Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Worst Venue for Writers?

BFs and PR

I was warned a long time ago by many in the industry – including the children’s book buyer at a chain store where Blow Out the Moon sells really well – that if you write middle grade books, signings at bookstores is pretty much a waste of time. She named fairly famous authors who had come to her store only to wait in vain for signees…..and I’ve heard MANY children's book authors joke about bookstores being about the worst venue there is for us to sell books. Totally unlike visits to schools and libraries, which are usually inspiring for everyone.

Maybe this is NOT true at independent bookstores. Maybe it's not true anywhere in some parts of the country – I bet the farther you are from New York and Boston, the better these bookstore events are for non-celebrity authors (is this true?). But here in the Northeast, experiences like the one my friend Linda and I had at a chain store recently are probably more common than not.

We went, we sat at a table with four other authors, and we waited…and, sometimes, we watched as the pushier authors barked, in the carnival sense:
“Have you ever patted a deer? Feel this skin! No, no, the tail!”
(She had a deerskin on her part of the table.) This is not a criticism -- we should have brought attention-grabbers ourselves.

I did bark twice myself: first, when a woman was holding two books and trying to decide between them: one was What could be Better than This?
“Get that one,” I said. “The author is right there.”
(The woman did.)

The other time was when two kids looked with interest at our table, actually STOPPED to look. Their parents tried to hurry them along and I said (I hope this didn't sound as pathetic as it looks here),
“Oh, please let them look! We’re children’s book authors and these are our books!”
The parents granted the kids a minute, and in that minute, one of them took one of my brochures and one looked at a little pile of cards Linda had made and said,
“What’s that?”
This was the only interested comment a child made all day – go, Linda!

After a couple of hours, I decided to follow a rule I sometimes use at parties: “You can leave after you’ve talked to 5 people you don’t know.” So, I took my school visits flyers and walked around the store, looking for teachers. This is not as hard as it sounds: the day was publicized as “Educators Saturday” (we had been invited to give a panel discussion which never happened) and many of the educators were wearing stickers.

I wasn’t pushy (I hope!), I picked the people pretty carefully – and I had a really interesting conversation with a first-grade teacher who is starting a drama club for fourth and fifth graders. we talked about plays and my suggestions gibed perfectly with her teenage daughter’s (a budding actress). So, that was fun – and so, of course, was the chance to talk with Linda.

But was it worth most of Saturday? Because Linda and I got to talk, it was fine; but if she hadn’t been there, the answer would be: NO!…..though it’s true that for a few days both my Amazon and B&N rankings were up by a few hundred thousand, which probably means one or two people I talked to bought my book online after hearing about it at the event.

Lessons learned:
1. Ask good questions beforehand about what has been planned, how much publicity the event has received – how do those of you who do events size up the situation in advance?

2. Bring crafts & other activities, for yourself and the kids.

3. You know how if you don't have a boy friend they always say the best thing is to do things YOU find fun anyway and then if you meet someone it’s an extra? I think PR is the same way. Ideas are growing: when they hatch, I will post them. The day after the bookstore debacle I went to a REALLY FUN parade here in Mystic that included men, women, and children in great pirate outfits not only singing and playing instruments but firing a real cannon and what looked like real muskets. That gave me some ideas for fun PR.

4. You, the author, have to make the event exciting and fun. Don't count on other people to do it. My mistake here was probably that I just assumed they would--wrong. And why should they? They provided the venue; it was up to me to do something with it.


Anonymous said...

Some of our authors did a chain store educators' day and despite lots of enthusiasm from the people in charge, when they got there that day they hadn't ordered any of the authors' books to have on hand. "Oh, they'll order them later," they were told.

Any books would have been good, lots would have been better, because people are more likely to pick the book up and flip through it if you have it on hand. But that's your first hurdle to make sure of when you get invited to a venue like this.

I really like your idea of walking around looking for teachers. On a day like that, it was a perfect venue to look around for your target audience and make the best of an imperfect situation.

But I also agree that bookstore signings aren't your best bet--unless you arrange it for a story hour that you know will attract children of your target age. The B&N in the Prudential in Boston, for example, has several story hours a week that attract nannies caring for small children--no older than 2 or 3, usually babies--and an author of picturebooks or board books might have some success with an event at that time.

Meghan McCarthy said...

I stopped doing bookstore events a long time ago for this reason! The chains are the worst. Some indies, such as Books of Wonder, have their act together. You have to know which ones those are. Don't bother with the rest. Of course, your positive thinking Libby is great and maybe authors do need to take more responsibility... but then again, is it really worth it?


Meghan McCarthy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth O Dulemba said...

I agree!
Now when I do bookstore events, I make darn tootin' sure that it's tied in with a well established story time or a well publicized special event.

My local indie is always doing great storytimes, so it's never been an issue there, but I've hit crickets at some other stores. Painful.

Btw, I try to avoid Nanny times (they don't usually buy books - it's the parents who do).

Libby Koponen said...

Thanks for the thoughtful, honest comments. And it's interesting: we seem to be unanimous!