Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Ottawa Report

Sounds political, doesn’t it? Well, you’ll be relieved to know it’s not.

With pen poised, hoping to make that sale...
I spent the past weekend in Canada’s national capitol meeting people and signing copies of my new novel, The Fallen One. (There will be a test on the book’s title very soon.)

It’s a lovely, small city and it’s certainly no chore to visit any time I get the chance. My schedule was pretty full with four events. Since this is the first string of signings I’ve had in over four years, I thought it would be an idea to talk today about what an author goes through at this sort of event, and how one can make them as effective (and painless) as possible.

The first thing to know is that signings, even if you’re an A-list author, can be difficult. Case in point: I wandered into the flagship store of the Indigo bookstore chain in downtown Toronto. There, sitting at a table all by himself, was none other than Michael Connelly, in town for a day of interviews with the media and a couple of signings. Michael Connelly? All alone?

That’s correct. He was scheduled for an hour or so in the store, had signed a number of books and then the line of eager book buyers had petered out. He’d even been deserted momentarily by his assigned publicist. I don’t know him very well, but boy, did he seem happy to see me. Good sport that he is, we laughed about the situation, and I reminded him of how Peter Robinson describes book signings: an exercise in author humiliation. Here was an A-lister if there ever was one, sitting all alone waiting for someone to ask him to sign a book for them. Wow…

Now I’m certainly not an A-lister, not even a B. I often tell people that I’m a writing legend – but only in my own house. When I go to a store, nearly no one knows who I am, even the booksellers sometimes. What can I expect?

I have to sell. I have to engage people walking by and intrigue them enough to stop and let me tell them about my book. The way I figure it, I have a minute, no more. If I don’t tell them something compelling in that time, they’ll just move on.

People will tell you I’m good at it, and I suppose I am, but it’s still tough. Even after a few hundred signings, I have doubts. First of all, should I try to stop everyone? Do I stay near the signing desk or should I move out from behind it and approach shoppers more aggressively?

Any author with a speck of observational power should know that to sit meekly behind a table, looking forlorn and out of place will not garner any meaningful attention. You don’t want people to stop because they feel sorry for you.

On the other hand, you don’t want to come across aggressively, sticking a handout under someone’s nose and telling them they simply must buy your book. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. Being too passive just comes across as pathetic, the author as a fish out of water. Jumping out at people reeks of desperation, especially when you won’t let go with a simple response of “I’m not interested.”

This past weekend, I decided to observe more closely. My conclusion is that if a person steadfastly refuses to look at you as they approach, leave them alone. If eye contact is made, a simple smile and a “Do you like reading mysteries?” is about all you can ask. Over half the time the response to that will be negative, and at that point, you have to let them go. If the response is positive, then you have the opportunity to hit them with a carefully crafted one-minute spiel.

I work mine out ahead of time and then polish it as the signings continue. If you pay attention, you can find out what works and what doesn’t. Look at the person’s eyes. It’s easy to see if you’re truly interesting them or if they’re just being polite. I always finish up with, “And I’d love to sign a copy for you.”

I try to appear confident, not pushy. I keep my voice conversational and well-modulated so my little sell/description doesn’t sound scripted (which I’m sure doesn’t fool many people), and I always thank people for stopping by if they decide not to buy – even if they’re rude. (This weekend someone said to me, “Oh, I think I read one of your books once. I didn’t enjoy it very much.”)

When people just won’t stop, don’t seem interested, or make bad comments, I think back to that time I found Michael Connelly, the Michael Connelly, sitting alone and helpless in a sea of books. If it can happen to him, it will certainly happen to me.

At least I’m in good company.


john problem said...

Pal of mine did a book-signing and most of the people who came up were friends. He said he reached the limits of his ingenuity in thinking up a different message for each one!

Rick Blechta said...

That's a problem I don't mind having!

Aline Templeton said...

I once saw Penny Vincenzi in a London bookshop at a table, all by herself. And a writer friend and I once shared a signing when I sold twice as many books as she did - I sold two (one to a friend) and she sold one.

Rick Blechta said...

I was once at a table with two other authors. The store was pretty crowded, and we managed to sell ONE book between the three of us in a two-hour signing.

The ride home that evening (2 hours) was a long one...

Donis Casey said...

Rick, you have just described one of my least favorite things to do after standing on my head in a mud puddle. Anybody who doesn't think being an author is hard work ought to try sitting in a bookstore for an hour trying to get people to buy their books or even notice them!

Charlotte Hinger said...

My favorite all time autograph was to my husband from the man who had just won the prestigious Spur award for best first novel. "To Don Hinger, the only person who bought my book at this convention."

j welling said...

You signed a lovely copy of _The Fallen One_ at Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor and you couldn't have more gracious and engaging.

It was a real pleasure to talk to you about the music, hobby bands and orchestras, opera and all manner of other things even if just for a few minutes. I love author signings because you get a glimpse of the person behind the text. For me, that makes reading the book all the more enjoyable.

Thanks for coming down to A2 for the event. It was great to meet you. It was great to buy a copy of a book from the author himself.

You do great at these signings. It can be very hard to walk up to a author at a signing and engage them when you yourself are just grinding it out at midnight anonymously. It's a little intimidating to speak to success.


Rick Blechta said...

I really enjoyed being at Aunt Agatha's as part of such an august line-up. What a great place! And Jack, it was my pleasure to meet you.

I hear what you're saying about the intimidation factor. I find it hard to walk up to an A-list author at any time, but with only one sad exception, they've all been most gracious and friendly, often asking me more about myself than I can ask them. The thing is to just push the intimidation feelings aside and go for it. Sometimes you can even make a lifelong friend. I hope that's the case this time. Let's stay in touch.

And many thanks for dropping by Type M!