Chances are if you’re reading this you are A) my mother or B) an author interested in having a successful book signing. To the former I say, “Mom, you can stop reading. Also, your chocolate chip muffins were on point as usual.” To the latter, I hope you find this an informative and valuable use of your precious “non-writing” time.
Before I get into the details I’ve got to cover one critically important thing. You have to forget that you are an author and this is your book baby that you spent months and years birthing into the wide world of publishing. You are and it is, but nobody cares. At a book signing, especially for first time or little known authors, you are a salesman and your book is your product. I’ll give you a moment to let the bile settle back into your stomach. Ready? Is it okay to continue? Good. In a bookstore at a book signing you have an amazing chance to reach real live readers and let them know about your book; the more you embrace that the more successful you will be. Think of yourself as a glorified sign spinner pointing the way to an amazing story you want to share. Are you going to be okay? Suppress the gag. Suppress it. It’ll be fine. You’ll be all right. There you go. Shall I proceed? Okay then.
Here are ten things I learned on my very first book tour (because everybody loves a top ten).
- Look presentable. The shut-in reclusive author vibe may have helped you complete your novel but the bookstore and its patrons probably won’t respond to the bedhead hair bun or the hobo beard and uncombed quaff. You don’t have to rock a pant suit or find a tweed coat with patches on the sleeves but you do want to dress for success as they say. And this advice is coming from the guy who tried to convince his wife that wearing his pajamas to a book signing could become his hook, you know, “Hey, that’s the author who wears his pajamas in public.” In hindsight I’m glad I listened to her. Book signings are like dating, it’s probably best to keep your eccentricities to a minimum. Although if anybody has pulled it off let me know in the comments below so I can revisit the fedora conversation with my wife/fashion critic.
- Smile. From the moment you arrive you should be the happiest person in the world to be there. Like I said, this is your chance to talk with readers, real live people who enjoy books. You know, books, like the one you’ve written. A book signing is not a chore or a hassle, it’s an opportunity. Everyone you meet should receive a warm greeting; from the staff (who are your best friends, by the way) to every living breathing soul you meet. Remember they are all potential readers.
- Stand. There are several benefits to this, the first of which is it makes No. 5 a lot easier (but we’ll get to that). At most book signings you’ll be provided a table and a chair. The temptation is to sit in the chair behind the table. Resist, don’t do it. Stand up and remember to smile. I use the chair as a reward. I only sit down when I’m signing a copy. No signing, no sitting. I know signings can last for hours and that can be daunting but I promise nothing feels better than when you settle into that chair and write your name in the copy of your book that they’re gonna take home.
- Have something to look at. You know, besides a standing, smiling author. I have a 20×30 foam board of my book cover. Everyone knows that most people actually do judge a book by its cover so that’s something you’ll want to display prominently. I’ve seen banners, table hangers and even balloons. Have something that will draw the eye and set you apart from the rest of the store. You’ll have a stack of books but there are books everywhere, you need to stand out. Once they pause or look your way employ numbers 2 and 5.
- Engage. Now that you are standing and smiling you need to engage. Chances are the majority of people did not know you were going to be there and, even if they did, you might not be the exclusive reason they came to the store that day. You need to engage them. And unless they are impressed with your standing ability or you have an otherworldly talent for smiling that means you are going to have to say something that will get them to talk with you. “Hello” is a good start but you are going to have to bring a bit more unless you just want to exchange greeting with strangers for two hours. I like to ask them a question or comment on something they are carrying or looking at. It can be anything really. Although, I caution that you might want to be careful about walking up to a woman you don’t know leaning on the bookshelf and asking if she likes mystery. You can get some funny looks that way, uh, I mean, that’s what I’ve heard.
- Have something to say. This is crucial. You can knock 1-5 out of the park but it’s all for naught if you can’t briefly and succinctly describe your story/characters to them. Thankfully I learned this lesson beforehand. I was having lunch with a fellow author, Randy Lindsay, and he asked me to tell him about my book. I fumbled and stammered and started rambling about backstories and setup and I watched as his eyes glazed over. He then told me I needed to come up with a pitch. Not a synopsis or a book report but a short pitch that would give readers a taste of what to expect and a reason to care. It’s important that this isn’t overly complicated. You know your story is good and hopefully they’ll find out but when they stop and ask “What’s your book about?” they are really asking “Why should I care?”
- Have something to give. A bookmark, a business card, a poem, an excerpt from the book, something you can hand out in a hurry. Something they can take with them. Ideally this will have information about yourself, your book, your website or how to find you on social media. Remember this is an opportunity to meet the readers and for them to meet you. The reality though is they might already have an armful of books or a shelf full at home. They might not be the kind of person who decides on the spot and needs time to think it over. Give them something to leave with so they’ll remember that presentable, standing, smiling, engaging author who had something to look at and something to say once they’ve returned home.
- Freebies. You might argue that this could be looped in with ‘Have something to give.’ well it could but I’m trying to get to ten, so sue me. Freebies can be completely unrelated to you or your book. Have candy or popcorn or maybe a raffle for a copy of a previous work. Freebies are another good way to entice people to talk with you and a great way to engage with readers. Don’t have any expectations that your freebies will lead to book sales, because often they will be gobbled up by children or a window shopper with a sweet tooth. It’s just a nice gesture to passersby.
- Bring your own writing utensil. Along with a table and chair, most booksellers will offer you a pen to sign with. While I appreciate the thought I always bring my own pen, one that I am comfortable writing with and trust to have plenty of ink, glide smoothly and not leak. Do yourself a favor, spring for a couple of nice pens and always bring them with you.
- Be grateful. When someone stops and talks with you, thank them and wish them well even if they aren’t interested in your book. Remember your best friends (the staff)? Thank them for hosting you and taking care of you while you were there. Send a note to the manager or owner after you leave and let them know how grateful you are for the opportunity to meet with them their readers. You will never be sorry for being grateful and you’ll never know what it might mean to the person receiving gratitude. Think about the last time anybody thanked you for anything.
So that’s it. You do those ten things and you just had a successful book signing regardless of how many books you signed. You’re welcome.