The (Hard) Truth About Book Signings

I had a friend, newly published, have her first book signing recently, at a major chain store. She came back so disappointed that it broke my heart. Yet her experience is not uncommon. So I want to share with you the harsh truth about in-store book signings.

Firstly, in-store signings are almost never the huge events you see from authors like Stephen King or Stephenie Meyer. If you are already a New York Times best-selling author, they might be very close. But if you’re a relatively new, mostly unheard of author, you shouldn’t expect those numbers. It’s the reason most publishers won’t send authors out on tours, because for the vast majority of authors, they aren’t cost effective.

Reality check, most authors sell between 5-12 books at an in-store event. This number can be higher if it’s in your hometown where all your friends and family live, or can be higher or lower depending on factors such as where they put you in the store, your genre, and other events happening that day. It has nothing to do with how good your book is or how you rate as an author. (Though a kick ass cover and table display always helps.)

For example, my first mini-book tour I hit five (relatively close to my home) cities. At my home town event, I sold ten books. At the next one, I sold 2, and at the next I sold NONE. The final two events were 2-3 copies each.

The tour was a HUGE expense on my part for very little reward. Why? Because I was still an unknown author. Not only that, but I had no idea how to run a book signing, something all authors need to be very, very good at to be wildly successful. Another thing I learned, many people don’t actually buy books in stores anymore. They use them as showrooms, then order online for the steep discounts. Which is why having excellent marketing SWAG is a MUST. Even if it’s just bookmarks with your cover, name, and website info on it. Something people can take and use to look you up later is imperative.

So while sure, she may have only sold five copies, she may still see a boost in her online sales because, just for a few hours, her book had store visibility. And that’s so important.

Another time, much more recently, I had an event at a popular indie store and again, sold zero books. Because as it turns out, some big name basketball star was in town signing autographs at the school right across the street. No way I could have known, and yet, it tanked my event. However, the store kept several signed copies on shelf and sold them over the next few weeks to their regular clientele.

How do you deal with a store signing that is sucking your soul? Sometimes it helps to bring a friend or ‘assistant’. Not only can they fetch you cookies and coffee in the down time, but having someone to talk to makes the time pass faster. And I’ve found that people are more likely to approach your table if you aren’t staring at them expectantly, begging them with puppy dog eyes to buy a book. For some reason, people can be really intimidated by authors. So feel free to chat with your buddy, but when someone does approach your table, smile and greet them immediately.

Another thing that will happen at nearly every event (or maybe this is just me, but I doubt it) is that you will be faced with the inevitable rude/crazy person. They are almost always another writer. They will almost always demand you read their latest manuscript or insisting on telling you the entire plot of a story they have yet to write, only to get antsy and tell you not to “steal” their million dollar idea. Sometimes they will be harmless enough, but sometimes they will straight up put you down, for whatever reason.

Examples from real life:

“I’m an author, too. I just printed out my book and got it bound at Staples. It’s only $17.99 on ebay.”

angry frustrated scrubs screams internally

“Well, I self-publish. I don’t know how you traditional authors can make any money at all.” (This can go the other way too, but it seems more rare in my experience.)

angry spongebob squarepants frustrated annoyed squidward

“My parents published my book.”

frustrated annoyed eye roll disgusted kristen schaal

“How much did you have to pay to print this?”

frustrated merida exhausted tired brave

“I got an offer from a publisher too. They only want $5K to publish my book. It’s gonna be a best seller.”

angry buffy the vampire slayer mad hate buffy

“I have the best idea for a book, but I have a real job. Do you want to write it for me and we can split the money?” (<— this happens a LOT. Like so much)

animated frustrated upset bed emotion

I even had one lady pick up my book, holding it hostage while she loudly complained that authors like me were making it impossible for “real writers” like her to get her books in store. I tried to kindly explain that it’s publishers who get books on shelf and she started arguing with me and calling me a sellout. Her books, she told me, were only available at the Resturant across the street where she worked. To this day I wonder if she was simply jealous of my (humble) success, or if there were some kind of drugs involved.

confused wut jane the virgin jtv yael grobglas

These sort of interactions can make you never want to do a signing ever again. It’s cruel, disheartening, and for those of us that have anxiety issues to boot, it can be a physically painful experience.

But to authors, I say this: Do them anyway. Do your best. Because at the end of the day, it’s part of your job. It’s great exposure (no matter what your sales are) and it can introduce your book not just to new fans, but it can make fans of the book store staff, which is a big deal when people ask them for book recommendations literally all day every day.

For readers and store patrons I say this: Be kind. We are just normal people like you (ok, maybe not normal) and honestly, we just like interacting with you. So stop at the table. Say hello, take some swag. You don’t have to buy the book, that’s fine. Just a nice conversation can make a terrible, awful event feel worthwhile.


**Quick note, if you ARE planning a book event/signing, you can find some helpful tips here:


The (Hard) Truth About Book Signings — 18 Comments

  1. Yeah. Next time I am definitely bringing a friend or two. I was trying not to look too needy, but inside I was screaming, “Somebody talk to me! I am so bored!” 🙂

    • I try to be as kind as possible. Usually just something simple like, wow that’s great, I hope that works out for you. Or (on those write my book with me ones) I’m sorry, Im just really busy with other projects right now.

  2. Reminds me of “As Time Goes By”. Alistair sets up a book signing for Lionel, and tells him that he bribed a few people to by the book. When Lionel asked him how will he know these people from the rest, Alistair tells him that they will wink at him. Everyone in line winked at him.

  3. I now have 18 books in print. I remember my first autograph signing several years ago in my hometown. I actually sold 65 books. I advertise to the hilt for by signings. I do at least 12 a year and do pretty good. I own my own publishing company and do all the work myself. It can be hard work to make money at signings but you have to really sell yourself and not let people walk by your table. I stand in front of it with a book in my hand. Some people are turned off by it, but it does increase your chance to sell a book. if you sit there looking bored, your potential buyers/readers won’t take you serious. You have to have confidence so people will be confident with your work. After all these years, I’m still an unknown but average 50-100 plus books sold a signing because I refuse to take “NO” for an answer. Get creative and make your signings as business. Check out my pictures on facebook @Mark Ailes. You can also message me through there with any questions. I can give you some advice how to increase your sales.

  4. Back when Waldenbooks was one of the major chains, we had a local store ask me and my co-author to sign our latest release. The store manager said it would be huge! So many readers wanted to get signed books. It sounded awesome! He made it sound like we’d be inundated with fans. On the day . . . nobody came. He’d done everything right–advertised on radio and print, we were featured on a sign in the window for almost a week, and he’d even put it on the outdoor sign for the whole mall!

    All of us were befuddled. But then the following week, I went in to buy something (sort of an apology for our poor showing, y’know…) He was over the moon, and asked us back again as soon as he re-stocked. Now completely confused, I asked why, when it had been so dismal. He said that not more than 20 minutes after we LEFT, people stormed the stores, looking for copies of signed stock we’d left. Thinking he’d somehow miscommunicated the time of the event, he asked the buyers why they hadn’t come to the signing. The almost universal answer? “Oh, I’d never have the nerve to actually talk to a real author!” Several more variants of that came out, including that the reader had walked by several times, trying to get up the nerve to say hi, but was afraid of gushing, or that they were with family and didn’t want the family to know they read books (yeah, really!)

    So, yes, even if it SEEMS nobody cares, people do. And even if you don’t want to sit for 2-3 hours, staring at people who avoid your eyes, at least stop by the store and sign stock (making sure, of course, that the store actually has some of your books on the shelf by skulking around before you introduce yourself.) The store will treat you like a celebrity for a few moments, which is nice, and often you’ll get special placement in the store for a day or two.

  5. Having done a number of signings with someone who wasn’t a bestseller when she started let me offer the following:

    Post flyers. Post them in grocery store bulletin boards. Post them on walls. Put them up at your library bulletin board. Just like bands do. If you can get family or friends to help so much the better.

    Invest in your signing. It doesn’t have to be huge. But offer something to make people stop, even long enough to browse. Cookies and napkins will work. Or get something like pens printed with your name and book title. Even if you’re a bestseller it helps. Ask the company who quit printing coupons because they were so well known. In six months their sales dropped. You need something that makes people remember you.

    Being polite costs you nothing. Even if they are not interested in your book thank them for stopping.

    Correct responses to the various people who will stop: “I am sorry your book didn’t get published yet. Hopefully soon.”

    “Sorry I don’t have time to read your manuscript/write your story, I have so many ideas of my own to work on I will probably never get them all on paper. But good luck!”

    “Is there any such thing as too many books out there? I am sure yours will soon be on shelves!”

    “Thank you so much for buying it! I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.’

    Ask to sign stock copies. Many stores will face signed copies.

    Do bring along another person. People are herd animals, if we see someone standing and perusing a book we are compelled to at least check the title.

    Be prepared to answer where the restroom is, even though you don’t work there.

    Make friends with your booksellers/librarians. Many times they hand sell books. They oft times have stands were the sellers put their favs.

    See if you cannot arrange to sign with another author. Three is even better.

    If someone makes a point of coming up to tell you how horrible your book is you don’t owe them anything. You can however say “I am so sorry you didn’t enjoy it. Have you tried the new one?”

    Don’t be afraid of knowing other authors in your genre. You can ask… “Do you enjoy X? My book is the same genre. I hope you will give me a read.”

    Many libraries have a request section. Request they purchase your book. You want to get it in more hands.

    Dress it up a little. Jeans and a ratty t-shirt are good for home, not your signing. You don’t need a dress and heels, but treat it at least like you work in an office.

    Smile! No one wants to approach a grump.

    Like anything else, you will have to invest time and effort. And this list is just for signings. Good luck!

  6. Crazies come out no matter where you are on the book-signing spectrum. And the best way to react to them is to treat them with courtesy and a polite noncommittal response, as Sherry says, no matter how angry you get. I’ve had many signings where I sold 0-5 books. Many. Now that I’ve stopped writing the Sookie novels, my numbers are dwindling again. So many people are buying the ebook version, and they never think about getting anything signed.

    • Ok, firstly, *bows Wayne and Garth style* I’m not worthy!! How on earth did I JUST see this comment today, so many months later? *sigh*
      Secondly, it’s really good to know this isn’t just a problem for newer authors. I know it seems odd, but knowing everyone struggles with it really does make it a bit easier. 🙂 Thanks!

  7. For those of us who aren’t authors, but love to attend author events, I say, “don’t give up!” It’s great to be able to talk to an author in person. That being said, the best events are ones that aren’t just about the book signing, but have a talk or presentation bit as well.

  8. I have found all of this to be true. Also, at any given signing, I can guarantee and elderly man will stand at my signing table for at least twenty minutes to explain to me why he would never read my books, why they’re not really a valid use of my time or my college degree and why my genre is dirty and pointless.

  9. Oh, thank you. I needed this post! At my last book signing, I sold zero. The one before that – one book. The one before that – 3 books. I felt like it was just me. It was so painful. Plus, I had two different rude/crazy people at one event, and one who was terrified of me but approached my table shaking – so I tried to make her laugh. (tried) Thankfully, my family bolstered my ego and bought me chocolate.

    • Oh no! Yes, be assured this is totally normal, especially as you are growing your fan base. Chocolate is your best friend lol!

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