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Book Signings: What They Are and Are Not

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Twenty-some years ago, when my wife and I ran a little bookstore in Chicago, a common occurrence was to have a red-faced rep burst into our shop with a dozen copies of a book under his arm. Struggling to catch his breath, he would announce that the author of this book would arrive in ten or fifteen minutes to sign the copies, and would we please pretend that we had ordered this title and knew something about the author, even though neither of these things were true.
The point, of course, was to make the author think the publisher had done a good job distributing the title, which was not true either, and to gratify the author’s ego. Most of those signed copies were returned to the publisher the next day.
The situation with book signings now is completely different. These events have become one of the most important ways that booksellers create a sense of excitement in their stores. The larger outlets schedule multiple signings each day, seven days a week. And instead of being hysterical last-minute arrangements, these signings are carefully planed in advance and effectively publicized through advertisements and store mailings.
Nor are these events restricted anymore to well-known authors published by large houses. Many self-published authors and very small publishers have discovered to their delight that bookstores, and in particular the major chain superstores in an author’s home town, are eager to schedule events. This is especially true if these events are not just signings, but presentations of some sort: a demonstration (the author of a basket-weaving book weaves a basket) or a seminar (a self-help author gives a talk, preferably with audio/visual support.)
Usually these events are set up on a store-by-store basis by contacting each store’s “community events coordinator.” A month’s advance notice may be too short. Copies of the book need not have been ordered by the store before the coordinator is approached; stock can be brought in for the event.
The size of the crowd will vary according to the intrinsic interest of the book’s subject and the quality of the advance promotion, but at the large stores there are usually enough customers on hand to prevent an embarrassingly low turnout. The store may request a blowup of the cover so that it can be displayed during the event.
Independent booksellers are also much more interested in in-store events for small presses than they used to be. In most cases, the independents will expect the author to develop a mailing list of possible attendees and will require a modest contribution toward the cost of producing and mailing invitations.
For certain titles, non-bookstore retailers should be approached. We have had good success, for instance, with events at music stores for music books. Here again, you may be asked for a little money for promoting the event.
If stores are eager to host book signings and authors are pleased to do them, why is it that experienced publishers are so disinclined (and they are disinclined) to put much energy into setting them up? The truth is that while signings, strenuously pursued, may be a way to sell a few hundred copies, they are not a cost-effective way to sell thousands of copies. While it would be cruel and unusual not to give an author the gratification of a few such events, signings are a completely inadequate substitute for the broad-based publicity and promotion efforts necessary to sell books in really meaningful quantities.
And signings do not have the “priming the pump” effect many publishers imagine them to have. In the case of the chain stores, even an extraordinarily successful event in a particular store will have no effect whatsoever on the stocking or sales of the title in other outlets of the chain. In fact, the chains take pains to expunge sales associated with special events from their databases. These are anomalous sales from the point of view of the buyers at the national or even regional headquarters of the chain. They do not allow such sales to influence their overall buying patterns because these patterns must not be based on the assumption, obviously false, that the author is personally pitching his or her book in every store.
There are, of course (since we are talking about the publishing business), exceptions to the above. For very regional titles, a book-signing blitz covering most of the stores that would in any case carry the title may actually serve to prime the pump. A signing at an independent bookseller will probably make the top management of that store aware of the title and could lead to orders even after the author is out the door. And signings as an adjunct to an author’s media tour may make sense if the stores can be given enough lead time. But, in general, book signings have more to do with maintaining good author/publisher relations than they have to do with effective book marketing. They have their place in book marketing, but it is a small place.

This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor February, 1998, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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