Earlier this summer I helped a friend launch her self-published debut novel. I enjoyed watching her experience all the “firsts” that can be a part of that journey. My first was published in 2000 and although there are many things about publishing a book that remain as exciting and magical as the first, I must admit that after thirteen novels in thirteen years a good deal of my book launches feel routine.
First off, my friend asked if I thought it was important for her to do any book signings events. Publishing has changed more in the last four years than it has in decades, so she was asking a good question. I should admit up front that book events and tours are not my favorite things. I love meeting readers. It’s the travel that wears me down: a different hotel every night; hours spent in airports with delayed and canceled flights; rental cars and GPS signals that disappear as soon as you’re in between tall buildings. “Reconnecting” and “rerouting” are dreaded terms when you’re driving in Chicago or New York City. But of all the things I do to promote my books each and every year, book signing events do guarantee a certain level of success in terms of sales.
Here’s why I think book signing events still work despite our ever-growing technological age. Readers still love to connect with authors. I don’t know why. I can’t explain that. There seems to be a mystique about us. Although writing and reading are solitary activities, readers like talking about the books they read. They want to know where we came up with an idea or a certain character. How we write. Where we write. Why we write.
Book events provide us with a way, not to promote and sell our books, but also to connect with our readers. Try to create a relationship with them. Loyal readers – not a big publisher or an amazon ranking or special discounts – will help make you a successful author. And the events will help build a relationship with bookstore owners and librarians who will continue to sell and recommend your books long after the event.
Okay, so my friend scheduled a signing at The Bookworm in Omaha then asked me if I’d give her a “to-do” list of how to make it a success. She’d found a top 10 list on the internet and asked if I agreed. Four of the ten dealt with the type of pen you should use. Seriously? So I sat down and tried to come up with a better list.
In the last two years I’ve self-published two eNovellas with co-authors Erica Spindler and J.T. Ellison. Aside from those, I’ve been traditionally published since 2000. I know there’s still a misnomer that having a large publisher means getting sent on book tours and having advertising and promotional campaigns. I’m on publisher #3 (Harlequin/Mira, Doubleday, and now Putnam). Although I’ve always done a book tour, not all of them have been arranged or paid for by my publisher.
For example, in 2006 Harlequin set up a three-city tour, one of which was my hometown of Omaha. Yes, you read that correctly. They considered three cities – one of which was my hometown – a national book tour. I added sixteen cities on my own time and dime. I scheduled signings at independent bookstores, booked my own flights, paid for my own hotel rooms, rented cars and drove myself in cities that included Chicago, LA, San Francisco, New York City, and Atlanta.
Incidentally, that book – which had absolutely no reviews or media coverage before I left on tour – went back to press three times while I was on tour and ended up on the New York Times bestseller list for four consecutive weeks.
Most publishers are more concerned about their customers, and if you don’t already know this let me break it to you – big publishers don’t usually think of readers as their customers. Their customers are their accounts: the booksellers and distributors like Ingram, Target, Costco, WalMart, B&N and yes, Amazon.
In the early days Harlequin/Mira sent me to SuperSavers, HyVees and WalMarts. My first book launch I drove to Ames, Iowa, on a Saturday for a 10:00 a.m. signing at the HyVee. There was no sign on the door about the book signing. In fact, no one at the store knew a thing about a book signing. They didn’t even have copies of my book.
To be fair, it wasn’t the store’s fault. The book distributor forgot and my publisher’s publicist hadn’t bothered to check. No problem. I’d drive to Des Moines for my afternoon signing and get there early. Only guess what? Yep, no one at the WalMart was expecting me either. Same book distributor.
But the kind WalMart manager insisted on setting up a card table in the book section. They actually had my books but they were still in the back room. That’s right – they weren’t even unpacked. He made an announcement over the PA system that I would be there for the next two hours signing copies of my new hardcover. A few people stopped to check out the book. I think we even sold a few. Mostly people asked me where other items were in the store or where the restrooms were located.
I tell you this because since then I’ve learned quite a lot. In the last thirteen years I’ve done over 300 book signings at a variety of venues all across the United States as well as in Canada, Germany, England and Italy. What I learned is that having a major publisher doesn’t necessarily ensure a successful book promotion. Instead, it’s the relationships you build with booksellers and readers that count. They’re the ones who’ll ensure that you have a long-running career as an author.
One last thing before I get to the list — don’t forget libraries. Librarians are such creative event planners and they know how to get their communities to come out and support them. The most successful book tour I’ve ever been on was a 32-event tour across Nebraska when one of my books was chosen for One Book One Nebraska. The libraries that participated literally made each event completely different. They actually made them “events” and that’s important, too. Make it an event. A celebration. A discussion.
Okay, so here’s my list and not one of them suggests what kind of pen to use. I’ll leave that up to you.
1. Invite people. List it on your website months in advance. Send out postcards 2-3 weeks before. Tell your facebook friends a week in advance and remind them a day or two before. Twitter. Instagram. Use whatever social media networks you’re already on.
2. Send an eblast to your list of readers. And if you don’t already have a list or database, consider starting one. Services like Vertical Response (which I use) offer free basic service for up to 1000 contacts and very reasonably rates for more. They make sending out announcements (for book signings or even to announce a new book) so easy. You can find more information here: http://www.verticalresponse.com/pricing
3. Speaking of building your database of readers, here’s an idea I’ve used. Before or after any signing event offer a giveaway. Not your book – you want to sell your book. Maybe something cool that goes with the theme of your book.
Several years ago I gave away backpacks at each signing. I handed one for the audience to pass around and asked if they wanted a chance to win the backpack they could write their names on one of the pieces of paper that I provided in the side pocket of the pack (along with pens). I also told them if they wanted to be on my eNewsletter list and get my Christmas card they could add their email address and/or their mailing address. It’s a soft sell with no pressure. Readers get to decide how much they want to share.
4. Let the media know. If the bookstore or library doesn’t do this, send out your own press release with basic details and contact information. Always double check that you and the bookstore have the same date and time.
Last year my publisher’s publicist set up a signing for me at Page & Palette in Fairhope, Alabama – an incredible store, by the way – but she told me the signing was at 6:30 p.m. Had I not double checked before I booked my flight I would have arrived an hour after the scheduled NOON signing.
5. Always be gracious to the bookstore owner, manager, and staff. This goes for librarians, too. Thank them. Remember their names. If they like you, they will hand-sell and recommend your book. Think of them as your FREE sales force.
6. If you’re self-published and control your own prices for your books consider offering the bookstore a special discount. Most publishers offer 30-40%. If doing a library signing, consider donating a percentage of your sales or at least, a copy of your book to the library.
7. This is also if you sell your own books – make sure the bookstore has copies a week before (if possible). Independent stores are good about setting up displays to promote the event. You can even make a gorgeous full-color poster for as little $15-20 with your book cover and/or your photo. There are many places, I use Vistaprint: http://www.vistaprint.com/posters.aspx?txi=14922&xnid=TopNav_Posters+(linked+item)_Signs+%26+Banners_All+Products&xnav=TopNav
8. It helps to have something to insert into each book – a bookmark with a list of your other books along with your website and your other social media connections. Remember you’re creating a relationship. You want them to finish the book and say, “Wow, I wonder what else this author has written.”
9. At the event, treat your audience as if you’re a gracious host and they are your guests. Make them feel special and comfortable. When each one in line gets to you, greet him or her, make eye contact, and thank them for coming.
10. Have some stock phrases already planned to write so you don’t need to think too hard while you’re also talking to each reader.
11. Ask, “How would you like this signed” or “Would you like this signed to you?” Some collectors want ONLY a signature, no personalization. This also gets the ball rolling especially if you need to interrupt someone who’s talking to you for too long.
12. Always ask how to spell the name even if it’s a simple one. This sounds like a no-brainer but when I did a signing in London a woman with a cockney accent told me her name, and I could not for the love of me make out what she was saying. Finally I asked if she’d please spell it, which she happily did, “M-A-R-Y.” Yes, I was terribly embarrassed.
13. Sign on the title page.
14. Remember not to take too long with any one person especially if the line is long.
15. Leave some bookmarks with the bookstore. Offer to sign any stock they might have. And always thank them one last time.
Here’s the link to my books at my website: http://alexkava.com