Tips for Successful Book Talks, Events, and Signings

close-up of microphone

Publishing houses scaled way back on traditional book tours for numerous reasons, not the least of which is because bookstores themselves are disappearing, and also because travel can be expensive and time-consuming. Unless you are a celebrity, a book tour is simply unlikely unless you set it up yourself. The good news is that there are lots of different ways to sell books now, and there continues to be plenty of authors speaking at non-traditional, i.e., non-bookstore, venues. If you are an author booking a talk for yourself, here are some tips to keep in mind.

Before agreeing to a speaking engagement, consider requiring the host venue to either:

  • Sell books themselves.
  • Arrange for a bookseller to be there.
  • Best of all: negotiate for them to purchase book in advance for attendees.

Remember though: Venues are looking for stellar speakers. For them, book sales rank somewhere between a secondary issue and an annoyance. If they won’t or can’t sell books, think about whether your personal connection to the organizer, the “caliber” of the audience or, in some cases, the fee, make it worthwhile for you to speak. Maybe it’s something better to pass on.

  • Sell your own books. Some venues assume that authors will sell their own books. Some authors don’t mind doing this because books are purchased at a steep discount but sold full price, which can make a very nice revenue stream. If you’re POD, you can have the exact number of books you’ll need shipped directly to the venue, which makes things very convenient. However, if you do not want to go through the trouble of selling your own books, and many authors don’t, make sure you inform the host that you will not be selling your books and that they will need to make alternate arrangements.
  • Provide a digital option. Considering half of the books sold today are purchased in digital format (and 70% of all fiction books are sold digitally), you may miss sales if you don’t provide an easy way to purchase your book for an e-reader. One way to do this is to make your book available on Smashwords, a free ebook distribution platform which will convert your manuscript into over a dozen formats, including options for Kindle, Nook and iPad.
  • Waive speaker’s fee–maybe. If you will be speaking at a venue shortly after a book comes out, you might consider waiving a speaker’s fee if the venue sells books. Or ask the venue to use the fee to buy books for attendees. If course, this is not an option for everyone, particularly if the venue is not covering travel costs.
  • Be vocal with the event organizer about the importance of book sales. If you feel awkward “hawking” your book, talk about how hard you worked on the book, how much it means to you to get the book into the hands of readers and how strongly you feel about supporting local bookstores. If you don’t raise the issue of book sales, the organizer won’t know this is a concern for you. Don’t assume they will “get the message” because a publicist or someone else has asked about book sales on your behalf.
  • Give a gift. Let your buyers remember you by slipping something in the book, e.g., a bookmark, postcard, business card or another piece of marketing material that adds value to the person.
  • Promote latest title. Make sure the organizer or bookseller knows about your most recent book so that title is the one promoted. Many authors are well-known for books they wrote years ago, so you want to make sure everyone is up to date. Likewise, if your paperback has just been published, let them know this edition is now available.
  • Your Introduction. At some point during the introduction, the author’s latest book should be mentioned. Also, as the talk begins and ends, the moderator should let the audience know that the author’s book(s) are available for sale. You need to make sure everyone is prepared to do this for you. It won’t just magically happen, even though it seems like it should.
  • Prior to the event. If at all possible, meet with the bookseller just before the event to sign all their books. Be sure and sign your signature only — no personalization. That way people who leave early are still able to purchase signed books. Of course, people who want books personalized, i.e., “To Mary …”  will need to wait for you after the talk. The bookseller will bring back unsold (signed) books to their store where they can sell them or they can return them to the publishing house, although this is less likely copies are already autographed.
  • Plan for your talk and Q&A to last no more than about an hour. People tend to get antsy after that and many will head out without buying books. Discuss the timing with the organizer or moderator ahead of time and have them issue a “Last question” just before the hour is up, or you can do so.
  • If you anticipate a large crowd have someone — the event organizer, an assistant — work the line with a pad of Post-Its. This way, your helper can flap all books to the title page and write names on a sticky attached to the book cover before the reader gets to the front of the line. Otherwise, you will be scrambling to find the appropriate page to sign and figure out how to spell the name … for every single person in line. Make it easy on yourself.
  • If you regularly speak to large crowds and have any restrictions when it comes to signing books, e.g., signature but no personalization, no photos, only signing the current book, only signing books purchased at the event, etc., let the event organizer or bookseller know ahead of time. Of course, if you are a celebrity author, there will likely be a number of other issues with which to contend including fans bringing gifts, memorabilia and security. etc.
  • If you are cornered at the end of the talk, rather than remain on stage, encourage the people asking questions to talk and walk with you to the book table so you can start signing immediately. Otherwise, you’re going to lose people. Always keep things moving. You can’t always depend on the event organizer to do this for you.
  • Bring a nice signing pen, in fact, bring two, just in case. It’s not against the law to sign with a Bic pen but it just looks better to have a nice pen. And people are spending good money on your book!
  • If you have any time restrictions, i.e., you’re rushing to catch a flight, make sure to let the event organizer and bookseller know beforehand so they can plan accordingly.
  • If you choose to work with a bookseller, you will need to let them know all the event details (date, time, location, etc.) and also how many people are expected at the event so they can bring an appropriate number of books. Typically, most booksellers will operate on the assumption that one out of three attendees buys a book. Unless you let them know otherwise, they will plan to spend about two hours at the event, arriving about half an hour beforehand and leaving about half an hour after the talk ends.
  • If you or a bookstore are selling books, at least one table and chair with the books should be set up, about 30 minutes prior to the start of the event. Some people will buy a books before the event begins. A second table and chair may be required at which the author can sit and sign books, particularly if there is a large crowd.
  • The book selling table should be positioned where people enter and leave the room or auditorium, just outside works well. Be in the high traffic area, not off in some corner someplace where few are going to come to see you.
  • If you are working with a bookseller, you can expect them to bring a cash box and credit card swipe. They will take away unsold books at the end of the event. It’s very helpful if you don’t have to handle the money yourself and you can be present with those buying your books. Plus, the books sold count toward your overall sales numbers.
  • If a post-talk reception and/or dinner is planned, please allow some time for the author to sit and sign books once the talk finishes. 15-30 minutes is OK, with more time allowed if there are more than a couple hundred people present. It’s tricky for an author to sign books at a reception or dinner, no matter how informal.
  • Promotional materials for the event should mention the book signing in addition to the talk. If you can, include the name of the store that will be selling books — they will appreciate the mention.
  • Expand your sales options. If you offer consulting or coaching services, make this option available at your sales table. Create an order form that lists your individual books, bundle options, and consulting options. This can be surprisingly effective, especially if you have just spoken at an event and dazzled the audience. Be sure to offer several choices, such as a single-hour rate, package of three hours, or a 6-month program. After hearing you speak, many will be in a mood to buy. Make sure you offer them other opportunities to work with you.
  • Collect email addresses. You should always be working to build your mailing list, and one easy way to do that is to hold a drawing and give away a copy of your book. You can place a fish bowl on the sales table with a sign that says, “Drop in your business card to win a free book!”

Events are still big. There is something about being face-to-face that gets many people to buy, so take advantage of speaking and doing events, and selling your books in the back of the room. These tips will help you to come across very professionally, and will save you time and perhaps frustration as well. Enjoy!

By the way, many of these tips have been created by me based on lots and lots of experience doing events. I also got a few of them from another in-house publicist friend of mine, Yen Cheong, so thank you, Yen.

Oh, and just for fun, take my How Media Savvy Are You Assessment to see how skilled you are for media (and what areas could use some improvement.)

To your success!


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