Dropping in at one of the big chain bookstores to sign stock is often a humbling and humiliating experience, even for bestselling authors like Tess Gerritsen.
"Whether you’re just starting out, or you’re already a NYT bestselling
writer, any delusions of grandeur you may harbor will quickly be
squashed by a few sobering bookstore visits…"
Her wonderful blog post today about her experiences signing stock in Honolulu is funny, horrifying and all-too-familiar.
4 thoughts on “Bookstore Humiliation”
I’ve gotten hit with a lot of emails lately from folks interested in drive-by signings, so I put together a how-to:
Four out of five books don’t earn back their advance. Half of all books are returned, remaindered, or destroyed. You can accept this as a fact of the business, or you can take the wheel of your career and do something to improve your odds.
Autographed books sell better than their unsigned counterparts. Customers regard authors as celebrities, and a signed book is a value-added purchase.
But how likely is it that your publisher will set up a signing at every bookstore in America? Especially when each store carries just three copies of your magnum opus?
The answer: The Drive-By Signing. You drive up, you go in, you sign the stock, you get out.
For my thriller novels Whiskey Sour and Bloody Mary, I’ve done over 400 drive-by signings in the past 18 months, leaving my signature on several thousand books, meeting thousands of people.
Sound impossible? It’s actually pretty easy to do, once you know the routine.
1. Find the stores.
Go to http://www.bookweb.org, http://www.booksense.com, http://www.bn.com, http://www.waldenbooks.com, http://www.american-stores.us/book, http://www.borders.com, http://www.booksamillion.com, and search for stores by city and zip code. Or go to the public library and look through the phone books. Try to list all the stores within 50 miles of your home, or within 25 miles of the town you’re visiting.
2. Call the stores you intend to drop in on.
You need to find out if the store still exists, what time they close, and if they carry your books.
DO NOT tell them you’re the author. Why? All that does is complicate things. They’ll say you have to speak to a manager, or an events coordinator, or they’ll say you aren’t allowed to come in unless it has been cleared by your publisher, or they’ll say that they don’t do signings, or they’ll set the books aside and then no one will be able to find them when you come in, or you’ll set everything up and when you get there no one will know who the heck you are, or… you get the point. Bookstores and publishers have a set of rules about author signings.
You want to bypass those rules. So call and see if they have copies, and ask how many. I wouldn’t drive 20 miles to sign three paperbacks, but for three hardcovers I would.
Call a day or two before you plan on dropping by—calling ten days before may result in your books being gone by then.
3. Map out your route.
Use city maps, or Internet sites such as http://www.mapquest.com, http://www.maps.yahoo.com, http://www.maps.google.com. Plot a course going location to location. A GPS navigation unit is heaven sent for touring authors, and saves a lot of time and effort.
Many Barnes & Noble and Borders stores often have locations just a few miles from one another.
Shopping malls often have a Waldenbooks or B. Dalton.
Independent booksellers are generally happier to see you, and more eager to sell your books. Fit as many of these into the drop-in tour as possible.
4. When you get to a store, find your own books.
Booksellers are busy, and you want to be low maintenance and take up very little of their time. If your book just came out, it is probably on the New Releases table or the Bestseller rack at the front of the wtore. Genre sections (Mystery, Romance, Sci-fi) also have New Releases sections.
Also check at the bottom of the tables and behind the books for overstock.
Take your books to the Information Desk, Customer Service, or to a counter, and say your spiel to an employee. Mine is:
“Hi! This is me. (Smiling, pointing to my name on cover.) I’m an author. Great to meet you. (Shake hand.) Thanks for carrying my books! Do you mind if I sign them?”
Start signing when you get the ‘yes.’ You’ll always get a ‘yes’ (though once I was asked for ID, which I provided.)
Then ask them if they like your genre, and tell them about your books.
While talking to the employee, give them something—a card, a bookmark, or in my case, a drink coaster with my book cover on it, and SIGN THE ITEM. Signing it will hopefully prevent them from throwing the item away, on the off chance that one day you’ll be famous and they can sell it on eBay.
Also, ask them if they can check to see if there are any more in the store that you couldn’t find. Be patient—if the store is busy, let them take care of customers before you. That gives you a chance to pitch to customers as well.
When the books are signed, ask if they have stickers that say “Autographed Copy”. If they do, help them sticker the books. If they don’t, use your own stickers, which you took from the last store you signed at.
Barnes & Noble have square green stickers. Borders and Waldenbooks have red triangles. Sometimes Waldenbooks have blue rectangles, and Borders have brown rectangles. Don’t get confused.
After the books are signed and stickered, ask the employees to read them. Employees can ‘check out’ hardcovers like a library.
“You’ll enjoy this, I promise.”
A bookstore employee who meets you and reads you is one that will forever sell you.
Often they’ll make a display for you. Don’t overtly suggest a display yourself–hint at it and let them suggest it. This appeal for help is important–it shows you’re not a snooty author, but a regular person who needs them.
I also tell employees that whoever sells 20 copies or more will be mentioned in the acknowledgements for my next book, and give them my personal email so they can contact me.
6. Meet as many employees in the store that you can.
Thank them profusely for selling your book, and for the great job they’re doing. Take their business cards, and add them to your email newsletter list.
But don’t overstay your welcome. They’re there to work, and so are you.
7. If you’re at an independent bookstore, never leave without buying something.
If you want them to support you, you should support them.
8. Keep a log of where you visited, who you met, and how many copies you signed.
Share this info with your agent and publisher. You don’t have to give them the full list, but an email saying, “I was just in Arizona for the weekend and signed stock at 21 bookstores” will impress them.
9. Return to stores a few months later.
Often they’ll have new stock and new employees. Many stores automatically buy more copies after a book sells. I’ve visited some stores five or six times, and I always meet new people and sign more books.
Obviously, your local bookstores are the ones you’ll visit the most. But whenever you leave town on business, or for vacation, check to see what bookstores are in the area before you go.
You should also collect business cards from managers and add them to your newsletter list, and follow up with a thank-you call a few days later.
Final Words: If you’re planning on touring, you’ll get the most bang for your buck with large cities. A major metropolis like Chicago or Manhattan has over 100 bookstores. Even smaller cities like Phoenix, Denver, Houston, or Indianapolis have a few dozen stores, which is well worth your time.
When planning a drive-by tour, sooner is better. If you wait six months after your book comes out, you may discover your books are no longer there.
If you don’t have time to tour, try to visit every bookstore in your area, and set aside time during business trips and on vacation to hit a few stores in the area. The more places you visit, the more it will help your career.
Contrary to popular belief, signed books can be returned or destroyed. But it’s less likely they will be, especially if you were nice to the staff.
In today’s market, even bestselling writers must do their own publicity, or else they won’t be writers for very long. Drive-by signings are only one weapon in your publicity arsenal. But if done correctly, they can be the most powerful weapon you have.
This is kind of off the subject, but I saw Tess speak at a bookstore in Maine last year, and still haven’t forgiven her: she raised the bar so high for the ‘author talk’ that I’m now entirely demoralized.
I’m impressesd she moved to Maine. It’s a sure bet she’ll help the state, in the fashion of native son Stephen King.
I once stopped at a Barnes & Noble and bought a copy of a book I’d written (hadn’t received my comp copies yet). My name was pretty prominent on the cover, and distinctive enough that the clerk made the connection between it and the name on my credit card.
He looked at me and asked, “Cousin? Family member? Any relation?”
“Actually, that’s me,” I said, oh-so-pleased with myself.
He shook his head, said “no,” and finished ringing me up.