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By Scott Nicholson

The biggest lesson I learned on my recent book signing tour was this: it’s not about selling books.

After driving 3,000 miles, putting my various writing projects in "sleep mode," mailing out dozens of press kits, neglecting my family, spending many stupefying hours watching strangers walk by, and cutting into my already-Freddy Kruegered paycheck to fund my tour, all I can say is, if you’re in this game just to sell books, you’re a complete fool.

Of course, if you’re a writer, you’re quite likely a fool anyway. But back to the beginning.

I was lucky to find a regional publisher to release my first story collection, mostly because I convinced him (it’s a one-man operation, with a little help from interns) that I knew how to promote a book. When Thank You For The Flowers came out in October, I had already done my homework. I’d arranged signings at most of the stores on my target list, setting up a schedule where I would do nearby events on weeknights and save serious traveling for Saturdays. All of these were within a three-and-a-half-hour radius of my home.

The day of my first signing, I packed up the car and headed toward the sunrise, in this case, the Queen City, Charlotte, N.C. Oh, how I imagined that great populace rushing out to meet me, lavishing gifts as if I were a visiting dignitary from a country possessing nuclear weapons.

The store was the Little Professor Book Center, a regional chain of independently-owned stores. The manager was friendly and optimistic, but also said, "It’s the first nice day we’ve had in a long time, so business might be slow."

I sat at the table with 16 books. I knew 16 was an overly optimistic number, but I figured at least they made it into the store. Then I started looking around. On the shelves were stacks, reams, pillars of my books. Below them, a dump of Nicholas Sparks books, all signed. Sparks had sat in this very same chair, with a #4 on the bestseller list at the time, and he hadn’t even sold through. Tough crowd.

But I was ready, my "O-fficial signing pen" clutched in my fingers. For effect, I’d brought along a Writers of the Future trophy, as intimidating a spire of Lucite as ever was crafted. All that was left was the waiting.

And the waiting...

Finally, over an hour into my signing, HWA member and anagram addict Brian Plante stopped by. I’d met him before through e-mail and it was a pleasure to see him in person. And we sat there talking for two hours, not bothered by a single customer. Oh, Brian bought one, and I didn’t even have to lay a guilt trip on him. Owe you one, Bri.

Then I remembered while driving home, "Wait a minute, I’d signed Writers of the Future Vol. XV at a fading mall store somewhere in Charlotte six months ago, and I didn’t sell any that trip, either." HWA member d.g.k. goldberg came by and talked with me for a couple of hours that time, so my take on Charlotte is that it’s a great place to see friends but don’t expect to sell many books.

First trip: 251.4 miles, one sale, two listings in newspaper literary calendars. I did talk to several people in the store about my book, so maybe my visiting in person had a residual effect on sales there, though the store eventually sent back most of the ordered copies.

The next event was my Book Release Party at my hometown independent. I think the fact that it was billed as a "party" may have kept some people away, thinking it was a private event. But a half-dozen copies sold and I was videotaped for a local cable TV show (Hey, it’s the company I work for, but everything counts).

I got some good publicity locally in the following weeks, doing a radio interview and getting some ink. Then I got some stellar reviews in a couple of regional papers. That didn’t exactly translate into overnight bestseller success, but more than a few subsequent buyers mentioned they’d seen a review.

I had a homecoming of sorts when I visited my parents in the town where I attended high school. That was my best event, selling somewhere between 12 and 15 copies. A few long-lost relatives showed up thinking I must be rich and famous since I was a writer. I couldn’t let them see the grim reality, so instead I suckered them into buying books. As my publisher says, "If you can’t sell to your relatives, who can you sell to?"

A couple of the signings were complete goose-eggs. The most disheartening was a day-after-Thanksgiving signing in North Carolina’s largest mall. I watched 50,000 people walk by and didn’t sell a single book, though I talked to maybe two dozen people. But the day was rescued when I drove up to another large mall and sold six or eight copies and had an enthusiastic store manager who was going to push my books for the holidays.

The thing about not selling any books: in my hometown, no one attended a signing by Robert Morgan. Of course, two months later he was an Oprah Book Club guy and could write his own ticket anywhere. Here’s some other big names I’ve heard of firsthand who have skunked at signings: Tony Hillerman, Jerry Bledsoe, Bob Inman.

Thus I decided, based on previous experience and collected data, that selling two books would constitute a successful event, so the small sales numbers along the way weren’t a terrible blow to my ego.

"Wait a minute," you should be saying. "Drive two hundred miles and spend seven or more hours of your day off to make a lousy three bucks? You mean you have to pay for your own gas? And you don’t get the royalty check until sometime next year?"

Hey, did anybody ever tell you that writing was easy? And that "making it" was even harder? What kind of idiots are we, anyway? Apparently, the kind that keep showing up week after week, store after store, trying to keep track of all the media outlets and following up on the book orders. And keeping an ear to the ground.

Even somebody like me, who already thinks he knows everything, can learn something. For instance, Books-A-Million in Gastonia taught me how to be an in-store bestseller. No kiddin’.

The stock rep at the store happened to be a speculative fiction fan and ordered an overly-optimistic 50 copies. The order accidentally went to the wrong store, so he ordered another 50. Then the mislaid 50 showed up at the store as well.

So I walk in the door and there’s a pyramid of books on the table. I sell a few, then he asks me if I want to sign some more to leave on the shelves.

"How many more? Are you going to send them back to the publisher?"

He insists that he is going to keep them all. I sign and sign, then he leads me to the Regional Books section. I have covers facing out on three shelves, two rows across. On the top shelf, my book is listed as the #4 regional bestseller.

"Hey, thanks for the great placement," I say.

"I had so many, I had to do something with them."

On the spot I learned how Stephen King does it. He’s a bestseller because the stores have so many of his books, they have to push them like crazy! Bestsellers are made, not born, and don’t let anybody ever tell you different.

One signing I had high hopes for took a strange path to belated victory. I returned to UNC where I’d studied writing years before, and thought that at least some of the wannabes would turn up at the campus bookstore. One writing teacher came, and a reporter for the daily school newspaper. This, despite a crowd of several thousand standing in the "pit" outside the store.

Turned out that the governor had made a surprise campaign stop, this being a couple of days before the Presidential election. The college newspaper that interviewed me ended up bouncing the article for yet even more election coverage. Luckily, the teacher who bought my book there later ended up writing a review for a regional paper.

Another circumstance beyond the writer’s control is the Eller Factor. Every time writer and editor Steve Eller shows up at one of my signings, I immediately start selling books, and not just to Steve, either. If only I had half of his charisma.

(Hey, Steve, still waiting to try the "Step right up, folks, see an actual living horror writer, only five dollars, come-n-see the freak" bit. Maybe on the next tour.)

The best part, as you can imagine, was meeting other writers while on the road. In addition to the aforementioned, I had the pleasure of "paneling" with goldberg (the writer, not the wrestler), Julie Anne Parks of Storytellers fame, and Writers of the Future winner Michael Jasper. Nebula Award winner John Kessel was in the audience. Way cool. New but rising writer Paula Jordan sat a spell with me at a groovy independent in downtown Asheville, where one paper had me listed as a "Best Bet" for weekend entertainment.

On a joyful handful of occasions, people had seen an article somewhere and were actually waiting at the store for my arrival. That was also one of the real positives of the tour.

All told, the signings directly sold between 80 and 100 books. Not a dent in the big picture, but here’s why I really did the signings: an excuse to send articles to the papers. I would estimate a total circulation of my name at around two million, including calendar listings, and probably another 500,000 or so with actual print feature articles or reviews. Publicity is the gift that keeps on giving.

Also, every store kept some signed copies on hand for later sales, usually between five and fifteen. Those will probably stay there until they sell. In perhaps two-thirds of the cases, I doubt the store would have carried my book at all if I had not scheduled a signing.

While all this was going on, from the first to the last week of the tour, my sales rank at B&N Online rose from a dismal 451,000th to a less-dismal 154,000th. That may only mean that my mother-in-law ordered an extra copy, but it sounds like a positive to me.

I got to meet the booksellers, store managers, and inventory stockers, people who are likely to be around the business in some form or another for a long time. I got my name and Thank You For The Flowers out there where people could see them.

I ascribe to the theory "Third time’s a charm." You can call it magic, but whatever it is, it works. The first time someone hears your name, it goes into the brainbox somewhere between sports trivia and what you had for lunch three days ago. The second time, a little tingle arises. The third time, an actual bell rings.

Stifle your collective gasp, but I did make some mistakes. I’m not a natural salesman and have never been glib with the smile and handshake. But I do try to catch people’s eye as they enter the store, say hello to them, and talk to anyone who expresses interest. Remember that most people come to bookstores because they like books and writing, though I’m convinced this isn’t always true for chain stores in large shopping malls. Still, I could have been more outgoing.

At one store, I acted as an unofficial greeter and gave out the store’s catalogs, mentioning my book when possible. Though I was featured in a daily paper with a circulation of 150,000, I only sold two books during the two stops in that area. Shrug and go figger.

I also wasn’t as aggressive with following up on the press kits I sent to media outlets. I think I could have nailed a few radio interviews and maybe a TV spot or two with a little more initiative. I did get a few contact names and my media list grew a bit longer.

Oh, yeah, I squeezed all this activity around a full-time job and a new baby and a teen-age son and my own driving hunger to write during every spare moment while doing all the other things it takes to build a career. Isaac Asimov had a great story about a robot that wants to be a writer so badly it removes every obstacle standing in the way, up to and including human beings. Become that robot.

Other career-building and signing tips:

Always have some books with you. You can keep them in the car, but shipping problems or human error on ordering sometimes means you show up to an empty table. Several times I had to deliver the books myself because of somebody else’s goof. It’s also possible that the bookstore staff will have no idea who you are and why you’re waving your pen under their noses.

Always be polite to the staff, even if you suspect they’re only peddling Danielle Steel because they can’t hack it on welfare. Most of them love books and take a serious cut in pay for the atmosphere.

Never act like you’re famous, unless you write like William Faulkner and look as perky as Meg Ryan. Remember that no matter how good you are, ninety-nine percent or more of the public wouldn’t come if you were passing out free Truth, much less trying to sell them something.

Don’t schedule signings in cities that have a NASCAR track. Period.

If you have a little endurance, you can piggyback signings and do two in a day. If possible, arrive 15 minutes early and stay an extra 30 minutes. Sometimes my best business came when I wasn’t supposed to be there.

View your event as a partnership with the store and your publisher. Your publisher will likely be like mine and have no real promotion budget besides a small mailing list and a ready stack of review copies. Work the publicity and the store manager will look kindly upon you. Don’t expect the store to generate traffic for you, because few have any money for advertising. Hey, they’re book stores, remember? None of the chain stores I’ve worked with have a local advertising budget. Corporate policy, you know.

If you get an opportunity, heat up the kettle for the next visit. If you have another book in the pipeline, go ahead and plug it and suggest a tentative time frame for another signing. Some knowledgeable writers have advised doing no more than one signing per city per year, but I don’t believe this should be hard and fast, especially if the stores have different personalities or are in widely-separated neighborhoods.

Save your receipts and mileage records. The financial pounding this year becomes a savings grace in April, because you are a professionally-minded writer and you’re running a business, right? If a writer can’t lose money, that writer isn’t trying hard enough.

Do a little extra. Write an article like this one, not for pay because there is none. Do it so that others can learn from your mistakes and occasional triumphs. Do it because the organization is only as good as what you give it. Do it so some 600 writers will see your byline and hear the magic words Thank You For The Flowers (available wherever better books are sold) three times.

Build your audience one reader at a time. Remember, you can’t sell out unless you sell the first one.

--copyright 2001 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission.

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HomeScott's Where, When, WhyJournalLinks to Scott's available storiesFor Writers And Other Losers/Author InterviewsWho Scott thinks he isLinks to writers and e-zinesPress KitE-mail Scott

Scott Nicholson copyright 2001ŠAll rights reserved