I’ve still got a residual glow from my Sunday visit to a book club meeting at Lake George. The women of the Illiterati bought lots of my books – both Mood Swing and Eldercide – and now I’m trying to figure out how to find more groups like them. I’d been feeling increasingly jaded about in-person appearances, and I was terrified on the way up to Camp Wiawaka. Not because of my impending talk, but because I was running late as usual and took a gamble with the gas tank. By the time I was nearing my exit on the Northway, the lone remaining bar on the fuel gauge was blinking ominously, and I glided into the camp’s driveway on little more than fumes. The suspense was worth it, though, because these ladies rekindled my enthusiasm for face-to-face talks and signings.
I was invited by Ruth Van Brocklen, whom I’d come to know through our participation in the Mental Health Players, an improvisatory theater group that performs before a wide variety of community groups in an effort to raise consciousness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Ruth bought both my books when they came out, and she’s a high-energy woman of contagious enthusiasm, so I imagine she had little difficulty persuading the others to choose me as featured author at their annual get-away. I only wish I knew more readers like her.
These women actually expressed a sense of responsibility about buying my books. Since I’d driven 65 miles from home and wasn’t being paid for my time, that was the least they could do, several of them said. That’s the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. I’ve done quite a few readings and signings over the past two years, primarily with the Mavens of Mayhem, the upstate New York chapter of Sisters in Crime, at Capital District libraries and independent bookstores. By and large, sales have been disappointing. Often readers have told me that they’d love to buy my books, but that they’re on tight budgets and they simply can’t afford it. They tell me they’ll get them from the library instead, which would be okay, except that I’ve been remiss about getting my books into the various branches of the region’s library system.
Maybe it was flying solo that did the trick. I had a whole hour to talk about my books, read excerpts and field questions. The fact that we were all sipping wine in a beautiful lakeside setting didn’t hurt either. With panels of four or five authors, in contrast, usually none of us has sold more than a couple of books. At least one author has theorized that when a group of writers speak, readers feel guilty about buying from just one or two of us, so they end up buying nothing at all. A few months ago, five Mavens spoke at a small bookstore. We outnumbered the audience, and not one of us sold a single book. On top of that, the store’s owner told us afterwards that she couldn’t carry any of our books, not even on consignment, because she didn’t have the space. Just being there to spread the word and build our reputations should have been more than enough, she said. I feel the bile rise in my stomach even as I write, and it’s not just the black coffee I’ve been sipping all day.
But after my experience with the Illiterati, I’ll probably seek out more talks and signings. I love hearing the laughter, the praise for the quality of my writing, and I love signing my books, stuffing cash and checks into my handbag after my talk. When I tallied up the returns after the rainy drive home, it occurred to me that my writing might actually contribute in a meaningful way to my family’s standard of living. What a novel idea! Next time, though, I’ll leave ample time to gas up before I go. After the signing, I managed to get safely back to the sole gas station on Lake George’s main drag, but that kind of brinksmanship and the resulting high anxiety can’t be good for my cardiovascular system.
What are your experiences with book signings? Which venues work best? Where have you found the audiences most likely to buy? What about group vs. individual signings? Are signings worth the time and aggravation? And the most pressing question of all: how do you find those book groups?