The 411 on Book Signings
- Written by Howard M. Layton
Book-signing engagements at bookstore chains, independent stores, and libraries can be important, or even crucial, ways to sell books. By experimenting with various approaches, I have come up with a system of sorts for making the most of them.
My system is designed for most of the independent bookstores which use the casual approach to book-signings. That is, they provide authors with a table and chair near the front of the store, leaving the writers to make their pitches to individual customers as they pass by. This is in contrast to stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, which prefer more structure, with a table and rows of chairs in a suitable area of the store, a talk, a Q&A session, and then a signing.
The Proactive Approach
Since independent bookstores are mostly in shopping malls, the book-buying traffic is transient. If you just sit at your table and wait for something to happen, not much generally does. What you should do is become proactive rather than reactive, which involves training yourself to approach customers as they come into the store. You want to politely ask if they will permit you to tell them about your book.
No one will be offended by that query and, in most cases, you will be gratified by the friendly and cooperative response you get. Some customers may say that they’ve come in to look for a specific book or that they’re in a special hurry. Others will state politely that they are not interested. But there will be a goodly number whose eyes will light up and who will be glad to listen.
The number of book sales at any given event tends to be inversely proportional to the book’s retail price and it also depends on the genre. For a soft cover book retailing at $10 or less, the success rate will be higher than for a case-bound volume selling at $30. Also, a book in the "how-to" category will usually do better than most other nonfiction.
Once you get into your stride with the proactive approach, you’ll be talking to people almost all of the time. Allowing for signing and personalizing, you will typically deliver your pitch 40-50 times per hour. Depending on the traffic and the location of the bookstore, it’s reasonable to achieve an average rate of one signing in 8-12 pitches with a virtually unknown hardcover novel or true story that retails for $24.95.
Spurring Sales into the Thousands
When you’ve used the proactive approach for a while, you’ll establish your own averages. Knowing the time you will have at your disposal and making allowances for the weather, you’ll be able to forecast your total sales for any given session with reasonable accuracy.
If, like me, you’re one of the lucky ones with the freedom to spend as much time as you like at a book-signing event, it makes sense to lengthen your sessions. Even if it takes you only an hour to reach a store, you’ve invested two hours in travel, which alone justifies a longer signing session. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for making it a whole day. Your feet will get tired, but with the proactive approach you may sell 25-50 books. An investment of eight hours per week of your time–in single sessions or split between two or three promotions a week–will result in the sale of 1,000-2,000 books over a 12-month period from your personal signings alone, exclusive of sales made by the bookstores. And if yours is a soft cover or a "how-to" book selling for $10 or less, you can expect to sign 3,000-4,000 copies over the same period.
Those numbers begin to look worthwhile, don’t they? And the store managers will love you.
A Non-Seasonal Cycle
When I started my signing rounds with Waldenbooks (an independent bookstores in my area), I was content to go anywhere that the very helpful New England scheduling chief decided to send me. I soon realized, however, that out-of-state excursions involving overnight stays and restaurant bills were costing me more than I could hope to recover. Soon I began limiting my signings to locations that would permit me to return home the same evening. When I had exhausted the list of stores located within that radius, I simply started at the beginning again. The area Community Relations Manager supported me in this, and since each visit resulted in a goodly number of books sold, store managers have, without exception, welcomed me.
I don’t limit myself to standing at my table anymore. When traffic slackens and few prospects are arriving, I wander around and introduce myself to anyone who is not already engrossed with some other book. Sometimes I walk outside the store and chat with passersby. On the one and only occasion that I’ve been lucky enough to sign four copies of my book for a single prospect, it was for a woman who said she’d had no intention of entering the store until I walked outside and invited her in. It’s amazing how receptive people are to a polite and friendly greeting.
It seems to be universally accepted that book-signings, like book sales, are seasonal. Late fall is said to be best, with winter and spring good and summer flat. This assertion applies more to structured signings than to the free-ranging approach, and I’ve actually found that summer signings work well. Let’s say that one out of every two people who come into a store strikes you as a reasonable prospect. If the nature of your pitch is such that you can talk to only 40 or 50 people an hour, you want a traffic flow of between 80-100 people an hour. These numbers are frequently achieved during the summer months as well as at other times. A significantly heavier flow doesn’t do anything for you, and a crowded store is not necessarily the best environment for your purpose. Also, summer book-buyers tend (on average) to be somewhat more serious and more purposeful.
Keeping Score, Surviving Setbacks
My own experiences regarding summer buyers bear this out. My book, a case-bound inspirational biography called The Thirteen Club, had only just come off the press in April. I visited the Stamford and Greenwich, Connecticut stores on the first Sunday in June and sold 21 copies in four hours (spending two hours at each store). Early in August, I sold 22 copies in four hours, devoting two hours to both the Chestnut Hill and Natick stores in Massachusetts. On the 23rd of the same month, I signed and sold 14 books in a 2-hour session at the Marlborough store. While those are not big numbers, they compare quite well with the signings per hour I’ve achieved at other times of the year.
As I gathered experience and put in more hours per visit, my signings-per-session increased in number. By late fall, my score was typically more than 25 signings per visit, and it later reached as high as 50, although the average success rate per hour did not change very much.
The signing rate, like most other phenomena in life, is far from uniform. There will be times, especially at the beginning of a session, when the better part of an hour will pass without a sale. One after another of your promising prospects will tell you that they "will think about it," or that they have to rush off now, but will definitely come back in a little while to buy your book. They don’t and won’t.
It’s easy to become very discouraged by this train of events. You’ll ask yourself what on earth you’re wasting your time for. You will tell yourself that you’re just off color today, and that it would be wise to go home to save yourself further frustration. But that’s simply not the answer. Instead, take this type of setback in your stride and work yourself past the mistaken notion that all is lost. If you just hang on, the averages will come out right in the end. They always do.
Furthermore, even if you don’t enjoy book-signings as much as I do, you will find that proactive sessions serve as confidence builders. They tell you that when all else fails, you have at your disposal an infallible way to sell your books.
Library Signings: It’s Good to Have Friends
The library signing is a special case. Since, in this hallowed environment, authors can hardly wander the aisles and strike up conversations with the patrons, signing sessions must be structured as organized talks. And since attendance at such talks is often quite poor, many authors feel that library book-signing sessions are not worth pursuing. This is not entirely true.
As Jerry Labriola M.D. (the author of Famous Crimes Revisited and Murders at Hollings General) puts it: "What you do is identify those libraries that have ‘Friends-of-the-Library’ groups, because their staffs and Friends Groups, working together, can better promote your presentation." Also, Friends come to meetings not just for your talk but also for lunch and any other scheduled social activities, so you have what amounts to a captive audience.
Howard M. Layton, a chartered electrical engineer (FIEE), came to the United States from England in 1955. He founded his own Hi-Tech manufacturing company and has since authored 15 U.S. engineering patents and co-authored several others. His book The Thirteen Club, which marks his debut in nontechnical writing, tells the story of how he met Narcissza, an immigrant from Hungary, married her, and embarked on their joint rocky journey to business success.
Reprinted from Independent Book Publishers Association