The Perils of Signing

Author Barry Eisler signed THE LAST ASSASSIN at a small, independent bookstore in the mid-west and then left and signed stock at two nearby big chain stores in the same town.  Barry reports that this did not sit well with the independent bookseller, who wrote:

stock at chain stores signals to the people who did take the time to
come to your [our independent bookstore] event and support you that
their effort was not necessary. More importantly, calling attention to
that fact that you need to leave to do such a thing is insulting to
your hosts. If that was something you felt compelled to do, you
probably should have done so without drawing attention to yourself. I
chalk it up to you not understanding the dynamics of the situation.
Other booksellers may not be very forgiving. Some in particular that we
know would simply stop carrying your books without comment.

[…] Like many of the key independents, we’re in the business of selling
books and we also produce author events. In order to drive the
publicity for an event, particularly for genre fiction, there has to be
a unique quality to the experience we’re offering. Part of that
uniqueness is the opportunity to meet the author and purchase a signed
book. If someone can go anywhere in town and purchase a signed book,
then that unique aspect of the event marketing is lost.

Is the independent bookseller over-reacting or did Barry make a  mistake? Barry doesn’t think he did:

I can’t apologize for signing stock at chains, my friend. They’re
important distributors in my business, and I can’t make a living
selling through independents alone (nor would I have been able to build
my business as I have without the backing of independents). If I
insulted you by doing I see as best for my business, I regret it, and
am somewhat surprised, as it’s not a reaction I’ve run into before.

If you’d like to have me back for another event, I would be delighted,
as you, along with other key independents, have done a tremendous
amount to get me where I am, and where I hope to go. You also run a
first rate signing and seem like good people. But whether I do a
signing with you or not, you should know that I’ll also sign stock at
as many chains in town as I can. This is a business decision for me,
not at all personal, and you shouldn’t feel insulted by it.

What do you think? Was Barry right or was he wrong? I’m not in my friend Barry’s league, but I can see both sides of the argument.

I know one independent bookseller who was very upset to find out that a week before they were hosting a signing for A Big Bestselling Author, signed copies of his book were being sold at the Costco two miles up the street (he’d signed thousands of copies at their distribution center) and he’d signed stock at the Barnes & Noble  less than a mile away a day earlier.

After the signing at the independeant bookstore, the Big Bestselling Author made sure he stopped by the nearby Borders, too. The independent booksellers were pissed…but there wasn’t much they could do about it. They still sold a lot of his books, just not as many as they could have sold if they weren’t undercut by the much cheaper signed books at Costco and B&N.

On the other hand, people who came to the independent bookseller’s event got to meet the author…something they couldn’t do at Costco, B&N or Borders. And they presumably were willing to pay a little extra for that priveledge.  I do believe the indie offered something unique that the other stores couldn’t, and that the people who’d buy the signed book at Costco aren’t necessarily the same customers who’d attend an author signing.  One doesn’t necessarily cancel out the other.

Like I said, I can see both sides.

I wonder how the independent feels about authors who do signings at another indies in the same city? I know it happens all the time in L.A. area and authors are very upfront about it.  Mystery/thriller  authors frequently sign at Mysteries to Die For the same day as Mystery Bookstore and Book’em… and even ask for directions (as Barry did, asking the indie how to get to B&N). If the indies here mind, they haven’t said anything about it that I know of…

17 thoughts on “The Perils of Signing”

  1. Am I alone in finding ‘signed stock’ weird? The point of an author signing a book is to personalise it. As an author I’ll happily sign anything that helps any bookseller shift the goods. But as a reader, when I come across a stack of books with the author’s scribble already in them and plenty more where they came from, as many as you want, chief… you see what I’m getting at?

  2. Barry was simply doing what every other author on tour does — he was out promoting his book. When the publisher pays to send you to outer Mongolia (and they’re paying for airfare and hotel and media escort and meals) they want you to get out there and hustle. Everywhere. If you ignore the chain stores, you’re not doing your job.
    “Signed stock” makes a lot of sense. I once heard the statistic that signed copies will sell 5X faster than unsigned copies. That’s why so many authors end up signing the books at distribution centers. It’s efficient, and it saves on airfare. Of course, it’s not personalized, which is why readers will still come to booksignings. The real pull of the live booksigning, though, is the chance to hear the author talk — and that means you, the author, have to put on a good show.

  3. I agree with Barry. Yes, I understand the indie bookseller’s point, but I find the “if you don’t do it my way I won’t sell your book” response to be the sort of attitude that only alienates authors, publishers and, possibly, readers.
    I’ve watched this indie versus chain store battle for a long time and definitely understand the argument on both sides. There was a small bookstore in nearby Lake Orion that went out of business. She said people could buy the same book cheaper at Kmart next door than she could order them through the publishers, and when a Borders opened up 10 miles away, she claimed it was what put her out of business.
    Maybe it did. But there’s always been this argument that the indies treat their customers better than the chains. And this lady eventually alienated me by snarling at my children, being rude to me and ignoring the fact that I was a very regular customer. Her staff even apologized to me with a, “she’s not very comfortable around children.” Yeah? Tough shit. Don’t alienate your customers.
    I’ve heard indies complain about Janet Evanovitch not doing signings at their stores any more and I can only shake my head and wonder how an independent could handle the crowds.
    But really, it’s this–” Some in particular that we know would simply stop carrying your books without comment”– that troubles me about that bookseller’s comments.

  4. The point of signed stock is also to meet the booksellers. A handshake, a ‘thanks for carrying my books,’ and a quick verbal synopsis of your series will help them sell your books for long after you’ve left.

  5. The only faux pas I could see calling him on would be announcing that he’s off to another store to sign stock. It could be viewed as being over at your friend’s house for dinner and then announcing you have to leave because you’re having dessert with someone else.
    Best just to politely excuse oneself, I would say.
    That said, I would agree that meeting the author is the selling point for a signing, not so much the signature.
    When I ordered Tod’s book Simplify from Amazon, it arrived as a signed copy, which was a pleasant surprise. However, it didn’t really compare to attending Richard Dawkins reading from and signing of his book The Ancestor’s Tale, at which I got to express my appreciation for everything I had learned from his work and how it had changed a number of my beliefs.

  6. I agree with Andy that it might not have been the most diplomatic thing to say “I’m off to sign stock now”, but other than that, Barry Eisler is doing his job. If he didn’t do his job, if he didn’t get known, the independent bookseller wouldn’t have a regular best seller of top-quality novels to sell–he’d just have another POD author who missed the boat.

  7. My God — I thought signing stock was just part of the job, like . . . well, writing the book. Thanks, Lee, for bringing to light a whole new topic to keep me up nights.

  8. I will drive 45 minutes to an hour to attend a signing. If the author won’t be in the area, I will instead buy it from my local Barnes or Borders or Amazon. I like the independents, but I am not going to drive an hour each way to buy a paperback with no incentive. And I like the discount I get from Amazon on hardcovers. Allows me to buy more.
    Now, when I am in the independent for the signing, I just might buy another book or two. Did that last weekend.
    So what am I saying? The signing is what brings me to an independent. I wait to buy the book there. I would attend an announced signing of someone I liked and pay full price for a book over getting it discounted and simply autographed but not personalized. Signed stock doesn’t hurt the independent unless they let it.

  9. I’ve had great support at indie stores for all of my books but to expect an author on tour not to go to the B&N or Borders in town and sign some copies or even do an event is unrealistic. It would be like a mom and pop hamburger stand being mad at the meat distributer for also selling to In N Out — you can’t survive on a strictly indie diet (unless you’re Mike Watt), so you have to serve the chains, too. In a city like LA where there are gazillions of chain stores and only a few indies, it’s certainly understandable that an indie wouldn’t want you to sign in their store and at the Borders across the street the next day, and I think normally most authors get that, but we’ll still go sign the stock and, at least locally, it’s a pretty much accepted practice. Maybe in a small town where there’s two stores, one big, one indie, I could see where it might be an issue.
    And Andy, I don’t want to be second rate to Richard Dawkins, so if you want to meet up and tell me how cool I am, name the spot!

  10. I’m gonna put on my ex-executive hat on for a minute… A bookstore is a business, and needs to be run as a business. No doubt that the owners of independents love books, but love is not enough. I personally prefer to shop at independent bookstores, and believe they have a lot of advantages over B&N and Borders. Bottom line is the independents cannot compete on the same playing field as the uber retailers. They need to exploit those things that they can do as small businesses that B&N and Borders cannot.
    B&N and Borders are big corporations, plagued with all the red tape, politics, and juvenile office garbage that all big companies have. Independents are … well … INDEPENDENT. They are small, privately owned, and can react faster than the big chains. They can be innovative without getting countless approvals. Independents can do whatever the heck they want, while the big chains need to run stuff through legal, accounting, marketing, shipping, crunchy executives, and anybody else who has their hand in the cookie jar.
    An independent can beat the big guys with customer service every time. Independents can focus on genres, partner with other local businesses for specials and events, adjust decor on the fly, work with local schools to sponsor reading programs, and do a number of innovative things anytime they want.
    Concerning signings: all bookstores have signings. Independents can make it interesting by inviting two authors to sign and debate (opposing points of view); invite a mystery author and have an interactive mystery night with hidden giveaways throughout the store; or even sponsor a children’s book fair on the weekend with small rides, ponies, and whatever the heck else the independent bookstore can get from partnering with other community businesses.
    All bookstores big and small sell books and hold signings. It’s not enough just for the little guys to only do the basics and survive. Therefore, I don’t think Barry Eisler did anything wrong. His business is his responsibility and the independent bookstore has the responsibility for their business.
    Sorry for the long post, but as a businessman, sometimes book industry practices baffle me.

  11. I just think it came down to was tact.
    He shouldn’t have said anything about his other signing and left it at that.
    Simple slip of the tongue.
    Blowing up the situation was like swatting flies with Nukes.
    The seller could have handled it in a less hostile manor.

  12. And Andy, I don’t want to be second rate to Richard Dawkins, so if you want to meet up and tell me how cool I am, name the spot!
    Hey now, no offense intended. The wife and I both enjoyed “Living Dead Girl” and “Simplify.”
    Anyway, next time (or first time) you’re in Denver, let me know and beer’s on me. Maybe I’ll even bring the Dawkins book and you could sign right under his inscription; sort of a “best of both worlds” thing.

  13. Barry did the right thing.
    Independents who whine about the chains conveniently forget about Powells and other indies who prosper.
    If indies would sell the books people WANT to read rather than those they feel people OUGHT to read, then they’d fare better.
    The way that all too many indies turn up their noses at “genre” fiction (thrillers, mysteries, romances etc.) is the root of their problem, NOT Amazon, Borders, B&N etc.

  14. When I read the initial exchange, I thought that the bookseller in question acted rudely (and humorously — it’s funny to see an author threatened by the independent’s version of Tony Soprano). I also thought that Barry acted a bit tactlessly by asking for directions to the B&N.
    But then, later in the discussion, Barry explained how B&N came up in the conversation:
    “I only brought up the nearby B&N because I’d joined G and the other store employees for dinner after the event, after which they offered to take me to the hotel. I thanked them but said there was a nearby B&N whose stock I wanted to sign; right around here, isn’t it? I confess it didn’t occur to me that the question, with no one else around, would be insulting.”
    Seen in that context, I don’t believe that Barry acted inappropriately.

  15. Pirates and Asassins and Booksellers, Oh My!

    While I was gone, this bizarre thing happened to my fellow California author Barry Eisler. I guess some indy bookseller (now, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE AND ADORE indy booksellers) got all hyper about the fact that Barry, after a reading at the indy …


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