Book Signings: Fame or Down In Flames?

There have been many misconceptions in my life. High school for instance, sitting there on the bench during basketball games thinking that if I could just drop about 30 pounds that our head cheerleader would come crawling to me like a lonely reptile!

Numerous others come to mind but the in-store book signing experience might just top my list.

At best it’s that 15-minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised us. At worst, well, at least it will be fun.

Not so fast my published or soon-to-be published friends!

Now, I have to be clear about this experience because it applies, in my case, to a published author whose name wouldn’t turn a head if I tossed one of my books in a passing car’s open window.

And to my friends at book stores who do a great job with book signings, this life experience isn’t necessarily directed at you—this is just a heads up to future signers. Regardless of the experiences that await them they should know that in-store signings come with the publishing territory and is something that they all should consider doing.

At least once!

So, your book comes out, if it’s a national publisher or good regional press the publicist cranks out a press release, reviews begin to straggle in and somewhere in the backwash, through the publicity, calls are made from the publisher to booksellers—from the small independents to the Barnes & Nobles— “Bless ’em all, Bless ’em all.The long and the short and the tall”.

Eventually an events person at one of these stores bites and your publicist rings you up to say that they have “… an incredible opportunity for you.”

Thank you Jesus!

It seems that the Barnes & Noble in your hometown wants you to come for a book signing.  “Thanksgiving and Christmas are the big book selling window, so how does December 12 sound?”

“Well, that sounds great, I happen to have that date open (along with every other cold December night).

You learn that you may be asked to read a passage or two from the book, open the floor to a question and answer session and should expect to be signing books well into the night.

Publicist: “Does this work for you?”


And there’s more good news. The book store will not only publicize the event in their newsletter they’ll splash little signs around their store—leading up to this big hoo ha—letting the free world know that Bob Cairns will actually be in the store—from 7:00 p.m. until 9:00 p.m. on December 12 (or whenever) to meet, greet and sign his new book.


Let’s make that a small w—how about “wow!”

One important comment here.  No matter how many times you do this you will never, ever be quite prepared for the experience.  And again, I’m not talking about authors with the million dollar advances whose names are twice the size of the book’s title on their latest cover. These writers have freakin’ groupies, boy groupies and girl groupies, readers of all ages, fans who would buy a 20 pound armload of their books just to stand and gaze into the author’s (often) myopic eyes and gush about the book reading like poetry as the author inscribes something in iambic pentameter like, “ To Doris, all the best, Bill Bestseller.”

As an NC State University PR guy, whose job from time to time was to play the role of the publicist (Jim Graham’s Farm Family Cookbook for City Folks, by Jim Graham, the revered NC Commissioner of Agriculture; and then Secrets of Success “North Carolina Value-Based Leadership,” General Henry Hugh Shelton, 14th Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) I saw how book signings can and should go—long lines of gleeful buyers, books in tow, happy to meet, greet and (to the sound of a ringing register) leave with their signed copies.

Now, I’m struggling here, trying to come up with one personal experience that might come close to mirroring the above. Well, there was this one time (long story short) where the publisher kicked in a couple of hundred bucks for Champaign and I, according to Nancy Olson, then owner of Books at Quail Corners, crowned my event as the one that, thanks to my friends who showed up in number, set a rather dubious record—more booze consumed with less books sold in the history of the store.

But, again I’m grasping for a positive here, the one thing that I took from that experience (which was my first) was the fact that after I read from my baseball novel The Comeback Kids, there was this “lady” seated up front in one of the folding chairs, who began waving her hand.  When she spoke I knew she was clearly drunk, and believe me I may not know much about selling books, but I know drunk.  Anyway, she just gushed about the book and announced that her husband was the world’s biggest baseball fan and that “I just had to come to their home and read a passage or two to him!”


And then it hit me.  This was the woman who my wife and I had met at a party several months before. And, she, along with her also drunken husband, the fellow she thought I might like to drop by and read to sleep, had been so obnoxious and insulting that night that I had suggested (face to face) that she and her husband could both do something to themselves that would be unfortunately impossible and considerably uncomfortable. Then, my wife and I walked out the front door.

Well, she didn’t recognize me, obviously had no recollection of our meeting, so I kindly thanked her for the invite and told her that I’d get back to her on the personal reading for her husband.

That my friends, if not the highlight of my book signing experiences, is one of the more memorable.

Others come to mind.

  • The flop sweats at a Chapel Hill coffee shop where the high-brow audience (while I read about baseball) traded conversational comments regarding the merits of the latte vs. the cappuccino. I recall, just as I was reading what I thought might be the funniest line in the novel, someone drowning the punch line in mocha, as in “My, you must try this mocha, it’s to die for!”
  • The night I sat and sold zero books at a Research Triangle Barnes & Noble, having given up my Duke vs. NC State basketball tickets for this opportunity. Here an apologetic events person bowed and scraped, stating that they’d never (considering all the publicity they’d done) had a writer get shut out (her words) and that perhaps it was because I had written a basketball book (V&Me: “Everybody’s Favorite Jim Valvano Story”) and that I’d agreed to sign on the very night that NC State was (right down the road) playing Duke in basketball. Do ya, think?
  • For yet another book store biggie “signing opportunity” I raced home from Pinehurst and the U.S. Open Golf tournament. Here I sat alone at a table, looking not unlike the You Know What in the punch bowl, while passersby refused to make eye contact (think street savvy New Yorker walking down one of Manhattan’s mean streets). It was so bad that I (a technique that I would recommend for any future ignored signers out there) actually left my “punch bowl” and began to look at books on nearby shelves, pretending to be a shopper. And then, there she was. A beautiful young girl was standing at my table looking at the pile of unsigned books. This was a June event and (so said the events lady) promised to be “. . . a natural for Father’s Day shoppers!” I left my faux shopping search, took my seat and asked, “Would you like a V&Me for your dad for Father’s Day?”“Well, no not really,” she said. “I’m an intern with PRSTREET and your friend Graham Wilson (the owner of the agency) asked me to come by tonight and get a photo of people lined up in front of your table with you signing books. He said he promised you that he’d run it in the PRSTREET newsletter. Blushingly, I recalled that I had asked Graham if he could do something like this, and so with the help of the store’s very apologetic events lady wrangled a few employees and queued them up for the photo op. That may have been the only book I signed that night and several weeks later—to add insult to injury— I received a copy of the newsletter featuring the photo from my friends at PRSTREET.

One more—and this was a classic—at the NC State book store they have an annual big percentage off Christmas sale. I was, again, Bic in hand, seated at a table by a very nice guy who had written a children’s book about an NC State Christmas Wolf (or something) and this guy was just killing me. Huge line—lambs to the slaughter—at the Christmas Wolf, almost nobody interested in V&Me.

I had promised to sit and sign until 9 p.m. and as the clock slid into that third hour with my sales at about a book an hour, I, having a two-hour drive home on a Friday night, called my wife and said, “I’m out of here!” And then he showed up. Suddenly here at my table was a man in his early 60s, just the right age to have been there when Jim Valvano and the Cardiac Pack won the National Championship in ’83.“May I ask you a question,” said the fan. “Certainly,” said I, pushing a book forward preparing to tell him what Jim Valvano was really like. “Can you tell me where the john is,” the guy said, “I’ve gotta go like a racehorse!”

I think you’re getting the idea, so I’ll close by saying this: did I ever sell any books at book signings? Certainly, and again, it is something that every author must do. But for me—the no-name author—more often than not those Andy Warhol 15-minutes ended in flames rather than fame.

So go in eyes wide open, aware that this signing deal is just that . . . a deal. And that there’s a bit of legalized prostitution at work here. You want attention for you and for your book. Booksellers, aware that traffic sells other books, aren’t just interested in selling your book.  They rely heavily on you, the author, to help bring out the troops and will ask for names and e-mail addresses of friends, relatives, and workmates, anyone who they might pepper with notices of your Big Moment.

Hey, come to think of it, maybe that was it. Start with a bookseller (emphasis on seller), then toss in my friends, relatives, and workmates, give me, the no-name author a stir, and, well, I don’t wish this for you, but perhaps that’s why more often than not I found myself in full blush afloat in the proverbial book signers punchbowl.