7. The sacred (and sometimes martial) art of the book signing

You work for years, lose your hair and finally finish your magnus opus. You run off copies and feverishly stuff them into envelopes destined for a range of agents and publishers. Then you wait. And you wait… And nothing. You never hear back. It’s then you begin to realize that writing’s the easy bit. Selling it is the tough bit.

The problem is author-types often only have soft creative skills. They sometimes lack the hard business skills required to get that first sale, be it to an agent, a publisher or – if the author chooses to self-publish – a customer! Increasingly, it is a fact of life that an author needs to know how to sell if they are going to be successful (by successful, I mean ‘make a modest living as a fulltime author’). What? You think that if a book’s any good it will sell itself? That’s a myth, I’m afraid. Your manuscript, in the world’s ever-increasing slush pile, is unlikely ever to be read. Your title, on an increasingly crowded book shelf, in the rapidly dwindling number of stores out there, needs all the help it can get.

The first rule of marketing is that the best product in the world can fail because of poor marketing and, conversely, the worst product can succeed because of good marketing. And what’s the best form of marketing? Word-of-mouth, which requires face-to-face (or facebook-to-facebook) encounters. The most powerful face-to-face marketing for the author is when they (gulp) have to go out there and actually meet agents/publishers/readers. Gone are the days when you can shut yourself away in a garret (there aren’t many of them left anyway) and devote your entire life and being to writing. You’re going to have to dust yourself down, put on a wig, iron your clothes (if you own any) and ‘present’ yourself to the world. Come on, be brave. What’s the worst that can happen? People will laugh at you – but you have to be prepared to do whatever is required to bring about that book deal or sale.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I self-published Necromancer’s Gambit and then started doing book signings in local stores. I met Justina Robson (annoyingly talented scifi author) while I was doing a signing event for Waterstones Leeds and she advised me to go to the national scifi convention so that I could pitch my work face-to-face to agents and publishers. I followed her advice (thank the stars), met Gillian Redfearn at the convention, secured a business card and duly submitted Empire of the Saviours to Gollancz. Not long after, I had a three-book deal. Okay, that’s the short version of what happened, as there were four years and three novels (not to mention a divorce) between writing Necromancer’s Gambit and getting the deal, but the important thing is that it was the face-to-face moments that made the difference between being buried in the slush-pile and being the next George RR Martin (well, you’ve gotta dream).

And it’s the face-to-face moments that make all the difference for authors even after they’ve got the deal. Book signings (when they go well) increase sales, and that helps an author rise considerably in the eyes of book stores and foreign publishers interested in buying ‘rights’.  You should be aware, mind you, that an author makes virtually no money on a signing event – when they make about a pound on each book, they just about cover their train fare and coffee, and that’s it. (Sad story? Nah! Once they get the film deal, who cares about the odd Saturday spent sitting in a book store?) Beyond all that stuff, though, the main benefit for an author is actually meeting readers (lest we forget that they’re really the important people in all this). If an author’s lucky, they meet someone who enjoyed their book, and then the author remembers why they wanted their work published in the first place – so that they could share something important with other people. After all, authors don’t write for the money, in the main, because a majority of authors don’t make a fulltime living at it. No, they write for other reasons, soft reasons, creative reasons. Even cynical old hacks want to be good cynical old hacks.

That’s when the book signing goes well, however. It’s rare that an author turns up for a signing event and finds a queue of waiting customers (particularly when it’s raining or Arsenal are playing). Even authors who are household names often fail to get this fabled queue. (Sadly, I’m prevented from naming names here, but get me drunk some time…) No, a signing event more often than not ends up being an author sat at a table trying to interest people who are on their way to get a coffee or find the toilet. It’s difficult. It’s sometimes scary. Leona Lewis was attacked at a signing. I was stalked by a big hairy man in Warrington. The author ends up crying and wailing that nobody loves them (or maybe that’s just me)… until they remember that this is where they have to start developing those marketing and selling skills we mentioned before.

And authors come up with all sorts of crazy stuff to sell their books. Some stalk unsuspecting customers around the store, force a book into their hand and run away. I’ve seen one guy put copies of his book on every single shelf in the store. I’ve heard of celebrity authors hiring a crowd to attract more people in. One Scottish author uses a ‘sitter’, someone who pretends to be the author, knows how to sell to complete strangers and fakes signatures in the books. A true crime author I know brings his grey-haired mother to every event and she goes around the store or mall asking people to go and buy her boy’s book. And it works. It sells books.

You might be thinking to yourself, ‘It shouldn’t be like that! Authors shouldn’t have to go through all that, especially when they’re not generally very good at selling books anyway. It’s humiliating!’ Yes, I agree. But I don’t regret a single one of the 121 signing events that I’ve done up and down the UK (not even the one with the big hairy stalker). It’s all been worth it. It got me that book deal, remember. And I got to meet the odd person who enjoyed my book, the odd person with whom I shared something important. And, nowadays, I even get a queue in places that have a discerning local readership (as long as it’s not raining and Arsenal aren’t playing).

I’ll be signing copies of Empire of the Saviours and directing people looking for the coffee shop at the following events:

7 July – Waterstones Manchester Arndale Centre

21 July – Waterstones Derby

4 Aug – Waterstones Wigan

25 Aug – Waterstones Warrington

8 Sept – Waterstones Bury

15 Sept – Waterstones Leeds

22 Sept – Waterstones Nottingham

6 Oct – Waterstones Chesterfield

13 Oct-  Waterstones York

21 Dec – Waterstones Redhill


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