Book Signing Tips

By Victor DiGenti

As the veteran of countless signing events over the past four years, I’ve tasted the thrill of sales success and the agony of failure. To echo Dr. King, I have been to the mountaintop, but also found myself crushed by an avalanche of disappointment.

Through it all, I’ve learned not to take any of it too personally. I hate to admit it, but I understand I may never enter that elite hall of fame reserved for writers with the power to attract large armies of fans at every book signing. Since my last name isn’t Patterson or King, I just have to appreciate the people who do find their way to my table.

Even so, there are ways to maximize your time on the front lines of book signings, and therein lies this particular tale. It’s the tale of two authors. Both of them were at the neighborhood Barnes & Noble last weekend for a 2:00 p.m. signing. Tables were set on either side of the front entrance. The first author, and let’s call him Vic just for the heck of it, arrived at 1:30 and rearranged the books on his table, adding a few promotional items and an enlargement of his cover. He then went to meet the customer relations manager, giving her several announcements she could read on the store PA system to promote his appearance. He also greeted some of the other sales people on duty letting them know he was one of the featured authors that afternoon.

The other author, who will remain nameless, didn’t arrive until 2:45 p.m. He was from out of town and got lost. He didn’t have any promotional props to attract people to his table. During the 45-minutes before the other author arrived, Vic sold ten books and distributed his cards to a dozen more people. He was on his feet, greeting people, handing them his post card, trying to engage them in conversations.

The other author? He sat at his table reading magazines the entire time. If someone approached him, he’d put down the magazine, tell them about his book, and managed to sell two of them before he left—about 90 minutes after he arrived.

What was the difference between these two authors? Obviously, you should first know how to find the bookstore. Remember Yogi Berra’s sound advice, “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.” Always leave home early enough in case you get lost or run into traffic problems. I make it a point to arrive a half-hour early to introduce myself to the manager and sales people, as well as set-up the table and give myself time to get into the “selling mode.” The only time I sit is when I’m signing a book, and even then continue to converse with the buyer.

Not everyone feels comfortable with the mantle of salesman. It took me a while to emerge from my introspective author’s cave and take on the persona of silver-tongued devil. Understandably, it’s not always easy to engage people at a big box book store where most folks have very specific reasons for being there, which seldom include purchasing one of my books. Customers often mistake me for a store employee and I find myself directing them to the restrooms, or to the latest James Patterson release (yep, the rascal puts one out every month), or to the Customer Service desk. But I’ve also found that far more sales are made by being approachable and offering a friendly greeting than waiting for the customer to approach you.

Okay, you say, so what else will help me sell books?

There are many things authors can do to boost sales, but a few of them happen before you even have your book published. First, you should, of course, write the best book you possibly can, and make sure it’s professionally edited. It’s also important that the outside of the book is as compelling as the prose inside. Whoever said you can’t judge a book by its cover never tried to sell one in a store with 50,000 other books competing for the customer’s attention. Make sure your cover is professional and grabs the reader’s eye.

Don’t forget the back cover. After looking at the front cover, most people will turn it over to read the copy on the back. This should be persuasive, selling copy. It should hook them, just as your first page hooks them, and make them want to read more. Blurbs also play a major role in whether they’ll carry the book to the check-out counter. So make every effort to find credible reviewers to provide sparkling testimonials you can add to your back cover copy. You should make a list of potential reviewers and authors and send them an advance review copy at least four months before the publication date. This gives you time to add the better blurbs in the final printing.

Back to the signings. I’m sometimes asked if it’s difficult to obtain a bookstore signing. The answer is yes and no. It all depends on your book and which store you’re trying to enlist to your cause. If your book is readily available through the major wholesalers and the store manager can find it on her computer program, then you’ll have a much better chance. It’s always best to introduce yourself in person. Show them the book and give them a promotion packet. This should include a release on the book, author’s bio and photo, cover image, any good clips you’ve received, list of appearances, etc. You can spend a lot of money on these kits, but it’s not necessary. Purchase some nice pocket folders and make color copies of your book cover to paste on the front. Stuff it with the requisite materials and you have a perfectly acceptable promotion packet.

Once you have a signing date, you can’t rely on walk-in traffic. You should keep a list of contacts, buyers, friends, and others who might be interested in your appearances. Think about breaking it down into geographic regions. For instance, if you do a signing in the Orlando area, you can pull up your list of people who live in that area and send them an email. Also, remember to alert the media. Most bookstores won’t do this.

The larger stores will often create posters to advertise your appearance and add the date to their calendar of events flyers. Smaller stores, with smaller budgets, can’t afford this so you might offer to make them a poster or give them flyers to distribute at the register.

Remember to be proactive when you’re at the store. Speak to the people as they walk by, smile and hand them a book mark or post card. Ask them a provocative question. “Do you need a little romance in your life?” And have your pitch ready. Memorize a pithy 20-second summary of what your book is about. If their eyes don’t glaze over entirely, you can continue with more while placing the book in their hands.

And finally, after you’ve made the sale and autographed the book, thank your new reader sincerely. Look them in the eye and hand the book to them as though it’s the Holy Grail. You’re building customer loyalty. You never know how many people she’ll tell about your book and the friendly author she met.

There are no guarantees in life, but compare yourself to the two authors in this tale and see which one makes more sense.

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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