Sunday we did the last signing of this tour, at the Barnes & Noble in Knoxville. It went well. Looking back at the two weeks has given me a chance to think about what works and why.
I won’t try to compare the results of the Blackbeard Pirate Festival in Hampton, VA, to the three bookstores we did – they were different both in type and scale. But some of the observations still apply.
We did signings at the Barnes & Nobles in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and here in Knoxville. We did an event – reading and some schtick – at the Red Canoe Bookstore and Cafe in Baltimore. I prefer readings, because I believe in “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” and know in my soul that if I can get them to listen to a bit of the story, they’ll be hooked. I love reading to crowds. I’m a ham, I admit it. But sometimes that’s not what the store wants, and you have to take what they’re willing to give.
The two Barnes & Noble signings were similar to an event I did with Cap’n Slappy (my pirate friend Mark Summers) when our book “Pirattitude” came out. That was pretty grim, but I learned a lot that time out and was more prepared this time around. Here are some things to think about when you do a book signing.
A “signing” isn’t a reading. There’s no expectation that you’ll have an audience or even any interested passers by. The store sets up a table for you. In Wilkes-Barre it was five steps from the front door, so everyone had to walk right past me. In Knoxville it was about a third of the way down the main aisle, next to the customer service desk. Good location. They give the table a generic cloth and, usually, a sign, and put a chair behind it.
Rule 1 – DO NOT sit down in the chair. If you sit down, you disappear, even if you’re dressed like a pirate in full gear from head to foot. It’s too easy for the people passing by to ignore you. Ninety nine percent of them aren’t there to see you, have no idea who you are or what you’re doing in the store. They have their own reason for being there and it has nothing to do with you. They will be happiest if they can slide past you without making eye contact. You’ve got to make them notice you, and you can’t do that sitting on your butt.
I worked the table, pacing front and back. Everyone who passed within the sound of my voice (and that’s a goodly distance) was greeted with a growling “Ahoy!”
You do what you can – or what you have to – to engage them. They’re not going to buy your book if they don’t notice it. Make them.
Rule 1B – Don’t be embarrassed. You are not begging, you’re not imposing on the store or your potential readers. Just get that out of your head! You’re doing them a favor. You’re giving the store an opportunity to make a few bucks by selling a great book. You’re doing the store’s customers a chance to be entertained by your book. They’re going to love it! Believe in your book and yourself. Of course you want to get in their faces. You’re giving them a chance to read a book you really believe in – yours.
Rule 2 – Don’t let the bookstore choose your decor. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got a lovely table cloth of some bland neutral color, and they might have a sign on a standard. But that’s pretty generic, don’t you think? We have our own table covering – a layer of burlap and a layer of netting – that gives it a nautical flavor. I bought a small chest years ago, knowing that I’d eventually have a book to sell and that this chest at a second-hand store was the perfect size and style to sell a pirate book. And we added other piratey touches that help attract potential readers.
If, like the guy I talked with in Hampton, your novel is set in the Prohibition Era gangster milieu, you might want a violin case that holds your books instead of a Tommy gun (but if you can get a replica Tommy gun to put on the table, that’d be cool.) And dress in a pinstripe double-breasted suit and fedora. You get the idea. Be creative.
Rule 3 – Don’t count on the bookstore for publicity. With the infamous Corvallis Borders appearance I mentioned (and I can certainly see why Borders went out of business) their idea of publicizing the event was to print out a flier with the bare facts, who and when, and stick one on the door. That doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to take the bull by the horns. After this tour was nailed down I sent releases and photos to every newspaper, radio station and TV news show in those areas. (That means you’ve got to learn to write a news release. Start now.) I posted regular reminders of my schedule on Facebook, including “the night before” posts – “Just a reminder to my friends in …” There were people there who came specifically because of that.
Rule 4 – Don’t judge success solely by sales. Yes, you want to sell books. Lots and lots of books. And you can tip the odds in your favor. But there are days when there’s just no one there, for whatever reason no one is shopping for books and didn’t see your PR. There will be good days, and there will be slow days. But no day has to be a bad day. You do the things you can, and try not to worry about the things you can’t control. We sold a lot of books this time out. But more importantly, we had fun. It’s FUN to work the crowd, to engage someone. As they learn about you and your book they get drawn in. Usually, you can almost hear the “click” when they decide to buy. But even when they don’t, have fun talking to them. People are interesting. Listen to their stories and tell yours. Connect. There might be something they say that can work in your next project, or a particular look or expression that you want to steal. You’re learning your craft, and part of a writer’s craft is selling, whether you like it or not. Get used to it. Even when you don’t make a sale, you’re getting the word out, you’re showing the flag (in my case a Jolly Roger, of course.) There’s a cumulative effect to luck. To be lucky, act lucky. To be successful, act successful.
Rule 5 – Don’t give up. At the end of the Wilkes-Barre signing – which was mildly successful but in terms of sales not our best outing of the trip – we had packed everything up. Tori brought our pickup around to the front door and we were throwing everything in the back when a woman walked briskly by.
“You’re not too late to get a great action story!” I said.
“Yes she is,” said Tori, creating the dramatic tension needed so that the woman would feel like she was defying odds.
“No she’s not,” I said, I said, making myself the hero.
“What age group is it?” the woman asked, taking a step toward me. CLICK!
I told her, told her about “Chrissie Warren” Pirate Hunter,” and the sea battles and chases and cliff-top duel, the action and adventure. And within three minutes I was signing a copy for her fourth-grade son.
NEVER give up.
This is long enough for today. My next post will be about facing a room full of three-year-olds in Baltimore.