We’ve always had a love-hate relationship with book signings. The tradition developed out of readings. While we’re not sure how or where that got started, we can imagine it was in England where some fan or scholar was desperate to discover exactly how the author “interpreted” his own work. The reading would have allowed the listener to hear the author place his creator’s emphasis on all the right words, and the correct inflection in the dialog. Or so we imagine, having not been there, and having omitted the necessary research, for once. The upshot was that some starry-eyed fan afterwards stepped up and asked the author to sign his copy of the book, making it a very personal and treasured keepsake. (We’re just as vulnerable as anyone else. Our signed first edition of LONESOME DOVE has its own place on the shelf!)
Like all good things, times change. When we started in this business 25 years ago, readings were still popular, though waning. As ever more publicists began to pitch authors for readings and signings, the market was glutted. Readings became simple signings. Instead of having to set up chairs, a podium, and dedicate all that space and effort, it was easier to announce the date, set up a table, and let the author sign for his fans.
Bookstores were flooded with authors, and the booksellers soon figured out that they’d make more from the “co-op”–the money the publisher sent to cover the costs of advertising, refreshments, and handling the books. As time passed, more and more co-op was used to pay the light bill instead of buy advertising. In the end, the light bill got it all, and advertising went the way of the dinosaurs. So, in essence, the author showed up, sat down at his table, and, well… sold no books. After all, it didn’t matter if the guy or gal sitting behind the table was Tom Clancy or Debbie Finklestine with her first, self-published novel. If no one knew in advance that Tom Clancy–let alone Michael and Kathleen Gear–was going to be in the store that day, fans were sitting at home, reading a new book rather than having an author write in it. Of course we mentioned this to numerous publicists, remarking that they might want to take over the advertising themselves, placing ads in local papers and radio. Nope. That kind of out-lay would be cost prohibitive! So they spent a couple thousand a day sending us in to do signings in empty bookstores.
Now, the quid-pro-quo for all of this was that the bookstore was supposed to be jazzed, excited, keep your books in stock afterward, and hand-sell them to their loyal customers. “Oh, looking for something new? Try this Gear book. They signed here, and this is a great read.” The thought in New York was that the publisher was doing the bookstore a favor, shipping in the author, paying the co-op without strings attached, and raising the bookstore’s profile. Yet, time after time, we’d drop in a couple of weeks later, to find none of our stock on shelves. Every last copy had been immediately returned for full refund.
Authors, of course, were part of the problem. Most tend to be introverts by their very nature. And how exciting is it to walk into your favorite bookstore and see a lone figure slumped behind a table full of books? Adding to the image, the bored author has opened to chapter five of his latest tome, and has his nose buried in the pages! Sounds like an exciting read, huh? Most authors are their own worst enemies.
Here’s the contrast: This last weekend, we did two great signings. The first, at BAM in Rapid City, fell prey to Murphy, the demon of chaos. These things happen no matter how well intentioned the parties may be, and the books didn’t arrive. No problem. Tammy, the BAM manager, just asked us to bring our own, and we covered the stock she was short. Added to which, was the delight of working with her superb staff! We supplied the final ingredient to making the signing a success. We greeted every person entering the store, engaged them in conversation, and talked many of them into taking a chance on a Gear book. Then, before we left, we signed every copy Tammy still had in stock. So, if you’re looking for autographed copies, give Tammy a call.
On Saturday we participated in the Weston County Library’s centennial. They set us up on the lawn in front of the library, along with six other authors, and we sold books all day long. We were told the parade was at ten–only to be crushed when they hadn’t made a float for us. (Craig Johnson didn’t get a float either.) Now, Weston County, Wyoming, isn’t what you’d call a “major population center.” Nevertheless, we sold over a hundred books to the local folks. Many of the buyers were fans, but the majority had never heard of our work before. We call that a success all the way around!
The lesson to draw from all of this is that signings are what you make of them. For you fans out there, be aware that in the future there will be fewer and fewer author signing events as the way books are sold changes, and publishers reallocate their resources into other venues. If you enjoy obtaining signed copies, it’s up to you to keep singings profitable for publishers and booksellers. As to Michael and Kathleen Gear, we’ll hold up our end by writing engaging books, and greeting you with a smile when you show up for our next signing!