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.”
“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.)
“My parents published my book.”
“How much did you have to pay to print this?”
“I got an offer from a publisher too. They only want $5K to publish my book. It’s gonna be a best seller.”
“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)
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.
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: http://sherryficklin.com/how-to-host-a-book-launch-party/