Monday, September 30, 2013

Signing in the Bookstore and Nobody's There

Yes, that title is a complete steal from this superb (and very funny) video that’s been out a few years and tell me this isn’t an author’s worst nightmare: a bookstore talk and/or signing where nobody shows. 

Now, tell me you haven’t been there, done that.

I can completely sympathize with Parnell Hall there.  I actually attended Bouchercon once, years ago, and volunteered to hang in the authors’ hall where they do this mass signing.  I don’t remember the writer to whom I was assigned, but he was relatively new and so, of course, a lot of people hadn’t heard of his books.  He wasn’t sitting next to Mary Higgins Clark, but he was either alongside or very close to Barry Eisler.  So you can imagine the scene.  I must’ve refilled that poor guy’s water glass a half dozen times in the space of an hour and made small talk.  He took it okay, but—honestly—what are you going to do but smile bravely and soldier on?  Having been in a similar situation at several Trek conventions and watched the lines snake out the door for all these other writers—or going now to conferences and seeing throngs cluster around writers whose problems I wouldn’t mind having . . . it’s pretty demoralizing: so much so that you have to wonder why you put yourself through this agony in the first place.
Have I done a signing where no one showed? Yes: my very first Trek book.  This wasn’t my first signing either; I’d actually done one for a couple anthologies at a now-kaput Borders, which went . . . meh.  At least a few people showed who weren’t relatives, you know?  But that time,  I remember the store owner gamely hovering and offering me cookies while patrons went through this little dance: eyed me, eyed the posters, eyed the books, eyed me . . . and then moved on. It was sort of traumatic.  What I’d been really excited about—look, see, my first book; I wrote this!—went out with this horrible whimper. 
It’s a wonder I ever agreed to do signings again, but I did when I went on tour for ASHES a couple years ago.  I guess you could say I was lucky that I--this complete unknown--got traffic at all, but we’re not talking droves here and I know that these bookstore people really tried hard.  So the low turnouts weren't their fault or anything, but I was a nobody.  One place I remember in particular, three people showed--and all were octogenarians.  I’m not kidding.  What was worse was one guy was there because it was hot, and his apartment wasn’t air-conditioned; one woman came thinking I was someone else; and the last woman, who’d been sitting in the little café right next to the space where the store had set up chairs, only perked up when I mentioned the Holocaust.  She also turned out to be . . . wait for it . . . delusional.  I’m not kidding.  My shrink antennae were already up; there was just something about her.  As soon as she started talking about getting special messages from . . . gosh, I don’t remember . . . and how they’d given her ECT and she should be on meds but wasn’t taking them . . . my book signing had morphed into geriatric group therapy.  (The guy was pretty quiet but stayed for the whole thing; it was pretty hot and the cookies were free.  The other woman was . . . helpful?  Sympathetic?  A tad of a enabler, I think, who kept encouraging the obviously psychotic woman to tell us more.  I was able to pull us back around to some kind of topic that was germane to the book . . . but you get where I’m going here.  This was just gruesome.  On the other hand, the publicist traveling with me at the time did say that of all the authors she knew, I was probably best equipped to handle something like this.  Yeah, but I used to get paid by the hour, too.)
I’m not down on book signings, per se; I’ve had some really lovely times with small groups of people, and these are folks who have kept in touch and like my books.  I have met and just adored some very special bookstore owners who went out of their way to make me feel welcome.  But I do wonder about the utility of signings for those of us who, you know . . . we’re not Stephen King or Joe Hill or Lee Child (the latter two of whom I’ve had the misfortune to always seem to be competing against with dueling book events—at least, Child dogged my every step through Ireland, or maybe I dogged his . . . I can’t remember).  I also know there are stories of famous authors who can’t draw a crowd, although I’d love to know who they are so we can have a drink and commiserate. 
But these non-events bring up two interesting problems/points.  For starters, a signing is, for lack of a better word, a form of entertainment.  You’re vying for someone’s time that they might use to watch TV, play a video game . . . you know the drill.  If you, the headliner, aren’t compelling or interesting enough—think of all those warm-up bands (God, I remember when Peter Frampton, who was once a big deal, warmed up some other forgettable band.  Yes; I am that old)—no one’s going to come to that show.  Timing has something to do with it; it’s best not to do these things on weeknights, for example, but a weekend’s no slam-dunk either. 
Which brings me to my second observation: bookstores don’t seem to be places where people really hang out.  This is not a slam; I love bookstores, but I never hung in any.  I came in to buy a book, maybe chat with the owner or ask for a book recommendation, and that was that.  When I was a kid, I sometimes hung in the corner drugstore next to the comic rack until the owner gave me one too many pointed looks, and then I ponied up my twenty-five cents for the comic and another quarter for chewing wax.  (I liked the cherry lips; remember those?)  Even in the age of Borders and B&N and other smaller independents that might offer some frills to encourage you to stay and hang—those ubiquitous cafés, for example—I haven’t seen a bookstore emerge as a viable place for scads of people to congregate and socialize, and this is a problem for everyone. 

Now there are some bookstores that are very skilled in outreach, both to schools and the general community, and create events that draw a loyal clientele; I know people who work in a few of those places, and I’m all for that.  The problem here, though, is that you are counting on and hoping that your name actually means something.  Most often, it doesn’t because we’re not Stephen King, etc.

So what matters isn't only us (although name recognition is huge; let's face it).  What sells the event is the actual bookstore and its reputation.  Anderson's Bookshop is a fabulous example of a bookstore whose owners also have a deep understanding and knack for organizing venues people (and writers) want to attend.  For the last ten years, they've put on a terrific conference on YA lit that I had the great fortune of attending a few years ago and would kill to be invited to again.  Anderson's has singlehandedly created an event where booklovers of all ages want to come--and you'll notice that it's not in the shop either. That's not to say they don't have great events in-store; they do. I also suspect that they've had a long time to work at this and develop a great outreach system--yet, looking over their upcoming events, I'll bet even that experience is no guarantee of a crowd unless the writer's already über-famous.

Which gets us back to the original problem: short of becoming a New York Times bestseller, how do you expand a virtual network?  How do you build a fan base of folks who follow you online and then, hopefully, into that bookstore?  Some writers seem to have a knack, and to be fair, they've also been at it a long time where the blogging and the engagement become a priority.  I’m thinking specifically here of something I heard Maggie Stiefvater talk about at a conference on kidlit and blogging.  Now this is a woman who built up an online presence as an artist for years before she published her first book.  I think she said she needed . . . two, three years to gain a substantial following, and this was just for her art.  So when she started publishing, she had a loyal base already, and that only grew.  She is also very good and skilled at engaging a virtual audience, something that not all of us can (or should) do.  Scholastic had this idea of having her do a signing in the off-season—I think it was June or July—and rely almost exclusively on her virtual reach and word of mouth.  She said that when she drove to the bookstore, she was really nervous and worried that no one would show.  But over two hundred people did because her network was and is that good.
So are we saying that having a broad virtual network of fans who love what you do . . . is that enough to turn a Parnell Hall into a Maggie Stiefvater?  I don’t know because I’m still not sure what draws people into a virtual community to begin with.  I wrote a post a long time ago about blogging being like that proverbial tree in the forest.  You know, sort of like Field of Dreams: if you write it, will they come?  (Or as Julie Powell said in Julie/Julia . . . is anybody there?  Anybody?)  What makes for a successful blog or online presence?  It can’t be just numbers of followers; a few weeks ago, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who has a fabulous blog on business, wrote that all those readers did not translate into substantive sales of one of her nonfiction books.  Yet she has a wide following, one she’s made for herself by offering a blog that’s unique.  (I have no idea what her traffic is the rest of time; I’m just talking about Thursdays, when she posts The Business Rusch.)  Clearly, she’s built up a fan base around her business blog.  I have no idea if this translates into wider sales for her other work, but I can’t see that it hurts.
On the other hand, are blogs—in terms of sheer volume and length—really necessary?  That is, do we really need to write a ton?  Won’t snippets do?  Something easily digestible, a couple paragraphs?  An example: for a while now, I’ve done a Sunday Cake.  I miss sometimes—like today because my husband asked if I would postpone baking until Tuesday for a Wednesday event)—but I always post a picture of the cake to Facebook and Twitter . . . and I always, always get a ton of comments.  Always.  I get many more comments and views of my cakes than I’ll ever get from a blog.  (Ditto when I post something about my cats, or my garden.  Or on the environment.)  In fact, people notice when I don't post a Sunday Cake and, sometimes, ask what's going on.  Some have also asked for recipes.  Which is pretty astounding.

Now we can go all chicken-and-egg here.  You could say that no one would’ve bothered about my Sunday cakes or cats to begin with, if they weren’t already interested in me as a writer.  Fair enough; I don’t know how to test that.  But all this does turn on this question: what makes for an entertaining blog?  What piques fans’ curiosity?  What do they want to hear about?  What makes them loyal enough so they’ll spread the word and show up at a book signing (as one example)?  Clearly, food seems to be big; I’ve my own experience with this, and I know many authors (and agents) routinely post recipes.  Or put up pictures of their pets.  Etc.
It all comes down to this: none of us want to end up at an event where no one shows.  I always live in dread of going to a conference and being the only writer whose table no one visits.  So we are talking—again—about marketing and how to rise above the noise, and  I don’t have an answer.  If you do . . . for God's sake, don't keep it a secret.  Inquiring minds want to know.
So, in the meantime, while I go think about this—and continuing writing my next book—I leave you with Parnell Hall who has finally hit upon a way to avoid signing in the Waldenbooks when nobody’s there:

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On your way out, don't forget to enter the Goodreads MONSTERS/ASHES backpack giveaway!

1 comment:

Maureen McQuerry said...

I've definitely been there. I did a signing in Seattle on a sunny Saturday afternoon. It was the first day of sun in weeks. No one was in the store--even the employees, especially the employees didn't want to be there. A father and his young son wandered in. They were..unusual..I sat and talked with them. They nodded and picked their nose in unison. It was a very long day. The glamorous life of an author.