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Sign On the Dotted Line February 22, 2010

Posted by bobv451 in education, writing.

…and other things that aren’t too likely to happen at an autographing session. Folks, feedback on this is needed. While I enjoy autographings personally (all except a few where creepy characters confront me), as a business model I think they suck.

Moriarty Public Library is trying to instill literacy in the community but actual “not there because they were an author” attendance was single digit. Seriously. Authors selling to authors is pretty much a zero sum game. You need readers lined up to make it a success, and even then I’m not so sure.

I’ve had autographings at bookstores where they forgot to order my books (the last one where this happened the manager was a little bemused that I’d brought boxes of my own stuff and sold it–he couldn’t say a whole lot, after all). I’ve learned. Advertising the event doesn’t work all that well. Friends show up. If you have a lot of friends (as opposed to FB “friends”) this can be a jolly good getogether and you can go out for pizza later.

But, you say, what about Stephen King and others with huge name recognition. I’m not sure the economics of an autographing works in their favor, either. Don’t know what SK (as I like to call him) can scribble his name for 3 hours matches in royalty what he would earn as advance if he’d stayed home hammering away at the keys.

So, a chance to meet your fans. Maybe a checkmark. I had one guy confront me with the question “They don’t let you write what you want, do they? They’re trying to keep it all a secret.” I have no idea what “it” is “they” are keeping me from writing, but yeah, I wanted to keep secrets. From him. Where I lived. Telephone number. Mailing address. Blood type. Everything. From what I’ve seen of the bookstores, they’d as soon you drive yourself over a cliff as ask to do an autographing. It’s extra work for probably not much extra revenue. If you can drop a big poster of the book and they actually put it up, this might be added publicity. But would sales offset the price of the poster? I don’t know.

Like so much else in the publishing world, there’s no way to tell if advertising of any kind works. See, if you don’t do it, will your sales fall? How can you estimate a negative? And if you spend a lot on it, has your incremental sales increase been worth it? For big businesses, it’s not making a profit that matters but making a big enough one to be worth the effort.

I enjoy getting out from behind the keyboard now and again, as for Moriarty (hey, Ken, good times swapping stories) and the upcoming AZ Renaissance Faire to just talk to faire goers (but this is an incidental autographing–the attendees are there for the faire and a book is a minor sidelight).

Let me know what you think about autographings, pro and con.



1. insightstraight - February 22, 2010

I have ample pro and con on this — pro as in “professional”, having worked many booksignings as a bookseller, con as in “con-goer”, having many times been on the standing side of the table.

And I am still on the professional side of it, in the sense of setting up events at the library. Including author appearances/signings/sales.

You pegged it, nailed it, right on the nose. (Appropriately enough, “Cyrano de Bergerac” is on the monitor as I write. The 1950 Jose Ferrer version, of course.) There is no proof that autographings are cost-effective, or the cost of advertising to promote them. This is true whether it is a self-published author with a box of books in the car trunk, or a publisher-supported event at a bookstore.

(Not that there is that much publisher support, any more. In the going-on-10-years I last worked in a bookstore, approx. 1990-2000, I saw publisher backing of author signing tours go from their picking up 100% of expenses and reimbursing the stores for 50% of the cost of advertising with a rep on hand, to zero dollars toward costs and the regional rep calling to see how things went. And authors having to set up their own radio interviews, if we didn’t do it for them.)

We would advertise months in advance, newspaper and radio spots (very good radio spots IMHO, voiced and sometimes written by yours truly). We would post flyers on our bulletin boards and calendar, post flyers on the appropriate shelves. News about the events would go out in our newsletter, and we would tell customers whom we thought might be interested.

And, come the day, a dozen would be a good turnout. Not unexpected, for a new author with a first book, only family and friends turning out in support. But one dozen was also not an unusual count for established authors with a respectable backlist. A dozen (people, not necessarily sales since the author has likely already presented copies to family members) — certainly not worth all the effort from the viewpoint of author, publisher, or bookstore.

Signing events are *expensive*, even if unadvertised, just in terms of staffing. And bookstores are reluctant to order too much stock for an event, because unsold items must be (expensively) returned to publisher — *if* the publisher will take back signed copies! (Ironic, that some publishers consider a signed book as “shelfworn”… And ironic too when the hosting bookstore employee must gently dissuade the author from signing all of the copies at hand for fear that they will be made unreturnable.) Each signing event means a gambling guesstimation on the part of the bookstore as to how many copies to order; a “successful” signing in terms of turnout is actually stressful for the bookstore, since it typically means that they have to scramble to find extra copies, expensively rush-shipping more stock or sometimes even resorting to rushing over to other (competitor!) stores and buying up *their* stock — a worse-than-negative outcome!

Fiction, except for *very* well-known authors, is the hardest to push. Non-fiction may have a much better turnout, if the subject catches the public interest or can tap into an established social subset. We might get 20 people for a mystery author, but 120 for a UFO book. But the variability and unpredictability makes non-fiction even more of a gamble unless the store has a good feel of how many to order; I would “survey” my customers before an event to get an idea of how many people would attend, and still had to negotiate to get as many copies ordered as I thought were needed.

And again, just because 120 people show up does not mean 120 sales. Some come just to see the show, get previously-purchased books signed, or put a face on the author. Or, frankly, heckle the author, or soapbox in the form of getting their own viewpoints presented as they put “questions” to the author.

It was once common thinking that bookstores could afford to operate signings at a loss, all of the effort/cost written off as advertising expense. The idea was that signings brought people into the store like any other advertising, with the added bonus of adding to the prestige of the bookstore in the book-buying community (a *very* small subset of the general community). But Amazon and other internet direct-sales changed that paradigm — customer loyalty largely shifted to where they could get a book cheapest and fastest.

And now of course readers who do care about meeting an author can get as much interaction online. If not more.

Which brings us to the author side of things, the above discussion being from the bookstore side. Is it worth the time/trouble of the *author* to do signing events? In terms of sales, or “prestige”? Will they even cover their gasoline expense? As you mentioned, might not the author better use the same time to turn out more product? Or, more subtly, to spend the time interacting online with their readers, a more direct and controllable form of promotion?

A lot of it depends upon the individual author, how comfortable or effective they are in dealing F2F with their readers. Bob, I know that you are very personable in person, and worth the meeting. But (no names named) I have interacted with *many* authors who actually did their image harm when dealing with the public, authors so shy or low-key that they just mumbled or so non-theatrical that their readings were excruciating exercises in watch-looking. Conversely, some authors are so arrogant that they actually leave a sour taste — there are several authors who were so obnoxious in person that they actually made me reluctant to any more read their (previously enjoyed) works. And some of those authors were on the best-seller lists… I have seen some passionate fans walk away seriously disillusioned after they met their favorite author, who was less than gracious due to their nature or just being in a bad mood.

You mention big names like SK. I have hosted events for some very big names indeed, like Anne Rice and Ray Bradbury (both of whom are real troupers, going out of their way to make every interaction special for the reader). These writers need no more prestige, so the benefit goes to the store. (Sales for these authors are of course more noteworthy, though many of those attending bring old beloved tattered copies of favorite works to get signed. Unless the store enforces a “buy a book, get a signing ticket” policy. And the extra hubbub attendant upon a really big name appearance probably results in the store’s only breaking even on expenses, so it is all back to prestige.) Some authors seem to get a lot out of meeting their readers, drawing energy out of the interaction — writing is essentially a lonely craft, with the “payoff” a delayed abstraction, so getting praise for your work however time-shifted can mean a lot. Other authors seem to view readers as irritating sycophants, and these are the ones who probably negatively effect their lifetime sales just by appearing in public.

Even for the big names the expense of pursuing a tour is probably not made up in additional sales, unless all of the expenses are paid by the publisher (less and less common, now). For lesser luminaries the cost of even the gas to travel to the event must be considered.

I sometimes think signings are ghosts of an old bookselling paradigm, carried on by momentum. Too many times, I have had to “pity-sit” even established authors, myself and other employees filling some seats so the author would not have to face an empty house. This is true sometimes at the library as well.

Writing is after all what writers do. Perhaps they should do all of their interacting with their readers online, in the already-established medium of printed words, where they can best and most cost-effectively control the interaction.

2. bobv451 - February 22, 2010

Great response, Scott. Thanks. This reinforces a lot of what I have been thinking. The stories I have about other authors (and me) where no one shows up!

Mike Stackpole has come up with the idea of author “trading cards” for autographing the elusive e-book. I’ll toss that out in a while to see how it flies.

3. kimberlywarner - February 22, 2010

As just a ‘general Jo Public’, I’d have to say that I like the idea of a booksigning – meeting a favorite author, getting their signature on a crisp new book… I also have to admit however, that I’ve never been to one. In my defense, most of my adult life has been spent living in the middle of nowhere. Never did see an author on the bookmobile. 🙂

It has been educating to read your post and the above comment though. I would never have guessed the predominantly dismal results for both author and store/library.

I will make a special effort to attend a signing if ever I find one!

4. xbox 360 | Game Consoles - February 28, 2010

[…] Sign On the Dotted Line « Bob Vardeman's Blog […]

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