promoting to which kinds of pens are best to sign books. Plus, with group signings, you have someone to commiserate with when, out of the corner of your eye, you see Diana Gabaldon’s or Hank Phillipi Ryan’s line snaking around the room.”
Camaraderie and commiseration are definitely terrific benefits of group book signings. But more than that, like Becky I’ve learned tons from other writers, and any time I’m with writers it’s an opportunity to put more tools in my writer’s toolbox.
When it comes to book-signings, here are the top five things I’ve learned from authors:
The first thing that draws attention to a signing table is the display. You want to have something eye-catching to grab the attention of passers by. A group signing is a great place to check out a variety of options.
A popular display item these days is a poster or banner that showcases one or more of the author’s book covers. Some are smaller and table-top, while others are larger with a floor stand. I love seeing the different designs and talking with authors about how they came up with their concepts.
One of the most unusual attention-getters I’ve seen at a signing was on the table of horror author Shannon Lawrence:
“Although none of my books relate to these little beasties, they’re great for drawing people to the table for conversation. I always have someone who asks to take a selfie with them, who then tags me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Even if those folks don’t buy books from me at the time, I have great discussions with people (especially with fans of the Alien franchise these are from), which then lead to discussions of the horror genre. At the same time, I get an element of free advertising when they’re tagging me on social media, and maybe some portion of that exposure will pay off at some point.”
– Shannon Lawrence, author of Through Clouded Eyes: A Zombie’s Point of View
For my own attention-getter, I display a pirate flag. It’s large, eye-catching, goes right on the table (I usually pin or tape it to the table/tablecloth), and importantly is easy to transport and nearly impossible to damage. But what do I do if my next book has no pirates? Don’t worry. I’ve been scoping out options at—you guessed it—group book signings.
2. Giveaways and munchables
Once you’ve grabbed the attention of a visitor, you want to keep them at your table. Of course you’ll dazzle them with your smile, wit, and brilliant conversation, but it can’t hurt to give them a gift or two as well. I love browsing group signings to see what other authors have as giveaways. The most common things I see are bookmarks and candy, with chocolate being a runaway favorite.
At a recent group signing I met an author who was walking the room trying to give away tubes of cinnamon candy. “I tried to find something that would be unique,” she told me. But it turned out most people didn’t want it. Unfortunately she’d purchased a lot of it. Lesson here: test a product before buying in bulk.
One of my favorite giveaways I spied when Diane Mott Davidson was signing one of her Goldy the Caterer mysteries and had fresh-baked cookies made from a recipe included in the book. In this genius move the author connected her story with a tasty treat. She definitely hit the sweet spot with that, and I took to heart the lesson of marrying my munchies to my story.
Here’s a closer look at my signing set-up:
On the left is a container of mints. (While chocolate is a crowd favorite, don’t underestimate the desire for fresh breath!) The container holding the mints looks like a pirate skull (it’s hard to tell in the photo) which connects to my story. This gives me a fun way to draw people to my table—“Would you like a pirate mint? It makes you talk like a pirate.” If I have enough room on the table, I also include a treasure chest of apples. It makes for a nice visual, is a healthy snack option, plus it provides a segue to talking about my story because an apple is the catalyst that sends my character on his journey.
In addition to consumables on the signing table, I’ve learned from other authors to always include a take-away that has my website on it. This helps to jog the person’s memory when they get home, and provides them with a way to find me.
There are tons of options for branded promotional items, and you’ll see the gamut at a large group signing: pens, pads of paper, flash drives, balls, lanyards, bracelets, fidget spinners, key-chains. The list goes on. The standard is the bookmark, which is inexpensive to produce and apropos to our product (books). But because bookmarks are so common, it can be easy for yours to get overlooked. I’m always scouting for ways that other authors have gotten their promo items—bookmarks or otherwise—to stand out from the crowd.
At a signing a few years back an alternative to a bookmark caught my eye: a book cover in the size and shape of a baseball card. Still as easy and inexpensive to produce as a bookmark, but different enough to get noticed. I kept this in the back of my mind as a cool option, though at the time I didn’t know what I’d do with it. Later when my book Seeds was released, I remembered the baseball card and had a light-bulb moment: I attached baseball card book covers to seed packets. You can see a close-up in this previous post.
I’m always looking for new ideas for giveaways and munchables, and there’s no better place to find them than a big group signing.
3. What’s new in the marketplace
Group signings are a great place to “take the pulse” of the publishing industry. What’s new, what’s popular. You can find out what other authors are selling, which can be especially helpful when those authors are writing in your genre. Likewise you can find out from readers what books they have been enjoying.
“I love to use book signings to meet new readers, and parents of readers. I watch what they buy (my books and others’), and I always ask for favorite books as a recommendation for me. Book signings are a great way to talk to readers directly, to find out what’s new.”
– FT Bradley, author of Double Vision
This isn’t to say that you should identify a trend and follow it. Rather, I think that being more educated about what’s going on in the marketplace can help you grow your own product, whether or not that product is on trend. It can inspire new marketing strategies. It can lead to future cross-promotions or joint efforts with other authors. And perhaps most importantly, it can lead to a more meaningful connection with a potential reader when you discuss books other than your own.
4.Connecting with readers
Perhaps the idea of connecting with readers at a book signing is so fundamental you think it’s not worth mentioning. But I point it out because I think we tend to regard signings as a venue for selling books to readers, and there’s a big difference in perspective between “selling” and “connecting.”
“For a mid-list author such as myself, book signings are an excellent way to chat with people who read and buy books. Sometimes they buy mine because they meet me and like me. Sometimes they buy because they like the cozy, funny mystery genre I write in. And sometimes they don’t buy at all. But we’ve had the opportunity for a pleasant chat and they might remember that chat at some point in the future. They say it takes at least ten times before someone acts on a marketing message. And that’s what a signing is, along with branded swag, Facebook posts, blogs, newsletters … all the stuff we do that gets our books, our brands, ourselves out into the world. The difference is, with signings, you also get to meet people. And there’s nothing more fun than that.”
I learned from Becky to think of each person I talk with as a “win.” I don’t judge the success of an encounter by whether or not the person buys my book. I look at each conversation as an opportunity to make a positive impression, and I remind myself that it may take multiple impressions before a person buys my book or recommends it to someone else. What counts is making the connection—finding a common interest, sharing a laugh, talking like a pirate. Maybe later that will translate into a sale, but even if it doesn’t, if the experience was a positive one, that’s a good thing in and of itself.
5. Connecting with booksellers and librarians
Recently I was at a group book signing with the incomparable Lori Rader-Day. Not only is she a phenomenal writer, she’s friendly and generous with her time, and had some insightful advice for me:
“Book events in bookstores and libraries are a great way to meet new readers and see friends you may not get to see very often, but most importantly, these events are how you connect with librarians and booksellers who will recommend or sell your books long after you are back home.” – Lori Rader-Day, author of The Day I Died
Holy Toledo, that’s so simple yet so important! Often at a signing we can be so focused on the customers that we forget to connect with the event organizers/employees. A signing—especially a quiet one where you might be sitting idle—is the perfect opportunity to make a personal connection with booksellers and librarians. Let them get to know (and hopefully like) you and your books. Then perhaps they will keep you in mind when they are helping others choose their next great read. Plus don’t forget that they can help you find your next great read!
What have you learned from other authors at a signing? What are your tips and tools for a great book signing experience? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about Chris at chrismandeville.com