Brick and Mortar Magic: How to Have a Great Book Signing

June 15, 2017

Courtesy of Kristin Nador on WANA Commons

Courtesy of Kristin Nador on WANA Commons

After I got my PhD, I went to work at a bookstore. This was partly because my brain was fried and I wanted to relax with the pretty books. It was also because, as I writer, I wanted to understand how the retail end of the book business actually functioned – and how real humans behave when choosing new books. It was revelatory – and now I share those revelations with you.

How To Have a Great Book Signing


As publishers’ marketing budgets continue to be slashed, authors are finding that self-promotion is ever more necessary.  One time-honoured way to get the word out is to spend a couple hours in a bookstore, talking to customers as though they are timid woodland creatures, smiling in a non-predatory way, and dancing inside your head every time someone buys a copy of your book.  That’s right – the signing!

Here are my top ten bookstore-approved tips for hosting a successful signing.  And by the way, every DO NOT is something I’ve actually witnessed.

1) Scheduling Your Appearance

Call the store, ask for the manager in charge of events, and arrange a suitable date and time.  Be flexible.  The store has a schedule too, and your first choice date may not be available.  Keep in mind that it’s also in the store’s best interest that the event go well.   DO NOT show up with a box of books under your arm and announce that you’re there for your signing unless you’ve booked the date in advance.  And if you have to cancel, DO NOT forget to call ahead and let the store know.

2) Plan Ahead – Preparation

Is your plan to sit at a table and sign books, or do you have something more elaborate in mind?  Will there be a reading?  A slide-show?  Advise the store of your intentions well in advance. Discuss any furniture, equipment, and supplies you’re going to need.  If the store doesn’t have it, be prepared to bring it.  If you’re a children’s writer and you’re planning activities, be up front about additional staff support that will be required, as well as any potential for mess and necessary clean up (no one wants to scrub glitter-glue out of the carpet).  Be realistic in your expectations and offer to supply your own manpower if necessary.  The appropriate phrase here is, “I’m thinking of doing such and such, would that be alright with you?”

3) Plan Ahead – How Many Copies?

If your book is a regular stock item, ask the store to have extra copies brought in for the signing.  If your book is self-published, or normally sold on consignment, make sure you’ve got enough copies to bring with you on the day.  If you’re new at this, my experience suggests that a typical signing will result in 10-20 copies sold.  If your book sells wildly and you run out of stock, don’t panic, and don’t pack it in.  Ask a bookseller to help the customer place a special order, start a list of interested buyers so the manager can place an appropriate re-order, or call your spouse to bring more copies from your own stash as soon as possible.  When more books arrive, offer to pop in and autograph them before they go out on the shelf.  If your signing’s been successful, the store will probably arrange to display your book prominently, at least for a while.

4) Plan Ahead – To Swag or Not to Swag?

Bookmarks, magnets, notepads, pens… the options are endless, and most can be sourced and customized online for very low prices.  This kind of thing is by no means necessary, but if you’re planning on giving stuff away, make sure you order in plenty of time for your event.  Bookmarks are by far the most common swag authors bring to signings, probably because they’re cheap (they’re also easily discarded, often before customers leave the store).  Don’t be afraid to think outside the box, and when you’re choosing products, think both of subject matter tie-ins and usefulness.  If you don’t think your budget will stretch to this, remember you don’t have to give something to every customer that passes your table.  Why not give people free tickets for your gift basket raffle? Or stash your loot to share with people you’ve had a great conversation with.

5) Plan Ahead – Promotion

While you’re having your swag produced, why not order a colour poster featuring your book’s cover art, jacket copy, and blurbs from reviews?  The store will happily display this for you leading up to your appearance.  DO NOT forget to include the date and time of your event.  On the day, a poster on an easel is a good way to draw customer’s attention to your table, as are any props or research items (be sure these are both portable and sturdy, as kids are going to touch them).  Give some thought to your own appearance as well.  If you’ve written a historical novel, it’s not necessary to dress in period costume, but if your book’s about the US military, a Go Marines T-shirt is entirely appropriate.  Whatever the case, try to look tidy and professional.

It’s also a good idea to generate word-of-mouth through your blog, Facebook page, and any local media you can drum up.  Be aware that if you promote your event even a little bit (most authors don’t), you’ll probably need to arrange for additional stock.

6) The Day Is Here – Now What?

DO NOT forget to bring two pens – your lucky signing pen and a backup, just in case.  And pack something you can do during your down time (just be sure it doesn’t distract you from the business at hand).

The store will set you up as close to the front door as possible.  DO NOT suggest that the staff move displays to give you better real estate – Saturday afternoons are a bad time to be moving the furniture.

DO NOT sit back and knit while waiting for people to come to you.  Politely greet all the customers, not just the ones that look like your book’s demographic (you never know who’s shopping for a birthday gift).  Pay attention to customers’ body language and back off, or adjust your pitch accordingly.  DO NOT bring family and friends or people you’ve hired off the street, dress them in the store’s uniform colours, and ask them to walk around flogging your book, backing people into corners, and generally harassing the customers.  When your victims complain to the manager, who then has no choice but to ask you to leave, DO NOT throw a full scale diva tantrum about how you’ve never been treated like this in your life.  And don’t bother saying you’ll never come back.  Your face has already been added to the PNG list.

And by the way, if your book is a dragon-rider fantasy, you can leave the special effects CD of “dragon” roars at home.

7) Bribery is Another Word for Goodwill

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – booksellers are your best friends.  Before, during, and after your event, introduce yourself, and be nice to the staff.  If you can, DO offer free copies of your book to staff who want to read it.  If you’re inclined to stock the staffroom with snacks, DO be sensitive to food allergies, which at my store included lactose, nuts, gluten and soy (and that was just me).  Home baking is deeply appreciated, but if you also bring along a bag of dark chocolate and some fruit-only gummi bears, you’ll not only cover all the bases, you’ll earn lifelong devotion from the gastronomically-marginalized.

8) Special Bonus Tip – Location, Location, Location

An experienced book-signer told me once that he recommends mall bookstores over large format locations.  Small stores don’t have room for extra tables inside, and set up their authors in the mall’s wide corridor.  Which means that people who had no plans to enter the bookstore will see you, stop to chat, and maybe even buy your book.

9) Special Bonus Tip – Timing is Everything

As far as day and time goes, the manager of the store will probably suggest a Saturday between 2 and 4pm.  Why?  Because it’s the busiest time of any week.  DO NOT insist on Friday between 7 and 9 – trust me.

Date depends to some extent on the kind of book you’ve written.  The best all-around bet is November, on the last Saturday before the event schedule shuts down for the Christmas season – pitch your book as the perfect gift.  If you’re a children’s writer, find out when the store is hosting Spring Break events and piggy-back on their existing plans.  Other scheduled school closures are also a good bet.  And if you can argue that your book appeals to women, even a tiny little bit, the Saturday before Mother’s Day is golden.

10) Special Bonus Tip – What If No One Show Up?

There’s nothing you can do about it.  Maybe the home team made the playoffs.  Maybe there was an enormous snow storm and people decided to stay indoors.  Like everything else in the publishing business, a certain amount of luck is involved here.  Smile, thank the store staff, and set up another appointment.  And in the meantime, console yourself with this:

Authors, what’s the worst signing you’ve ever had? Readers, do you like signings, or do you find yourself avoiding eye contact on the way past the table? What attracts you to an author’s event?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *