Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 4

Welcome to week four, and some advice on signings, booksellers, and ego-bruising.

My first signing was a group event, at some convention or another.  I had, I think, two stories out at the time, in anthologies.

The signing was arranged alphabetically.  Look at the genre shelf, and see if you can guess who I, the total newbie, was seated next to.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Right.  Neil Gaiman.

It was a painful – if funny – and useful lesson.  Not just “remember thou art mortal, especially when sitting next to Neil,” but also that signings (and really, any public appearance) are about more than moving books, or getting egoboo because people not-related-to-you showed up.

They’re about establishing yourself as a professional both in the eyes of readers, and the people running the event.

Of course you want a packed house.  You want to sell a hundred books, and have the bookstore owner delirious with joy and begging you to come back.

The truth is, until you’re either a cult favorite or a bestseller (and not even then) you run the risk of crickets chirping any time you do any kind of public appearance, be it a convention panel or a highly-hyped bookstore reading.  There are too many variables that you can’t control – extreme weather, event competition, the President coming to town and everyone running around getting their errands done before the Secret Service shut down the roads*.  Some ego-bruising is inevitable – but no matter what happens, don’t let yourself consider it a failure!

Because, in the end, it’s less about the books you might sell on that particular day than the relationship you build with that store (and any stores they might talk to). If you sell a hundred books, fabulous!  If you sell one, and manage to make the staff think you’re just an utter delight, then they will be more likely to hand-sell your book – and your next book, and the book after that.

Mind you, no signing’s perfect.  Sometimes that two hour period can seem like seven years in Hell.  Sometimes you could do everything right, and the staff doesn’t want to give you the time of day.  Sometimes all you can think about is the time and money you spent, getting this set up, only to have a disappointing turnout.

That is also why I don’t always recommend that writers go out and set up as many signings as possible when a new book hits the shelves, especially if it’s your first/only book.  Pick your shots.  Learn what works for you, and what you enjoy.

I can’t emphasize that enough.  If you hate signings, if you think sitting at a table for two hours when the only person who walks up to you wants to know where the bathroom is** or if you have accepted Jesus as your personal savior*** then don’t push yourself.  Your career, for the most part, will do fine without it.  Certainly it will do better than if your unhappiness manifests itself during the signing, and the booksellers walk away with a negative impression.

If you do enjoy it?  Think of ways to add more bang for the store’s buck.  Look for other writers who have new books out as well, and band together with them.  If you’re shy, find someone who has no fear of talking to strangers.  If you write fantasy, find someone who writes romance, and cross-pitch each others’ books , as there’s crossover among the readers.  I belong to a group called the Magnificent Genre Seven, who can make any signing into a full store Event.

The trick is, make it fun, but keep it professional.  Arrive early, stay as long as you’re scheduled for.  If you set something up, take it down (don’t leave it for the store to deal with).  If you bring treats to lure people to your table, offer some to the staff as well.   Above all, interact with the staff the way you would anyone who is doing you a much-appreciated favor.   That way, even if you sell only one book, the staff will remember you – and your books – with fondness, not annoyance.

And that signing sitting next to Neil Gaiman?  I got people asking for my signature simply because they felt sorry for me, sitting there…and I managed to sell a few copies, too.

So, seasoned pros, what’s your best bad-signing story?  New folk, what terrifies you the most?  We can help you prepare/deal/learn from it…

*all of these have happened to me at least once.

**this happens all the time.

***twice.  Both times in Arizona.  I’m just sayin’….


Next week: Know Why You Write

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her first collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in Spring 2011.  For more info check her website , her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 4 — 11 Comments

  1. At the Glasgow Worldcon I was sitting between Terry Pratchett and…I forget who else, but someone of about that stature. There was a long line, a blip, and a long line. I was the blip. And yet, people did come to have me sign stuff, or to chat. If I hadn’t been surrounded by people coming to talk to other people, I’d have thought it was a damned good turn out for me. So I decided that it was a good turnout, by God.

    The hardest thing in such a circumstance is to sit there looking engaged, amused and approachable at a point when your inner You wants to look bored and pouty. If you can pull that off, you get points for being a trooper, and people remember that, and you, and like you for it.

  2. The most fun I ever had at a signing were a couple I set up in LA. I got together a bunch of fellow authors and we did a panel discussion — one on women sf writers, one on sf as “literature of hope.” Some newbies like me, some established midlist. Between us, we had enough friends and readers to fill all the seats. Readers would come to hear one of us and get interested in everyone else’s work, so we all sold far more books than we would have with individual signings. Of course, this strategy works best in larger cities, where you have larger bookstores and a community of published writers.

  3. My weirdest was my first — the local bookstore did such a good job selling my books, back when they came in a few days early, that I arrived as the last book was sold. So there were no books for my signing. And just a signing. I always come prepared to read, since that. Setting up several writers to sign is fun, especially if your stuff may cross over, but doesn’t always — everyone can pick up new readers that way.

    And the booksellers teach you their tricks — like leaving most of the stock on the shelf in back, so people can sneak back and read some and see if they think they’d like it, without the writer being right there.

    You’ll get people who get it as a gift, and you’re launching a book into the blue. And people who want to learn more English, so they buy yours because it has more hard words in it (I was the only SF writer in that group.)

    But I will say that if you’re an introvert, space autographings carefully, because they will take it out of you, and if they damage your writing time, it’s not a good trade-off. I’ll probably never talk to a library group again. In small towns, they are such a mixture of people, and here in Texas, that means if the SF/fantasy group misses your appearance, the Born-Agains won’t even Look at you, since Satan might leap out at them thereby*….

    * Oh, yes, done that one, too, with a good talk prepared on “Map-making in fantasy, or creating paths for the reader to travel.” Had to buy my available-for-purchase books from the staffer to keep them from being stripped. No, no more library groups….

  4. My first was an X-Files convention, and the line was gratifyingly long. But the buyers were more interested in whether or not I had met David Duchovny than in the contents of the book.

    The worst were the gun nuts who wanted to argue that I had gotten Mulder and Scully’s guns “wrong”. My information came straight from the Properties Master himself, but they insisted they were right. How does one remain professional while being called a fool/liar? Lots of coffee and a smile stapled firmly in place.

  5. Me, all my signings at chain bookstores turned in bad experiences or comedies of error. I finally stopped trying to set them up because they’re never worth the effort.

    Independent bookstores have done a much better job at handling them.

  6. Ah, yes. With the exception of the Jesus people (knock wood), I have experienced all of these. I’ve also showed up for signings where the staff had no knowledge of the event, and/or the store had not ordered my books.

    At one memorable event the bookstore had set up a podium and about fifty chairs, and three or four people showed up. I pulled up a chair to the front row and turned it into a chat. If you have writer friends who have signings scheduled near you, for all the gods’ sake please show up, if only to say hello.

    I remember going to a signing George R. R. Martin had for A Game of Thrones in a chain store in Albuquerque. As we were chatting with him someone came up and asked him where the bathroom was. (The copy of his book I bought that day is now worth an obscene amount of money.)

  7. The worst author event (I cannot call it a signing) I ever almost participated in was at Walmart; they were doing a literacy event in conjunction with Anderson, the distributor. I drove up to Suisun City (about an hour north of San Francisco) to the Walmart I had been assigned. The Walmart people ranged from clueless but approachable to actively rude; the rep from Anderson was embarrassed. I was finally stationed at a table on an aisle distant from any sign of books, and handed a children’s book by someone else, which I was expected to read if any children came by to be read to. No announcement, no signage, no nuthin. The management made it clear that this was some damfool idea that the folks at the Main Office had, and that it was getting in the way of real selling.

    I never wound up reading to anyone. After two hours the Anderson guy very apologetically suggested that maybe I should cut my losses and go home. So I did.

  8. At the first and pretty much only signing I ever had (at a reading for the university literature mag), we did not sign magazines but potatoes. We had just found out that our magazine had the same name as a new breed of genetically modified potatoes, so someone thought it would be a brilliant idea to hand out potatoes to the audience and have them signed by the authors.

    So we bought a bag of potatoes at the supermarket. We had special markers at hand, because ordinary pens don’t write very well on potato peels. But even though the turnout for the reading was pretty good, no one wanted a signed potato – big surprise there. Only the professor of British and Commonwealth history finally took pity on us and had a potato signed. Otherwise, we ended up signing potatoes for each other. I took mine home and planted it in the garden the following spring.

    Even if faced with Jesus freaks and people looking for the bathroom, I don’t think I will ever have to sign potatoes again.

  9. A few years back I teamed up with Gail Martin, Faith Hunter and David B Coe to have a group signing/reading in a Barnes & Noble. The booksellers were great – they had a nice table set up near the fantasy shelves, with plenty of chairs for our audience. Lots of copies of our books were available for us to sell, and we had our pens firmly in hand. It would have been a magnificent event except those faithful hordes never showed up. Intense thunderstorms rolled in from the west about ten minutes after we all got seated in the store. We made the best of the situation – we had a Princess Bride quote-off, and once the rain eased some, we adjourned to a nearby Italian restaurant to drown our sorrows in piccata and ravioli.

  10. Well, a few years of those experiences as a SF writer, I drove me to draw my surreal signing experiences, like with the hapless me sandwiched between two bestselling authors. The comic book (from a small press) “Meet my Fans” (under its French title Séances de signatures), has been a fair hit with the public.