Marcy has lengthy experience in print and online media, including writing for traditional publishers as well as for self-publication.
If it's your first time self-publishing book-release rodeo, be realistic in your expectations. You may expect the world to greet your beautiful new book with love and enthusiasm and you may think you're going to be an overnight celebrity—at least locally—but in most cases, that's probably not going to happen. Making a success of a self-published book is going to take work, persistence, a fair share of luck, the support of your friends and family, and constant energy. The cold, hard, cruel truth is selling your own book—for the vast majority of writers—is a challenge, and you must be innovative and often humble.
Now, let's talk about some specific strategies for beating the odds and selling those books at signings!
Think Outside the Big Box
Many writers think, "Bookstore! Big bookstore!" for their signings, and certainly bookstores are an obvious choice. If you have a local independent bookstore, not only are you blessed as a reader, but possibly as a writer. By all means, talk to them about doing a signing! But the traditional bookstore is just the tip of a large bookselling iceberg.
I've done book signings in some unusual locations. The most successful signings I've done, in fact, have been at the more unexpected sites. Consider the theme of your book and where you're most likely to reach your target audience. The opportunities are almost endless. Start brainstorming!
If you've written a book on pets, for example, ask your veterinarian if you can do a book signing there. The local dog park, pet supply store, or "dog walk" event may be options. Your local animal rescue/shelter may be happy to host you if you donate a share of proceeds to the cause.
Is your book nostalgic in nature? Senior centers, "old timers" clubs (here, we have an Arizona natives group that meets monthly), and retirement villages may welcome you—especially if a resident or member invites you.
Do you write about outdoor adventure? Think about local sporting goods shops, nature expos, parks. Obviously, the venues for a cookbook are in great supply: Cooking shops, restaurants, coffee shops, culinary schools, food festivals, even local farmers' markets, and grocery stores. Locally-owned (non-chain) shops are generally going to be easier to approach and get along with than corporations, especially if you can speak to the owner personally and directly and if you promise to promote their business while promoting your signing.
I've set up my folding table and folding chair outside a butcher shop during their grand-opening hog roast. I've done signings at guest resorts and event venues, bookstores, libraries, small-town festivals, town civic centers, and "thieves markets." Arguably the most unusual venue was a nudist resort. I'm not a nudist, but the proprietors asked me to speak on local history and sign books. The way I look at it is if someone is gracious enough to invite me, I'm gracious enough to accept—and to be very appreciative. Yes, the attendees were in various states of undress. Yes, I sold a lot of books. That's the naked truth.
What clubs, churches, and groups are you a member of? Those are opportunities for a release party or book event. Are you a member of meet-ups, hiking groups, ATV rider groups, a volunteer corps, etc.? They all have potential.
Consider places that have memberships of any sort: VFW lodges, museums, civic service groups. I reserved a room at a VFW lodge for my latest book release party. Not only did my guests have a great time (and they were able to get adult beverages at the lodge in addition to the refreshments I provided), but VFW members passed through the room, and many bought books. My guitar-playing husband provided live music, and it was one of my most successful events for sales.
Contact Potential Hosts
I'm not fond of telephones. There, I've admitted it. I also don't appreciate people cold-calling me, so I can relate to business owners or others who tire of people hawking things over the phone. I recommend visiting in person and making eye contact with the people you hope will host your signing.
Having third-party allies who'll put you in contact with potential hosts is effective. I've been fortunate in having friends who seek opportunities for me; one in particular has been amazing in facilitating multiple speaking and signing opportunities. If you have those friends and associates, be thankful—they're an enormous asset. If you don't, cultivate them.
I've coordinated signings via email and letters, as well as by responding to inquiries that came in from newspaper articles, but by far I've done best in person and through third-parties.
When reaching out to prospects, have your business cards or an informational flyer in hand; give them a copy of your book, if appropriate; and let them know exactly what the signing entails (unless they're familiar with the process). If you need a corner and a table, tell them. If you have your own table and chair and just want to sit outside their entryway, explain. If you're at an event and need an introduction, provide information for the introduction (a short bio will suffice).
If you're coordinating a book release event, consider renting a room or using a publicly available meeting room. For those events, you may need or want a kitchen, or you may select a restaurant that you can buy appetizers or beverages from. I've done it both ways with equal success.
Once you've planned the date, make sure you follow up in advance to confirm your plans. On occasion, those hosts can be flaky—especially if you're not paying for their services. Always confirm prior to sending out press releases or announcements.
I love public speaking. Give me an audience and a subject and count me in! Heck, just give me an audience and I'll come up with my own subject. If you're as fond of talking in public as I am, use that skill to sell some books.
One of the best tactics for selling your book is to engage with potential readers—and there's no better way to do so than to speak directly to them on a subject related to your book. Just talking about the writing of the book is probably not going to build the interest you need (unless the writing of it was particularly fascinating and involved great adventures). Tell stories from the book, or about the history of the material you cover. Tell about the local connections, or teach something you cover in your book. Give your time freely and you'll be well compensated for it.
I've always done far, far better doing a book signing at the end of a speaking engagement than I have just sitting at a table with a stack of books. Although I enjoy public speaking for its own merits, doing so is effectively giving a sales presentation for one's books. If you're an accomplished speaker, you'll find yourself invited to future venues and events. That tends to create that oh-so-important buzz organically, and soon you'll see yourself listed in blurbs promoting the event.
If you're not a skilled speaker, practice, and prepare! Take some classes in speaking, join a Toastmasters group, or study accomplished speakers. Years ago, I bought a video of some of the great speakers in recent history. Just listening to the cadence and delivery of great orators helped me learn and prepare my own style.
Invite another author to work with you, ideally someone who writes on a similar theme or whose work complements your own subject matter. If you've written a book on office politics, someone who has written on leadership is a great partner. If you wrote about hunting, track down a local author who has written about fishing.
Agree in advance to promote the book signing and to promote each other's books. You are much stronger together. My most recent books are on regional or local history. Sitting beside another local history writer isn't a competition (although that is certainly a healthy possibility), it's a way of encouraging interest in the subject matter. Most people who enjoy local history don't have just one book on the subject; neither do romance enthusiasts have just one romance novel.
There's also a practical aspect to having a partner at signings. You can help each other put up those challenging pop-up shades, or share a table. You can manage each other's sales when one needs a bathroom break or is signing a book for someone else. You can say something positive about the other person's book when a passer-by is flipping through it, and they can return the favor. You can email your friends and fans about the signing; they can email theirs. Partnering is a force multiplier for writers.
Create Your Own Buzz
If you're lucky enough to have a public relations person, congratulations. They will handle the press releases, coordinate your signings, and get your name and event out there. If not, you'll have to do it on your own—but don't neglect this important task. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Social media: Post-event details on Facebook, Twitter, NextDoor, LinkedIn, and any subject-oriented sites you're on. Ask friends to share your posts. Always post again the week before your event and the day before.
- Your website
- Your blog/s
- Flyers: Have good old-fashioned flyers printed and post them anywhere you have permission and access. Writing about horses? Your local feed store may allow you to post. Obviously, the venue where you'll be doing your signing will need fliers. Coffeeshop windows, front desks—use your eyes to find locations.
- Press releases: Issue press releases to local newspapers. If you have a small-town or neighborhood paper, whether online or print, send them the event information—but don't stop there. Inquire if they'll write a book review on your book; if so, drop off a book and ask them if they'll carry event info with the review. If they put the review online, link to it on social media and your website.
- Distribution lists: If you have a distribution list for friends, customers, fans, and followers, use it.
- Postcards: You can pre-print postcards with the cover of your book, and manually write event details on the back by hand, or you can do local mailers (sometimes they're available directly through the post office at reduced postal cost). Postcards are also great for leaving on counters at amenable businesses, or even the print shop that printed them for you.
Get Your (Business) Affairs in Order
Well in advance of your event, take care of business! Do you need a state or county tax license? How about a municipal business permit for the location where your event will occur? Don't ruin a great event by being cited for operating without a permit. If you don't have a permit, and you are holding your event at a local business, you may be able to work out a deal with them—they ring up your sale, apply taxes, and you give them a cut for the service they provide. Selling books is a business; don't discount the advantages of being business-like.
If you do not take credit cards, consider it. Although you'll pay a fee for transactions and refunds, you'll likely have more sales. Price your books such that the fees don't wreak havoc with your profit margin. In my experience, the moment you process one person's credit card purchase will be the moment you process your last cash transaction. Buyers love the convenience. On the plus side, with today's readily available easy credit card devices, you'll also be able to easily add contact info and create a customer distribution list for future announcements.
Prepare for the Big Day
If you're inclined to be stressed out over the upcoming event, load everything well in advance. Leave early and plan to be there about an hour ahead of time so you can set up, sit back, and breathe.
If you're taking a credit card device, charge it in advance—and pack the charger just in case. If you run it over a cell phone, laptop, or iPad, charge that, too. Make sure your books are entered into your system if applicable, and update it with the appropriate tax rate for the location of your event.
Calculate your taxes for the area you'll be selling books, and set your prices.
Pack Your (Book) Bags
I carry a book-signing bag with me in my truck at all times. It's not unusual for me to get in a conversation with a stranger and sell them a book. It also has all I need for an actual signing event. I bought a fishing tackle bag at a sporting goods store; the pockets make it easy to organize the items I need, and the main compartment holds a generous supply of books. Here are some things to remember to take:
- PENS: I can't tell you how many times I've seen authors at events who don't carry a darned pen. Make sure it is smudge-proof, too, and always have a back-up. In our heat, rollerball pens are likely to explode if left in a hot vehicle; I carry ballpoint as well.
- Business permit: If your state law requires your permit to be displayed wherever you transact business, carry yours in a plastic page-protector or a frame and display it proudly.
- Tape: Scotch tape, masking tape, duct tape, shipping tape—you're likely going to need it for some reason. I'm the over-prepared person who is always seeing my tape walk off with another author at group events. Don't be that person.
- Credit card device
- Business cards
- Invoices / receipts
- Sign with your prices and your "event special," if applicable. (You may use your tape to affix this sign to your table!)
- Promotional goodies: Bookmarks, postcards, etc. I made mugs up with the name of the town I am writing about and carried a "good read and a cup of joe" special.
- Book display rack or stand: This is especially important if you're doing a group signing.
- Table covering: Tablecloth, burlap sack, something that complements the theme of your book. I write on western subjects, so I carry a cowhide. It's heavy and won't flap in the wind when I'm outdoors, it's durable, and people can't resist touching it. I guess that's good.
- Table and chair: (if you require your own) Label the bottom of both with your name! If you're doing a group event, you're going to be glad you did this.
- Small notebook/guest book: Guaranteed you will meet wonderful people or contacts you'll want to get in touch with later, or who have questions for you. You can also create a distribution list if you make a note of people's contact info.
- Change: If your books aren't priced at a round number, make sure you carry appropriate change.
Don't Neglect Table Appeal
Like curb appeal, table appeal is important. You want your table to be interesting, well-lit, approachable, and accessible. Putting a couple of interesting objects (other than your books) on the table will add interest. As mentioned above, I cover my table with a cowhide, and I put promotional items, five of each book, and my cards on the table.
Avoid clutter and display your books neatly and prominently.
Engage With People
Be warm. Be confident. Don't be pushy. Be positive and upbeat. Talk and listen. I'm not the greatest for small talk, but if I don't have something more personal to say, I greet passers-by with a cheerful, "How's your day going?" I don't want to scare them off with an aggressive sales pitch.
People don't like negative vibes. Don't whine or show annoyance if you're not selling as many books as you'd like. Put people at ease by being in a good mood, regardless of how your day is going.
Don't Be a Diva
Being confident doesn't mean being arrogant. If you're a new, self-published writer, drop the ego and don't expect to be treated like a star. Selling books is a cooperative effort; do your part. Don't expect to be catered to; bring your own bottle of water or coffee, carry your own goods, and set up your own table. Be thankful for your customers, your readers, and your host.
Show Your Appreciation
The event is ending; make sure you thank everybody. Give the host of your event a copy of your book. Help with the cleanup, if any.
You're a writer: write a thank you card after the event to the business that hosted your signing, and to anyone else who contributed to your success.
Use the same social media you used to promote the event to thank your event sponsor or host. Consider encouraging your followers to patronize the business, or praise their product—"Make sure you stop by Fanny's Coffee and Doughnuts and try the croissants!"
Don't Get Discouraged!
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, book signings don't always mean selling lots of books. For all the signings where I've sold 25+ books, I've had signings where I've sold one or two. Don't be discouraged by the low numbers. Sometimes you may not sell a book, but you've gained a valuable contact for your network. Sometimes you come home with nothing more than a lesson learned. Low-sale or no-sale book signings happen—and they're not uncommon. Enjoy the day, don't show your frustration, and don't give up.
© 2019 Marcy J. Miller
Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on February 17, 2019:
Thanks for your comment, Ellison! Go for it - start your notes and ideas for a book now, and one day they'll be so big you'll burst if you don't write it! --Mjm
Ellison Hartley from Maryland, USA on February 17, 2019:
This is super interesting. I hope that just maybe I will write a book! Maybe, we'll see so far just learning to keep up with the whole blog thing!