Authors use signings and readings to promote their books. I’ll describe this impactful tool. Though I write literary fantasy novels (The Lords of Oblivion), the descriptions below are broadly relevant across genres, fiction or non-fiction, debut writer or veteran author.
Like any other part of book marketing, planning is vital. Perhaps the biggest challenge for signings or readings is a venue’s reluctance to host you and/or the monetary cost to rent space. Bookstores are often disinclined to support unknown authors with unproven ability to draw customers since such events can be a distracting nuisance to staff and customers. You’ll need to convince bookstore managers that you’ll sell enough books to make it worth their while without disrupting the store’s normal business activities. Some stores will never agree to host you, so focus on more friendly venues. Conversely, conventions or book fairs may be quite welcoming to neophyte authors, but costs for tables and booths can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars. You’ll need to consider whether the exposure is worth it.
Other overarching factors influencing the success of these promotional tactics include whether your event is a signing or a reading; are you a relatively unknown writer or a bestseller; what kind of venue is hosting your event; and how to leverage advertising in support of your event. Let’s delve into these factors.
At most signings, the author simply sits at a table, pen in hand, and autographs copies of their latest masterpiece or potboiler. To increase your chances of success, scout your venue before the event and understand its logistics; is there foot-traffic where you’ll be setting up; how many books will the venue buy from their wholesaler and expect you to sell (or how many books should you bring yourself if you’re selling on a consignment basis); will there be other author signings occurring concurrently and competing for attention? Further, is the signing done in conjunction with a sale on your book?
Additionally, are you and/or the venue advertising the event? If so, allow time to create the ad copy. If you have a publicist, they can help with some of this prep-work, but it’s also manageable on your own and you retain more control over the process and the messaging if you do things yourself.
At your signing, assume that customers are keen on going about their business and aren’t necessarily eager to spend time learning about anything that’s not a bestseller. Therefore, be approachable and ready to engage with potential readers. In a busy bookstore, if possible, don’t just sit behind the table and wait for the world to approach you. Instead stand in front of the table (thereby removing a physical and psychological barrier) and invite folks to give you a few seconds of their time to introduce your work to them. However, do it gently; no one likes a pest. If someone expresses little interest in you or your book, back off. Try to strike the right balance between overbearing salesmanship and passivity and also accept the inherent awkwardness of trying to interest total strangers in your work. After all, why the hell should anyone buy it? You’ll need to articulate a cogent reason at the signing.
In addition – really important – don’t invite family and friends along for moral support. They already know about the book and seeing you surrounded by a phalanx of family well-wishers will inhibit communication with your real audience: potential readers who don’t know you or your work from a hole in the ground.
An example makes this point. At a bookstore signing for my fantasy novel, I shared space near the front entrance with another author. Our tables were only 10 feet apart, so we had equal access to the steady stream of customers walking into the store, but there were significant differences in how we conducted our signings. While I was conversing with individual store visitors to interest them in my novel, the other author had a cameraman tape an interview with her as she expounded on the virtues of her latest book. During the 30 minutes it took to set up camera angles, optimize sound levels, and rehearse and conduct the interview, customers went out of their way to avoid the commotion. Upon wrapping the interview, she was joined by family and friends animatedly chatting with her for the rest of her stay at the store. Who would interrupt this happy and insular gathering? Certainly not the typical shopper. As a result, this author didn’t engage with many potential readers nor did she sell books during her signing because this was all an exercise in ego; being a little humble and paying attention to potential new readers could have made this a more productive event for her work.
Some of a signing’s characteristics also apply to a reading. After all, authors usually sign and hope to sell books in both situations. In fact, a reading is a more efficient means to convince a group of potential buyers to get your book than the one-by-one personal salesman efforts needed to move books at a signing. However, the author must entice an audience of potential buyers to sit through a reading. To this point, an important difference between signings and readings is the customer’s motivation for attending. While signings, especially at bookstores, are likely to draw a random sampling of shoppers who may have no particular knowledge of your new book or even its genre, readings will generally attract an audience that has already been persuaded to attend either by the author’s reputation or by effective event advertising. Indeed, they’re committing 20 minutes or more to listening to the author’s deathless prose followed by the inevitable Q&A. So this tactic may be best suited to authors with established reputations whose readers will go out of their way to hear about the latest addition to the oeuvre.
Readings can also attract walk-in traffic, but these will probably be a minority of listeners, so, for neophyte authors, a reading may make sense if they can partner with a well-known author for a joint event. Obviously, the prominent author is doing the newbie a favor here.
If you do decide to go it alone at a reading as a lesser-known writer, nothing looks worse than lots of unoccupied seats, so effective advertising is helpful to pack the venue. And, in contrast to a signing, do bring family and friends to occupy empty space and clap loudly during awkward silences.
Additional considerations are how much time you have and what pages will you read? Resist the urge to read an exquisitely written, but lengthy descriptive passage that may have soporific effects on the crowd. Instead, recognize that you’re not an author at a reading; you’re a public speaker and entertainer, so pick a dramatic section likely to hold the audience. Also, rehearse before the event.
New Author vs Bestseller
Signings/readings have different purposes depending on the writer’s prominence. For a new author, the primary goal is gaining awareness from potential readers that you and your book exist in a marketplace packed with thousands of other works published annually in your genre. A more eminent author can use a signing/reading to solidify their rapport with their fan base and introduce new works to this base.
Unless you already have a sizable following who will attend your public appearances, be aware that you won’t necessarily be engaging with your target audience at a signing. Instead, particularly at larger bookstores, you’ll meet whoever walks in the door and you can expect to be ignored unless, as noted above, you can get shoppers’ momentary attention. As an example of this challenge for a new author, at a recent signing in a large bookstore for The Lords of Oblivion, I stood at a table with a big pile of 25 of books and met at least 100 shoppers over the course of several hours. Not one of them knew me or read much fantasy. Nonetheless, I was able to introduce my novel to complete strangers and sold the entire pile – hopefully laying the groundwork for further word-of-mouth awareness.
As noted above, signings can be done in a number of settings including bookstores carrying your work or fan gatherings in your genre (e.g. romance or scifi/fantasy conventions). Public libraries also may host these events.
If the signing is done in a bookstore, cultivate good relations with the staff. They’re doing you a favor by letting you promote in their store even if they charge you for the privilege.
However, if you do a signing at conventions or bookstores specializing in your genre, the people that you meet will be enriched in your prospective reader making it easier to engage their interest. If the cost is significant, consider offsetting it by sharing the space with other authors though inviting too many other writers to tout their work can dilute the message for everyone.
Based on the factors noted above, you can estimate how effective advertising might be in supporting your event and what type to deploy. For a simple bookstore signing by a writer with little name recognition, advertising beyond a free notice in local media or on your own social media sites may not elicit enough interest to justify the cost/effort; would customers that you hope to attract even see the ad let alone act on it?
At a large convention or book festival, the sponsors will likely already be handling promotion of the overall event rendering any advertising from individual, unknown writers superfluous. Given the scale of these events, you’ll likely already have plenty of traffic past your table/booth – though you should certainly alert followers on your social media sites of your location at the event.
Advertising can be more helpful for writers with an established following. Their reader base may well be willing to attend an event just because of their presence. Further, the excitement engendered by a large crowd focused on their favorite author can help create awareness of new works and expand the fan base.
As always, social media is an excellent means to advertise your ‘brand’ in advance of the event and working with a publicist and the venue to share costs for traditional media exposure can further amplify awareness and increase attendance.
On a related note, and a bit provocatively, I’d posit that the emphasis of advertising should vary as a function of an author’s fame. Lesser-known writers should high-light their new book, why it’s so unique and cool. Better known writers can leverage their fame to draw attendees; a famous author’s fans may care less about the latest work than simply meeting the author. They’ll trust that the new work is as good as all the stories by the author that they’ve loved in the past.
Signings/readings offer engagement with individual readers and can be a potent means for the writer to create awareness and demand for their new books. However, signings/readings are not stand-alone tactics and need to compliment other pieces of an overall marketing plan. These events may reach a few dozen or, more rarely, a few hundred readers, but your goal should be to sell thousands or tens of thousands of books and, to do that, you’ll need to utilize many other tactics to promote your material and get lots of readers who you’ve never engaged with personally to buy it.