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A Tale of Three Signings    

A Tale of Three Signings
by Micqui Miller, EPIC Vice President

In the last month, I had the opportunity to attend three signings and participate in one of them. Following are observations that are strictly my own opinion, but I hope will help to make your signings more successful.

The first took place on a weekend afternoon in a national chain bookstore in a large metropolitan area. There were four erotica/romantica authors signing. As we all know, erotica is about the hottest thing going these days, in more ways than one, and all of these authors were well known to erotica readers. They had their table positioned just a few yards from the front entrance and a rack containing their books beside them. One of the authors had a basket of goodies displayed for a drawing later on, and another had a basket of chocolates for browsers to enjoy. They had bookmarks and other promotional materials as well, and one even wore a T-shirt with a decal of their publisher's name and logo pressed on it. On the face of it, the stage was set for a perfect signing.

Now let's look at the not-so-perfect ingredients. One, the table was far too small to comfortably accommodate the group, giving it a crowded, rather disheveled look. Secondly, each writer was dressed differently and very casually. Maybe it's my old RWA training coloring my judgment, but they looked more like a group of soccer moms than professional writers. Even something as simple as all of them wearing the same T-shirt would have presented a far more professional image. Anyone who's ever marketed romance knows there is a lot of sniggering to overcome from the uninformed. I think that's why National stressed professionalism so strongly. We had to overcome the exact image these ladies were projecting.

But it gets even better. Add to the too small, crowded table, a mix of the authors' family members-adults, adolescents, and teenagers-crowding in front and behind the table. The table's location was excellent, if you could see beyond the family members.

Signings can be scary affairs for authors, but it's pretty darned intimidating for the buyers/readers as well. How do you approach a table of four (or five or six or more) authors who are there to sell-sell-sell and decide whose book you'll purchase and whose you will not? I've seen it time and again-a reader enters the store, sees the table, drops her gaze to the floor and bypasses the table in favor of the stacks.

I don't know the results of this signing, but I don't think the authors went home gleefully counting windfall profits.

The second signing was quite different. It was sponsored by Harlequin/Silhouette and H-E-B, a huge supermarket chain in Texas. It took place in a newly renovated and expanded store in an affluent suburb of a small city. The H-E-B ran full-page, full-color ads advertising the authors and their signing at least four times in the daily newspaper. The authors were certainly among romance's heaviest hitters-all SEVEN of them. The store set aside a huge portion of the front area to accommodate the signing, even had bistros tables set up with books by NY Times best selling authors who were not at the signing. Plenty of room to browse, refreshments, and 35% off on everything! The authors were dressed in their most professional RWA best, hair and make-up perfect, and each with a stack of 250 books H-E-B had purchased for the signing.

As usual, all of the authors were seated shoulder to shoulder at a long table. Same reader intimidation factor at the first signing times seven. The signing went on for two days-Friday afternoon/evening and Saturday 11 to 4. This was an author's dream, right? Wrong! The authors sold a total of seven books on Friday and seven books on Saturday. Only one of the authors had her expenses paid by Harlequin. The rest came on their own dime from all over the country. I'm sure H-E-B spent a huge portion on their marketing budget on this event, so I doubt the marketing meeting with go well for that rep when it's time to give his sales report for the month.

I spoke in depth with one of the authors afterward and here's what she identified as underlying reasons for the failure of this event. One, the signing featured romance authors only. The city is known as "the buckle of the Bible Belt." The few readers gutsy enough to approach the table of seven were looking for Christian books or Inspirational romances, not Desires, Temptations, and the other hot lines Harlequin/Silhouette had stocked. Very poor demographic research. Those who did approach the table walked straight up to the author they came to see, chose her book only, and hustled off to the cash register (or completed their weekly shopping). They kept their eyes down, did not greet the other authors or browse their books. They walked away. Their way of avoiding having to buy books from all seven authors when they wanted-or could only afford-one. You can be sure H-E-B won't be sponsoring an event like this again.

The third signing was part of the Texas Book Festival in Austin, the state capitol. This event annually attracts approximately 30,000 readers and is held in huge tents along six or seven blocks of the city near the capitol. I participated in it as a member of the Austin Chapter of Sisters in Crime. We had a small booth in one of the tents, and a staggering amount of competition from other authors, bookstores, publishers, and author organizations.

The festival took place over a two-day period, and those signing from our chapter were allotted an hour apiece as "featured authors". We had a table for one right on the aisle. I also brought marketing brochures for my books with me. One of the volunteers stood in the aisle inviting people to meet me. I sat at my table only long enough to sign a book. Otherwise, I stood a couple of feet from her, and as soon as someone stopped, I'd walk over and shake hands as she introduced us. In that hour I sold four books and handed out 50 brochures-all that I had brought with me. I met each of those 54 people personally and spoke to them about my books. When my "featured author" time was up, I took the place of the volunteer, greeting the attendees and introducing them to the new "featured author" who sold about a dozen books in his hour. (He's a well-known mystery writer, print published). Our booth also contained a table of freebies-bookmarks and other promotional material, and a second table with books by absent author members that could be purchased. We all wore our Sisters in Crime T-shirts, so our booth had an instant identity.

I considered the day a signing success because we featured only one author at a time, and that as volunteers we took an active role in the featured author's success. We'd ask a passerby, "Are you a mystery fan?" and when they said yes, because most people are to one degree or another, we'd say, "May I introduce you to John Doe, our featured author." The rest was up to the author-one author, not seven or four sitting shoulder to shoulder and never moving. No friends or family members were allowed to hover in or near our booth. They were shooed off to visit the rest of the Festival.

But even as successful as I felt that day might have been, in all three signings I sited there was a tremendous amount of work and expense that led to very few sales, and proved over and again that traditional book signings just don't work. Lynne Hansen has developed an amazing course on alternatives to traditional signings. It called, Book Me! Plan a Rejection-Proof Book Signing Event. Although Kathy Borich may or may not have been one of Lynne's students, below is a perfect example of what Lynne is espousing:

Sisters in Crime member Kathy Borich has spent 22 years luring young readers to the joys of literature with authentic cuisine in her English classroom. This proved so effective with her students that Kathy decided to try the approach with the mystery novels she loved, eventually writing, Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover's Cookbook. Currently she enjoys giving Mystery Cooking Classes featuring many of the recipes found in her new book. Kathy credits her love of cooking to her Italian/French grandmother "who raised me among the powdered lace of drying pasta and the warm earth of a backyard tomato garden." In Kathy's talk at our November meeting, she'll share some of the insights she's gained on the way to becoming published, what worked and didn't work, and the guerrilla marketing strategies she found effective in promoting her book. And just in time for the holidays, she'll talk about how to use Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover's Cookbook to plan a tasty theme-centered dinner party. Drop by, if for no other reason, to feast on the decadent Drunken Strawberries, one of Kathy's trademark delicacies.

There you have it, folks, an author giving cooking lessons featuring recipes found in her books as her opening gambit. The signing aspect takes second chair to the event. How much more successful that would have played at the H-E-B-a supermarket where readers could have stocked ingredients for the recipes-than the thousands H-E-B spent on books and publicity for seven authors who sold a total of 14 books. Most people will at least approach a cooking demonstration even if they don't stay for the entire meal program. If the chef makes a decent pitch for her work, I'll walk away with a basketful of whatever she's selling. I'm sure the result is the same when people realize Kathy has books to sell besides her cookbook.

Marketing is an art, and I certainly don't have all the answers. However, it's clear that what once worked-the traditional signing-is only limping along now. EPIC's former president, Dusty Rhodes found his niche doing weekend fairs and fleamarkets; Lynne Hansen with origami classes and other children's programs; my friend Kathy DeNosky, a Silhouette author whose heroes are always rodeo cowboys, is making huge book sales on the rodeo circuit; Kathy Borich is chalking up sales while tempting the palate.

Alternative signing venues and events may not be for everyone, but after visiting three signings in three weeks, and participating in one, I'm even more convinced that Lynne Hansen is absolutely correct. As e-book/small press authors we have to work twice as hard as our colleagues with mass distribution. Our marketing time and dollars need to be spent where they can translate to the greatest number of sales. Traditional signings may fulfill our dreams of what we thought it would be like to be a published author. Get over it! Instead, examine closely what you write, find the characters or situations that lend themselves to alternative marketing, and seek venues for those signings that will result in the $ucce$$ we so richly deserve.

Good luck and many successful signings and sales.

You can find the self-paced version of Lynne's course, Book Me! Plan a Rejection-Proof Book Signing Event, at www.quality-promos.com.

Micqui Miller is the author of two published novels, Morning Star and Holly in the Morning, a winner of a Golden Heart from Romance Writers of America, and a 2004 EPPIE Finalist. Her third novel, Sweet Caroline, is due for release in December 2004 from Hard Shell Word Factory, and features a cyber-sleuth named Caroline Spring. Coming soon, All in the Game, the first book in the Caroline Spring Mystery Series.

Visit Micqui at www.micquimiller.com or at www.bookbabes.net

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