Are Book Signings Worthwhile?

Most people who talk about book signings talk about how to attract attention from the venue’s patrons and how to get more people to show up. Authors give consistent recommendations for what to do before, during, and after signings in order to make them more successful. And pretty much everyone agrees that just sitting at a table at the back of a room with a table full of books is unproductive in the extreme, and usually uncomfortable as well.

In a recent invitation to a teleseminar about Virtual Book Tours, Mark Victor Hansen went so far as to say “Book signings STINK.”

If you’re like most authors, you’ll travel the country, doing countless appearances for a couple dozen people at a time. If you have “great” night, you’ll sell a hundred books…but most likely the tally will much smaller.

And I can’t argue with that one. I wouldn’t advise an author to invest a lot of money in going on tour just to sign books in stores. Go on a paid speaking tour instead and sell your books at the back of the room. That way your expenses are covered and your book sales represent actual profits.

But despite the ease and inexpensiveness of doing a Virtual Book Tour (via teleseminar or webinar), live book signings do still have a place. Certainly if you’re going to be visiting a city anyway, whether on business or to see friends and family, there’s no reason not to arrange a book signing.

And as Raleigh Pinskey pointed out in her October 24th, 2006 “How to Promote Your Book by Promoting Yourself” teleseminar with Arielle Ford, it doesn’t actually matter whether anyone comes. A book signing where no one shows up is just fine with her.

Why? Because to Raleigh, the point of having a book signing isn’t the hour or two that you’re in the store. The point is to get the bookstores to help promote your book. If you arrange for a signing, the store will be sure to have your book in stock and display it prominently. If the store produces a newsletter or an online calendar, you get free advertising by doing the event. That means you start selling books before you show up, and for a month or so after the event is over. (And you get a chance to put special “signed by the author” stickers on them to draw the shopper’s eye.)

What’s more, having a signing provides an excuse to contact the local media and get interviewed. (Or, at least, a better excuse than just publishing a book gives you.) And having media clips lets you build a newsroom on your website.

Of course, it could get a trifle embarrassing if one of those local media outlets sent a reporter over to attend the book signing and you were just sitting like a lump at a table. And a bookstore might not invite you back or give your books preferential treatment in the future if you treat the event too casually. So try to schedule the signing for a time when the store is busy, and create some kind of presentation, preferably one involving audience participation.

Even if no one else shows up, it will keep the store’s employees entertained and favorably disposed toward your book. And the action is a lot more likely to attract casual browsers than sitting at a table in a corner will, as well as giving reporters and bloggers something to write about.

Besides, even if you can sell more books with a teleseminar, virtual tours don’t let you see your readers’ faces or shake their hands. Even if you choose to do most of your promoting via the Internet, it’s good to get out there and make live connections.

© 2007 Sallie Goetsch

The Keys to a Barnes & Noble Book Signing

Dan Poynter wrote in Successful Nonfiction that authors should never host autograph parties. Instead of merely signing their books, the thing to do was offer “mini-seminars.” In an August 27th, 2006 interview with Tee Morris for The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy, Annie Hololob, Community Relations Manager for the Harrisonburg, VA Barnes & Noble, confirms the value of making your book signing into an event. (Tee himself apparently has a habit of staging sword fights during his book signings, which definitely livens things up.)If you want to have an event at a Barnes & Noble, the Community Relations Manager is the person to talk to. This is the person who knows whether the store’s customers are the right market for your book, or whether you’d do better at a store in a different city. (My local Barnes & Noble, for instance, doesn’t even have author events, just a children’s story time.) This is the person whose good side you want to get on.

There are two important things you need before you start assembling your press kit and cultivating the CRM at your local Barnes & Noble, however. Without them, there’s no way the store can carry your books. Large chain bookstores have to operate by certain rules in order to stay in business, and those rules may exclude you and your book for reasons that have nothing to do with your merits as a writer.


In order for BN to order, stock, and sell your books, they have to be available through a wholesaler or distributor such as Ingram or Baker & Taylor—one BN already has a relationship with. That means BN can buy the book at a wholesale price, usually 40-60% off the cover price, without going to extra trouble to special-order it. If your book is traditionally published, there should be no problem with this. One of the reasons for choosing to go with a major publisher or established small press is that they are already BN Vendors of Record. The traditionally self-published, those like Dan Poynter who start their own publishing companies, can become Vendors of Record by filling out the BN Publisher Information Form.

The authors who run into real trouble in the distribution department are those with POD books. These books may be good-looking and high quality. They may even be available through Baker & Taylor or Ingram. But unless ordered in very high quantities, they are offered only for the retail price. BN’s standard order when dealing with a new publisher is two copies of every title. Even an order of 30-50 books for a signing isn’t going to provide enough of a profit margin to make it worth the bookstore’s while. And because Print on Demand books are literally printed only when ordered, each copy is much more expensive to produce than a comparable mass-produced book.


The other thing that keeps POD books—and their authors—out of chain stores like Barnes & Noble is the lack of a returns policy. Bookstores expect to be able to return all unsold books to a publisher, and not to pay the publisher for any of the books until after they sell. Unsold books aren’t even returned intact: the covers get ripped off and they’re sent away to be pulped. (I kid you not. I was horrified to learn this, even after reading all those warnings about not buying books without covers.)

POD houses don’t warehouse books and can’t provide that kind of returns policy, and very few self-published authors are going to want to. But no matter how barbaric a practice pulping is, it’s a fact of life at all major book outlets, and Barnes & Noble didn’t invent it. Nor does a Community Relations Manager have the power to bend the rules about this, however flexible s/he may be about the form your signing takes if you can meet the store’s requirements.


If you’re a self-published or POD author and touring the major chain bookstores is something you can’t live without, you can try to interest a traditional publisher in your book, though you need to make sure that you really own the book in its current form before you do this. (Most POD houses lay claim to the final, formatted version of your book, though the content remains yours.)

Or you can skip Barnes & Noble altogether and hold your book events elsewhere. Independent bookstores are often in a better position than large chains to take a chance on an author, though they, too, need to be able to buy the books at a low enough price to make a profit. Public libraries are almost always willing to accept the donation of a book or two and host a reading.

And, of course, if you make your living as a speaker, back-of-room sales may be your best bet and an opportunity to take advantage of the plus side of self-publishing and POD: getting to keep a far greater percentage of the book’s retail price.

Book Signing Resources

Cold Calling Bookstores (SGWF #3) MP3

Interview with Annie Hololob (SGWF #21) MP3

FabJob’s How to Have a Successful Book Signing

Larry James’ Book Signing Tips

Lessons from Novelists, Part II

The introduction to “The Secrets: The Podcast for Writers” bills it as “the podcast for anyone who’s serious about writing,” and despite the focus on fiction in general and sci-fi/fantasy in particular, there’s a wealth of useful information for nonfiction writers and authors as well.

“The Secrets” is the brainchild of Michael A. Stackpole, a science fiction and fantasy author with about 40 published novels to his name, many of them set in the Star Wars® universe. Even though I’m an avid reader of genre fiction, I hadn’t heard of him before I started listening to his podcast, so I started checking his books out of the library to see whether he was as good in practice as his theory sounded. And yes, he is, or as close as anyone is likely to get.

Here are just a few of the useful tips in the ten regular and fourteen special editions of the podcast so far, broken down into tips for writing, tips for editing, and tips for marketing.

Writing/Subject Matter

The ability to use language well spans genres, but many of the techniques discussed under this heading pertain primarily to fiction, such as story arcs and character development. Still, if you write memoirs, biography, or “dramatic nonfiction,” these are skills you need to develop. Others apply to any kind of writing, definitely including business books.

Read Widely

And that means widely. Read outside your area of specialty. Read outside your own areas of interest. Even the tabloids have something to teach you—about human nature, and about crafting effective headlines. These insights are essential for character development if you’re a novelist, but popular magazines also show you what readers are hungry for if you’re writing how-to and self-help books.

Separate Evergreens from Fads

Going back to those tabloids—if you look at them over a period of time, you can easily find out what sells year in and year out, season after season, as opposed to what’s trendy for a few months or a year and passé ever after.

Right now, for instance, podcasting is hot, and everyone and his brother (funny how it’s mostly men) is publishing a book about it. By now the publishers are saturated, and not likely to take another book on the subject unless it’s got a really unusual twist.

Communication, on the other hand, is an essential part of human existence and business. The principles of good communication are important whether you’re sending smoke signals or bit streams.

Never “Phone it in”

Whether you’re writing your own book or a chapter in someone else’s, give it your best. The people who are paying for the book your work appears in deserve your best—and you want to encourage them to seek you out elsewhere.

What to Write Next

While you’re shopping book number 1 to the agents and publishers, or waiting for it to come off the press, what do you work on next? Unless the publisher has signed you up for a series, you might be better off not writing the sequel to the first book. If the first one doesn’t sell, the publisher isn’t likely to buy the second. Instead, work on something different which has a good chance of succeeding. If nothing else, it will get you a reputation for versatility.


Editing your own work is hard. As a freelance editor, I naturally incline to advising people against even attempting it. On the other hand, I do it all the time for my own articles, so it would be wildly hypocritical not to pass on these very useful tips for editing your own work, especially in an era when publishers provide far less editorial support than they used to.

Don’t Revise While Writing

This is a tough one, at least for me, but if you start revising every sentence while writing it, you’ll get to the end of the day and have nothing done at all. Write first, edit later. If necessary, make a note to yourself about changes you need to make (if, for instance, you realize several chapters into a book that you have to add something to Chapter 1 in order for Chapter 5 to make sense). This is also the key to writing quickly.

Edit in Hard Copy

Retention goes up enormously when reading print on paper rather than on the screen. Print your manuscript so you can catch the little mistakes you wouldn’t see when reading on the screen. Having a hard copy printout is also a prerequisite for the next technique.

Don’t Edit at Your Desk

Dividing your mindset between author and editor is challenging. Help your brain by giving it cues. When you’re at your desk, you’re writing. When you’re away from your desk, you’re editing. Pick up that red (or blue, or purple, or whatever you want so long as it’s easy to distinguish from black) pen and make your corrections sitting in an armchair, on the sofa, or at the dining room table—but safely away from your computer.

Always do a 2nd and 3rd draft

No matter how smoothly it flows when you write it the first time, rewrite it. Once you’ve set it aside for a few days, printed it, and edited it, you’ll have a much easier time rewriting than if you tried to start over again immediately after finishing the last sentence.

Spelling and Grammar Count

This warmed my pedant’s heart, but it’s true. Whatever you write, wherever you write it, you look more professional if you use correct spelling and don’t make glaring grammatical errors. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your word processor’s spelling checker will fix everything, either. Get a human being to do it.


One of the most important things to know when preparing to sell a book to a publisher is what already-successful book it resembles. (This is the “competing and complementary books” section of your proposal.) Find several people who are familiar with the genre/field in which your book is written and ask them to read your manuscript and complete the following phrase: “In the tradition of…” Whether your book is in the tradition of Alan Weiss or of Stephen King, that phrase will tell publishers who is most likely to buy your book.


While straightforward book signings are not necessarily an author’s best marketing tool, there are ways to improve your success. One is to time your signings to tie-ins, such as holidays or local events relating to your book’s subject. Another technique is the “drive-by signing,” where you stop by a bookstore and offer to sign their stock of your works. This encourages the store to put up a special display and add little “signed copy” stickers to your books, and it doesn’t take very long.

Keep a Bookstore Mailing List

Instead of spending a fortune sending postcards to thousands of individual readers, put bookstores on your print mailing list and stick to electronic announcements for your readership at large. Particularly if you’re published by a major house, it’s the bookstores you need to sell to in order for readers to have a chance to discover your new book when strolling down the aisles of Barnes and Noble, Borders, or the local independent bookstore. It’s also bookstores and libraries which have author-events like readings and signings.

Free Sample=Obligation

If you give away part of your book in the form of blog posts, PDF chapters, or as a “podiobook” recording, it will promote your sales, not cut into them. People who get a free gift feel a sense of obligation. Not everyone who reads the sample chapter or listens to an episode or two of the podiobook will buy a brand-new hardcover, but chances are that even if they don’t, they’ll mention it to someone who will, or at least buy the paperback or ask the library to stock it. Most people don’t want to read a full-length book sitting at a computer—and printing it out will cost as much as and be more trouble than ordering it from Amazon or stopping by the local bookshop.

For more information about Michael A. Stackpole’s writing, including his “Secrets” newsletter, visit

Lessons from Novelists, Part I

In many respects, the worlds of fiction and nonfiction are very different. One of the most notable differences, from the author’s perspective, is that nonfiction books are usually sold on the basis of a proposal and written afterward, whereas a novelist needs a completed manuscript before approaching publishers. (This requirement may be waived for those who have published several successful novels.)

There are some other differences, as well, the biggest being that the quality of the writing, rather than the value of the content, determines a novelist’s success. Novelists don’t necessarily have to establish themselves as experts in a particular field, but they do have to be able to create believable characters, worlds, and dialogue.

But there are some very important things that aspiring—and even established—nonfiction authors can learn from an unexpected, even counter-intuitive source: the podcasts of two science fiction/fantasy authors.

In starting with Tee Morris’  “The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy,” I’m actually approaching these two podcasts in reverse order relative to when I started listening. Tee’s is the newer podcast, with only four episodes so far—which means it’s fresher in my mind and easier to sum up in a short article.

Put Your Book on Your Business Card
These days it’s easy to get double-sided business cards printed inexpensively, and for authors, it’s definitely worth doing, particularly when you’re talking to bookstore owners, librarians, and others who might order your book in bulk. Put your regular contact information on the front and the book’s cover, ISBN, and any other important information (like the URL, if the book has its own domain). If you have multiple books, you’ll need multiple sets of cards. It’s most often the newest book you’ll be promoting at any given time, so you may not want to order too many cards at once.

What to Expect at Conventions
In the world of sci-fi and fantasy, “Cons” are a big deal. Although I read mostly sci-fi and fantasy myself, I’ve never actually attended a Con. I did once found myself in a hotel bar with a bunch of Klingons—the hotel was hosting a Star Trek convention at the same time as the conference I was there for.

While Cons of this sort may be unique to genre fiction, every industry has its conferences and expos, and professional organizations of all descriptions have annual meetings. The 2005 Portable Media Expo and Podcasting Conference found itself side-by-side with a Port-a-Potty convention. Whatever you write, you have readers (or at least potential readers) at conferences and conventions. If you speak on a panel or lead a workshop at one of those conventions, you’ve got a great opportunity to market yourself and your book.

Some of Tee’s points about Cons:

  • Decide how far you’re willing to travel.
  • Follow up repeatedly on your original approach to the program organizers.
  • Don’t expect the show’s organizers to pay all your expenses unless you’re a Big Name.
  • Do expect to get your admission to the event covered.
  • Conference organizers talk to each other, and if you behave badly, your chances of getting invited to present at other events is very small.
  • Make arrangements for separate events with local bookstores ahead of time (and be sure they have your books in stock in case you haven’t brought enough yourself).

How to Arrange Bookstore Signings
First, a warning: if you’re self-published, the chances a large chain bookstore will be interested in stocking your books are very small. Therefore, the chances that Barnes and Noble and Borders will want you to come give a talk or do a signing are very small, and unless you already know the staff personally, don’t waste your time on them. Instead, find local independent bookstores and local public libraries.

Then call the bookstore and ask for the person who arranges events, then provide that person with the title and ISBN of your book and the name of your distributor. (Even for independent bookstores, you do need an ISBN and a distributor.) Offer to do a signing/reading/seminar. (For non-fiction, seminars and lectures are probably more effective than straight readings.)

How to Approach Reviewers
The fourth podcast in the series focuses on getting—and writing—book reviews, online and off, with the always-important reminder to check the submission guidelines before you send a book, and some tips on what to put in the cover letter and when and how to follow up.

Never Talk Back to Reviewers
Ever. Even if they get the facts wrong. If you get a bad review, live with it. This is not just because all publicity is good publicity, but because any response to the reviewer, public or private, is only going to make you look worse. On top of that, it could alienate the reviewer and the editor of the publication s/he writes for, making your chances of getting your other books reviewed there nil. (This is actually a recap of part of Episode I.)

How to Create a Good Podcast
Tee is actually one of the authors of Podcasting for Dummies, but I’m actually referring to the example he provides. “The Survival Guide to Writing Fantasy” is a great promotional tool for Tee as well as a source of useful information for writers of all kinds. It helps, of course, that he’s a trained actor with a great voice for radio, but that wouldn’t matter much without the effective structure, valuable information, sense of humor, refusal to “dish”, and desire to hear more from his listeners. He’s even slipped a “commercial break” into the middle of the show in a non-disruptive way. The “commercials” are for other sci-fi podcasts, so they’re appropriate to the subject of the podcast and actually likely to be of some interest to listeners.

I’m not sure I’d recommend imitating the Marine Corps/Gomer Pyle intro, which sounds longer every time I hear it, even though it’s actually well under 30 seconds.

Where to Find “The Survival Guide
To read about “The Survival Guide,” visit To subscribe, paste the following address in your podcatcher:

In Part II of this article, we’ll look at “The Secrets: The Podcast for Writers,” by Michael A. Stackpole.

© 2005 Sallie Goetsch