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RC&D #8: Never Do a Book Signing (Part 1)

March 25, 2009

Authors are the rock stars of the publishing world and “book signings” are concert events for their fans.  And nothing could be less relevant when it comes to creating and developing a new consumer base of people who can and want to read.  Everybody who goes to a book signing already reads and already gets the warm-fuzzies in a bookstore.

Of narrow-bandwidth, old-fashioned, and even cynical, book signings attempt to:

  1. sell more of a particular book and
  2. bring foot traffic to a bookstore, Wal-Mart, or warehouse club-a model unchanged in at least a century. 
belushi book signing

Book lovers getting books signed: no new customers here

Usually selling fewer than 100 books per event, book signings generate some in-store excitement, but frankly, this marketing model is about as sexy as my great-grandmother’s feed-the-chickens sack dresses.   By themselves, book signings don’t impact the total sales numbers much.  

But more to the point-book signings draw NO new potential customers to the table. 

If publishers want to find more people to read their books, they should quit spending money on book signings and put the authors where non-readers are-like concerts, sporting events, movie theatres, and…I don’t know…dog tracks.  Take authors to where people go; don’t make people come to some place as foreign to them as a hollow in Appalachia (like a bookstore).  

Here comes the first of three ideas to get you thinking:


If you have important books, throw parties, stage concerts, lay out a feast, or crash somebody else’s party.  Do NOT be dull. 

For instance, many an important book has its counterpart in a social or charitable cause-and that cause should, in any decent-sized city, be able to rally plenty of people who share the basic tenants of the book that a fundraiser can be thrown.  Bands, food, business support, maybe the Chamber of Commerce all come together to support charities of the cause. 

  • Though not the reason to attend, the author (and book) can actually inform the participants.  What an upgrade from light-weight musicians who do well to drip out a “what a great cause this is.”
  • The content of the book gets celebrated, not the author.  If the author has a fan base, it’s gravy.

Unlike book signings where everyone gets in on the cheap, for events like these-everyone pays to get in and is expected to pay more before they leave.  You might even throw in the book as part of the ticket price.  Put together enough partnerships and charge enough at the door and the publisher isn’t out any serious money.  If you have multiple books and authors on the subject, bring them all!  If you’re having trouble imagining how the partnership angle works, think about the logos on the back of t-shirts of any 10k race you’ve ever seen.  That’s what can-and should-happen.



On a modest level, I love the partnership formed between Thomas Nelson business author Lynette Lewis (Climbing the Ladder in Stilettos), Deloitte, and Saks 5th Ave. in New York City.  Deloitte wanted Lewis to train some of their New York-based women.  Lewis knew that Saks had just built a high-end, designer shoe department (get it? stilettos? shoe department?) and were looking for innovative ways to bring the corporate world into their store.  So…the training session was held at Saks in the new shoe department.  The books were sold in-store for a month prior to the event (as part of the arrangement).  And as a bonus, because the book was sold at the store, it had to be uploaded into Saks national computer system, so now the books are ordered by Saks stores nationwide.  Now that’s some fine marketing.  (The only thing they missed was doing a custom edition of the book with a Prada leather cover.  Next time.) 

If your books aren’t important enough to assemble affinity groups into actual, participatory partnerships, consider passing on the book.

Read Part 2

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2009 6:18 pm

    Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  2. April 12, 2009 7:30 pm

    I have to take issue with your basic premise here. Book signings do attract people specifically who want the book and do sell the book beyond the event. I did 22 book-related events last year, including 16 store signings. The others were Civil War Roundtable events where I gave a book-related talk and a charity fundraiser. I sold books, lot of them, at every event. Selling those particular copies was a secondary goal. The primary reason was to create buzz for the book and enhance my personal brand, and to get more books on the shelves of the chain, Hastings Entertainment, where I did 12 of those signings. Social research tells us the following (1) People will buy the item they are looking for at the first place they find it regardless of price. (This Zipf’s Principle of Least Effort). (2) They do judge a book by it’s cover and they are usually thrilled to meet a living author of any kind and (3) if they actually pick up the book and look at it they are more likely than not to buy it. If you just sit there and act bored and like the whole thing is beneath you, then no, you’re not going to well, but selling it now part of the author’s job and has been for many years, large publisher or small. My book sells online but it sells much better at actual bookstores. The book is “The Shenandoah Spy” a Civil War spy thriller.

  3. April 16, 2009 12:28 pm

    You also have to make a distinction here between fiction and nonfiction. With fiction you are selling entertainment. With non-fiction you are selling information, so you can structure an event where you are the primary attraction and selling books is a secondary function. Lots of business and motivational speakers do this, but not generally in bookstores. I have some high informational value for the Civil War community so I do those events and I made a free podcast available of one presentation to promote the book online.

  4. April 16, 2009 1:56 pm

    Actually, Francis, I think we are in total agreement! Sounds to me like you were seldom doing ordinary book signings. You were doing events that we about something OTHER than a book signing. You were expanding your brand, your fan base, talking about the subject in non-book environments, reaching out beyond the stores non-readers avoid. That any author has a private agenda of signing a bunch of books is fine. But doing it in places and situations that almost force books on people is the way to convert Non-Readers into Readers. Keep it up. May your tribe increase!! If you haven’t seen Parts 2 and 3 on this subject, I would encourage you to look at them. And by the way, my use of the word “never” is deliberate hyperbole. 🙂

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