Saturday, November 21, 2009

On book signings

I’m actually way too tired to blog tonight (I think I need to get back into my “write at night, post in the morning” schedule), but there was something I wanted to talk about. Book signings. A number of times now I’ve seen them from the other side than what I heard about in the blogosphere (I can’t believe “blogosphere” is a word accepted by the Word dictionary!). Seeing as I work in a bookshop, I’m the person selling the books, not the one signing them or buying them. So what do I see?

First of all, what I mostly see is the lack of interest in the audience, or actually – the lack of an audience. The only times we’ve had anything resembling success in book signings is when the authors are celebrities, and frequently, not because of their books. Rather, the ones attracting crowds, are famous for something else entirely (war hero, TV star, adventurer), and they wrote a book about it (or a ghostwriter did).

Secondly, a significant amount of the sales we do have when the signing is a success, comes from random passers-by that end up buying this very book because it is signed by the author (as long as they know the author – hence the celebrity thing is important). It appears that a lot of people (I am one of them, but I never knew there were so many of us) consider a book to be of higher value if it’s signed.

Finally, there is nothing quite as awkward as trying to engage the author in small-talk if there are no customers around. Makes me wonder what it must feel like for the author…

Now, I don’t try to discourage you all from attending signings (whether you’re the author or the customer/audience). I actually think this is a nice way for authors to interact with their readers. But for it to be a success, there are a number of things the publishers/PR agents need to consider.

Today, we had a book signing at work. This is actually not a prime example, because tonight’s authoress is a celebrity (for something else entirely than writing books – she’s a TV hostess, and now she’s written a children’s book). You’d think that this was the kind of person that would attract a lot of people, but this was not so.

Her PR people had put ads in the paper, hung up posters, and generally done a lot of the right things. And yet, no one showed up. Not one. It was awkward beyond awkward. Our customers merely looked at the posters and pillows and various artifacts they had brought for what was intended to be an event for kids, but no one seemed interested. Where did the publishers/PR agents (or we?) fail?

As mentioned, they had one thing right – the celebrity card was definitely drawn. They also had another factor right. It’s a little over a month till Christmas. People are starting to buy their Christmas presents. It’s the right time for targeting these customers.

However, in my opinion, the customers targeted were the wrong ones.

It’s a children’s book, so the event was targeted at children. However, they had made some miscalculations. The event was scheduled at five p.m., without doubt because they wanted to make sure to “catch” the kids before the daily children’s show at six p.m. (despite the fact that we by now also have children’s shows at TV all day long, the good old six p.m. “children’s TV” is still as important as ever in Norwegian childhoods), before bedtime etc. It’s a nice idea, but I suspect that the PR agents don’t have kids.

Let me explain. I visited my sister and her family yesterday. They invited me for dinner at approximately 4.45. I was there at 4.30, and there was no one at home. My sister’s husband had got stuck at work, while my sister had to rush to the daycare to get the kids before the magical 4.30 limit when most daycares close. Even though she got both her sons out of there in time, she still had to convince both of them to buckle up in the car (when the younger one only wanted to test his new ability – running; and the older one probably was busy playing Batman or something like that), then she had to drive home, and convince them to get back out again. By the time she reached the front door with both kids intact, it was about five p.m., and no dinner on the table. I played with my nephews until dinner was ready. Then we sat down for as long as the older one could stand sitting still and until the younger one started throwing food on the floor and had to be told off – which triggered a huge tantrum.

Then my brother-in-law came home, and we were all able to talk “grown-up” for a while, since the older one watched TV and did not seem to mind that the younger one was climbing all over his brother and thus not causing havoc elsewhere. Then, I played with the older one while the younger one was put to bed, and then the older one was put to bed too. (Though it sounds a lot simpler when I write it like that – in reality it was maybe an hour of protests and crying and persuading before they actually slept.)

To me, this was a noisy and tiresome evening (though wonderfully nice, I must add), but to them – this is every day. In what world does a family like that (which is not a very unusual family) have the time to go to a book signing in the middle of all this? If it had been on a Saturday, at least, then people could have made arrangements, but trying to make busy parents and kids make room in their schedule on a weeknight? Not a very good idea.

Secondly, targeting kids is (sadly, but true) not a bad marketing strategy, but only when the kids are in a position to make a decision (or strongly affect one). The ads for this event were put in newspapers and magazines that no kids ever read. Even if they did want to go, they did not have a say. To add to this, there is the fact that this celebrity is a “grown up” celebrity. She does not have any power to make kids buy her book. And she probably does not have much power over adults in that respect either. If it had been a juicy celebrity book, people might have bought it. But a “Madonna-style” children’s book? Not likely to be a success.

There is one unfortunate circumstance also. Tonight’s event lost out on the random stoppers by because we usually make public announcements all over the mall to attract them. Tonight, however, there was something wrong with the loudspeakers, and no such announcements could be made. Since customers seem to have the attention span of a steam of goldfish (the cheddar flavored kind), it doesn’t matter how many ads or posters you put up. If they are not reminded on spot, many of them will not show up.

So, to summarize – if you want a successful book signing, what you need (besides a book to sign) to attract an audience is to target the right people, though the right channels. Never underestimate the power of the signature – use this to attract impulse buyers, aka people already on site (but with no initial intention to attend the book event or even buy the book). Plan according to your audience – and research what time/place/type of event best attracts the kind of audience you can hope to reach. Finally – try to be the right kind of famous ;)


M.J. Nicholls said...

Isn't it bizarre how everyone who works in a bookshop is either a student or an aspiring writer? I've never met anyone who merely works there and does nothing else.

In Edinburgh, to get a job in a bookshop you pretty much need to have an English degree, be doing a PhD on an esoteric literary movement, or be a best-selling author. It's so lucrative.

Anyway... I digress (giraffably). This is a great Dos and Don'ts guide for author signings. Personally I find meeting an author somewhat dissolves the mystery of the book. And because I am rabidly opposed to celebrity culture in its manifold micro/macro forms, when local celebs try selling their product a part of me dies inside thinking about the great writers struggling to negotiate an agent.

In fact, I'm off for a cry.

::sobs uncontrollably::

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh, we don't take the kids out on weeknights. We just don't. It's too crazy....there's homework, supper to fix, blah, blah, blah. Except for Scout meetings, we're at home. Miscalculation on the PR dept's part.

My most successful signings have been when I've returned to my hometown and have gotten the word out on Facebook to folks I grew up with.

Otherwise, I don't do signings by myself. Hate them! I'll have 2 or 3 other writers join me and we'll chat between ourselves if it's quiet at the shop.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Cruella Collett said...

Mark - yup - in my bookshop, about 80% of the employees are also students. How many of us that are also aspiring writers, I cannot say... As for "real" vs just famous writers, I agree with you. It is sad that the actual authors aren't more popular for things like this. My bookshop isn't necessarily entirely representative, though. There are bookshops that have the "real" authors come in as well.

Elizabeth - I think a lot of parents think like that - weeknights are too busy as it is, so yes, definitely a bad PR move.
As for multi-author signings, I think that sounds awesome (unless there is one über popular and the rest are completely ignored by the crowd - that would be awkward too).

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