Back in the day, at least here in Canada, you could book multiple book signings in the big box stores – sometimes even more than one store in a given city, since they were comfortably far apart. And for a different experience, there were still a few independent bookstores around.
With box stores you were usually dealing with employees, while with the independents you dealt with owners, people who not only had a vested interest in your doing well, but were the people making the decisions. On the other hand, smaller store = less traffic.
Early on, I had some great experiences in box stores, but lately? If they still do this type of event at all, you’ll find the person who made the arrangements isn’t at work today, didn’t leave sufficient (or any) instructions, and only ordered copies of your most recent book, even though previous books (including earlier ones in the series) are still in print. The staff might be sincerely apologetic, and as helpful as possible – after all, they’re not the ones who dropped the ball – but that doesn’t conjure up any books.
Independents were, and are, much better at having books on hand. I’ve even had some ask me which and how many books I thought they should order. By the way, the answer to that is: some of every book still in print, especially the first of a series – people new to your work will want to start at the beginning, no matter what. And regardless, get enough books to make a good display. Nothing is sadder than an author standing behind a table with 6 books on it.
For box stores check what colour employees wear and don’t wear it. Otherwise 80% of the questions you’ll be asked will have to do with the bathrooms. Try to have them set you up in a high traffic area, not tucked away under the “Science Fiction” sign. Box stores think genre books are only sold to genre readers. Not so. I’ve worked a lot of retail, and if you give me the traffic, I’ll sell them the books. Regardless.
Bring your own refreshments. Most of the time you’ll be looked after in terms of water or coffee, but be prepared anyway.
If you can manage it at all, stand up and stay standing. This is an old retailer’s trick. If you’re sitting down, you can spook the customers by standing up, and by the time you get to your feet they’ve disappeared.
Be as funny and charming as possible. Funny and charming sells.
It’s common to have aspiring writers come to talk to you, but twice I’ve had people bring their manuscripts to me so I could read them. Once the guy expected me to read it while he waited. Neither one of these gentlemen bought a book, nor did they appear to have had such an intention.
Is it OK to be rude to these people, since they weren’t buying anyway? Of course, they may trash you on the internet, but fear of what people might say about you on social media shouldn’t stop you from defending yourself.
Or, with the gentlest smile, you can tell them you’ve been instructed by your editors and agents not to read unpublished manuscripts, lest some year down the line you be sued for plagiarism. You know that this person isn’t like that, but your hands are tied. You’d love a chance to read it when published, if they’re looking for a cover blurb.
Or perhaps they’re just looking for advice? So very gently you ask them if they hope one day to be in a bookstore or equivalent selling and signing books for people? How will you feel, you might ask, when someone comes and wants to pick your brain, but doesn’t want to buy a book? Will you want to help that person, when they don’t want to help you?
Or, you could just be blunt. Look, kid/buddy/sister I’ll give you all the advice you want, but you have to buy a book first. That’s the price of admission
I don’t know about everywhere else, but box stores in Canada are selling fewer books, and more candles and housewares. Independent bookstores are on the rise again, and with them people who actually know and love books, rather than innocent high-school kids who just want a job.
For our purposes the best of the independents are specialty stores, like Bakka-Phoenix in Toronto. It may (now) be the oldest SF and Fantasy bookstore in North America. I recently participated in a signing there for Julie Czerneda’s anthology The Clan Chronicles: Tales from Plexis. There’s an advantage to signing as part of a team. You’re not there alone, fan traffic increases since people will be there for the other authors as well as you.
And you may snag some new readers if you read aloud well – which I do.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures (now available in omnibus editions), as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the Faraman Prophecy series, currently in two books, Halls of Law, and Gift of Griffins. Like her page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @VioletteMalan.