From quite a few book signings, I’ve distilled some observations.
I learned early that if I just sat there behind the table with a frozen smile pasted onto a hopeful expression, I wouldn’t be able to sell ten dollar bills for five dollars each. So I stood up and engaged every passerby I could, gradually evolving a brief friendly spiel. (I’ve watched other authors delivering an exhaustive plot synopsis to each hapless squirming victim.)
I now ask each person who shows the slightest interest, “Do you like to read suspense?”
It’s either yes or no. If it’s yes, I launch into my short spiel, starting with, “Well, I may have one here you’ll like.” Then I say a quick few facts about the book while offering them a copy to look at, which is a trick similar to a car salesman inviting you to take it for a spin, knowing you’ll begin to imagine yourself as the owner, at least subconsciously. When my prospect begins reading the back blurb or leafing through pages I shut up. About a quarter of the time the person will decide to buy.
If that initial answer is no on suspense, I ask them what they do like. If they say nonfiction, I don’t push it, because people either seem to read mostly fiction or mostly non, and I’m not about to win over a non, so I just chat amiably for a bit and tell them thanks for stopping by. If they name another genre, I may attempt to make a convert. Sometimes I do.
I had one gentleman tell me he can’t stand reading violence. He said, “I only read the Bible.” (I didn’t tell him that’s the most gruesomely violent book I’ve ever read, because it describes the past and impending torturing and horrible deaths of thousands and millions of innocents, including women, the elderly, infants, and animals.)
If two or three people stop at the table and one picks up a book, peruses it, and puts it back, the other two will invariably pass as well, but if that first one buys, the other two often will too.
If somebody says they don’t read suspense but their spouse does, I suggest a book as a gift.
At one high-toned store, the manager lined up four of us side-by-side. I had gotten there early and did a brisk business until the other three showed up. Thereafter, although there were plenty of passing customers, almost none of them bought, I think because four of us were intimidating, and nobody wanted to buy from just one of us and risk hurting the other three’s feelings. One of the authors, though, a fine artist and a boyhood escapee from the Hungarian revolution, remains a friend.
I once drove two hundred miles only to discover the store was tiny and buried in a large strip mall. It was severely cramped inside. They only had room for me and a table not much larger than a dinner plate. But the staff of three had actually read the book and liked it. They touted it all afternoon. We sold 78 copies, which stands as my record. It felt like a party. We could have sold more but ran out of stock, both theirs and my emergency supply, which I always carry in case the store hasn’t ordered enough. I went back there several months later with similar results.
Most store staffers don’t expect a non-famous author to push more than a dozen books at a typical Saturday afternoon signing, which is usually the best high-traffic time. So selling more than two dozen impresses them, and I get invited back.
I make my own displays. For GUNS, which has on the cover a handgun pointed at the viewer, I had an enlargement mounted on an enclosed black stand-up foam-core wedge, with a strobe light inside firing flashes through the cut-out muzzle. For Diamondback I had a museum-quality realistic snake coiled in a bed of leaves, with book copies inserted in the coils. That one was a stopper. I admit some people cringed away in fright, but I’ll bet they didn’t forget me soon, at least.
Because Lee Child kindly endorsed GUNS, I always had a copy of his latest hardback on my signing table, in part so I could tout his work to those who had not read him as a way to pay him back in small measure. One day in a large busy mall, as I stood on sore feet near the store entrance behind my table wearing my black western hat and blazer, two rapidly chatting women were bustling past when one of them spotted Lee’s book and skidded to a halt, saying, “Omigod, is he here?” Then she looked at me, said to her friend, “Uh. Never mind.” And they disappeared into the throng. It was humbling.
There’s always at least one talker who has no intention of buying. I politely indulge them for a while. I think they’re mostly just lonely.
A few sensitive souls are uncomfortable about walking away without buying, so will say, “Are you going to be here all afternoon?” Or, “Are your books available online?” Or, “Do you have a card?” With a smile, I gently remove them from the hook and slip them back into the people stream.
Oddly, several times when I’ve been winding up for the day, putting away my display and books and folding my tablecloth, folks have stopped and I’ve had a flurry of sales. I don’t quite understand what the psychology is behind that.
The best part about signings is the wonderful variety of fine and fascinating people I meet. From just watching the news, you might begin to think this is a sad and sorry world, but almost all the many, many people I’ve met are absolutely great, with their own intriguing stories of courage and love and adventure to tell.
And their stories are real.