Book Signing 101: The Who, What, Where and How

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Book Signing 101: The Who, What, Where and How
A Guide for independent authors based on experience

By Rob Watts

Over the better part of four years now, I’ve actively and enthusiastically hit the road to promote my books at an abundance of book signings throughout the northeast U.S. as well as Canada, Denmark and Sweden. Although there is nothing more enjoyable than traveling around to new places with your artistry in tow, in attempts to meet and make new fans and friends, there is a fair share of road bumps and drawbacks. In the beginning, there are unmet expectations and disappointments, but as long as you keep a realistic mindset and positive outlook, you can do very well out there in the public eye. You may even move some books and create a new fan base. This blog is an attempt to lay out my personal experiences in a simplistic way so you’ll have something to refer to when you’re ready to get out there to promote yourselves and your books.

1- What you need to have with you at your book signings.

Books. No books=no book signing. Depending on where your signing is taking place, it’s important to have a reasonable amount of books available for sale. Sometimes, but not very often, a bookstore will have your books in stock at their location, but more than likely you will be signing in a location where you’ll be responsible for your own stock of books. Unless you are published by Harper Collins, then all of this this will be taken care of for you, but more than likely not. And if so, you wouldn’t be reading this blog anyway. So, have a good supply of books. This doesn’t mean that every book will be sold. It just means that you are covering yourself from the embarrassment of running out and missing out on a book sale.

Marketing Materials. Things like bookmarks, postcards, business cards…anything that bares your book cover or author info and can easily be handed out. These are easily affordable and available through places like Vista Print. Signs are also useful, but sometimes unnecessary. You don’t need awkward and oversized pop up signage at many events. These things can be a hassle to lug around and set up. If you’re in a confined area, more-often-than-not, people are constantly knocking the signs over as they are walking by. If it’s not really practical for your events, don’t invest in one. Not right away anyway. It may make you look a tad bit more professional, but it’s not going to generate you any additional book sales. Your best advertisement should be your approachable and engaging presence, and your books in front of you. That’s it.

An Appropriate form of Dress. Quite simply, don’t dress like a slob. Dress professionally and look approachable. Unless it’s a themed event, such as a comic con where everyone is walking around in costume, then perhaps it’s a fun idea to blend in a bit and join in on the fun with attendees. But if you are at a book store, author convention or most any other professional event, look at though you are interviewing for a job position. Essentially you are. You’re there to gain new fans and book buyers. So, just because you are a writer in the genre of horror, don’t wear a sloppy looking Friday the 13th black tee-shirt. I know your “peeps” on Facebook will love it when they see the pictures, but forget your peeps. They have nothing to do with what you’re doing and why you’re there. Show some professionalism and look like an author whose serious about your craft.

Also, and this is very important! Unless you have a handicap that prevents you from doing so, always stand up when someone approaches you and your table. This is another pet peeve of mine. I can’t stand it when someone (sometimes myself) approaches an author and they just sit there in their chair, forcing the potential book buyer to lean down to speak to the person behind the table. It’s very rude and Ill-mannered. I have news for you. Your book signing isn’t financed by Penguin Publishing. People haven’t waited in line for wrist bands to meet you. You aren’t as important as you think you are. Don’t be just another selfish individual in the world. Speak to your future fan at eye level and don’t make them uncomfortable by having to lean in to hear what you’re saying. This could be the difference between a book sale and no book sale.

Pens and Markers. Again, it seems obvious but it happens a lot where an author will be sitting around half the day waiting for an interested book buyer, and then boom, someone wants to buy a book, but the author’s failed to realize they hadn’t anything to sign with. Keep an abundance of writing material with you, especially in the chance that someone will walk away with your pen or marker. It almost always happens.

Cash and Credit Card Swper. Most times, you will be handling the sales of your books right at your table. Again, unless Barnes and Noble are handling your sales through the register, be prepared to take money and make change. Also, have a credit card reader with you as well. This will advance your chance of sales if people would rather use their card instead of cash. You don’t need to old fashioned knuckle busters anymore. You can get a reader through Intuit or Google Square that plug right into your smartphone. Nowadays, the technology allows you to just scan a pic of the card with your camera and it takes the payment, simple as that.

Hand Sanitizer. Protect yourself and the people you meet from germs. There could potentially be lots of hand shaking and if you have been handling cash (one of the biggest germ farms) then you’d be smart to use your sanitizer regularly.

Additional items to have with you

Bottled water or other beverages (non alcohol)
Light snacks
Breath mints
Eye drops

These item are for you, not the public. You could be sitting at a table anywhere from 2-6 hours. You might not have the luxury of getting up and leaving your table unattended. Keep yourself hydrated and fed with light snacks (crackers, candy, small veggies, etc..) don’t bring a full meal. You don’t want to have a mouth full of salad or a tuna fish sandwich when a potential book buyer suddenly approaches you. And needless to say, keep wet naps with you to clean your hands after eating anything.

2- Things not to bring to your book signings

Useless tchotchkes. As I mentioned above, effective promotional material such as bookmarks and business cards are a good thing to place on your table for people to take. What you don’t want to give away are useless trinkets that will never result in anyone paying your website a visit after they’ve left your sight. Pens are not a good idea. Even if they have your website printed on the side. Sure, everyone who walks by will take a free pen. You won’t even need to worry about packing them back up at the end of the evening, because they’ll all be gone. But none of those people will look twice at the pen and bother to visit your site. Let alone buy your book. It’s a useless investment, spend your money wisely on something else. The same can be said for USB thumb drives, rulers, key chains, etc.. Again, something that a book lover can take away and potentially identify you with. Postcards with your book cover and author information, bookmarks, even an info sheet with a discount offer to buy your book online.

Candy or Food. Under no circumstances, should you make food or beverages available at your book signing table. First of all, there are ordinances against handing out free food at public events. You could potentially make yourself (and the venue hosting you) liable in a food poisoning case. Candy bowls is another pet peeve of mine. Don’t put a bowl of free candy out on your book table. This only invites people to your table to grab a handful of Snickers bars and walk away. Those people don’t buy books. I don’t want them at my table. Plus, you don’t want someone standing in front of you stuffing chocolate in their mouth, and then thumbing through your books with chocolate fingers, only to walk away a few minutes later without buying anything anyway. Does Charlaine Harris, Stephen King or E.L. James place free candy on their table during their book signings? No, and neither should you.

The crazy friend or family member. This statement might make me very unpopular but I’m going to say it anyway. Leave your crazy looking and acting friends and family members at home. Although it’s a good idea to have a good friend or family member helping you out at your event—to assist with sales or to watch your table while you go to the restroom, it’s imperative to have someone with you who gives off the same professional vibe as you. So, with that being said, the crazy cousin who sat in the back of the station wagon on the way to family vacations—leave him at home. The friend who looks like they’ve done 8 years in Rikers Island for assault and battery? Leave him or her at home. I know, I know—once you get to know them, you’ll see that they are really just big teddy bears on the inside. The problem is, a potential book buyer (aka future fan) has no idea and won’t have time to get to know the person who is giving off an intimidating vibe at your table. You have a split second to rope in a book buyer. Don’t lose the opportunity by misrepresenting yourself to the general public. I’ve seen this more than a few times, and although it’s unfortunate, it’s just a simple fact of today’s life. If your friend of family member can’t control their loud and abrasive behavior, keep their language clean and not look at strangers approaching your table as if they are ready to throw a punch their way because they are getting too close, don’t bring them. Plain and simple.

3- Where to Have Book Signings?

Local Independent Bookstores. These are the first places you should consider. Especially if your story takes place in a certain local community, look into setting up a signing in that town or community. Some, not all, but some independently-owned bookstores will be happy to host your signing, provided you offer them some perks in return. Such as, you’ll be expected to heavily promote the signing and the location. You’ll be expected to provide the store with books, books that you will sell to them at wholesale price, which they will sell through their store and pay you your sales after they have deducted their cost. It’s also important to point out, that it’s not as simple as calling the store up and asking if you can host a book signing in their store. Although Indie bookstores like to wave the “we support indie and local authors” flag, it’s still a very parochial community and if you are an unknown author who has never set foot in their store, gotten to know the owners or manager, or even spent money in their store, they are most likely going to refuse your request. It’s a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” type of game. Stop into a few of these stores on a regular basis. Get to know the owner or manager, and more importantly, get them to know you. This will help in getting a signing hosted down the line.

Author Conventions & Expos. These type of events are great for networking and meeting fellow authors. Sometimes, not so great for book sales because you are after all, competing with a room full of other authors. But, I am a big fan of these type of venues because sometimes meeting the right people at the end of the event is far more valuable than a few extra book sales. I will say though, that you should heed caution when looking into these events. If you are a professionally minded author whose intention is meeting other professionals, as well as the right audience for your books, look into the one day only book expos with multi-genre authors. In my opinion (and this is just me) I’m not a fan of the multi-day genre-specific author conferences. In my experience, it’s a viper den of delusional posers who possess as much professionalism as a puddle. Ass kissing other authors and small publishers into buying my book isn’t how I’d like to spend my time. I’m not a fan of gossip and at the end of the day, getting piss-stinking drunk at the end of the evening to the point of being carried to your hotel room is not how I’d categorize professional behavior. But again, that is just me ;)

Comic Cons. About a year ago, I would say yes. Today, not so much. Unless you’re an author of a graphic novel or comic book—or some kind of illustrated book, then you probably won’t do very well at these. Booking table space at a comic con is pricey. Upwards of between $175-300 dollars for 2-3 days. It’s costly and unless you sell enough books to at least make the cost of your table back, it’s simply not good business. Sometimes it’s more feasible to share the cost of a table with another author, but again, the cost still adds up. In addition to your table fee, you need to consider food, lodging, gas—it can really add up and you’ll hardly ever make your costs back in book sales. Plus, are you up for sitting behind your table from 10am to 7pm on both a Saturday and Sunday? Your time might be better spent doing something else.

The other thing to consider when thinking about signing at a comic con, is that (and this is based on personal experience) most comic con attendees don’t care about literary books. That’s not an insult. If you were attending a classic car show, would you care about someone at a table selling air fresheners? Comic con attendees are primarily there to dress up in costume, buy comics, toys, action figures, meet celebrities and so on. The admission fees for these events aren’t cheap either. Neither are celebrity autograph signings and pictures. Once kids, and/or their parents have spent a large sum of money on all this stuff, books from an unknown author aren’t very high on their list of priorities. I’ve done these events, they are fun, I’ve done ok in sales at one or two of them, but I hate to say, most have been a big waste of time and money.

The same can be said for horror conventions. My genre is suspense/ thriller. You would think I’d do very well at a horror con. Wrong! It’s the same circus, just different clowns. It’s just an expression I use, I’m not really calling people who attend these events clowns. I attend them as a fan myself.

Arts and Craft Fairs. Not really the best venue for book signings. Unless you have a book that gears toward the local community, cooking, healthy living, or something arts and crafts related, this could be another waste of your time. Maybe you have other craft related items at your table in addition to your books? That might make the day worthwhile. I’ve done these events in the past and occasionally I’ve done ok. Ok, meaning I sold a book or two, which was enough to cover my table cost and the gas that it took to drive there. Sometimes though, I’ve done poorly, and left with my financial book in the red for that afternoon. It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of craft fairs are held in local church halls. I can tell you from first-hand experience that writers in the horror genre are perceived as satan worshipers by many craft fair goers. The mere mention that you’re a horror writer is enough to scare them off to the other side of the room. They make you feel as welcomed as a drag queen at a monster truck rally.

The good news, these events are low cost. Sometimes table space cost as little as $20-40 dollars for an afternoon. Usually, you will be the only author selling books. That’s your leverage. So if Joe and Jane churchgoer make you feel uncomfortable, at least you aren’t out a large sum of money by appearing there for the afternoon. The downside though is that most people who come out to these events aren’t expecting to buy books by unknown authors. Their first impression as they walk over to your table of books is that you are simply selling books. They don’t realize that you are the author. Unless you’ve managed to engage them rather quickly, they will smile, walk away disappointed that they didn’t see any titles by authors they actually know of. I have to say that my days of competing with handmade jewelry and homemade bird houses have come to an end.

What you should take away from the above mentioned rant?

Experiment at a few of these types of events. Only you know what sort of books you are selling, and you alone know what type of personality you have that will attract a book buying audience. See what works well for you and make notes for the future. Once you find what works in your favor, stay on that path.

4- Signing alone or with other authors.

In my experience, I am going to say go it alone or with one other author who you work well with in a small space and for long periods of time during an event. Mass author signings (meaning 3-7 or more authors at a table) is a very bad idea. First of all, it’s too crowded at a six to eight foot table, both in front and behind. It’s intimidating for a potential book buyer approaching the booth to have 4 to 6 sets of eyes on them guilting them into to buying their book over another author. And someone walking over to the booth doesn’t want to be put in the position of buying one person’s book over another. I know I wouldn’t.

I find that I just can’t be myself behind a table filled with numerous people. I myself am not a Type A personality. I’m not a shrinking violet either, but I’m not the type of person who jumps right up in front of a potential book buyer like a carnival barker in a desperate attempt to make them buy my book. And I don’t like feeling like a contestant on Jeopardy—where if I don’t hit the buzzer fast enough, I’m locked out of the round.

If someone approaches me or my books, I will say hello, let them know I’m available to answer any questions about my books and then I back off. If my books are enticing enough to them to ask me about them, I will gladly talk their ear off. If it’s not their cup of tea, that’s fine. My books aren’t for everyone. But I’ll never be that type of person who desperately rides someone until they are guilted into buying my book. It’s very tacky in my honest opinion. The bottom line is, when a large group of authors are selling books at the same table, everyone wants to sell books. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes other authors will step in front of you or your book (known as book blocking) and desperately try to sell their book over yours instead. From my experiences at these types of signings, it’s just not good business. It also leaves behind resentment and bad blood among your fellow writers.

Plus, with all those various personalities lingering about, there are certain folks that will have their own ideas on how to better sell books, oftentimes leaving you frustrated and dumbfounded. I myself don’t want to sit behind a cluttered table with anything other than my own books in front of me. So, when I know of authors who like to place their stuffed animals with their website on the them all over the table, bowls of candy, their free novellas printed off their home computer, or when people act like used car salesmen—I tend to decline my time and efforts at these events.

I do have a select few authors in my circle who I’m delighted to share book signing space with. I almost always jump at the chance to work with them at the event because they share my philosophy and are fun to spend the day with, but usually it’s best and more effective to go it alone.

How Far Away Should You Hold a Book Signing?

As far as you’d like, after all, you are trying to build a large audience so don’t limit yourself. However, don’t start on the other side of the country. Do some small signings in your local community. Build your audience regionally and work outward. Don’t break the bank in travel expenses unless it’s absolutely beneficial to you. It’s important to factor in all the costs involved in a destination signing. If it’s in another state, make sure you factor in fuel, lodging, food, emergency cash, etc.. If you are lodging for the event, make sure you know the distance between your hotel and the venue prior to your trip. It’s possible that a miscommunication could happen, and when your signing is in downtown Toronto, you could be lodging an hour away in Etobicoke, Ontario (yes, it’s happened to me.) In the case of my overseas signings, I set them up prior to my arrival to coincide with my vacation. It killed two birds with one stone. Usually, I limit my traveling for book tours to New England and the Tri-State area.

In summation.

When all is said and done, there is no exact science to doing successful book signings. The main idea is to go out there, have fun and hopefully create a new fan base little by little. It takes a lot of time and devotion and only you can make your career as a writer happen. Over time, you’ll find your niche and know what works best. You’ll have ups, you’ll have downs. Book signing success shouldn’t be measured in sales, but in how you build your professional character out there in the public, and by how many positive people you can meet and add to your professional network. And trust me when I tell you, there are so many amazing people out there to meet along the way. So get out there and start building your fan base!

Rob’s Book Signing Dates and Books can be found here

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R.I.P. Marilyn Burns: The Underrated Scream Queen

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Marilyn Burns
The Underrated Scream Queen
Dead at Aged 65

By Rob Watts

Actress Marilyn Burns passed away suddenly yesterday due to unknown causes. Sadly, many people reading this have no knowledge of Marilyn Burns or her short—yet fantastic body of work. She’s best known for her roles in Tobe Hooper’s independent classic films The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Eaten Alive (1977.) She also took on the role of Linda Kasabian, one of Charles Manson’s devotees in the film Helter Skelter (1976.)

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania and raised mostly in Houston, Texas, Burns had a love for the arts at an early age, and as a result of that passion, she attended The University of Texas at Austin. There she earned her degree in Drama. Although she’s best known for her appearances on film, Burns appeared in various stage productions, most notably a musical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From there, she made a few small appearances on film, such as her big screen debut Brewster McCloud in 1970. Later on, she’d appeared in 1975s The Great Waldo Pepper.

But it was a low budget production project that made Marilyn Burns a household name, at least in the homes of horror fans. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released in 1974—a full-year after production of the film ended, but eventually went on to become the 12th highest grossing film of that year—mostly due-in-part by the false marketing campaign that the film was in-fact, based on a “true story.” Grossing more than 30 million dollars at the box office. Not too shabby considering its low-budget production. It was the highest grossing independent film at that time, until John Carpenter’s Halloween hit the 47 million mark in 1978.

But unlike Carpenter’s own scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis or even Olivia Hussey in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), Burns was a genuine scream queen and quite frankly, the true key element to “Texas Chainsaw’s” success. Where Jamie Lee Curtis took the title for far-too-lengthy of a tenure, mostly due to her mom being Janet Leigh, the Ill-fated hotel guest in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Marilyn Burns was an unpolished diamond in the rough. Basically taking the role of Sally Hardesty as just another acting job while working for the Texas Film Commission, no one could have predicted that her on-screen performance would be above and beyond legendary.

When I first watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre back in my early days of High School, I was astounded (in a good way) at what I was watching on screen. Sure, I had seen Halloween at the tender age of 5, and was instantly attracted to the sheer adrenaline that came along with watching such a terrifying film. After all, that’s what horror films are designed to do; awaken and stimulate your senses. What I loved about both Halloween and Texas Chainsaw was that what was unfolding in front of you on-screen was a potential real-life situation. They weren’t about Vampires, Zombies, Blobs, Aliens or any of those other unrealistic villains. The commonality shared between Halloween and Texas Chainsaw was that at any given time, an everyday person could stumble upon a mentally Ill maniac, thus forced to fight for your life, if you were in-fact fortunate to do so. We all know how most horror films end.

In the case of Marilyn Burns, her fight for life was undoubtably the most convincing performance committed to film. Unlike Laurie Strode in Halloween, who possessed a certain level of naïveté—always comfortable with tossing the knife away once she thinks she’s killed the killer, Burns did what you’re supposed to do when pursued by a homicidal maniac. You Run!
And run she did. In-fact, the highlight of her performance came when she was first faced with the chainsaw wielding killer, Leatherface. She ran and screamed like no other woman on film at that time. Minute after minute with very few cuts in between. This was a woman who conveyed sheer panic and disorientation like I’d never seen before. It was natural and uncontrived. Her portrayal of fear was, for lack of a better word, fearless. It was a performance like no other, before, and I’m sad to say after.

Horror films have been produced by the thousands since Texas Chainsaw debuted 40 years ago. Not many have achieved the notoriety and success that Chainsaw has. In a day and age where horror films are produced with only dollar signs in mind, Texas Chainsaw was made for the sheer love of the art. Back then, the word “independent” was a dirty word. It meant that your film was pure fodder, unworthy to be shown in one theater, let alone a thousand. Today, we have “independent” films that are quietly produced by big-budget studios. Casting one lame-ass actor or actress du jour over and over again, leaving many of us scratching our heads as to how one justifies Ryan Reynolds or Kate Hudson as an appropriate choice for a horror film.

Thinking of Marilyn Burns today, I’m reminded of what drew me to horror films in the first place. The authenticity, the realism, the flaws, the naturalism, the do-it-yourself feel. Gone are the days of a film being made out of a genuine love for the art. Now we are left with gratuitous violence for the sake of shock value, and poor casting due to a promised three-picture deal. Film scores that consist of the popular bands of the day and a nauseating slick and over-polished production feel. When these films come out, I find myself increasingly passing them over or turning them off halfway. Most are sadly unwatchable. Unimaginative and boring. Texas Chainsaw was a pioneer. It was groundbreaking. And above all, the performance of Marilyn Burns was what made the film the classic that it is today.

In 2007, my sister (another horror fanatic) and I had the good fortune of meeting Marilyn Burns. I had the chance to tell her how much she had meant to me growing up. That she was beyond amazing in Texas Chainsaw and made it such an exciting film. She look at me somberly and said “if only people felt the way you do back when the film came out.” It felt sad to hear her say that, but looking back, I kinda get it. The film was far bigger than any one actor or actress portrayed in it. Perhaps no one really gave much thought to her the way I have—that she was the driving force of that film. Perhaps, as is evident in the piss-poor acting skills of much of Hollywood today, it’s obvious that no one has ever matched Marilyn Burns’ frantic and hysterical performance in Texas Chainsaw since its release. Maybe, just maybe they are incapable of doing so. After all, that would require a wee bit of skill.

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Beach Boogie & the Clam Jams released Aug 5th

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Ocean View Press and Waunders Children’s Books is proud to announce the release of Beach Boogie & the Clam Jams written and illustrated by Susan Saunders. You can order a signed copy today at Waunders.com

About the book

Beach Boogie and his big brother, Moondoggie, love the beach and riding the ocean waves. They enjoy playing music, hanging out with their friends, and all the fun that summer can bring. When they encounter a group of bullies at the beach, will their summer fun be ruined?

More about this book:

Beach Boogie & the Clam Jams is a fun beach-themed story with an important message for children about bullying.

Through Beach Boogie’s story, children will learn to stay strong when faced with a bully. They will learn it is in how they react that is important. Bullies may never stop bullying, but children can learn to do the best they can to stay positive and never be afraid to be themselves, and to choose to celebrate their uniqueness.

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Team Waunders Signs Books in Fairhaven, MA

Aug 2, 2014
Fairhaven, MA.

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Rob Watts and Susan Saunders appear in Fairhaven, MA at the Seaport Inn and Marina to debut Susan’s new children’s book “Beach Boogie & the Clam Jams.” Beach Boogie & the Clam Jams is both written and illustrated by Saunders and hits store shelves Aug 5th. You can purchase an autographed copy at Waunders.com

Joining Saunders was Rob Watts who was on hand to sign copies of his latest thriller, Left-Hand Path. You can purchase a signed copy with a FREE CD at OceanViewPress.com

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Susan with a copy of Beach Boogie & the Clam Jams

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Rob with a copy of Left-Hand Path