Let’s be honest, we all fantasize about book signings long before we get our first publishing deal. We put ourselves in Harlan Coben’s place and look out at a sea of adoring faces while waxing humble about how you’re not nearly as cool as your suave and resourceful protagonist, and then asking the name of each person in the signing line so you can personalize your autograph with something pithy. They should give workshops on this stuff at writing conferences, they’d pack ’em in. Because everyone dreams about it.
But I know why they don’t. Like many things about getting published — which, I’ll say at the outset, is a glorious, fulfilling experience you should pursue with every fiber of your being — your first round of book signings is usually one of life’s most humbling experiences. Believe me, I know — I’ve done over 50 of them, in addition to well over 200 “stock signings” around the country (a stock signing is when an author stops by a bookstore, often unannounced, to sign all their books in inventory and even help the staff put little Autographed by stickers on ’em — one bookseller insisted on putting them directly over the title, saying it was corporate policy), and I have more scars on my once-healthy ego than a GM executive.
For me the humbling started right out of the gate. When I arrived for my very first stock signing (July 2004, I remember it well) at a Borders in California, I announced myself at the customer service counter and was met with surprising enthusiasm. A warm handshake, an excited smile, followed by the clerk (is “clerk” politically correct these days?) picking up the phone, and with a half-hearted effort to conceal her words I heard her say, “Oh my God, Terry Brooks is here to sign his books!” (If you’re new here, you won’t get the joke if you don’t know that my name is Larry Brooks, or that Terry Brooks is the John Freaking Grisham of fantasy writers.)
I’ve been to book signings where the manager forgot to tell the weekend staff I was coming. Where the bookstore had changed the date of the signing without telling me, and one where another writer had canceled so they booked me last minute and a stand-in… but forgot to tell the arriving crowd of tarot-reading fans expecting to see some astrology writer named Jane. All four of them. I drove from Portland to Sacramento to sign in a very prestigious mystery book boutique, and only one customer came in all day — didn’t buy a book, he was a doctor who just wanted to tell me that some of the medical stuff in my novel was wrong. Doctors do that. Drove to Tuscon for a signing and they only had two copies of my book on hand. Drove to another in Chico CA — these are all one-off trips, by the way, on my dime — and the books weren’t there at all. Or so they said… I took the liberty to go back into the stockroom and found them in an unopened box (this was a Barnes & Noble, by the way). The manager asked me to leave.
One bookseller at a major chain store asked to see my I.D. as I was quietly signing the stock. I showed her my picture on the inside back cover, held it up to my face, in fact, and asked if that was I.D. enough. It wasn’t. Five minutes after I left she took all my books off the shelf.
I did a signing at a B&N in Scottsdale where the bookseller gave the audience a five minute introduction about me and my work. There were five people occupying the 20-some available chairs: my wife, the couple staying with us, and two of my neighbors. Awkward.
And at a local Fred Meyer, which had been an enthusiastic seller of my books prior to this day, I arrived two days after my book had hit the racks to find them in a bin a “returns.” It was actually on a printout of books to be pulled off the shelves that day… again, two days after arriving. Nobody, even at corporate, had a clue as to why.