How to Make the Most of Book Signings

By Karyn Langhorne

Back in October, a friend of mine suggested I try to set up a book signing in a bookstore near where he works. It’s a great location for book signings: a heavily trafficked mall surrounded by federal office buildings and built above a subway station. I talked with the store manager, a nice but somewhat harried young man named Richard, and made my case. We set a date for an event for December . . . and I nearly forgot about it. Until this week, when Richard called to remind me that I was “on,” scheduled for Tuesday between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. — the heart of the noon-time break. He suggested I arrive early to “set up.” When I arrived, I understood a little better what he meant.

There was a long table set at the store’s entrance, loaded with about 30 of my books, arranged in neat stacks that made the table look far too long and empty. There was a little blackboard on which the words “Appearing today: Karyn Langhorne” were written in colorful letters. And that was it.

“Basically, the way this works is you snag people as they come in and tell them about your book. Or you can step out into the mall concourse and encourage them to step into the store and buy,” Richard told me. “That’s pretty much it. Good luck!”

I stared at the too-long table, the thirty books, the busy mall concourse just outside the store entrance and the please-don’t-approach me looks on the faces of the book browsers already in the store. My stomach sank. I’m a writer, not a saleswoman. Could I really do this?

Book signings for established and well-recognized authors can mean lines of excited fans, ready to purchase, and eager for the author’s John Hancock. But for the rest of us, “book signings” is a misnomer. The mission we’re on is a “book selling.” And book selling in this context means the same things it always does, whether you’re looking for an agent, a publisher or a reader: know your audience, refine your pitch to appeal to that audience, and ask for the sale.

Although I hadn’t been told exactly what to expect for this signing, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have a line of fans stretched out the door. So, I’d made some efforts. I sent out e-mails to friends and family, telling them about the book signing and asking them to forward the announcement to anyone they knew who worked in the area. I made my pitch to these friendly sources a little personal — and, I confess, slightly pathetic. “Please drop by if you can,” I wrote. “I’d hate to be sitting in a bookstore with a stack of unsold books . . . Sad and lonely and all by myself!”

Cover of Karyn Langhorne's A Personal MatterThen I gave some thought to how I wanted to present myself for the book signings. With the holidays around the corner, I decided a holiday sweater and a Santa hat might be festive and attention-getting. And since it is holiday time, I figured that would make a good pitch: an inexpensive present for a friend or co-worker, made personal and special by an author autograph. To bolster the feeling of holiday spirit I invested in festive container and filled it with mini-candy canes — sweets I hoped would attract people to pause a moment. And I brought my little stand-alone foam board of the book’s cover. This I set up on that long empty table, facing the mall entrance. I grabbed my roll of the glittering gold “Autographed by author” stickers I’d ordered from Wax Creative months before A Personal Matter was even released and my good “signing” pen, then took a deep breath. Show time.

The first fifteen minutes were awful. I sat at the table and greeted every customer that came into the store . . . most were polite, but not interested. Finally, antsy with the fear of abject failure, I abandoned the seat behind the little table and paced the store’s entrance, smiling encouragingly at passersby. Again, most were polite . . . but they felt like I probably would have felt: uncertain about being talked into anything by a little brown woman in a Santa hat.

My strategy, good as it had seemed before my arrival, wasn’t working. Suddenly thirty books seemed an impossible number, way too many for me to possibly sell during the hour allotted to me. Just how was I supposed to do this? That was a critical moment there when I almost became discouraged and gave up — until I remembered what salespeople everywhere know all to well: Every no is one step closer to yes.

I stopped a nice-looking man rolling a cart full of trash with the words “Are you looking for an inexpensive gift for a special lady?”

He laughed. “I’m the janitor. I ain’t got no lady!”

“Sure you do,” I continued, observing him carefully. This guy was way too handsome to spend his evenings with the remote control. And he carried himself with a certain cockiness . . . like he knew how pretty he was. “I bet you have two or three!”

He liked that. He blinked his long, dark eyelashes at me and asked, “What you got?” then listened to the whole pitch about my book, about how an autographed copy would be a perfect stocking stuffer for whichever of his two ladies was a reader — or both of them, if he’d like. I certainly wasn’t going to tell on him.

He liked that, too. And he bought two books. I signed one for “Felecia” and another for “Jeannette” and asked no questions. He came back five minutes later, with three other guys from the maintenance staff. They each bought a book for their lady friends — and I signed them all.

I stopped two ladies as they passed the bookstore and gave them the spiel. This time, I emphasized that it was great gift for a friend or co-worker. I told them that I was a local writer, that A Personal Matter was my first book, and that I would really appreciate their support, since that was a pretty big stack of books on the table, and it would be pretty embarrassing to have them all still sitting there when my hour was up. Lady One looked at Lady Two, said, “Merry Christmas,” and came inside to buy her friend (and herself) signed copies. This approach ended up working very well — I stopped three more sets of ladies with it, and all of them bought copies for themselves and friends. Then a couple of my friends who got my e-mail dropped by . . . and eight more copies went away. The commotion at the signing table started to attract people into the store without me saying a word. When I finished a whirlwind of signing and chatting and things got quiet long enough for me to look up, there were only five copies left. These sold easily enough, partly because I felt confident and partly because the hour had taught me what worked.

At 12:45, there were no more books. None. All thirty, gone. So were the candy canes. In fact, two people I’d stopped earlier came back to buy books and there weren’t any left. And I had learned several important lessons, some of which might be helpful to any of you with book signings in your future:

Book Signings: Tips for Success

  1. Don’t sit behind the table. Things improved as soon as I stood up, walked around, and started reaching out to approach people.
  2. Have different pitches for different types of buyers. I thought the one-sized fits all “holiday gift” approach would work . . . but it turned out different arguments worked better with men than women. When I appealed to men to buy the book as a thoughtful present for the women in their lives, it worked. When I appealed to women to buy the book for their co-workers and good girlfriends, it worked.
  3. Make the personal connection with people. My janitor friend taught me to use all those “writer-ly” powers of observation to my advantage. When I started paying attention to people, they listened to me.
  4. Don’t let “nos” scare you. Easy to say, hard to do, it’s true. But the salespeople are right: keep plugging until you get to “yes.”
  5. Ask for people’s support. I know several people bought books because they could relate to how tough it would be to stand there for the full hour and not sell anything!

Always invite everyone to everything. A lady showed up after the books were all gone and introduced herself as a friend of a friend of a friend — who had been forwarded my e-mail begging not to be left alone and lonely. She said she worked in the area, and was curious. The books were all gone at that point, but she ordered a copy — which made Richard, the manager, even happier than he was before.

Happy holidays — and happy book signings!

Karyn Langhorne Folan is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, with over 25 books so far. She’s  written for the groundbreaking educational novel series, Bluford High as well as an exciting line of post-apocalyptic fiction called Ashes, Ashes. Karyn Langhorne Folan has a Website.