Monday, June 30, 2008

Thoughts About the Road Experience

By Ben Small

Many authors complain about having to attend book signings, and I’ve seen some authors at bookstore signings who never leave their seats. Huh? We’re meeting our adoring fans, aren’t we? Shouldn’t we embrace them? Engage them?

Yes, we should. But anyone who has traveled on a regular basis – I traveled all over the world for thirty years during my previous career – knows the drudgery that travel becomes. The airports that all start to look alike, the security lines and searches, airline food, breathing in all that stale ozone-thick aircraft re-circulated air, and the frequent bouts of flu and colds that come from it…Keep in mind, we’re just talking about the flying part of it all. There’s also what I call “First-night-it-is,” the inability to sleep the first night in any motel or hotel room. But even if you don’t suffer from First-night-it-is, you still wake up, look around, and wonder where the hell you are. Then, there are all the restaurants. Try dieting when you eat in a restaurant every night. No, the travel part of meeting one’s fans and peddling one’s books is not the fun part.

No wonder some authors don’t want to do it, or seem grumpy when they do.

But look at the bright side: You’re meeting your fans. They think you’re smart, successful and talented. Who can turn that down?

Of course, there’s also the possibility nobody will be there. What can you do about that? Hey, I’ve been there: I was in Madison, WI on the first warm sunny day after a record bad winter. Even the store manager wanted to leave.

Still, there are some things you can do to make the no-shows unlikely:

I send postcards and bookcards to the bookstore a couple weeks before I’m to arrive;

I do a city check on my high school and college alumni directory, and write letters or emails to every name I recognize. I add these addresses to a database, so when the next book comes out, I can do a mailing;

I’ll also ask the bookstore to do a little pub; some are more willing than others, and

I’ll post a notice of my book event on websites where I’m a frequent poster. About posting, I don’t watch much television anymore; it’s boring. Instead, I spend my time writing or posting. Posting is a great way to meet new people and spread the word about one’s books. I’m a regular on five sites, and I put my titles and website in my sig on all of them. People who post know about sigs, and they know about avatars. I use one of my book covers for an avatar. Three of the sites on which I post have over forty thousand members. The owner of one of them (SigForum) told me his site gets six million hits a week. Now that’s an audience.

But even if there are people in the store, that fact alone doesn’t mean you’ll sell anybody. I don’t just sit in my chair; the only time I sit is when I’m signing or dedicating a book. I prepare a color synopsis sheet for each book, and then I sorta stalk my customers, not in a bad way, just watching them, seeing where they browse, deciding who I’ll approach and how. I don’t want to grab a customer just walking in; she may be adjusting to a light differential, or she’s figuring out where to go. A full-blooded assault-upon-entry will just push her away. No, I wait a bit, and I watch. And then, if I sense a likely candidate, I engage her, synopses in hand. I ask if she likes mysteries or thrillers, and while she’s considering her answer, I ask if she likes them signed by the author… like…say…me? A big grin. And then we chat. At some point, I’ll say, “How about I sign one for you.”

Now, it helps if one enjoys meeting people. And I do. I find people fascinating. One can’t be a very good lawyer without listening, and I like to think I was a pretty good lawyer. I learn so much from what people tell me. What they like about books, what they don’t like. Feedback is so instructive, and learning what customers want is what marketing is all about. You can talk to other authors all you want; the customer will tell you what he or she wants to buy.

I hand out book cards like candy, even to those who say they don’t want a book. I’ve noticed my online sales figures go up after I’ve done a book signing. Some people want the book, but they just want to buy it for less than the bookstore is charging. Heck, some people ask me to sign my bookcards. Gee, wonder why…?

I ask people to email me. Again, feedback and listening are important. And if they contact me, I save their email address and email them back. Another ready-made marketing tool for my next book. And when someone says he liked the book, I ask him to tell his friends.

Another thing I like to tell customers is that my website has more information and even pictures relating to my stories. That always gets raised eyebrows, and often the comment, “Cool.” Then I say, “Yes, I think pictures make the story even more vivid.”

Maybe I’ll continue this thought-line in a future post. But for now, I think this one is long enough. Heaven knows, the last thing an author wants to do is bore his audience.

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