Today’s Take on In-store Events
by Amy Collins MacGregor and Bethany Brown
“I don’t do events anymore.”
“I can’t afford the extra staff, time, and effort that book signings entail.”
“Will the author bring her own books?”
“We don’t do well with author signings.”
“We only book events from large publishers.”
“We only book local authors for signings.”
“We’re too small for events.”
“Our customers don’t come out for events.”
Over the last six months, we have called 1,034 bookstores and asked, “Do you host author events?” We called independent bookstores, chain bookstores, gift shops that sell books, and hospital and university bookstores. The answers we got with this sampling were varied and surprising. They challenged our beliefs about author events in independent bookstores vs. those events in chain stores, and they showed how deeply the struggling economy is affecting retailers everywhere.
Initially, we thought we knew that bookstores were looking for any number of ways to draw customers. We thought independents were ready and able to host local and regional authors. We thought authors would jump at the chance to do numerous signings. Here is what happened.
Of the 1,034 stores we contacted:
* 825 were chain or institutional stores.
* 209 were independent bookstores or gift stores.
* 254 stores told us that they did not do events because they were too small or
did not have the staff.
* 117 stores told us that they did not do signings because no one came.
* 21 stores told us that they were not booking events because they might be going or
had gone out of business.
* 18 hung up on us.
* 4 yelled at us and then hung up.
* 620 stores said they did do events and book authors for readings, signings, story
times, or workshops.
Issues for the Stores
A community relations manager for one of the big chains offered this: “We are happy to host authors who can bring something unique or interesting to the store. Too many times, an author will call us wanting to do a run-of-the-mill signing. Signings take time and effort to publicize and rarely get anyone interested. We have to be really careful now about what we bring into the store. . . . We don’t have the time or staff to host a signing if the author is not going to be able to draw a crowd.”
Today, getting booked for an author event at a chain store requires that the author’s book be accepted into the chain’s main database and approved for sale by a category, regional, or small press buyer. And authors also face hurdles at independent bookstores, even in their own locales.
“I don’t like to say no to any local author,” says Stanley Hadsell of Market Block Books in Troy, NY. “But a signing will only work if the author is local and has not saturated the area with a ton of signings. We don’t have much luck with out-of-town authors.” Hadsell sends out press releases, keeps a running event calendar on the store’s Web site, posts frequently about events on Twitter, and updates all events on the store’s two blogs. He works hard to get the word out for an event in his store, but he needs the authors to do their part as well.
“What I tell everyone,” says Hadsell, “is that the author bears as much responsibility for publicizing the event as the store does.”
Independent bookstores have always worked to be members of their communities. They pride themselves on their connection to local residents and businesses. They seem a natural starting place for local authors who want to organize an event. However, they are often small, and they have been hard hit by the economy.
All 254 stores that said they did not do signings because they were too small were independents. And 90 of the 117 who said they did not do events because events were not successful were independents.
Outcomes in the Stores
When a bookstore event is scheduled, how does it go?
Carol Zelaya, author of the Emily the Chickadee series, published by Richlee Publishing, launched her first children’s book in April 2008. She hired a PR firm to set up the launch, complete with a book-signing tour covering four states that she expected would stimulate sales. Her expectations were quickly dashed.
“It was really not a good experience for me,” says Zelaya. “I mistakenly thought that once you were invited to do a book signing, you had really made it. I was so wrong. Even when the stores did tons of publicity and put up big posters, no one came.” Zelaya goes on to explain that she liked the fact that the stores bought the books ahead of time and displayed copies, but she notes that the actual signings were painful. “The worst thing was when mothers with crying infants came to story time.”
Zelaya did 11 signings and reports that she sold a total of two books at the events. “I don’t blame anyone,” she says. “Parents bring kids to the stores for story time so the kids can be entertained and read to. They do not come with the intention of acquiring a new book.”
“The thing you have to remember is the benefits outside of the event,” says David Brody, author of several novels, including Cabal of the Westford Knight, published last February by Martin & Lawrence.
If you go into a tour looking at it strictly in terms of sales during events, it will not work, Brody says. “I may sell 10 books at an event, but that is not the point. I have to take into consideration that the store orders the books a few weeks ahead of time, makes a display, puts up a poster; plus, the manager and employees get to know my book. At the event, who knows who will hear me and what they might tell other people? And after the signing, I will leave a few signed copies, and those might get displayed for a few weeks. I can often attribute 50 or 60 sales to an event that drew only 10 sales that day. If you look at it that way, the economics make sense.”
For Best Results
If you are planning one in-store event or several during an entire tour, here are a few things to keep in mind:
• Before you call a store, make sure your book is properly listed by Ingram and/or Baker & Taylor. The first thing stores will check is whether they can order the book returnable from their preferred wholesaler. If a book is not listed or listed incorrectly, you will not be able to arrange for an event until the listing is fixed.
• Contact stores at least three months before you want an event to take place. Bookstores fill their calendars at least two months ahead. When you call early enough, you show the manager that you understand and respect the store’s time constraints.
• Don’t be surprised to get a request for a review copy of the book. If you send one, do not ask the store to send it back (don’t laugh; it’s been done).
• Be ready to supply a high-res electronic copy of your book cover and of an author photo.
• Send the store a sample press release for your event. When they see that you are willing to do a lot of the publicity for it, CRMs or managers will be more inclined to book you.
• Six weeks before the event, confirm the dates with the store and make sure the right people there have everything they need to list your event in their calendar.
• Five weeks before the event, contact every TV, radio, and print outlet in the area; provide your event information along with a few interview ideas, and suggest that they interview you or do a story about you and/or the book before your event.
• Three weeks before the event, contact the store and confirm that books are on hand.
• Don’t be shy. Invite everyone you know in the community to come out. Ask each of the people you invite to invite other people they know. Remind them frequently until the date of the event.
• Show up early for your event. Often bookstores are not on track to be completely ready on time. By showing up early, you can fill gaps in preparation.
• Be helpful and kind to the bookstore staff. They can make or break an event. Treating bookstore staff with grace and kindness may mean that they will continue to support you and your book even after your event is over.
• Always write a thank-you note to the manager and staff and mail it within the week after the event.
Amy Collins MacGregor and Bethany Brown are publishing consultants with The Cadence Group, an independent firm dedicated to helping small and new presses make the right choices in the ever-changing world of publishing. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.