How to Organise a Professional Book Signing
If someone asked you to picture “living the author dream”, what is your vision? Is it seeing your name on a book cover? Paying your mortgage with royalties? Hitting a major list and signing books to lines of cosplaying superfans? Admittedly, right now, with so much focus online, it can seem like the humble book signing is dead, but physical retail was big business pre-pandemic and will be again in the future. Indeed, lots of authors make a large portion of their income from speaking engagements and bricks-and-mortar bookstore sales. Some even build their readership primarily through organising frequent appearances at libraries, bookstores and conventions.
Organising book signings isn’t scalable. You can’t flip a switch and reach ten times more readers but, after 2020, we can all agree that human contact is powerful. Seeing readers face to face makes it far more likely that they will remember, like and trust you in a way that can’t fully be replicated in the virtual world, no matter how good you are at marketing. Do it well and you can even create real-world superfans, the sort who talk about you over a coffee or drive miles to pick up your latest release. It’s often said that word of mouth is the gateway to viral success, and while people hardly ever talk about a time they downloaded an ebook, they happily regale friends with their story about meeting their favourite author in a bookshop.
Today’s blog post will discuss how you can become that author, exploring practical obstacles, from distributing correctly to winning over venue managers and growing your professional reputation. Once mastered, these strategies can help you turn an amateurish signing attempt into a slick process in which you charm booksellers and enjoy stress-free events with your readers. Keep reading to learn five useful tips for organising your own professional book signing experiences.
Make Your Books Available
Not every situation requires you to distribute through certain channels. Indie bookshops, for example, will often allow you to bring your own stock and run any books you sell through their cash register. Similarly, craft fairs will charge you for a table and not even track your sales. It’s common for bookstores, supermarkets and other retail outlets, however, to buy the books of their guest authors through their preferred purchasing channels. The author never controls stock directly. A supplier stocks the business at a wholesale price. The author just arrives at the venue to sell the business’s stock and gets paid a royalty much later by the supplier itself, rather than cash on the day.
Many businesses will not allow you to sign unless they can source your books from their regular supplier. Hence, you should ensure that your books are available through them before you even pitch the venue manager. Kindle Direct Publishing’s paperback distribution doesn’t reach many trade distributors. Nor does it allow a big enough trade discount to tempt most physical retailers. However, you can bypass these issues by publishing your print editions through Ingram Spark. They are currently the most far-reaching trade distributor open to indies in both the US and Europe as well as much of the rest of the world.
Pitch Your Book
If you’re fortunate enough to get a massive advance from a traditional publisher then they might assign you a publicist who will do most of your pitching for you. That person will engineer TV appearances, newspaper articles and sometimes signings. Most of us, however, need to pitch ourselves. How that should happen will depend on the situation. Oftentimes, you can approach librarians directly. The same goes for independent bookstore owners where you can set a date and even negotiate a royalty split with a handshake. Large chain stores, in contrast, are more structured, sometimes requiring you to email their head office before talking to a branch manager. The key is to reach the person who can actually authorise a signing.
Once you’ve found that person, you should use an advanced information sheet to make pitching easier. If you’re unsure what to include, you can find examples here. A good AI sheet that is not misleading will help your cause. Once approved, all you need to do is fulfil all of the details you agreed in your pitch. That means showing up when you promised, staying for your allotted time and not disputing the venue’s cut of your sales after the event. Do good on your promises and it might not only ensure that you get invited back to that particular venue but also to partner stores in the future. Remember, store managers have meetings. Make a good impression on one and you’ll likely get recommended to others.
Craft Your Setup
Unless you are a household name, venues won’t give you more than the basic apparatus needed to conduct a book signing. Most of the time, they will only provide a round or rectangle table and a space to sign books. You need to bring the rest. In your setup, you could include a coloured tablecloth, free-standing banners, stands to display your books, a reliable pen, and perhaps a sign-up sheet to note down readers’ email addresses so you can later add them your newsletter.
What you decide to set up should depend on what you want to achieve but also on the venue’s floorspace. For instance, many libraries position signing tables in open spaces, allowing for a full ensemble of book-signing paraphernalia. Supermarket foyers often provide ample space for guest authors too. Bookshops, however, tend to fill more of their retail space with shelving to offer their customers a wider product range. If you find yourself in a small store with cramped isles, it’s courteous to set up only what will fit on your table so that you don’t act as an obstacle for customers. A good setup should look slick and professional but also be flexible to ensure that you do a good job of selling yourself to your host as well as selling your books to readers.
Call Ahead and Reconfirm
You might be perfectly organised, but that’s not always the case for venue staff. In fact, it’s common for authors to arrive and discover they were totally forgotten. No “Guest Author Signing” posters stuck in the window. No stacks of their latest paperback or space cleared for them to set up their gear. We like to assume that everyone is excited about our signings, but that isn’t true. Just like the rest of life, most people are too preoccupied with their own lives to pay attention to other people’s priorities. To bookstore staff, authors are a small part of their workweek. Around your signing, they have sales targets to hit, displays to erect, areas to clean, deliveries to process and customers to please.
To make it easier for everyone and increase the chances of a successful signing, try calling ahead a week before, especially if you booked the event months in advance. That way, the staff will have a timely reminder to clear a space, put up any posters you might have left with them or inform customers about your upcoming visit. Even then, some will do little to prepare so you might want to arrive 30 minutes early on the day just in case you need to do the preparations yourself.
Prepare to Adapt
Sometimes, you can do everything right and things still go wrong. As a result, it’s best to arrive with a toolkit of anything you may need to fix issues that arise. A spare supply of books is the obvious one. Humans forget to send orders and deliveries get lost. Take a box of your own books just in case because even corporate managers will make an exception and run non-supplier books through their tills when the fault is their own. Likewise, some stores, libraries and tourist traps will give you some lunch you can wolf down between customers, but don’t expect it. Always take your own food, even if the duty manager assured you beforehand that some would be provided.
Adaptation is critical, not least in your behaviour. For example, some hosts will place you in a high-traffic area while others will create space at the back of their store. Your positioning will directly affect how many books you sign and sell so learn to work with what you’re given. Get out of your chair, greet visitors to let them know you are the resident author and tell them where they can find your signing table. Readers might not realise you’re an author or they might be too shy to approach. There’s no need to strongarm anyone who isn’t interested. Just be proactive, friendly and helpful – even if it means recommending books by other writers. You’ll get more readers and the venue managers will remember your can-do attitude.
Organising a professional book signing isn’t scalable, but it can be fantastic for driving sales and brand awareness within a local area. Do it well and you will gain a positive reputation among your local book champions who will, in turn, recommend your books long after you have left the building.
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