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Are Booksignings Worth It?

Booksignings were always part of my mythic dream of the Published Author.  I couldn’t wait to have my own flyer in the bookstore window, to be sitting there with a stack of my books.  A friend even bought me a fancy pen to use at my first signing.

January, 2005.  That's my 'PLEASE buy my book' face.One of my earliest booksignings was for the Five Star edition of Goblin Quest [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy].  Considering I was pushing a $25.99 hardcover by an unknown author, it went pretty well.  Much better than the one a month  later at B&N, when I sat there for two hours without selling a single copy.

Last week I drove out to Ann Arbor for an event at Nicola’s Books.  These days I’m better known, with five books in print, all available for the more reasonable price of $7.99.

Eight people showed up.  They bought a lot of books, which was great (gotta love Christmas shopping), and I enjoyed hanging out and chatting.  But as I was driving the 60 miles back home, I found myself wondering if it was worth it.

I sold maybe 20 books at that signing.  At $0.48 per book, that’s just under ten bucks.  That doesn’t even cover gas.  Even my best events, the book launch parties I do at the local Schulers, don’t have much financial payback compared to the time and work the booksellers and I put into them.

But it’s important to look at the long term.  I’ve built up a wonderful relationship with the folks at Schulers, and as a result, they stock more of my books than any other store.  I do really well there, in large part because they hand-sell my work.  At Nicola’s last week, I left about twenty signed books which will go back on the shelf.  So even if the signing doesn’t go well, you’re building relationships with booksellers and leaving signed stock that will continue to move after you’ve left.

There’s also the “sneezer” factor.  Tobias Buckell describes sneezers as the ones who get excited about a product early on and talk about it to their friends and family.  Person X might buy a single book, but if they enjoy meeting you and like the book, they’re more likely to go out and spray that enthusiasm all over the place.  I can think of individuals who have sold dozens of my books through word-of-mouth recommendations.

But for every well-organized, “successful” signing, there are others where you and your rapidly-wilting ego sit at a table for two hours while a total of four people wander by, only to have a bored staff member later comment, “Saturdays are usually slow for us.”  (Leaving one to wonder why the store invited you to come out on a Saturday.)  Or the store that ordered only a handful of books that sold out before I arrived.  Or the one where the CRM  doing the event was fired the week before, and they had no books and no record I was even supposed to be there.  (Always call ahead to confirm!)

Basically, the magic is gone.  I’ll continue to do signings, particularly my book launches at Schulers.  I’ll happily do autographing sessions at conventions.  But I’m not going to call every bookstore in a 100-mile radius trying to schedule events, and I’m not going to feel like a failed author if I don’t have at least ten booksignings set up for every new book.  It just doesn’t feel like the best use of my time and energy.

What do you think?  As authors, readers, and booksellers, are signings worth it?

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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( 141 comments — Leave a comment )
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ext_132980
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:38 pm (UTC)
I absolutely love it when an author I know does a booksigning nearby--which is why I was so irked that I couldn't make it to Nicola's last week. So, at least from a reader's perspective, booksignings are totally worth it! I probably wouldn't have even known about your books had you not been on a local book festival's SF panel. I'm so glad that you were; I've been enjoying your books tremendously ever since.
jimhines
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I remember that book festival. That was fun :-)

I definitely enjoy meeting readers, and I see the value in some face-time with authors. (Except maybe when the author is a jerk.) And I think if there were more readers who got excited about booksignings, I wouldn't be questioning it at all.

Therefore, the obvious solution is that we need more people like you.
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suricattus
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
I continue to do readings/signings, mainly for the reasons you mention, but no, I won't make a trip out of my way to do so. I think, outside of a subsection of fandom, having a signed book just doesn't get readers all that excited.

My main push, each time a new book comes out, is to hit a part of the country I haven't been before/recently. That way, signed copies make their way around, for them as want 'em, and I can meet new booksellers.

I also do 'team' signings whenever possible. The Magnificent Seven outings are as much reassure-and-reconnect parties as they are signings, serving a dual purpose in the life of the work-at-home-alone writer. Plus, if foot traffic fails, we can entertain the booksellers without our comedy routines.

jimhines
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
The craziest I've ever gotten for a signing was driving from Michigan to Toronto for a group event at the World's Biggest Bookstore. The actual turnout was so-so, but it was fun getting to socialize and network with some new writers. My wife and I also made a weekend trip out of it, with stops at bookstores along the way.

The strategy of trying to hit new parts of the country is a good idea. I should try that. I also wonder if it would be worth trying to find a local Magnificent Seven of my own :-)
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jhetley
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:46 pm (UTC)
Living away in The Back Of Beyond, book signings haven't been worthwhile for me. I think I've sold a grand total of 20 books that way . . .

Also doesn't help that the major chains like Borders actively discourage signings. The last one, I had to set up by way of the Ace publicist and a Borders national coordinator, all people far removed from the actual venue and people on the ground.
jimhines
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)
It's gotten harder and harder to set up signings. I was told last week that events at Barnes & Noble are supposed to be coordinated through the central offices now, instead of letting the CRM in any given store have control over local events. (That seems to vary from store to store, though.)

I understand it's a lot of work on the store's part, and it's disappointing for them to invest time and money and sell 2 books. I've also been told that the explosion of self-publishing options has led to a lot more authors marching in and demanding a booksigning, which I suspect may be another factor in the closing of the gates.
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scbutler
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:49 pm (UTC)
This is why several of us formed the Magnificent (Genre) Seven. We may not sell a lot of books on our various junkets, but we have a good time hanging out together.
scbutler
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:51 pm (UTC)
Just noticed that great Mag Seven minds think alike. Oy!
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lotuseyes
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
As a reader I enjoy book signings a lot. Sadly though 90% of the time I already own the books I'm getting signed, so its not often I buy books at a signing.

I remember my first signing I had like 7 books for the one author, it was my first time meeting an author EVER and I was so nervous and scared that my boyfriend did all the talking for me. I've since gone to like a dozen other signings with that same author, and I can TALK now!, but that first signing for me is imprinted on my memory because it was so special for me to meet an author I loved.

Its also been a great way to a) get friends into the book/author (they see me getting so excited and I need someone to go with me for moral support so they're dragged into it) and b) meet new friends. I've made several really good friends because of book signings I went to, plus several authors who I've been a repeat signer recognize me and we chat for a while. So for me, yes its totally worth it.
jimhines
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:07 pm (UTC)
Actually, I love it when people bring books they've already bought. Especially when they've clearly been read. It's awesome signing a battered, spine-cracked, dog-eared copy of one of my books because it's obviously been loved. (Or just chewed up by the dog, but I try not to think about that.)

I really do enjoy getting to meet readers, and I've been on the reader/fan side of things too, which was fun. I think the frustration comes when you invest the time and only a handful of readers show up.

It could be that I'm just not a big enough name yet. Could be I need to do *more* work to publicize events than I'm already doing. I don't know...
(no subject) - lotuseyes - Dec. 21st, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
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spiziks
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC)
I'm with you. I don't organize signings anymore. I do drive-bys--offering to sign stock whenever I'm in a bookstore--but that's it. The "nobody shows" signings outnumbered the good signings by three to one.

When my third novel came out, Borders wouldn't even talk to me. The Barnes and Noble in Saginaw, my home town, enthusiastically agreed to a signing and promised to do a lot of publicity--an ad in the paper, signs around the store, prominent placement of my books, a reading. My mother watched for the ad and said there was none. When I arrived at the store, I found a single poster in a stand. It was facing the wall! And the manager who'd arranged the signing was on freaking =vacation.=

The assistant manager had set up a table with books in a far, far corner, and said there would be a reading, but there were no chairs for an audience. I asked her to announce on the store PA that I was there to sign books, but her voice was thin and breathy, and no one could hear her. I signed two books. Thirty minutes into what was to be a two-hour signing, I left in disgust.

And this experience is typical. I've had good signings at stores (Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, for example), but the vast majority are bad. Store managers don't know how to handle them and don't care to learn. The time and work is simply not worth the miniscule payback. I'd be better off spending the time at my keyboard--or with my kids.

When I'm best-selling authors and booksellers are begging me to come to their stores, I'll reconsider signings, but until then, I'll do the drive-bys.
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(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 21st, 2009 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
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frumiousb
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)
As a reader, I find readings and discussions with an author worth it to attend, but not pure book signings. I just don't see the value in a signed edition. But then, I'm a reader and not a collector.
jimhines
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)
I can see benefits to both. The pure sit-at-a-table signing where you're at the front of the store with a stack of books can let you pick up random drive-by readers, whereas a discussion area near the back seems less likely to attract people. On the other hand, the discussion format is more fun (when people show up), and like you say, it gives you more than just an autographed book.
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burger_eater
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
When my first book came out in September, my wife wanted me to do a lot of signings, mainly because of the people she knew who wanted to come to one. I agreed to do one at a local independent.

I sold 27 copies in two hours, which is pretty good, and got to see a lot of people I'd lost touch with, which was even better. I'm not planning to do another if I can help it.
jimhines
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
27 is quite good. And I do see the value of a "friends and family" event. I can usually get a decent crowd at Schulers with the release of a new book, but the majority of those people are folks I know. Which is fine -- it's still fun to see everyone and hang out, and if I sell some books, bonus!

What about the experience left you uninterested in doing another?
(no subject) - burger_eater - Dec. 22nd, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
jongibbs
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
I think they're worth it, but as you say, it's a long term thing.

Have you considered taking part in multi-author events?

One of the reasons I set up the New Jersey Authors' Network was so that authors could avoid those 'tumbleweed across the empty street' moments by getting together to do group panel/Q&A sessions (either at bookstores or libraries), with the book signing (and selling) taking place afterwards.

They seem to work quite well.


jimhines
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:18 pm (UTC)
I've done a few group events, and it's been mixed. They didn't seem to attract a significantly larger crowd, though it was better than the solo events. But if nothing else, they gave me the chance to hang out with other authors, which is fun.

I like the "panel/discussion with signing to follow" format a lot better.
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p_sunshine
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:16 pm (UTC)
As a reader, signings are totally worth it, especially for authors that I've read and know that I already like. For newer authors, I'm guessing it still helps if it gets that name out there, even if the buyers in the book store don't buy any of the author's books during that visit, because it knocks one down in that famous rule of 3 (see something 3 times and if you're inclined at all towards it, you'll want to get it on the third sighting).
But since I'm not in your area, I'm totally happy with the bookplates that I can tuck into Christmas presents. One of these days, I'll need to get one for myself! =)
jimhines
Dec. 21st, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure. Part of what I run into is that while I'm sitting at the table in the store, we might have 20-30 people who walk by, but of those people, how many of them actually read SF/F? So it gets my name out, but not necessarily in front of the right people. Compare that to an event at a convention, which is a self-selected group of SF/F fans.

I'll still keep doing them, though. In part because I enjoy meeting people who might not do the convention scene. But booksignings have moved down a bit on my list of writerly priorities.
(no subject) - p_sunshine - Dec. 21st, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Dec. 21st, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
bearmountain
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)
From reading this blog and other author blogs, methinks you are correct. You "hit" more people by blogging, showing up around the web and being "available" via your website and blog.

Although as someone else commented, it might be worth it to participate in multi-author ones. If nothing else, you network and might have more fun.
jimhines
Dec. 21st, 2009 05:44 pm (UTC)
I've done a few group events, and they've generally been fun. We don't necessarily get tremendous turnout, but at least you've got other authors to hang out and chat with.
jtglover
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
"Unless You Are Neil Gaiman"
The things I've picked up from assiduously reading your and many other writers' blogs are:

1) Signings are all about the long-term strategy, unless you are Neil Gaiman.

2) Independent bookstores will almost inevitably do more for your bottom line than the chains, unless you are Neil Gaiman.

3) You will probably never quite make back the cost of attending your own readings in any detectable way, unless you are Neil Gaiman.

To put it another way, it sounds like an author really has to have a following to make individual signings profitable. Likewise, at a big store you will always be Author # 2386, especially if said Big Store is located in the middle of nowhere/suburban strip mall.

Whenever I think about these questions, I always remember the complaints of a person working at National Coffee Chain Outpost located at my library of employment. We have open houses on the weekend a few times a semester for potential and incoming students, and National Coffee Chain didn't open at all during these things for a while, and then they did it and offered free samples, and then they stopped the free samples. The aforementioned employee griped that they never made back the cost of doing business the few hours they were during the open houses. Somewhere in this person's head, no connection was made between "potential captive audience" and "usefulness of marketing."

I wouldn't translate this to "signing at every bookstore," but into signing at every bookstore where it will be useful for you--which you are already doing. :-) And, IMHO, the Stepsister books are doing more for your rep than any twenty signings could ever do, so yeah "more writing." :-)
sixteenbynine
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)
For me, each sales event doubles as a signing event. I've sold about 15-20 books consistently at each appearance, although what with me no longer having a fulltime job I have to cut back severely on the number of appearances I can make in a given year. So my own view of it is a little skewed, since I'm going the indie / DIY route.
barbarienne
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:27 pm (UTC)
I like Josh Palmatier's reports of group books signings. I imagine it might be easier to handle the "slow" signings if you're not alone.

What Toby calls "sneezers" I call the "seed crystals." :-)
suricattus
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
Yeah, Josh is part of the Mag7. In fact, Josh puts the magnificent into the Mag7, most days. :-)
orlacarey
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:30 pm (UTC)
As a reader I've seen two different types of signings:

1) Author is set up at a table somewhere in the store with a pile of his/her books at a table. The only real visible effort by the bookstore is an announcement made over the loudspeaker every so often and signs up. This doesn't seem to get A LOT of people and I often feel sorry for the author - especially the author of an obscure history book that I saw once, since I think my father was the only one who stopped and talked to him all day. So not thinking this is worth it unless you have a following in the area to drum up support.

2) Only seen this one twice (Alton Brown and Sherrilyn Kenyon). Author is set up with a table, podium and microphone. Seats are set up so that they can give a talk or answer questions etc. Then after said talk people get their books signed, pictures taken etc. Both times this drew A LOT of people but I'm not sure what level you have to reach in order to get this kind of support from the book store (was B&N/Borders respectively).

At this point I see the internet being a more valuable resource for author contact - for example I picked up the Stepsister Scheme because I'd seen several authors I like recommend it.

I think there is a place for book signings but it's better when there is strong reader support in an area. I like the idea of multiple authors going out together because if I like one author enough to go to the signing I might pick up the other author's books.

But then I'm something of a book slut - when I have money I tend to buy tons of books.
thanate
Dec. 21st, 2009 03:51 pm (UTC)
Icon love!
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