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Why Book Signing Events are a Waste of Time for Authors

New authors often ask me about book signing events. They want to know how to how to hold a book signing eventget them set up and what to do. My advice? Don’t waste your time.

While it may sound exciting to sit at a table in Barnes and Noble and enjoy a line of customers eager to purchase your book, that’s not how it usually goes down. A long time ago I read somewhere that the average number of books sold at a book signing is eight copies. As a former bookstore owner, I can confirm that is about right (unless your last name is Grisham or Rowling…).

Consider what is involved. You have to first take time to try to book the appearance, which means trekking down to your local B&N and talking to the manager. Time spent = 1 hour.

Then you have to show up prepared, which means bringing along some items for your signing table. Maybe some bookmarks, handouts, a bowl of candy, some flowers, etc. So you arrive early to set up, then park it there for three hours, wrap up and return home. Total time spent = 5 hours, bringing you to a grand total of six hours to sell an average of eight books! At that rate you’re not even earning minimum wage.

Back when I owned a bookstore, we held author events every weekend. The vast majority of authors sold eight books or less. I remember one author who didn’t sell a single book and many who sold less than five. Ouch.

The authors who sold more than eight books typically invited in their following. They had mailing lists, alumni groups, coworkers, and other networks that showed up to give support. Once in awhile, coverage in the local paper or news would stir up some shoppers, but even those mentions fell flat more often than not.

I was once part of a big book launch event for one of the Chicken Soup books. There were three of us local contributors, including one with some local celebrity appeal. We received coverage on the morning TV news and radio, and B&N positioned our table directly at the front door. It was a busy Saturday morning and we even had trays of free chocolate covered strawberries on our table. We had all the makings for a stellar signing event. Those strawberries went like crazy! We were there for three hours and had plenty of shoppers stop by to chat and have a treat. Guess how many books we sold? Twelve. Hey, at least we beat the average!

Here’s a better option: conduct an EVENT. Show up to an event as a speaker, engage your audience, and you’ll sell plenty of books. Also an exception to the rule: your book launch party. When you promote the release of your book to friends, colleagues, and family, you’re going to make some sales.

One of our authors, Bob Quinlan, held a big book signing event to launch his book: Earn It: Empower Yourself for Love. He set the event up at the local Borders, collected raffle prizes, invited everyone he knew, and even hired a live band! He also gave a short seminar on adding romance to your relationship. It was well attended and the buzz of activity caught the attention of shoppers, who also lined up to buy books. In the end, he sold around 100 books.

So instead of sitting alone at a table waiting for customers to wander by and feeling like a peddler, find more productive ways to generate book sales. Speak at local service groups and trade associations. Collaborate with other authors to hold a seminar. Host a contest, support a charity, or finally start using social media! Just save yourself the trouble of doing a book signing event.

23 Responses to Why Book Signing Events are a Waste of Time for Authors

  1. Bill Cole says:

    Great info, Stephanie. Thanks!

  2. Let me preface this comment by saying that I am a big admirer of your blogs, but I must say on this particular piece of advice, I must disagree. Are you going to get rich by selling books at book signings? No, but you get something invaluable: face time with readers.

    Unless I know there is some special event near or around the bookstore, I limit my time to 3 or 4 hours max…special events more, if necessary. We all can talk about the signings that are a bust and the signings that sold many…I’ve had both. But just sitting at a table, acting pompous, won’t sell books. An author needs to engage every customer that walks through the door. Maybe they don’t like the genre you’re selling, point them in the right direction or show them who to talk to…OR, something I like to do, is recommend books from authors I know. (providing I know any in that genre)

    I can’t tell you how many books I’ve sold to people who weren’t initially interested, but I took the time to chat with them…sometimes about nothing at all…and they eventually bought a book, because I took the time to meet and greet.

    A very wise person, who also happens to be my wife, told me that most people that walk through the door of the bookstore don’t even know that they want to buy my book…it’s my job to convince them. And not by beating them up like a used car salesman, but by engaging them and taking the time to actually meet them and get to know them. I listen to what they are saying and ask questions from the few morsels I pick up. They leave feeling they have connected with an author who cared…and many times they walk away with a copy of my book…and always with a bookmark!

    It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. Writing a book is only part of being an author–the easy part. The hard part is selling yourself. Successfully sell yourself and you’ll successfully sell books. More times than not, that person who walked away with nothing but a bookmark felt good about connecting with an author and ended up recommending me and my book to someone they know who reads my genre. So by the end of the day, I sold more books at a book signing than just the ones with receipts from that day.

    All the other things you mentioned are certainly important, but don’t downplay the importance of connecting face-to-face with readers. The initial payoff ($$) at a book signing is only a small part of the overall payoff for an author. Readers remember author who invest time and interest in their needs and wants…and that sells books.

    • Hi Chuck, I completely agree that if you are going to do book signing events, it’s important to engage customers. That effort can certainly equate to book sales. But not every author wants to put forth that kind of effort. Some are shy and would rather not have to pursue book sales one at a time. However, if authors enjoy making these connections then by all means they should go and enjoy book signing events! Thank you for your thoughts.

      • Hi Stephanie,

        I have to say I agree with Chuck — though for different reasons. The way you explain it is off for one major reason. You’re looking at what authors get out of book signings as book sales. Authors, unfortunately, also tend to focus on that one end goal. However, they forget that their books are, ultimately, a product and if their goal is money, they need to view writing as a business.

        Therefore, book signings are not just a marketing event; they are also a research venture. If there are those at an event who have already read the book, they can ask about which of their characters those readers loved; what part of the story got them most excited, etc. That helps them know what they’re doing *right* when they’re writing. That information can be invaluable when it comes time to write or market their NEXT book, because they’ll know what readers loved about their first one.

        In those cases where there aren’t a lot of readers, it’s as Chuck says—an opportunity to find more. They can engage new customers. Saying that many authors are shy doesn’t cut it — for one, again it’s a business and for two, look at the Bloggess. She’s notorious for her crowd-phobia, yet she’s managed to do book tours with great success.

        You also have to believe in your book. Maybe at the event you only make 8 sales. But look at magazine readership figures—they take into account the idea that one magazine sold is likely to be shared with X other potential readers (and charge for ads based on that). So long as your book is good (which hopefully you believe it is, if you wrote it), every book sold ups your chances of selling another one.

        • Hi Melissa, You raise a good point about market research from talking with your readers, but you can also do this at speaking engagements–which I believe are a far more productive use of an author’s time. It also sounds like you’re referring to fiction–a different animal from non-fiction, which is our focus here at Authority Publishing. I think it’s much harder to sell and promote fiction, so book signings can be useful if fiction writers are willing to put in the time and effort to conduct these events.

          I still believe that book signing events are a time-consuming endeavor for authors and usually have a low return on the time investment, but if you’re passionate about your work and you enjoy them, then by all means, go rock the book signing circuit!

  3. Clare Evans says:

    I agree book signings take more to organise than turning up and signing a few books. Once the book is published you have to get out there and ‘sell’ yourself and the book.

    I organised an evening book launch in my local Borders when my book came out. I got great support from the publishers and had invited along friends, family and business colleagues with wine, nibbles and a short talk.

    Although I didn’t get crowds of people turning up, I did manage to sell 15 copies of the book. No wonder the book store were so pleased, if that’s well above the average.

    The book compliments what I do in my business and as such I often sell copies and workshops and speaking events that I attend or run. Once you’ve connected with your audience they’re more likely to walk away with a copy of the book.

    • Hi Clare, You’ve got the right approach, especially when your book compliments your business. There are so many other ways to sell books via speaking engagements, online, etc. Best of luck to you!

  4. Wow. I never knew that. I thought book signings were great publicity for authors. So how to authors get the word out about their book these days?

  5. Maybe a bookstore is a bad place for a book signing but I held one in town at a pub and grill. I sold 33 books, signed as many if not more promotioal pictures and met a great many of my neighbors that up until then I didn’t know. The town only has 1600 people in the area and although it was only 33 books that were sold but the pub also did well with food sales and a few beers. Again it is not a big city(or a small one for that matter) but a writer has to be inventive and sell him or her self to the public. Maybe Stephen King might have been embarassed to sell only 33 but I was thrilled.

  6. I agree that book signings at book stores are a waste of time, however talking to schools on a night when parents can be there can bring in fantastic sales. I have had schools promote my book for a week or two and then read it to the kids and answer questions and then have 50 kids line up to buy the book. The first time I did a literature night I ran out of books because I wasn’t expecting to sell so many based on my experience at book stores where I only sold 5 or 6 books. I had to call a friend to bring two more cases that night. You might also be able to get schools to hand out an order form that goes home to the parents and collect the orders at the end of the week but give the school perhaps 10% of what you make.

  7. Anne Brown says:

    Stephanie –

    Loved your post. You are right on. When our book “Grad to Great” (Dalidaze Press, 2007) came out my sister and I were asked to fly out to a Border’s in another city to do a book signing…where we spent most of our time sitting at a lonely table informing customers where the restrooms were located! LOL!

    • Hi Anne, I’m laughing as I recall all those customers inquiries for the restroom! Sorry it didn’t go well for you, but at least now you can focus your time on more fruitful efforts. Best wishes!

  8. Norma Padro says:

    I don’t think that I would want to sit in a store and wait for anyone to purchase my books. I comment on social medias about anything. If I have a little section available I might tell people about my new project and my mission.

    People kept sending me negative remarks on my books, but I lowered the prices and my books are selling. I write ebooks and they are priced at .99 cents each. I also share links so that people know my new projects. I have a twitter account and a facebook account which helps to get the message out.

    I’m very active in many social networks. I usually write blogs and upload videos on youtube. I also connect all of my accounts together so no one can miss out on my new projects. I love to comment on people’s videos. I interact with people by leaving them positive feedbacks. I also always tell them have a great day.

    I get so many return replies and that is because they know that I read what they have to say. Now that I’m here I will like to say thank you so much for the opportunity to write my answer on your question. Have a wonderful day.

  9. Claire says:

    Thank you so much for this info! I also thought book signings were the way to go. I am a complete novice to this industry and loved all the ideas. I can totally see the whole scene of sitting there directing people to the restrooms! Made me laugh.

  10. David Hutchison says:

    Stephanie,

    Signings can be a waste of time. But I think you are missing some important points. 1. Most books are still sold in bookstores. Not online. Not in supermarkets. Not at non-bookstore events. 2. Most books aren’t sold by authors. If you are counting on signings as the way to generate sales for your book, you will always lose out. Stephen King may be able to sell hundreds of books at a signing. But the books he sells at signings pale in comparison to the total amount of his books that sell. 3. Books are sold by readers. When you go to a signing or author event, you’re getting an opportunity to reach the reader that sells the most books: Booksellers. People who work in bookstores are often readers. Take the time to get to know them. Chances are good if they get to know you and your book, they will recommend it to others. EVEN if they aren’t a reader of your book. I recommend books all the time to readers I never would read myself. 4. Books are sold by readers. Yes, that’s the second time I made that point. Readers are the people who come to bookstores. When you are at a signing, you’ll nearly always find at least one person you can turn into a disciple for you book. Sometimes you’ll find several. Booking signings is a way to create a multiplier effect for your book in a market.

    Now, that said, doing that effectively means making more of an event than sitting behind a table waiting for someone to come ask you about your book. So every signing SHOULD become an author event. Even if the CRM at a bookstore just sticks you behind a table.

    Finally, signings and author events are an important part of the fabric of independent bookstores and culture. You are investing in something bigger than the books you sell at an event. And while I hear a lot of buzz about the great world of social media creating success, I have been unable to find anyone who has made a living selling their books (or music) this way. It’s only one small component in getting a book from your brain into someone else’s.

    • Hi David, I get what you’re saying and I think it’s important to reach readers in any way that you can, though in my experience selling a handful of books at a time by doing book signings isn’t nearly as productive as selling online. You mentioned that you have yet to meet an author who does well selling online, but I know MANY authors who’ve sold tens of thousands of books and have never set foot in a bookstore. The bottom line is that different methods work for different authors and if you prefer to hold book signing events and they work for you, then more power to you! We all need to support each other. Best wishes.

  11. My book coach, Kim Brooks, told me she sold 300 books at her first book signing for her Christian Romance Fiction book, He’s Fine, But Is He Saved?” I guess it depends on the book, the person who is promoting it, and the effort that they put in to promote it. Also, it helps to have God on your side pulling for you and giving you favor with people. I have a book signing this weekend, and I am going to believe it will be a success. I’ve done my part to promote it and I am expecting God to do His.
    Tracey L. Moore
    Author of Oasis for My Soul: Poems and Inspirational Writings for Spiritual and Personal Growth.

  12. Pingback: How to Host a Buzz-Worthy Book Launch Party | Authority Publishing | Custom Publishing for Nonfiction Books | Social Media Marketing Services | Sacramento, CA Publisher

  13. I’m new to this and I have just begun to plan a launch party for my book, Scars of Julia & Secrets of Jake.
    Thank you to everyone for your personal insight and helpful ideas.
    G.V. Steitz
    @jakeandjulia on my twitter account. Tweet me!

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