What I’ve Learned from Book Signings
Book signings are a strange type of event, and different to anything else I have been to. Unlike performances and readings, where the audience are there to see something, signings are interactive, and the author is reliant on the audience coming along purely to make a purchase.
I’ve attended several signings—mostly in bookshops, but also in libraries or at other events—and recently I was privileged to be part of one myself. When Thanet Writers launched Shoal at the Margate Bookie literary festival, fifteen of the contributors (myself included) took part in a mass signing for the sell-out audience. From this, and the other book signings I have been to, there are a few things I have learned.
Settle on a signature
If you use a pseudonym, you’ll need a signature to go with it. I don’t, but I still use a different signature for signing books as I do for legal documents. My personal signature is exactly that: personal. My ‘writer’ signature is something I am happy to be made publicly available, as no one can use it to access my bank account. It is also more legible, and more flamboyant.
Practice your chosen signature until it is muscle-memory, just like your real one, so you will be able to sign without thinking about it.
Signing books over and over is repetitive on your muscles. Make sure you’re not awkwardly positioned or have no room to move. If you are seated, check your posture and get close to the table. If you are standing, give yourself space to walk around.
Bring a pen
The most overlooked and often-forgotten item at a book signing is the humble pen. A friend of mine once forgot theirs and had to borrow one from a librarian, and another realised on their way to a signing and dropped into a pub to acquire one. For the Shoal launch event I had chosen a gel-pen that I had tested on the back page of an old book to check it didn’t bleed through the paper, but I left it at home and had to borrow a standard biro from one of the literary event staff.
I go for functionality when selecting a pen, but others prefer to make a statement. For example, David Chitty has a huge red quill and a vial of blood-red ink which he signs with. It’s definitely memorable, though he does occasionally spill ink everywhere.
Bring lots of books
This may sound obvious, but the worst thing an author could do is sell out of copies with half a queue still waiting. Signings are opportunities to gain a reputation, as readers will (hopefully) share photos of their signed book—or themselves with you—on social media, boosting your own reach. It is worth overestimating the amount of copies you need so you don’t sell out, but bear in mind you will have some left over.
Manage your expectations
I hear from authors I know that selling over ten books is a good day. You may well invite all your friends and family, writers from your local networks, acquaintances, neighbours, everyone you’ve ever met or passed on the street, but they won’t all turn up. Those that do will likely buy one copy only; a family tends to share a book, rather than everyone buying their own. Plus, anyone you’ve already given a book to won’t necessarily buy another one, though they may bring their copy to be signed. Whilst that is another signature, it’s not another sale, and that is the metric which booksellers measure your success by.
Prepare to sell between ten and fifteen but bring at least twenty copies—that way, you’ll feel good about the result no matter what.
Talk to people
Books signings mean getting face-to-face with your readership. They are people, just like you, and they are there for you. Make an effort to talk to all of them. Be memorable; even if you are terrified, don’t show it. Project confidence and you will feel it.
Don’t talk too much
If there is a queue of people then you only need to spend a few moments with each, but if there is a lull in numbers you can take your time. Even so, people don’t want to stand around chatting all day, and you’ll make a greater impact if you say less.
Don’t tell everyone how worried you were that no one would show up, don’t say how many books you’ve sold, don’t complain, don’t be a party-pooper, and don’t insult anyone. Instead, thank people for coming, be pleasant, and ask them questions. Let them talk.
Listening is a great way to work out what to write: you can craft very personal messages in a few words based on what people are telling you. Are they a writer aiming to be in your shoes? Write them a good luck message or something inspirational. Are they a close friend or family member? Use a shared joke to make their book special. Are they a stranger who is telling you how much they enjoyed that other thing you wrote? Thank them for their support and tell them you value their kind words. Give them a reason to look fondly on your note, rather than a generic thing, if you can.
Remember names and faces
You will begin to recognise people, but not necessarily place them. If you don’t know their name, ask them how to spell it in case it has a silent q. If you might know their name, check with them first before writing it. When people comment on your Facebook posts or Tweet you, check their profile picture. See if you can remember those die-hard fans that will turn up just to meet you and get a signed copy of your book.
If you do a few signings, try to remember names and faces from previous ones. The same folk will come along, and if you remember them it will make their day.
Give good customer service
Readers are customers, so treat them as such. Be polite, be friendly, treat them how you would expect to be treated. For those few moments when you are talking to them and signing their book, they are the only person in the room as far as you are concerned. Don’t be distracted—other things can wait until after you’ve spoken to them—and don’t be dismissive. Smile, make eye contact, give them a reason to spend full price on your book when they could have bought a discounted version online. Make them feel special.
Plan to succeed
The most important aspect of a book signing to consider, as far as I can tell, is planning. Schedule it around the time of publication. Book a day when people are able to attend, a time which is generally acceptable, and a place that is easy to find. Position yourself visibly but not obtrusively. Make sure you promote it beforehand using all your marketing talents (or get someone else to) and spread the word in advance. Design your table to look presentable. Dress appropriately. Above all else, be prepared.
To class a book signing as successful, you just have to sign and sell a few books. That’s it. You will get nervous if you haven’t done it before—or even if you have—but people will come. Attaching your signing to another event like an appearance at a literary festival or a poetry performance will take the pressure off, and also potentially boost your numbers. Above all else, make sure the pen you have actually works.
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© 2018 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.