Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Tale of Four Signings

A few years ago, I was signing books outside the dealers’ room at the Marcon science fiction convention. A man approached the table and spent a few minutes looking over my books.
“I might as well take this one,” he said, after picking up a copy of my novel Nekropolis. “I’m getting it for my wife. It was her birthday a couple weeks ago, and I forgot to get her anything. Just write inside that you’re sorry it’s late.”

I looked at him. “Do you mean write that you’re sorry?”

“No, write that you’re sorry.”

I looked at him again, a bit longer this time, then I shrugged and then signed it to his wife, adding I’m sorry your husband forgot to get you a present. Then I signed my name, handed him the book, and he walked off without checking to see what I wrote. I have a feeling that his present was most likely not well received.

The book-signing is one of the most common tools in a writer’s promotional arsenal, especially with the increase in self-publishing. When I was first starting to learn about marketing and promotion sometime in my twenties, the common wisdom old pros would pass down to us newbies in those pre-Internet days was that most self-promotional efforts were wasted time. The best way for your books to reach readers was to partner with a traditional publisher who could get your work into bookstores and who (might) spend a little money on promotion for you. Doing readings, signings, and attending cons were only worthwhile if you enjoyed such activities. (Or, as some of the more cynical pros would say, if you need to do those things to feel like a “real” writer.) Self-promotional efforts wouldn’t put any money into your pocket, and you’d be lucky to connect with one or two readers. And in the case of cons, you’d have to lay out your own money for travel expenses, food, etc. Bottom line, as far the pros were concerned: you’d be better off staying home and writing.

As I began publishing more regularly, I tried various self-promotional activities for myself, and my experience bore out the old pros’ advice. So while I was still happy to do signings, readings, panels, or workshops at a con, I stopped seeking out promotional opportunities. Occasionally, someone would contact me and ask if I could do a writing workshop for their school or organization, and I’d say yes. But otherwise, I was done.

But as the years passed, and more small-presses sprang up and more writers self-published, I began to see more writers doing promotional activities, especially signings. I wondered if times had changed enough that it might be worth it for me to try doing more promotion. I also began to wonder if, after publishing for so many years, I was getting lazy. So when a library not far from Cleveland contacted me and asked me to participate in their upcoming book fair, I said yes. The library was a three-hour drive from where I lived, but they had a bookseller coming in who would have presenters’ books for sale, so I wouldn’t have to schlep my own copies, and I’d never done any promotion in that part of the state. They also wanted me to be on a publishing panel with several other writers to kick off the event. I knew that money-wise, I’d be in the hole when it was done, but I wanted the experience. Besides, I try to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves (which often means I end up committing to more than I can comfortably do, but that’s a topic for another blog post). You never know what connections you might make, how they may pay off down the road, etc.

The library was new, big, modern, and extremely cool. As soon as I saw it, I thought that maybe this event would turn out to be something special. (I can hear some of you out there laughing already.) The opening panel wasn’t well attended. Less than a dozen people came. My fellow panelists were all literary writers who taught at area colleges, and the panel went well enough. Afterward, I asked a fellow panelist if he was going to stay for the book fair, and he laughed. “I did it last year. I’m going to skip it this time.”

His response did not bode well.

Soon after, many other writers arrived and began setting up their displays. The bookstore people came, and while they had my books, they didn’t have the new novel by one of my fellow panelists who did decide to stay for the fair, so she packed up and left, looking rather relieved to have an excuse to duck out, I thought. Then the fair began.

People trickled in steadily over the next few hours, but almost none of them bought books, and they certainly didn’t buy any of mine. I had a small poster and some fliers, but after checking them out, people would say some variation of “Horror? I can’t read that stuff. It keeps me up at night” and move on. Less than an hour after the fair began, most of the authors (who all appeared to be self-pubbed) started wandering around, introducing themselves to one another, swapping business cards, and asking for leads on other book fairs they might be able to attend to sell their books. (And asking me how much I had to pay to get my books published.) It was one of the most surreal – and sad – displays I’ve seen when it comes to self-promotional events. The librarians in charge were perplexed and dismayed that very few people came.”Maybe if we’d publicized the event more . . .” one of them told me.

The next signing I did was at the World Horror Convention. I participated in the mass signing at the con, and I did sign some books. But since the con was in New Orleans, few people bought books that weekend. They were saving their money for food and booze, and who could blame them? You have to have priorities in life. I saw one writer who had a stack of his new novel at his table. No one came to visit him until he put up a hastily scrawled sign that said FREE BOOKS! He had visitors then – as long as his supply held out. People will always take a free book. I wonder how many of those books get read, though.

The next signing event I did after WHC was during the spring residency for Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Professional Fiction program, in which I serve as a mentor. The signing was actually put on by the program’s alumni, as part of the In Your Write Mind workshop they conduct during residencies. Between workshop presenters, program faculty, and alumni, there were dozens upon dozens of writers in attendance. Who knows, maybe close to hundred. There were certainly enough of us to fill an entire gym. I thought there would be a bookseller with faculty’s books for sale. There wasn’t. The organizers didn’t even have a name card for me or an assigned table. (I hard to write my name on a piece of paper for myself.) The organizers did an amazing job overall, so I figure I probably screwed up something along the way, forgot to email them or double-check that they received an email from me, etc. So no hard feelings on my part. I found a spot next to Lucy A. Snyder, who had a professional display of her books, along with the Bram Stoker Award she had won a couple weeks previously. I had brought some promotional postcards to pass out, but that was it. It was a bit embarrassing. I’ve published over thirty novels by this point, and I knew I should’ve brought at least a few copies with me, just in case.

So when the next signing came around, I was determined to do it right. I went to Staples and bought display stands for my books, I made my own nameplate so I wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else to make me one, I got a square card reader for my phone so I could take credit and debit card payments, I got a bloody gauze Halloween tablecloth to drape over the table, and I packed up a couple boxes of books. The signing took place at the Context science fiction convention last month, and again it was a mass signing, with maybe a dozen different writers in attendance. It went on for two hours, and I didn’t sell a single book. I signed several that people had brought with them or bought at the con, though.

So what did I learn from these signings over the last year?

·         Mass signings sound good to event organizers, but people only have so much money to spend. The more writers in attendance, the fewer (if any) books individual writers will sell. And of course, it’s harder to stand out in a crowd when there actually is a crowd.

·         The old pros were right. Signings in general probably don’t do much to promote writers, but if you’re going to be at an event anyway, it doesn’t hurt to participate in a signing.

·         If you’re going to do signings, bring your shit with you. Always.

·         Have free stuff people can take (but not your books!). As I mentioned before, I have a promotional postcard that has several book covers of mine on it. I also have a piece of flash fiction printed on the back.

·         If I wasn’t so damned lazy, I might make chapbooks of some of my how-to-write and how-to-publish articles to pass out at signings. People are most interested in what they can get from you, not what they can do for you. Many of the people at writing events want to become published writers themselves, and you can make that work for you. Whether such a chapbook would result in sales of your fiction is, not to make a pun, another story. But it might be worth a try.

·         The most valuable commodity any of us possess is time. Only do promotional events like readings if you believe they’ll be worth the time you’ll spend to do them.

·         There are lots of books on marketing and self-promotion out there. My favorite is Guerilla Marketing for Writers. There are tons of great tips in here, from cheap and easy to more expensive and effort-intensive – something for everyone!

My latest novel, Supernatural, the Television Series: The Roads Not Taken has just been released. It’s an interactive novel (meaning you get to choose the characters’ paths throuthe story) featuring Sam and Dean Winchester from the popular TV series. I had a hell of lot of fun writing it, and I’m excited that people will finally get the chance to read it:
My story “Unwoven” appears in the anthology Bleed. All proceeds go to fight children’s cancer: