Smiling at Strangers—the Strange World of Book Signings, aka “This is a Cheese Shop”?

Having participated several times in the strange ritual called book signing, these are my observations, and like Mrs. Anne Elk’s (of the Monty Python fame), they are mine…. 

However, after talking to others in similar situations, I concluded that for bookstores (and I have a sneaky feeling, publishers), books are a great idea, except that they involve—WRITERS!  

As David Morrell pointed out at the NM Book Association in Santa Fe in September, publicity and book signings it is one of those funny things about being a writer—you have to conduct your business in virtually solitary confinement, but then you have to go out and make your fellow humans aware that you have done so.

Since I teach classes of often disinterested strangers, making them engaged is something that usually I manage to do—usually. The difference with a book signing is that the unsuspecting book browser whose eye you happen to catch can run away, while a class is usually a captive audience—unless Buffy/Muffy/Lance decide that the Fall of the Roman Empire is simply too boring.

I held several signings that I really enjoyed: the Costco one was especially a hoot. The staff was wonderful and set up a beautiful niche right across from the wine table and the coffee samplings. After two hours I was hoarse with laughing and talking to complete strangers. Thank you, Costco at Renaissance.

In the process, I discovered that there is an amazing number of writers out there, but my all time favorite people are middle-aged ladies. Smart, bookworms to the core, and many of them shared with me their fascinating lives that would make great stories. I am humbled and cheered by their well-wishes and encouragement. Thank you ladies.

On the other hand, dealing with some bookstores to set up a book signing is like entering the world of MI-5. You never know who your friends and enemies are: the friends allow you in, the enemies (and they often turn out to be the folks you thought were interested in you actually selling the “product”) are there to make sure you don’t cross the bookstore’s threshold because you are – horror – a WRITER!

As I understand it, there are writers-behaving-badly out there. I suppose there are also shoppers behaving badly out there too, but that doesn’t get shoppers barred from stores, does it?

I also heard that it’s “too much work” for the understaffed bookstore staff to prepare for a signing. In fact, unless we are you-know-who, all we need is a table, a chair, and a stack of books (preferably ours). That’s it. And yes, I presume that many of us would bring that folding table and chair as well.

One would think, and one would be wrong, that actually getting a real live author into a store would be a great idea since the very purpose of a book store seems to be is to sell books. Most of those are actually written by, you know, writers. But I digress….

Interestingly, I found the independent bookstores to be surprisingly snooty. As my friend put it recently, unless you are writing about a soon-to-be extinct double-toed, ruffle-breasted avian, your chances of being invited into that inner sanctum are about zero. (Nothing against avians—we are a five birdfeeders, four bird baths—one heated, bark butter on every tree trunk sort of folks).

These bookstores also want a guarantee of an audience/crowd to attend your book signing—fifty, a hundred and fifty? Heck, I don’t KNOW that many people and I doubt they could be dragged out if I paid them. There is probably a reason behind that snootiness, but my feeling is that having a live person in the store might attract some folks, and they may decide to spring for that story about the soon-to-be extinct double-toed, ruffle-breasted avian…or a latte.


About Hana Samek Norton

I am a historian who writes 'history with a story' in off-duty hours.
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