Author events at bookstores — what are they? How do they work? Where are my pants? Who the hell let us talk to people in public?? Especially without pants??? What I’m trying to say is, I have a lot of thoughts about authorial bookstore events (colloquially called “book signings” but they’re really so much more than that), and I thought, well, I have a blog, and a blog is a good place to shed the flesh of those thoughts and hold up the leavings for show.
I’ve of course been doing a lot of thinking about book signings and book tours because, well, I’m about to go on one for Black River Orchard (shameless plug, I know, but hey, it’s relevant).
So, let’s chat.
(I know I said I was going to do shorter posts. This is, uh, not one of them.)
(Also, caveat here that this is not meant to be in any way authoritative despite the word authoritative containing the word author. Meaning, I’m not trying to write gospel here. These are just thoughts. I am a foolish and simple-minded person and nothing I say here should be taken too seriously.)
What is a book signing and why does it matter?
The basic barebones thing is: author goes to bookstore, readers go to bookstore, they meet, the author makes some manner of mouth noises about the book and/or from the book, and then the readers take their (ideally) newly-procured books to the author and the author ruins them with pithy sayings and something resembling a signature.
There are, of course, variations: maybe it’s at a library, or a larger venue, or, I dunno, in forbidden catacombs. Maybe the author reads from their work. Maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s part of a larger convention or conference.
Maybe there’s a Q&A! Maybe there’s a conversation partner! Perhaps it is moderated. Or could be that the writer is free to deliver whatever coked-up screed they feel is most essential in that moment.
These events matter, and again this is the barebones, because bookstores need to keep existing and authors want to keep existing and this is one of the ways we help to continue our ancient partnership. We renew the OLD OATHS, a pact signed between the God of Bookstores and the Village Authors, and ideally these events are good for the both of us. But, then, of course, it also matters because it’s hopefully good for readers, too. They get to meet an author, which, if you’re not an author, is maybe pretty exciting.* Maybe readers discover a new writer this way, or maybe they meet a writer they’ve long-read but never met. Whatever the case, a personal connection is forged between reader and writer, and the autograph in the book represents a heretical sigil bonding the two together in a magical spell. Or, shit, I dunno, maybe the reader just gets something to sell on eBay.
In a broader sense, bookstore events like this matter because they strengthen the overall bookish ecosystem. Not just in the crass capitalist “well now the bookstore and author can continue to exist” way, but just in the renewal of book culture where we learn the value of celebrating books, the readers of those books, the writers of those books, the sellers of those books, and also any bookstore cats that may wander in.
(Perhaps controversial opinion where I probably lose some of you: I love bookstore cats in theory, but I’m also dreadfully allergic, and really can’t hang in a bookstore where said cat exists before my throat started to tighten and my face starts to leak. Sorry, bookstore cats.)
Are publishers growing wary and weary of book signings?
I’m hearing a lot more — from authors and from bookstores — about how publishers are investing less in book signings. They view them as not always worth it, and I suppose at a pound-for-pound level, they may not be. Like, if you consider a bookstore event as a single moment in time encapsulated by the book sales of that moment, maybe the juice isn’t worth the squeeze excepting of course for the most vaunted** of authors. If a bookstore sells, say, 50 books, is that enough to cover the expenses associated with the event? For them? For the publisher? For the author? The travel, the food, the bindles of weird author drugs, the chow to feed our various writer familiars?
But of course, a book signing is a lot bigger than that single event.
The advantages of such an event are many:
a) establishes or renews relationship between author and booksellers
b) establishes or renews relationship with local readers
c) by its nature, rewards local businesses, which is a good thing
d) every book sold to a new or existing reader is a pebble thrown and that creates ripples and often readers will tell other readers about those books which means book sales cascade from one reader to the next
e) sells other books because I don’t think I’ve ever been to a book event where an author did not also sell the readers on the books of other authors, including but not limited to any authorial conversation partners present
f) renews the old oaths so that the God of Bookstores is not angry
g) creates larger likelihood booksellers will handsell this book and potentially all the author’s books going forward
h) may leave behind signed copies that the bookstore can continue to sell
i) invokes ambient BOOK LOVE culture boost, providing a +4 against Ignorant Troll attacks, and that’s always a good thing
So, the costs of the event are not simply weighed against book sales but must be considered in a broader spectrum of goodness.
And yet, publishers are still balking.
Part of the reason for this is that, as I’m to understand it, bookstore events have been a little wobbly lately in attendance, though the reasons for their wobbliness should be pretty clear: COVID. We had, and still have, the conditions of a pandemic. It’s better now, if not perfect, but it was rill bad for a while. In the year 2020 we were all bleaching our groceries and washing our hands for the duration of time it takes to sing Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Shit got weird and that weird cascaded out. Events were canceled and when they did pick back up again, they did so with a lot of steam taken out of them, and a lot of uncertainty thrust into them.
Book signings were no different.
But here’s the problem: publishers also were able to move a lot of books during the pandemic, and some will use that as a reason to not do bookstore events. The logic being: “The pandemic happened, and so we could not do bookstore events, but sales of books were still up. Thus, book signings are a waste of time and money and do not matter, the end, we win.”
There are, of course, problems with all of this.
First, the reason they moved books during the pandemic is because *checks notes* people were trapped in their fucking houses, high off the fumes from bleaching their groceries probably, and they were bored and scared and books are a thing you can have delivered.
Second, I’m going to go ahead and make the argument that the reason books sold well is because the ancient pacts and old ways had been honored pre-pandemic. Meaning, bookstore events/signings made for a strong bookish ecosystem so that, when COVID hit, people turned to books and bookstores thanks to the very culture fostered by bookstore events in the first place.
Third, people wanted to support local businesses (and by proxy, bookstores) during that tumult and that tumult is over. (This is not an argument that the pandemic is over. It ain’t. I only mean: all the quarantining and such is over, and now things are quote-unquote “back to normal.”)
(By the way there are new boosters available. Go get!)
As such, it’s time to renew the old ways and get back to doing book events. And you can’t use the current non-successes of such events are reason to not do more. This is a self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecy: “Book events waned during COVID and so they’re not successful and so we stop investing in them and now they’re even worse.” Well, yeah. Because there was a pandemic. And because you stopped investing in them.
(Note too: when I say you, I’m not speaking to every publisher or editor. Some still like book events. Hey, I’m getting to do book events! It’s still a thing. I’m just talking about what I’m hearing from other writers and booksellers.)
How does one make a great book event?
So, this is not saying book signings and events as they exist are bad. They’re not. I love them. And it’s not like they’ve ever been guaranteed to be well-attended, okay? I made it a (probably weird) habit of my younger days to see Christopher Moore’s events whenever I could — and I watched them grow and grow in attendance, which is great. But I also remember attending one in South Carolina where it was me, a friend, and I think a third rando person, and that was it. And this was when Moore was a bestselling author. It was a super dead event, and he took us out for sandwiches, because hey, Christopher Moore is a rad dude. Which I had initially mistyped as “rat dude,” which is very different.
We’ve all done events where you’re trying to sell books to one guy who wandered in off the street and he doesn’t know who you are and he wants to ask you meaningless questions IN A REALLY LOUD VOICE and also he has three trained circus mice in his pocket? Maybe this only happened to me.
So, how do we make them better? (If only for Three-Mice Man.)
Know how to talk about your book.
I often say, before I’ve finished writing a book, or before that book comes out, that I don’t know yet how to talk about that book. I don’t just mean in a “pitch me” sort of way, I mean in the… the larger conversation in why I wrote it, how it exists, what matters about it to me. There’s a doorway into discussing your work that makes it lively and useful — a personal angle worth finding.
Find it before you have a book event. It’s like having a little keynote in mind just about your one book. Tell it like a story. Because it is a story. There’s the story you wrote, and the story about and around that story.
A those Qs
Save definite time for a Q&A. It’s not guaranteed, and I’ve had a few quiet audiences, but a lot of the time? They wanna ask you shit. And I think that’s a real value-add, when you can serve that audience with your time and your information or, at the very least, some kind of wit. If you come to my book signings, bring questions. I’ll do my best to answer, as I am (mostly) an open book, and I aim to be candid and forthcoming.
Do you need to actually do a reading?
This is also where I probably lose you and make some folks surly but, man, I do not like it when authors read from their work during an event. (Usually. There are exceptions. If you see Clay McLeod Chapman speak, you make that motherfucker read, because it is a performance.) It’s often dull and out-of-context and kind of meh to me — you know, I can read the book on my own, or if I really wanna hear it, that’s why Jesus invented audiobooks. YMMV!
What about in-conversation partners?
Meaning, event where two authors chat with one another, ostensibly to launch one of their books into the world***? I am definitely a fan, because if you can make it work, I think it doubles (or triples if you run it like a panel) the energy of the event. It’s a two-fer! Plus maybe the store sells a few more books because now there are the books of two writers here.
My sense is that this is ideal when there is already a rapport between those authors. It just needs to be a good fit, y’know? Bookstores are often good about knowing who is local and who is available, but writers should also have a good sense of who are good folks to chat with, too. (Shameless plug part two: on the Black River Orchard tour, I’ll be talking to Delilah S. Dawson, Aaron Mahnke, Sadie Hartmann, the aforementioned Clay, Owen King, and now, Liberty Hardy at PRINT in Portland. All folks who I know are lovely humans and who I’m super geeked to talk to.)
Also worth considering the relative success levels of the author(s) in question. A debut author might not bring a crowd on their own, but if paired with one or two other authors, that’s a bigger deal. Some midlist authors will bring a nice audience but if paired with too big an author, might be dwarfed by that writer’s chosen audience. (Anybody who has ever signed next to Brandon Sanderson knows what’s up. Looking upon his signing lines is like staring into infinity.)
Break the format!
I think there’s some value in at least considering how to break the standard format for a book signing, which goes roughly like this:
– author intro
– maybe an author reads from their book
– author talk and/or moderated conversation
– a few moments for collective existential despair
– if time, a Q&A
– sign books
– go home
It’s a good format, and it works, and I’m not mad at it.
But I also think, well, if there’s room to liven it up a little – trapeze act! pony ride! murder confession! – then go ahead and do it. When I launched Invasive, I had edible bugs available for people to eat. And shameless plug number three, with Black River Orchard, at most of the stops I’m going to have WEIRD (aka heritage / antique / heirloom) APPLES to taste. Hell, at the Rhinebeck / Red Hook NY stop, it’ll be me and Owen King at an orchard doing the event, which should be pretty amazing.
So, it’s worth thinking about how you can shake things up a little bit.
Oh god that’s a terrible horrible no-good word. Maybe if we make it INSECTIVIZATION. That sounds better.
Anyway. I think it’s worth thinking about if there’s anything you can do to actively reward some or all of who attend your events. With what, I don’t know. I know some authors offer simple bookmarks or postcards, but I also think it’s worth thinking outside the box again. Offer something related to the book – someone asks a question, give them, I dunno, a pet monkey or a Ford F-150. Or maybe a pickle. Who doesn’t love pickles?
Shameless plug number 4000: if you show up to one of my events wearing WENDIG-THEMED MERCH, I will give you a cool treat. I will not tell you what this treat is. You will just have to show up and be surprised. It is not a monkey or a Ford F-150. Probably.
Should they be virtual?
It helps people access events if they’re at least livestreamed! But I also know virtual attendance dropped off a cliff.
Should the events cost money?
As in, cost the attendees money? Torn on this. If it goes toward the cost of the book, it makes total sense. And guarantees the bookstore isn’t just hosting nomads who popped in to listen or people who bought the book on fucking Amazon (ye gods don’t do this please). But bookstore and library events are also a great option for hosting a free event too, which makes it more a chance to convert new readers. So, could go either way.
Can’t you just do conferences and conventions?
Sure! Bonus there is you hit a big audience and maybe earn some new audience along the way. So, really good for debut authors, and also really works well with more fan-flavored books (particularly SFF). But otherwise, nobody wants to carry one of my bison-bludgeoners around a Comic-Con for eight hours, and also, it may or may not even reward a bookstore. And we like bookstores. Yay bookstores.
And some of it is on you, the reader.
I quite often like to say that readers do not owe writers anything except procuring the written word in a way that is legal and fair. Beyond that, you owe us nothing. Not reviews, not attention, not a high-five, nothing.
That being said, if books are a thing you like, and bookstores are an entity you support, then it definitely helps if you show that support by, well, actually showing up at book events. Their continued existence is more likely when people show up for them and engage with the store. It’s not essential for you to do so! There really is no obligation. But these events are crucial for bookstores and for authors, and that means we gotta have folks actually attend and buy books. (Alternatively, you can buy the books and not attend – meaning, we’ll sign the books for you and you can come pick it up, or hell, the store will even ship right to you.)
And if you really really wanna help? Spread the word about the events, bring a friend or two or three to them, and actually tell the bookstore you’re coming before hand on whatever signup they have set up on Facebook or whatever. Again you don’t owe us anything, but it helps whenever you commit more than just the exchange of money for books. The book ecosystem must be fed with the blood of virguhhhh I mean with people who not just read books but who also care about them and talk about them and show up for them.
Anyway, I have more to talk about, but it’s already gone on too long and my fingers are weary. Hope to see you at one of my events, and if I’m not coming to where you are, check your local indie store or your B&N and see what events they have coming up. Go to one! It’ll be neat.
And don’t forget about the pre-order contest where you might win a shirt, or some books, or an evil apple invented JUST FOR YOU.
OKAY now you tell me in the comments about a book signing you really liked and why. Get after it. Pitter patter.
* If you are an author, you know to show up wary and guarded, for the other author may slay you at any time in an effort to eat your heart and, by proxy, your book sales. Authors meeting authors is like two spiders meeting. Will you be friends? OR PREY.
** Vaunted is a great word. We should use it more often.
*** Metaphorically. Not with, like, a catapult. Though that could be cool too.