The February 2020 issue of Writing Magazine is out now, and my Business of Writing column looks at how writers can organise their own booksignings in WHSmiths.
Book signings are part of the business of being a writer. Simon Whaley chats to two authors about their experiences.
It’s a dream many writers have, signing books in a national bookshop chainstore. But getting into those stores can seem challenging if we’re not blockbuster authors.
However, earlier this year, WHSmiths openly invited all authors looking to hold a book signing in their local store to get in touch. So, with access to such stores becoming easier, do such events still make good business sense?
Richard Vaughan Davies is the author of In The Shadow of Hitler, and his WHSmith booksigning happened by chance. ‘I noticed last Christmas,’ he explains, ‘that WHSmith in Stratford upon Avon were promoting a book by a local author. On impulse, I asked the manager if she might be interested in mine. She looked it through and said casually, “Fine – do you want to do a book signing?” We fixed a date, and I stumbled home in a daze.’
She also gave Richard some advice about how to make his book signing a success.
‘Her instructions were to get the local paper to run a story, and preferably get an interview on local radio, as well as to promote the day on Facebook. The local paper had an office in town, so I dropped in, and was immediately interviewed by a woman who wrote an excellent piece about it. They also sent a photographer to the shop on the day.’
Richard rang the local radio station, and was booked onto a Desert Island Discs-style programme, which was broadcast before his signing.
On the day of his event, he arrived early, enabling him to set up his signing table in the best way. The staff were also keen to help.
‘My gallant partner and I turned up at 10.00am,’ recalls Richard. ‘Our stint was advertised as being from 11.30am to 4.00pm. A helpful young man carried a box of fifty copies of the book in from the car, and he and I set about stacking them in the middle of the shop on shelves behind a small table he produced. We also put some in the shop window, where there was a notice advertising the book signing. He suggested I went to the library to get a photocopy of the cover, enlarged, which I did. We also put a vase of flowers on the table, and a bowl of sweets, and a showcard I had made inviting customers to have a look at the book.’
The publicity paid off. Richard was so busy he didn’t have time to stop for lunch. ‘I started smiling at people as they wandered in, and cheekily asking them to have a quick look at the book. Many smiled back and did so, and from then on we were busy all the time, never even stopping for lunch but sending out for coffee. I had some most interesting conversations with several people, mostly about wartime memories, and the day flew by. It was actually 4.00pm before the manager appeared from her office, and announced that we had sold 23 copies, which was some kind of a record apart from when Graham Norton came.’
All sales at stores like WHSmiths have to go through the tills, which means self-published authors need to invoice for their share of the sales afterwards.
Such was Richard’s success, the manager invited him back a few weeks later. However, without similar levels of publicity, this was not as successful, although he still sold nine copies.
‘It was all tremendous fun, and good for the ego,’ he says, ‘but was financially hard to justify, and now feels like a flash in the pan. However, I am now writing In the Shadow of Shakespeare, and shall certainly approach WHSmiths again.’
Romantic comedy author Rachel Dove spotted WHSmith’s offer on social media and immediately approached three of her local stores. ‘Two replied,’ she says, ‘and I booked them to coincide with my paperback release date.’
The Fire House on Honeysuckle Street was published by HQ Digital in May. Rachel arranged a signing at the Leeds WHSmiths store for 1st June and her local Wakefield branch for 13th July. Again, preparation was key to the success of the events.
‘I had to liaise with my publisher, who very kindly sent books out direct to me and to the Leeds store, to save me carting them on the train! I already had a pop up banner for my books, showing my covers and listing my social media contact details. I also sent the stores my photo, book details and cover, which they placed on their blog.’
Rachel found both stores extremely helpful. ‘They both set up a table and chair for me, provided book stands and space for my banner. They even placed some books on the tills to raise sales for me. I made sure I called them or went into the store in person a few days beforehand, just to check everything was in order, and that they had received the books. On the two book signing days, both sets of staff were friendly, very helpful and on hand with any issues throughout the day. I felt very welcome!’
Like Richard, Rachel found one of her events was more successful than the other. ‘Both book signings went well,’ she says, ‘but the one in my hometown went better. Whether this was because it was my hometown, or because I was outside the store, in the sunshine, I’m not sure. But I sold more to the public that day. In the Leeds store I was in the book area.’
Despite selling fewer copies at the Leeds event, Rachel’s convinced it was still worth it. ‘Friends and family came to Leeds to see me, and I gave out a lot of bookmarks and business cards on the day, which should hopefully translate into sales. The Leeds event was about getting my name out there, meeting new readers.’
For her hometown event, she also publicised something special about one of her book’s characters.
‘One of the characters in Fire House is autistic, and having personal and professional knowledge of special needs, I advertised the fact that I was open to chatting about autism. A couple of people actually came up and asked questions, which was amazing.’
Rachel also exploited the social media posts that WHSmiths were producing, and was pleased with the efforts of local branch staff.
‘WHSmith advertise their signings on their blog,’ Rachel advises, ‘and I shared this regularly along with my own shoutouts across my social media channels. The staff in Wakefield also contacted Trinity Walk, the shopping centre they are housed in, and asked them to shout it out on their big screen advertising display.’
A little bribery also works wonders, Rachel found. ‘I took a few cupcakes with the book cover on them, which is a nice cheap ice breaker. I always leave any left for the staff as a thank you.’
Her advice is to enjoy these events, but to be realistic, too. ‘I chatted to a lot of people, and sold books. Not millions, but unless you are David Walliams, with a budget to match, your book signings will be a case of preparing and hoping for the best on the day. The way I see it is, I got to chat to some fantastic people, sold books, definitely sold others in my backlist through talking about them, and the online publicity is always good. Your publisher is happy because you are being proactive.’
As both authors have demonstrated, the key to successful signings in a national chain store is about maximising the publicity, sharing efforts and listening to advice from the store’s staff.
‘Doing a book signing is a bit like sitting for two hours feeling very naked and on show,’ says Rachel, ‘whilst people look over your book babies, love them, or hate them. I think it’s important to be prepared. Get your banner and business cards or bookmarks on show. Don’t be shy to hand them out. Those people will probably look you up later and perhaps buy a book or two, or look for you in their local library.’
Although daunting, Rachel felt the effort was worth it. It’s all about creating relationships with readers.
‘For me, the buzz of having a member of the public coming to your stand, selecting a book and asking you to dedicate it to a loved one trumps the fear of putting yourself out there. Connecting with readers is very important to me. After all, they support us authors and there is no better relationship than that. Sales are important of course, but they don’t equate to the feeling of making a reader happy, and watching someone reading your book out in the wild.’
A book signing is not just about the number of copies sold. It’s about the reader connections we make too. Sometimes these connections result in sales on the day, but others may not happen until much later. Capture a new reader at your event, and you could keep them for life. And that makes perfect business sense.
Business Directory – Successful Book Signing Strategy
- Contact your local store manager (or firstname.lastname@example.org) early to determine a convenient date.
- Create a publicity plan. Connect with local newspapers and radio stations.
- Share social media posts created by your local store, or events team.
- Make your table attractive. Think posters, bookmarks, banners, cupcakes, sweets. Icebreakers can turn into sales.
- Ensure the local store has sufficient copies of your books.
- Liaise with your local store frequently, to check everything is in order.
- Remember that all book sales go through the store’s tills. Be clear as to where and whom your invoice should be addressed.
- On the day, get there early and take refreshments, in case you’re too busy to get some.
- Smile! Be friendly and use your icebreakers to approach people and talk about your book.
- Thank everyone afterwards for their help. Find out how many copies you sold, and remember to invoice!