Friday, August 14, 2009

An Open Letter to Booksellers

By John Gilstrap

Dear Bookseller,

Thank you for inviting me to your store to sign copies of No Mercy. And thank you for the work you do. You are the lynchpin in the machinery that keeps the book world on its axis despite a culture that seems to value the written word less and less. It’s important that we work together to do whatever we can to pull people into stores to buy books. That’s why you invite me, and that’s why I show up. We’re a team.

It’s a shame we didn’t sell more copies, but it was great getting to know you and your staff. I’ve been thinking about the event since we last saw each other, and I believe I might have found some areas for improvement in the future:

Perhaps you should consider putting me inside your store. Yes, I know that things are a little cramped, but customers aren’t seeing me out there in the mall. They’re just seeing a guy at a table with a bunch of books, and judging from the looks on their faces, I think they’re a little creeped out by it. It’s the way they pull their children a little closer as they pass. Let’s share retail space as well as love.

The signage was a great idea; thanks for that. There’s actually only one L in Gilstrap, but hey, these things happen sometimes. Next time, though, along with the big picture of the book cover on the sign, could you display the picture of me that my publicist sent? If people can match a face to a poster it might take some of the creepiness out of the whole guy-sitting-at-a-table thing.

Please don’t think me ungrateful or overly pushy, but for the brief time I’m taking up space in your store, what say we all sell my book? That’s right, mine—the current Gilstrap; not the next Grisham or Baldacci or Miller. Sure, they’re fine authors, but they’re not here right now. Remember that lady who came to the desk while I was there and asked where she could find the new Jack Reacher book? That would have been the perfect time to say, “Oh, if you like that kind of thriller, you might want to meet John Gilstrap. He happens to be sitting right there.”

Perhaps I’m not the best judge on this particular form of etiquette, but it seems reasonable to inform every customer that there’s an author in the house. Perhaps it seems obvious what with the table and all, but believe me it’s not. People get tunnel vision when they shop. They need a little nudging. Ask around. Many of the independent stores and the more experienced chain stores do it that way. Hand selling really moves books.

While we’re on this topic, let’s talk about all those books you stacked around me at the table. It made for a great display, but I think half of them or even more should displayed inside the store away from me. I think it’s intimidating for people to evaluate the merit of a book while the author is watching. Just ask my wife. (I’m a hoverer as she reads my manuscripts, but that’s not important right now.) I think copies should even be stacked at the register so that the salespeople can hand each customer a book while they inform them that there’s an author in the house.

Thank you for your time and attention. As I close, I’d love to hear how I and my fellow authors can make your bookselling job easier. Should I have made up bookmarks and handed you a stack, or would you just see that as more clutter for your desk? I know I end up doing little but sitting at that table, but would you prefer that I walk around and chat up your customers? Truthfully, because of the aforementioned creepiness factor, I hesitate to approach readers on the prowl.

Finally, please know that I’m grateful for all of this. How else can we make the book signing thing more beneficial to everyone?

Warmest regards,
John Gilstrap


  1. First, I don't think the written word has lost value, except for the e-word taking some customers. People still value books. They just don't have enough money right now.

    Second, I'm going to copy this article and paste in in my One Note file with my other goodies. I am a very long way from book signings, but you've given me things to look for and maybe suggest. Yes, if I were at the mall and you were sitting in the center with a table, I would purposefully not make eye contact. I wouldn't expect a book signing in the kiosk area! I expect hard-selling pests. If I saw a table, stack of books and a person in front of the store, or better yet inside, I would perk up and think, "Book signing! Cool!"

    Do you suppose they're reading your post at this very moment, saying to themselves, "Hey, this guy has a point..."

  2. John, I think my co-author and I have done a signing at that store because the whole scenario sounds SO familiar. Our favorite signing usually goes like this: There are TWO of us. Both our names are on the cover of ALL our books. Both our pictures are on the poster in the bookstore window and the ones on the easels beside the signing table. Yet, when we get there, we find a table about the size of a TV tray with only one chair. Naturally, I always make Lynn stand while I sit in comfort.

    Then there was the time we arrived only to be told that the community event coordinator was on vacation and she didn’t mention to anyone in the store that there was a signing today.

    How about the old standby experience when we’re setting at the signing table surrounded by posters with our pictures stating “MEET THE AUTHORS” and people come up and ask where the restrooms are or if the store sells coffee.

    And of course, the best one of all is when we get there and are told that they forgot to order stock.

    But to counterbalance all that, there are the signings that go like this: we arrive and are greeted by the manager, introduced to the staff, offered refreshments, show to our signing table, asked how we would like the store announcement to be made, and have a staff member standing by to assist us and encourage customers to come over and meet the authors. And the best part, in addition to meeting and interacting with our fans, is to have the manager say they are ecstatic because they sold out of stock, shake our hands and invite us back.

  3. Joe:

    What are the proportions of disaster signings to delightful signings? And how many books does even the best signing sell?

    I did six signings. Got between zero and fifteen people. Sold, I would guess, ten books total. And lost probably twenty hours of writing time.

    My suspicion in that book signings are almost always counterproductive. I suppose we should keep doing them, in the one-in-a-zillion chance that we'll meet Steven Spielberg's son, who'll then buy the book and convince his father to make the movie? Something like that?

    I think signings are great as a thank-you to fans, if you're a Gaiman or Evanovich or someone: as a service. (Or even, I'd have suspected, a Gilstrap or a Moore!) But for those of us laboring a dozen floors below you, I'm pretty sure they're just a waste of time.

  4. I have nothing to complain about in the signings I have done. However, I enjoy reading the faces and eyes of the people who walk by. The majority seem to want to look at you so badly, but don't want to get sucked in, they strain thier peripheral vision. I suppose those are the psople who fear they'll have to buy your book out of guilt.

  5. Dear Mr. Gillstrop, on behalf of our store, let me say it was kind of nice to have you, and I do hope you sell many, many copies of Tender Mercy.

  6. "What are the proportions of disaster signings to delightful signings? And how many books does even the best signing sell?"

    Book signings are a lot like golf. All it takes is one fantastic drive down the middle of the fairway or an amazing chip shot that lands a few inches from the hole to make you want to play another round. Then you get out there the next time and remember what a humbling and sometimes humiliating experience it can be. Personally, I’m not a big proponent of book signings. Although it sounds like a catch-22, until your “brand” is know by a respectable portion of the reading public, no one is going to go out of their way to find you. We’ve had amazing events where a hundred people showed up and we sold almost that many copies. And we’ve had others where no one came and no books were sold. Fortunately, the good has outweighed the bad.

  7. As a debut author, I wouldn't dream of even requesting a signing at this stage. Not that it wouldn't be nice - dreams hey.

    Anyway, on the way to a conference for my other job today I stopped into a bigger bookstore in the city. Because I'm an anxious debut author, I asked if any copies of The Interrogator had sold. When told they had sold a few (the employee had a little surprised look), I had a grin from ear to ear. The employee then asked if I'd like a copy - no thanks read it already.

    I went on to admit I was the author and the employee summoned the store manager who insisted I sign all of their copies plus all of the employees personal autograph books. The manager moved a table out the front entrance with a comfy chair and a couple of employees piled some books on the table. They then started waving the book around and grabbing the attention of those walking by.

    I was late for the conference, but had a brilliant morning meeting a few people and having some fun with the bookstore staff. Sort of my first signing - brilliant.

    Funny thing is that I said I was the author and they took my word for it. Be hard to produce id for a pen name. I'm now thinking of getting some friends across the country to do the same for my book. LOL.



  8. JJ, there’s a famous story of a famous writer who dropped into a store and offered to sign their stock. The manager said that the stock was already signed. The author examined the books only to find that someone had forged her signature.

    But, as much as I don’t recommend book signings for most authors, I do highly recommend “drive-by” signings. Stop into a store, introduce yourself and offer to sign their stock. That way, there’s no pressure like there is sitting at the “table”, the store most often will slap a “autographed” sticker on the cover and move copies up to the front or by the register. Plus, you get to meet the staff and hopefully open the door to hand selling.

  9. I never understood the "sit outside the store" signing "event." Makes the author look like he's been banished to the little kids' table at Thanksgiving, waiting for Aunt Sophie to die so he can sit with the adults. "As soon as James Patterson dies, you can come inside where the real authors sign."

    Most signing probably aren't worth the time and effort expended on a dollar earned per hour spent basis, but they may create good will with the bookseller, which may make him and his staff more inclined to direct potential buyers your way.

  10. I bring one or two stand-up cardboard signs that have a picture of me, my name, and say "Meet the author of..." on them. You can have them made up at Kinkos. I also bring mini-bottles of water, and/or a plate of cookies or something similar with me. One of these tricks will generally lure people to the table!

  11. Spot on, Joe. They put their 'signed copies' stickers on my booksw straight away and moved them to the front of the tables.

    Great experience. And, Kathryn, I'm thinking of a cheap cask of port for my future signings instead of water. Bound to get some sales that way.


  12. Compared to John Gilstrap, I am JD Salinger. I rarely sign books for the reason that crowds creep me out, especially when they are parading past in the mall's main walkway. Last time I signed, this kid came up and looked at the poster and back at me and asked, "Is that you on the poster?"
    "It looks like you only you look a lot older than the picture. A lot older."
    When my first book came out and the publisher sent me on an eleven city tour to BOAs across the universe, I thought stores couldn't return signed copies, and I signed about 3/4s of every hard copy of THE LAST FAMILY (pallets of them at SAMs Clubs all over the South). I signed so many that the unsigned copies bring twice what the signed ones fetch.

  13. Anon and others, I've never tried to financially justify the cost of a signing event in terms of books sold that day. I think the real value lies in getting to know booksellers. Not only are they generally nice people, but they're not bad business contacts to have. Having been in this racket for a few years, I'm amazed by how many of the Big Chain store managers are still in the game, and still remember the nice times we've had in the past.

    For me, the greatest signings are the ones that happen outside of the bookstore. Just yesterday, I spoke at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. I'd arranged to have the local Barnes & Noble send a bookseller, and we sold a ton. We sold out, in fact, and could have sold more. I've had the same experience at library events and Rotary meetings. I think maybe people feel less pressured--or maybe more pressured, but in a good way.

    John Gilstrap

  14. As a dude that sells stuff for a living, I can tell you that all sales is about relationships. And bookstore signings are about building that relationship with the store. You might have only sold two copies of the book while you sat there and ate their cookies but you, if you were gracious, just made a friend that sells the very thing you make. That can never be a bad thing.

    Granted, if you have to spend $1K to get to the bookstore, you might want to do a cost/benefit analysis on the deal, but if you've gotta drive a couple hours to see a store then make it an adventure and explore the town, find their best cafe, and thank those tireless booksellers for putting your book on their shelf. Remember, they ain't gettin' rich by selling books....

  15. Great post. I've had a number of bookstore and book fair signings (and conference signings, where if you're lucky your signing isn't opposite, say, Alexander McCall Smith's, like my was; on the upside, as I watched the line for him snake past my table, the writer next to me said, "Oh, this isn't too bad. I had one at Bouchercon opposite Mary Higgins Clark. They reserved an entire room just for her.")

    I've had pretty good luck with Rotary Clubs, actually, although the lunchtime ones can be killers because everybody's in a hurry to get back to work.

    Just one piece of advice: think.

    For instance, when your publicist gets you a signing at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon in July at a university bookstore, realize that NOBODY will be in that store at that time. N-O-B-O-D-Y.

  16. OH John - I had flashbacks with this post:) Books signings are such a crap shoot (pun intended) and yet we still do them - even when the horror stories continue to haunt us! Thank God for the terrific events that take you by surprise otherwise we'd be weeping into our morning coffee (liberally laced with brandy).

  17. Oh wow. If I ever (dream dream) get to do a booksigning, I hope the bookseller reads this first. I'm sure I've been the Mom pulling my kids away from the creepy stranger in the mall before now, then I look through the corner of my eye, can't pick up one of those, not while he's watching, ah, I wish there was one somewhere else.

  18. Hilarious John- and ah, we've all been there.

    And the old legend that I heard, Joe, was that Jeffery Deaver once walked into a store and said, "I'm the author. Would you like me to sign these?"
    The clerk suspiciously asked, "How do I know you're the author?"
    Jeffery opened the book and pointed to the author photo, holding it next to his face.
    "But how do I know you don't just look like him?" the clerk continued.
    "So you get a lot of author impersonators in here?" Deaver joked.
    "You'd be surprised," She responded.

    My friendly neighborhood independent was where I used to buy all my boxes of books to re-sell once my publisher copies ran out.

    Here's the rub- every time I picked up a new box, I'd say, "Would you like to keep a copy or two to sell?" (since there never appeared to be a single copy of my books on the shelves).
    And one day I went in, and there was an enormous display with a handmade sign blaring, "LOCAL AUTHOR!!!"
    Now, I knew for a fact that I was the only other local author in this particular neighborhood. As I paid for my box of books-BOX, mind you, which even at a slight discount was a several hundred dollar purchase-I said, "That's so great. By the way, would you like a few copies of my book for your shelves?"

    "No thanks," The store owner said.

    I was just going to walk out, but decided that for once I'd push the issue.
    "You know," I said, looking pointedly at the sign, "I live right up the street."

    "I know," she said. "Thanks for your business."

    By the way, that other local author? A photographer who was self-publishing books with pictures of dogs dressed up in costumes.
    So I found a different indie to buy from, and haven't been back since.

    JJ- I love that you got such a warm reception, that's great. My experiences with drop-in signings have run the gamut, from something similar to a store clerk trying to make me buy copies of a book I'd signed.

  19. BTW- the one book I recommend every author read is "Mortification," where a wide range of authors from Margaret Atwood To Stephen King (if memory serves) share their most humiliating moments as an author- many of them on tour. It's priceless.

  20. Instead of buying your own books from a bookseller, don't you get a discount from the publisher? It was specified in my contract that I got a certain discount, and in fact I negotiated a higher one, since I was going around the country and hand selling them at my lectures.

  21. I do get a discount, HOWEVER (and this is something important I learned after book 1) books that you buy directly from your publisher do not count as sales. So if possible, even though it can cost a bit more, it's worth buying from a bookstore if you can. In a perfect world, that bookstore ends up supporting you, too :)

  22. Too funny! I personally like to get my books signed at conferences, you can ambush the authors toward the end of Happy Hour and get fun stuff written in your book.

    I have to admit, I am a bit leery of mall booksignings unless it is an author I know.

    I don't want to go up to the table, pick up the book, read the back and think to myself "not even if I was immortal and stranded alone on a desert island would I read this book." It puts me and the writer in an awkward position and I might leave sweaty fingerprints on the book.

    Until last year we ran a small used bookstore in our flea market/junk shop. I'd find a signed copy in the stock every now and then. I kept them, I like autographed stuff - it's fun.

    Word verify - 'fuzzin' What cool cops do on duty, as in "We be fuzzin . . ."


  23. Good to know, Michelle.

    I think I'd still buy from the publisher, but I bought hundreds to sell at regular retail price, just like any other distributor.

    My publisher stunk. They misspelled my name in all their promo stuff; they put a cover on the book that misrepresented my carefully thought-out information (non-fiction, business category); and they blurbed it with some nonsense that made me realize whoever wrote it had NOT read the book. I sold three times what they did on my own, and made three times my advance that way.

    May you all have better publishers than I had.

  24. Karen, I'm not sure there's a worse publisher than yours. I buy from the publisher because it's half price and I don't think ten or twenty copies costs that much. I have seven books and I try to keep four of five of each. I give most of them away to people I like or who do something nice for me. At the moment I have like three of one of them, and I need to get more, and that reminds me...

  25. It wasn't until having the book signing experience that I realized how many wackos linger in book stores and malls!
    Joe and I have had some doozies.
    Have to say, John, I loved the letter. You said a lot so well. Are you a writer?
    Lynn Sholes (the one standing while Joe sits)

  26. Dang. I go off the grid a couple of days and what? You guys write some really good useful stuff and no one comes into the wilderness to say, "Hey Basil. John Gilstrap just wrote this really cool, useful blog entry and a bunch of really cool people made intelligent useful comments and you are missing it so get online and check it out."

    Anyway...good stuff.

    ...even if I'm not loved.