Friday, March 10, 2006

It's Not About YOU

This week the subject of book yours came up on Shirley Jump's JustWriteIt list. People were wondering if it was worth it, what makes for a good signing, how can you get more people to attend and buy your book. One person on the list conceded that one of the reasons a recent signing didn't go very well was because she didn't make the first move, wasn't putting any effort into engaging people's attention, and that it took a lot more energy than she might be willing to expend. What follows is my long (and I admit somewhat rambling) reply -- it was late, I was barely feeling coherent and believe it or not, this was the edited version. I admit to feeling great trepidation as I hit the send button, not at all sure how it would go over. It was quite a pleasant surprise to log on to the group this evening and see that a lot of people agreed and thought there was some wisdom in my words.


This is the problem I think a lot of writers have -- not just the newly published, but maybe particularly with first signings -- they fail to understand the most fundamental thing about book signings: It's not about YOU.

One of my favorite books on writing is SOMETIMES THE MAGIC WORKS by fantasy author Terry Brooks, and one of the chapters in it is dubbed "It's Not About You." In this chapter he talks about his first book signing, which was done jointly with science fiction writer A.J. Budrys, and while Budrys had people flocking his table and sold a few books, Brooks sold none. He remembers how AJ seemed always on his feet greeting people and talking to them, asking what kind of books they liked -- he even tried to sell one of Brooks' books to a potential customer when all Brooks could do was sit and stammer. He recounts how he returned home feeling like he was a failure and his career was over. "I thought like this," he says, "because I had missed completely the point of the lesson I had just been taught."

The first part of that lesson was that, no matter who you are and what you do, there may be times when no one attends a signing, or when few books (if any) are sold despite a good turn out.

I'll let him tell the second -- and even more important -- part of the lesson learned in his own words:

"The point of book signings is not to make you feel good about yourself. It is not to rack up huge sales of your work while you stand by beaming benevolently on an audience of clearly enlightened readers. It is not even about advancing your career--at least, not in a direct sort of way.

"It is not, in fact, about you at all.

"Rather, it is about making a connection between readers and books. It is about making readers feel so enthusiastic about books that they cannot wait to come back and buy more--not just copies of your books, but of other author's books, as well. It is about generating a feeling of goodwill toward the bookstore and the staff. Mostly, it is about reassuring everyone that they did not waste their time on you."

I think most of us have been to at least one chat, one message board, attended at least one book signing, at some time or other. Some of us have met an author or two; some of us many, many more. Think about how you felt during that meeting, whether virtual or real. Was the author personable? Did he/she attempt to engage in conversation, or was he/she merely there to push a book? Was he/she supportive of other authors, or was it all MEMEMEMEME?

The first published author I met was local young adult writer, Jocelyn Riley. I had never heard of her before she visited my high school and began working with students interested in writing. Her interest in us, in instilling a love of reading and writing in us, of devoting personal time to work with students and lead a writing group at my HS, inspired me to buy her first book, as well as the next one published. She wasn't there to "sell" her book, at least not directly, but the way she connected with us made us WANT to go out and buy/read her book.

Had she merely come in and talked about nothing but her book, we probably wouldn't have given her a second thought. Instead, she attempted to engage us in conversation. What kinds of books/writing did we enjoy? Why? What did we look for in a good book? Which authors did we read? She made the effort to get to know us and in turn sold her books, without actually "selling" them.

Think of the authors you've met, in real life or online. Which ones have had you running out to find their books, and which have turned you off? My guess is that those who talked *to* you, who participated in conversation without constantly forcing their book(s) on you are the ones you've been inspired to seek out in bookstores. Why? Because they've made a connection. You feel like you know them, and they you, and when you know someone you are far more likely to support and read them. And yes, there are a few authors I've stopped buying – or refuse to buy -- because of how they not only treated me (one actually snubbed me in person, despite much help I had given her online), but people in general. If an author is all blatant promo and seems to think themselves above everyone else, you tend to tune out and you won't buy their books.

Attitude is everything, and it's not just smiling and offering a polite hello, it's engaging someone in conversation. NOT always easy, believe me I know. I have the hardest time talking to people I don't know. The thing is, the bigwig author you are in awe of may be feeling just as scared and overwhelmed as you are.

The first RWA book signing I attended was daunting -- I mean, we're talking more than 400 published authors in one room! I'd like to say it gets easier, but I'd be lying. When I've attended larger signings, I started by seeking out someone I'd met before, IRL or online at message boards and in groups like this. Being able to walk up to someone and say, "Hi, I'm (insert name) from XYZ" can be a HUGE ice breaker, as can simply stating how much you loved "insert title." I've found that the author will often lead the conversation after the introduction and may introduce you to people sitting near them, or suggest other authors in attendance who write similar books you might like. I've also walked past many tables where authors were just sitting there idly staring into space and looking bored, not even offering a friendly, "Hi, how are you?" Why? Because I don't know them, I don't know their work, and they obviously don't want me to. If, however, they're making an effort to be friendly and engage people in conversation, then I might stop and check out their books because they know it's not about them.

They've figured out that it's all about the connection.


Jana said...

I'm sad to say I've never been to a book signing before. The one time I had the opportunity to go to one I chickened out because I had such a bad case of hero worship for this author that I was too nervous to approach him. :-/

I know that "meeting" several authors on-line has endeared many of them to me...even if I haven't directly "met" them. Just reading their blog or how they interact with others.

You wouldn't believe how excited I was the first time Karen Templeton directly addressed me. I thought I'd died and gone to reader's Heaven. lol Since then I've been a lot more interested in seeking out her books...not that I wasn't already. :-)

You are, indeed, very wise, Miss Trix. *bg*

Heather said...

Never?! Jana!

Next time you get the chance to meet an author you like you should go. Seriously. I know how daunting it can be, but most of them don't bite and are actually quite nice.

I think the first author I "met" online was Cathie Linz. We've met a couple times now, exchange the occasional email/card, and I've been mentioned in two dedications by her now. The first time she told me she was dedicating a book to me, I swear I sat staring at the computer screen, speechless, for several minutes. I couldn't believe what I was reading! And then I was so excited all I could do was bounce in my chair thinking "OMG OMG OMG!"

(And not trying to brag, but I've now had several books dedicated to me, solely or in part, and been used as a character in two others. It's just the coolest thing ever!

BTW, emailing you on something mentioned in your post that I don't want to elaborate on here. You'll understand why when you read it. ;-)

Rae said...

Great post, Heather.

Heather said...

Thanks, Rae! :)