Monday, January 27, 2014

On the Other Side of the Table - Book Signing Tips

I've been to many sci-fi/fantasy conventions over the years. I've anxiously walked up to an author's table for his precious signature and a moment to talk about his work. I love to hear the passion from the author directly. No amount of marketing text or a silver-penned hook on the back can encapsulate the author's vision, the gift of his soul bound between the shiny covers. Nothing beats that in-person experience. 

Over the weekend I had my first experience on the other side of the table. It was my turn to be that author, to talk to existing and potential readers about Knight of Flame. And you know what? It was glorious. Did I sell a lot of books? Nope. I sold four. It was a small show in the back room of a very nice comic book store. I was the only author surrounded by eight or nine very talented Indy comic book artists. They sold prints and sketches. The artist next to me, Javier, sold like five sketches to eager fans. It didn't matter which beloved character requested, Javier banged out an amazing custom piece in about twenty minutes. And the fans were thrilled. So was I. I'm a big superhero fan, after all, and love to watch a talented artist bring a drawing to life.

So there I was surrounded by a room full of artists doing what they do…drawing. Many heroes and creatures were born that day. What the heck was a novelist doing in that room? "Hey kid, for ten bucks I'll write you a paragraph." Yeah…no. A collection of words, no matter how poetic, meaningful, and life-altering, could not compete against a detailed sketch of Thor bowling, or Batman playing Yahtzee across the table from Deadpool and Cinderella.

What I was doing there, aside from drinking in the creative ambience and soaking up the coolness of every second someone wanted to talk about Knight of Flame, was learning. This was my first event, and I wanted to cut my teeth in a small venue before taking my show to bigger events later this year.

I'd done my homework. In the weeks before the show, I'd read several blogs on the topic and an ebook by David Farland, Blockbuster Book Signings!, to clue me in on the basics. Farland's book dealt mainly with staging bigger events, headliners where I'd be the main attraction and how to draw in the crowds. While all good information, I'm not there yet. Talk to me in a few books and we'll see. Still, I found several tips that really helped out.

Based on what I learned during this event, here's my signing plan going forward. There are three key areas to address:
1.      Planning
2.      Presentation
3.      Attitude

Planning – Once the event has been scheduled, getting the word out is critical. The venue will advertise to some extent, but the author needs to spread the word to the best of her ability. Tell everyone via email, social media, and every other means at the her disposal about the upcoming event. The more people who attend, the more successful the event. The more successful the event, the greater the likelihood that the venue will invite that author back for her next book.

In addition to the advertising, make sure to stock up on the essentials—giveaways, candy, supplies, product. We'll talk more about each of those in a minute. Oh, don't forget to bring enough change. Turning away a sale due to a lack of small bills would be a crime. I'm a very lucky guy in that my wife thinks of everything. She made sure that before I left the house, I had plenty of ones and fives to make enough change for every one of my books twice over. It came in handy too. The artist next to me might have lost a few sales if I hadn't hooked him up.


Presentation – I'm going to spend the most time here, because this requires the most thought and effort. Let's start from the bare bones and work our way up. Assume the presentation space will be nothing more than a plain table, and it's our job to prepare a feast for the eyes, something that will pop, and draw in potential readers. Keep in mind that a professional looking presentation space speaks volumes about the person sitting behind that table.   

·         Table cloth – When buying a table at a con or event, it's impossible to know what state that table will be in. It could be an old wooden table that has seen one too many cons, or a stained plastic mess. No worries. Cover that bad boy up. Bring a table cloth or two in a color that compliments the product on display. My book cover is black with orange accents, so I might choose a white cover. Even though I prefer black, the book would blend too closely with the table cloth. I want Knight of Flame to appear to leap off the table. I got lucky this time. I didn't have a table cloth for this event, but the table itself wasn't too bad, and I covered most of it with my "stuff".

I will have one for the next event.

·         Banners/Signage – A colorful banner proclaiming who resides on the other side of the table helps to draw in future fans. Most events provide a little paper sign with the author's name that sits flat on the table. Most people would need to be right in front of the table to read who's there. The heck with that. Develop a colorful image that screams an appropriate message, and either tie it across the front of the table or hang it from a stand behind it. If possible do both. Be seen. Get noticed. Stand out. If someone tries to put Baby in the corner, everyone will still see her.  

The artist across the aisle from me, Stephen, unrolled a banner and clipped it to the front of his table. It was colorful, simple, and proclaimed exactly who sat at that table. I wanted to bring a banner, looked into it in fact, but the artwork I had in mind wasn't of a high enough resolution to print on a large (4'-6') scale, so I let it slide for this show. But seeing Stephen's banner across the front of his table made a big difference in terms of perception. It screamed "I'm a pro. Check out my work." And the fans did.

I will have a banner for my next signing.

·         Product – Having a good product to display is critical. Beautiful covers sell. Period. A striking cover displayed prominently will draw interest. Set several copies of the book on stands to make that cover easier to see. Just laying the book flat on the table is fine for those already standing there, but won't catch the eye of the visitor a table or two away.
I printed the cover on photo-quality paper, and displayed it in a picture frame. For the next show, I'd like to print it up poster sized and hang it up behind me either on the wall or using one of those telescoping stands, drawing the eye of potential readers from across the room or down the aisle.

·         Snacks - Con/event attendees like snacks. Who can resist a little chocolate or a mint? Lure them in with candy, and pounce like a world-class diner waitress as soon as their mouth is full. That'll provide a few seconds to hook them. Make them so interested in the book that they can't walk away without either buying a book or taking a card.

For this show, I picked up a tub of soft chewy mints and a big bag of Hershey's miniatures from Sam's Club. I set the mints at one end of the table, and the chocolate at the other to catch people from both sides. People stopped to munch, which led to a quick conversation. Candy is dandy, my friends. Use it.

·         Mementos (takeaways) – If someone buys a signed book, she has something to take home to remind her of the experience. But what about the other people who stop by the table? Not every sale is generated in the moment. Some happen after the show. The important thing is to make a positive impression and to ensure that a potential reader takes something home to remember the experience. In his web classes, NYT best-seller Tracy Hickman talks about creating a memento of the author-reader meeting. A bookmark is just a bookmark, but a signed bookmark is a piece of memorabilia. It becomes a reminder, or souvenir. It adds that personal touch that can differentiate an author. When thinking about what a reader can take away from the signing table, try to inject that personal touch.

I totally agree with Tracy's philosophy on this and ordered rack cards months ago to hand out in my travels. Rack cards (3.9" x 8.3") are bigger than normal book marks, showcasing the book cover and allowing for marketing text on the back. I think they are the perfect size to act as a bookmark for trade paperbacks and hard covers.

On mine, I added the first few lines of my back cover copy, a promo blurb from David Farland, and a QR code that points to the first five chapters of the book on my publisher's website. Below that I left enough space to sign. At the comic book event, Javier saw me with a normal pen in hand set to sign the card, and yelled over. "Dude! What are you doing? You gotta go bold." He tossed me a gold marker. I signed cards in gold the rest of the day. For the books I still used a regular pen, but the cards…. On my list of things to get for the next show are a collection of different colored markers to step up the boldness factor.

In terms of display, I fanned the cards out across my table, and laid a stack next to a copy of Knight of Flame.  

·         Professionalism – All of the above combine to not only display the product, but to showcase the author's level of professionalism, which, in my opinion, goes a long way to promote the book. In actuality, while the author may push his latest release, he's really selling himself. Be prepared.

Attitude: Be open. Be cheerful. And above all, be nice. I've talked about this in other blog posts, but it is most decidedly true when talking to your future fan base. Be inviting. No one wants to stop and talk to a grump. Say, "Hello." Smile. Make eye contact. Engage the passersby with a simple, leading question like, "Do you like to read fantasy?" Once they answer, ask another, and steer them toward the topics of your book. Don't pressure them. Engage. Discuss. Close the sale. Offer a takeaway. Wish them well. That's it. Easy peasy. 

Keep in mind these public events are not all about the sales numbers. Sure, we'd like to sell lots of books, but I believe the key to a successful event is in making that personal connection. Sales can happen any time. Face-to-face meetings, not so much. Make it the best it can be with a little up front planning, a strong presentation, and the right attitude. Be bold.