~ WRITING MYTHS—BOOK SIGNINGS ~
Fair Warning: What follows is from personal experience...Mileage may vary for other writers...
I recently participated in The First Annual Local Authors Book Fair sponsored by my community library. The library’s community room was spacious and as beautifully designed as the rest of the large library itself. My table was set, my hair slicked back, and my friendly smile in place. There were forty other authors at the event, each at their own table, each with their own smile and their own books to sell.
Unfortunately, to say the browser to author ratio throughout the day was two to one is generous. Cash buyers? What are those?
The fair was held on a Sunday from mid-morning to two o’clock in the afternoon. Three hours of silently screaming inside my mind, please buy my book...please like me...All the time smiling and vocally responding, The bathroom is over there...The free coffee and pastries are in the side room...Yes, I did write all the words in this book myself...No, they haven’t made a movie from any of my books…I don’t know why not...I’m glad you have an idea for a bestselling book…No, I won’t write it for you and split the profits…I’m sorry, I can’t edit your 500,000 word fantasy epic for free...I’m sorry, I can’t read the first ten chapters of your book and tell you what I think for free...I’m sorry you feel that way about my refusal to help beginning writers...Perhaps you should not use that language in such a loud voice as there are a lot of children around...If it were anatomically possible, I would be happy to do as you suggest...Meanwhile, I did not sell a single book during the hours of quiet desperation shared with every author there.
Why do we put ourselves through this frustrating and ultimately humiliating experience? Because shilling books is considered required behavior for the huge percentage of authors who are not James Patterson, an anointed twentysomething wunderkind writing Y/A fantasy, or any of the big name authors who appear regularly on USA Today’s Bestsellers list. It is the bane of our existence. The weight on our shoulders.
We would kill for a book signing line as long as those (deservedly) for Michael Connelly. Nirvana would be a book signing line as long as those (deservedly) for Sue Grafton. We’d even settle for the book signing lines for those (undeservedly) celebrities signing ghostwritten salacious tell-alls about their wonderful lives of overcoming sexual addiction, drug addiction, and several other addictions, while remaining a focus of adulation. The reality for most authors, however, is being lucky enough to have a book signing line longer than the queue for the women’s restroom during half-time at a high school football game.
We continue to put ourselves through this experience hoping against hope for things to change. We do it because we are told if we don’t promote our own work nobody else will. We do it because we think it will make a difference.
We are wrong.
Book signings are a vanity effort in futility. They are the cliché we writers have all come to accept as a symbol of success—an indication we have arrived; our efforts sweating over sentences and paragraphs have been worthwhile; a medal awarded for surviving the wordslinger wars. Doctors wince when they watch medical shows on television. Lawyers cringe at the legal antics of modern Perry Masons. As an experienced police detective, I pull my hair out watching TV cop shows. My wife won’t even let me watch real cop shows, such as The First 48, because I end up yelling at the television about every missed clue and flubbed interrogation. Yet somehow, we writers expect book signings to be exactly like those dream fulfilling literary soirées in movies and television.
Because, we want the dream to be real. Even after reality slaps us across the chops, we somehow keep coming back for more thinking it will be different the next time. I’ve heard that referred to as the definition of insanity—which many of us writers suffer at least on a small scale. You don’t think so? How many health people stay in their house all day, in their pajamas, playing with imaginary friends? It’s an old saying but no less true…
In my experience, the number of books sold at even a moderately successful solo book signing will never make a blip on a royalty statement—and after vanity satisfaction, book signings are supposed to be all about selling and promoting books. I don’t like it...I won’t go...and I’m not going to do it anymore...
Is there a recourse to this charade? I believe there are two similar, but far more worthwhile promotional activities related to book signings. The first is participating in book signings with a group of two or three other authors. In the best case scenario these would be authors with whom you are friends. But even if you don’t know each other, the peer support is central to the activity.
You have to have a different mindset to make this type of event enjoyable. Instead of focusing on book sales, your focus should be to simply enjoy spending an afternoon hanging out with friends or meeting new writers. This type of friendly interaction, or perhaps low key networking, makes the time fly. If you sell a couple of books great. If you don’t, you’ve enjoyed spending time with friends and colleagues—sharing the mutual joys and pains of writing—which should be the point of the activity. I’ll participate in these when invited and always find it a good time to catch up and interact with my real friends instead of my imaginary ones.
The other activity I enjoy with ties to book signings is the opportunity to talk to service groups in the community, writers organizations, and other worthy concerns. If you have a fear of public speaking this might not be in your skill set, but a couple of Toastmasters meetings and you should be able to get beyond your phobias. I now have half a dozen topics I can talk on to suit most of the speaking opportunities I am offered.
Now don’t go shrugging your shoulders thinking I’m a party animal extrovert. In my view, the definition of an extrovert gets recharged being around people. An introvert needs alone or quite time to recharge. An extrovert goes to a party tonight and is all fired up to go to another tomorrow and another the next day. An introvert goes to a party tonight and, no matter how much they enjoyed themselves, needs some solitude before they can venture out to socialize again. By this definition, I am firmly in the introvert camp, but it doesn’t mean I can be outgoing when needed.
In the first few months of this year, I’ve spoken to several law enforcement groups, the American Association of University Women, the county Assistance League, and a large writers’ group. After I’ve given a twenty to forty-five minute presentation, many of the attendees buy books, which I make available at all venues. The key again is not book sales. It’s genuine social interaction and perpetuating good word of mouth. Each time I speak, it leads to further opportunities to speak at other venue— creating more good will. An example is my recent experience speaking to the American Association of University Women. After my talk, I was approached by a member about becoming a lecturer at the local California State University. This pleasant encounter led directly to being paid to teach three different courses for seniors (over 50) at the university. Who knows what possibilities I’ll talk my way into next.
Book signings where I sit at a table by myself in the middle of a store waiting desperately to sell books is a thing of the past for me. The Hollywood dream of book signing literary soirées hasn’t so much been crushed as revealed to be a hollow fallacy. I’d much rather have fun with fellow authors or friendly community members, sell books or don’t sell books, and call it a successful event...