22 Sep 2015
As you keep on publishing books, the inevitable will happen: You’ll be asked to make a public appearance. It could be to hold a signing at your local bookstore, to give a talk before a group, to join a panel of other writers at a convention.
Should you accept? Maybe.
For our purposes, let’s assume you’re comfortable—or at least dubious about but willing to try—making a public appearance. If you’re pathologically uncomfortable about this kind of publicity, then you shouldn’t try. It wouldn’t be fun for anyone: yourself, your audience, and your host. Offer to do anything else—provide signed copies, write an article for their newsletter, promote the bookstore on your website—but don’t accept.
But if you’re uncertain, even scared of trying, then you should consider doing it, if only for the knowledge that you’ll gain from the experience.
For example, you may discover that you love being onstage. If you prepare for it and rehearse what you’re going to do several times, you might discover that you’ll enjoy entertaining your audience. After all, you were invited because your host is interested in your book. The audience members are there because they want to be. They’ll be rooting for you to succeed (it’s in their best interests). As Patrick O’Brian wrote about a successful dinner party, “They were entertaining, and they were willing to be entertained.”
Best of all, a successful appearance can be publicized on your website and could lead to more invitations. There are authors who offer themselves as public speakers, earning media attention that will attract potential readers to their works.
First, let’s look at the types of public appearances, their advantages and disadvantages.
1. Book SigningsAs a traditional way of selling books, the event has only been around for less than a century. No Victorian writer ever held a book-signing in a bookstore. It was probably not until the 1920s that a bookstore advertised that an author would be there to meet the public.
So should you accept an invitation to sell your books? It depends with how comfortable you are with selling. Unless you’re a nationally known figure and can expect a line of people waiting at the table when you sit down, you’re going to have to participation in the marketing of your book at the store.
How to do that? Not by sitting behind a desk, glaring at people who pass by on their way to the coffee shop. That’s probably the worst impression to make on customers, not to mention the store’s manager, who will make sure not only to never invite you again, but to tell other booksellers they meet what you did (everyone gossips; never forget that).
Instead, you’ll need to step out from behind the table and talk to the customers. I learned this from Don Helin, a local writer of award-winning military thrillers.
He and I were at a Saturday morning book-signing at a local bookstore. His table was closer to the entrance than mine, and he was up on his feet. Now, Don dresses like a relaxed college professor: scruffy beard, glasses, corduroy jacket with the elbow patches. His voice is genial and warm, and he doesn’t walk, he ambles.
So when he approaches customers at the door with “do you read thrillers?” people don’t react as if he was shaking a dead cat in their faces. If they say “no,” he genially wishes them a good day. If they say “yes,” he gives them a few sentences about his books, that they’re military thrillers about an officer, he battles white supremacists in this one, and references Vietnam in that one.
Don is a smart man. He writes about people and history, not Tom Clancy-style hardware, and that most of his audience is composed of women. He hand-sold several books that morning, and gave away cards and bookmarks to many of the other customers.
By the way, book-signings with other authors is a great idea. If they publish in the same genre as you, it increases the effectiveness of cross-promotion. In those down times between customers, you can also share ideas about the business.
When Things Go Wrong
One word of advice: Relax.
It’s bound to happen. Nobody shows up to the signing. The projector you need for your talk blows a bulb. The room is too small. The room is too big. The bookseller didn’t get your books in time.
For every author who has attended a book-signing will have a story like that. Best-selling mystery writer Lawrence Block could tell about the signing in Charlotte in which the only attendee was some kid who brought one of Block’s books on writing to sign, and then pity-bought a paperback for him to sign as well. (Hint: That was me; I’ve since grown a brain.)
You may also find yourself in a situation where other people are panicking around you. It may be at a convention, when the projector wasn’t co-operating with the author’s computer. They had a 50-minute window to hear the author’s pearls of wisdom, and the first 20 were spent plugging and unplugging cords and fiddling with the bulb.
If nothing else, keep cool as best you can. Be observant. Ask questions. Can the problem be solved? If not, go to Plan B and carry on.