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Lessons from a Book-Signing Disaster

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In the past year and a half, we have driven 25,000 miles to speak at more than 130 bookstores across the country about our four books on getting into–and getting money for–college. We’ve learned a lot from our experiences. But the most useful lessons came from events that weren’t the most successful. OK, the best lessons came from downright disasters!

We remember, for instance, the time that we walked into one bookstore and were pleased to see that the staff had already set up several rows of chairs, a microphone, and what looked like a small display of books. But then we noticed something strange. The books were not actual books but color copies of our covers propped up on stands. As the manager came over to greet us, he apologized. The books had not arrived but he felt that the covers were a good substitute. The manager must have read the horror on our faces since he immediately added, “Of course, we don’t expect anyone to pay $16.95 for a cover, but they can special order.”

We hadn’t traveled more than a thousand miles thinking we were going to speak at a bookstore that wouldn’t be selling actual copies of our books. We thanked the manager for his offer and suggested that we bring in some of the books that we had with us. That night, we had a large crowd and sold more than 35 copies from our own supply.

This was just one of the experiences that taught us a valuable lesson. In fact, our tour taught us numerous lessons that we think will be helpful to other publishers–especially those who have yet to do a bookstore event.

Lesson #1: Be prepared for surprises. Learning this early was invaluable and has allowed us to take most of the risk out of an event. If you prepare for even the most basic of failures, such as a bookstore without your books, you’ll be able to avoid most disasters. Today, we can walk into nearly any bookstore where we’re scheduled to appear and know what to expect or at least have a contingency plan for any potential disasters.

Lesson #2: Never do just a signing. Unless you’re a household name (or have a lot of kind relatives), very few people will make a special trip to the bookstore just to get your autograph. From the beginning, we avoided book-signings and instead chose to present information-packed workshops. We created a 40-minute presentation aimed at college-bound students and their parents. We never even called our events signings but instead publicized them as workshops.

Only once have we done a traditional signing and it was a disaster. For the few people who approached us, we had to repeat our pitch over and over again with feeble results. It’s much more enjoyable and effective to have people come to the bookstore because they want to hear us speak and to use one rehearsed and polished presentation to reach a large audience.

Lesson #3: You need help to outtalk an espresso machine. Everyone gets a little apprehensive about speaking to a crowd. But imagine how much harder it is when you have to talk over the grinding and hissing of a busy espresso machine. For many bookstores, the best space to hold an event is next to (and sometimes inside) the café.

After losing a battle to one of these machines, we decided that we would never again speak without a microphone. We even bought our own portable PA system to use when a bookstore couldn’t provide one. Now when the espresso machine is going full blast, we just smile and turn up the PA system’s volume.

Lesson #4: Make the most of your space. It’s important that you create a comfortable and inviting environment for your audience. You are, in effect, putting on a show. At one bookstore, we neglected to move the first row of chairs back and spent the next 45 minutes of our presentation literally stepping on the feet of the people in the front row. While you’re a guest of the bookstore, that does not prevent you from changing things to create the right environment. We often rearrange chairs and books and always bring our own signage to create a better speaking stage.

Lesson #5: Even if you sign it, they will return it. There is a myth that if you sign a book for a bookstore, they have to keep it on their shelves until it sells. We believed it until one unfortunate incident in Florida. At the end of our workshop, we asked the bookstore manager how many books we should sign. “As many as you want,” he said. That was music to our ears and we busily set about signing every single copy. We must have signed at least 50 books.

A few weeks later, we were at another presentation when to our surprise a customer handed us a pre-autographed book. Obviously, the other bookstore had returned many of the books that we had signed. Now we always ask the bookstore managers or community relations managers how many they want us to sign. If they say, “As many as you want,” we politely suggest about five copies of each title. We learned the hard way that if you sign more than the bookstore can reasonably sell, they will have no qualms about ripping off the “autographed by” sticker and returning the book to your distributor.

Lesson #6: You can’t fight local traditions and events. In Indianapolis, we thought we had done everything right. We appeared on several local morning television programs to promote our event. We had contacted schools so that they could hand out flyers. We arrived at the bookstore thinking that we would easily have a hundred people. Disappointingly, we barely had 25. What happened?

It turned out that not only was it spring break for neighboring schools, but also (and perhaps more significantly), it was the night of a key Hoosier basketball game. It’s worth asking the bookstore manager what local events might affect your event. Asking helped us avoid many potential disasters. In Cincinnati, for example, we learned that Friday night was bad since high school football is a huge spectator sport. In many parts of Texas, Wednesday is church night. Don’t ignore the latest TV hit either. It’s sad but true that many potential customers would rather spend Thursday nights watching Friends and CSI than listening to authors in a bookstore.

Lesson #7: Use a multi-pronged promotion strategy. The most disappointing event is the one where nobody comes. Most bookstores do as much promotion as they can. They create posters and put notices in their newsletters. Unfortunately, we have found that this alone does not guarantee a strong turnout. If you want consistently good turnout, then you need to do your own promotion. We have been very successful using a multi-pronged approach for each city that we visit.

The first prong involves getting media coverage before the event. Weeks before, we set up guest appearances on the local morning TV news programs. These programs often plug the event with a full screen graphic giving the time and location of our workshop. Newspaper coverage, we have found, is even better than television. The value of print (even small calendar listings) was made clear to us when we asked the audience at one of our workshops how they had heard about it. More than half pulled out newspaper clippings of a small article about us that had run the week before.

But media coverage is tricky since we cannot always get it. So our second prong is something that we can control more directly. Since students and parents make up our primary audience, we send notices to the schools in the area a week before we arrive. Many educators share the information with their students and even attend themselves.

The last technique we use is to go directly to the people who actually want to meet the authors–our past customers. Since we sell a lot of books through our website, we have a large database of customers. Before arriving in a new city, we invite recent customers from that area to come to our workshop. After we started this promotion, we began to see more and more people come to our event with one of our books already in hand. Since we have four different titles, they usually leave having bought another book too.

Lesson #8: Reap those psychic rewards. To do a bookstore event right takes a lot of work, but we have found rewards beyond the sales and promotional value of doing events. One of the greatest comes from actually meeting the people whose lives we have touched. Writing can be a solitary task and we always wondered who was reading what we wrote and whether they found it helpful. Once we hit the road, we actually met some of these people and learned just how much of an influence we have had on them. That’s the kind of psychic reward that authors need in order to go back and keep writing.


Gen and Kelly Tanabe are the award-winning authors of “Get Into Any College,” “Get Free Cash For College,” “Accepted! 50 Successful College Admission Essays,” and “Money-Winning Scholarship Essays and Interviews.” They are also the Founders of www.supercollege.com. This husband and wife team embarks on their third national tour this spring and will be speaking at PMA University about their book tours.

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