Thursday, November 08, 2007

Book Signing Experiences of an Unknown Author by Dennis N. Griffin

In the following paragraphs I’ll recount my first two book signings. There are several factors that can contribute to the success or failure of an event. They include the genre of the book, the quality of the store manager handling the event, and the experience and personality of the author. To those of you who had success right out of the starting gate, I congratulate you. I suspect, however, that a number of writers had experiences similar to mine when they were just starting out.

Many new and unknown authors who are fortunate enough to get their manuscript published, suddenly find themselves confronted with a fact they may not have given much thought to earlier: Getting their book in print was only the beginning. Now they must take on the equally important task of marketing their work.

Upon this realization, a lot of us spring into action to develop a marketing strategy, something we really should have done before the manuscript was even submitted to the publisher. We check writer message boards and buy “how to” books for ideas and guidance. Some of us come away from our research with the ingredients of a marketing plan we think will work for us. Frequently that plan includes book signings. I know mine did.

At that early stage in my writing career, I envisioned being seated at a table in a Borders or Barnes & Noble with stacks of my new book in front of me. No doubt there would be a pretty long line of readers eager to get my signature on their copy. As the scenario of my coming out event went through my mind, questions arose. Should I just sign the customer’s book, or should I write something? If so, what? Should I keep my conversation with the customer brief, so as not to annoy the other people waiting in line? How should I dress? How many pens would I need? What if I got writer’s cramp? It wasn’t long before I had decided on answers to these questions and others. I convinced myself that book signings were the way for me to go. In my mind, that kind of exposure would launch my writing career like a rocket. There would probably be some media coverage; stores would be competing for my time. All fired up, I threw myself into the effort to land a gig at a brick and mortar store. Move over King, Pileggi, and Grisham. Denny Griffin was on his way.

Six weeks and two failed signings later, I had gone from thinking I was on the verge of becoming a celebrity to the depths of despair. It seemed that virtually nobody wanted to buy my book, signed or otherwise. I asked myself if it was time to move on to something else. Fortunately, with the encouragement of my wife, family, and friends, I didn’t give up. Instead, I did an analysis of my book signing endeavors. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t a problem with my book. I realized that I had focused in on book signings as a panacea, without having done the research to truly understand what a realistic goal was for a first-time author like me. I had focused on signings and excluded other marketing options that may have worked better for me. The stars in my eyes had clouded my vision.

I should have seen the trouble coming at the start. When I had difficulty getting the Community Relations Manager (CRM) at my local Barnes & Noble to return my calls, it should have been apparent that she didn’t consider the presence of me or my book to be critical to the success of her store. However, I attributed her lack of enthusiasm in getting back to me to the fact that she was very busy, and didn’t yet realize what a great seller my book was going to be.

When I did finally get a meeting with her, she was pleasant enough, but rather negative. First there was the issue of my book being print on demand (POD). She said POD books were not returnable and the store was not allowed to purchase them. If I wanted to do a signing, I’d have to provide the books and there would be a consignment arrangement with a 70/30 split of the sale price. And my share would be sent from corporate headquarters in six weeks or so. I must admit that this news took me aback. It was another failure of researching on my part. I should have known about the POD situation ahead of time, but I didn’t. Trying to keep the disappointment from my expression and voice, I agreed to her terms.

She then hit me with another zinger. The store didn’t do individual signings for POD or self-published authors. Instead, they scheduled group signings a couple of times a year. There was some good news, however. The next such event was scheduled in two weeks. If I could get my books shipped to me in time, she’d include me in the signing!

When I left that store, the POD and consignment issues didn’t have a lasting impact on me. I was going to have my rear end at a table in a real bookstore. That was what mattered; that was what it was all about.

I ordered 50 books from the publisher — Would that be enough? — and paid extra for expedited processing and shipping. The math was pretty simple. With the 70/30 split, I’d just about break even financially. But that didn’t matter either. I was going to become known. Even though the store wouldn’t stock my POD book, they would take orders for it and I could leave a few copies on consignment. While the deal wasn’t exactly what I’d anticipated, I told myself it wasn’t all that bad.

Using the signing at B&N as leverage, I went to the other local bookstore — an independent — and scheduled a signing for the week after the B&N event. This one also required me to provide the books and split sales with the store, but at 80/20 this arrangement was better for me, and I’d get paid on the spot.

When the big day arrived, I found myself seated with four other local authors at two folding tables in the back of the store. We introduced ourselves and had to sign some paperwork regarding the consignment sales. Shortly after the CRM left us, someone mentioned having not seen any postings announcing our presence. It turned out we hadn’t missed the signs; there weren’t any. There were no announcements over the PA system either. For the next two hours, during which a total of five books were sold, we talked to each other about the writing business in general and our event in particular. One of the guys who had more experience than the rest of us — he had two self-published books out — said we shouldn’t be disappointed. He’d done a few of these events and they tended to run about like this one: little or no promotion, and few sales. He said he attended mainly to get out of the house and meet new people, not with any great sales expectations.

I left my signing debut with one sale — I didn’t receive my payment until nearly six months and several phone calls and e-mails later — and a sense of disappointment that is difficult to describe. The next week I sold two books. I returned home that day with 47 unsold books that had been charged to my credit card, no other events scheduled, and no idea of what to do next. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to have anything more to do with the writing business.

Now, seven years later, I thank God for those failures. I learned from them; they were a turning point for me. With the support and encouragement of those who care about me, I got serious about writing and that crucial, but often overlooked part of the business: marketing. However, that’s another story.

Dennis N. Griffin is the author of the bestselling nonfiction organized crime novel, CULLOTTA: THE LIFE OF A CHICAGO CRIMINAL, LAS VEGAS MOBSTER, AND GOVERNMENT WITNESS (Huntington Press, July '07). You can visit his website at .

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