Flashback Feature: Having a Successful Bookstore Event

This article first appeared on Spinetingler Magazine October 24, 2016.


Recently, my writing group hosted a Skype conference with Sarah L. Johnson. Author of Suicide Stitch and the forthcoming Infractus, by day Johnson is the literary events manager at Owl’s Nest, an indie bookstore in Calgary, AB, Canada. As she explained, her role involves “wrangling writers and readers and bringing them together for events in the store.”

Many authors suffer from nerves when they are faced with the task of doing signings or bookstore events. With the unique perspective that comes from coordinating these events for others and having done them as an author herself, Johnson offered critical advice for those who have a book to launch or promote.

To prepare for an event, Johnson says it’s important to invite everyone you’ve ever met. “We will promote the event, but unless the person knows you they may not come. The author brings their own audience.”

What does a successful bookstore event look like?

“It depends on the event,” Johnson says. At lunch, “if you have 25 people show up, I’d expect you’d sell about 20 books. If it’s a signing just during store hours and you’re sitting at a table (and) sold 5 books in 2 or 3 hours, that’s really good too.”

Johnson says that a well-attended event for an author has an audience of 20-25 people with sales of 15-20 books.

At the event, you don’t have to read if you don’t want to. Johnson says some readings are good, but most are just okay. She suggests that, unless you’re Neil Gaiman and can keep an audience riveted by reading to them for an hour, you should limit your reading time to five minutes or less.

When she launched her own book, Johnson had been coordinating events for over a year, but “when you’re talking about your own work it’s very different and you get nervous.” Although the nerves are natural, she says that one of the most important things an author can do to prepare for a bookstore event is to relax. “It really isn’t a big deal. It’s a friendly room. There’s nothing to be worried about. These are people who want to support you.”

While authors who are new to the idea of bookstore events may think, or even hope, that there’s some secret to a successful event, Johnson says that if there is a secret, it’s that these events are simple. “The basic format is that the author gets up. I introduce them. They talk a little bit about the book and how they came to write it and explain where the idea came from. They give a five minute reading and then we open up to Q and A. That lasts 30-45 minutes.

Johnson cautions writers about what they choose to read. “A lot of writers think they can get up and read anything and it will be entertaining just because they wrote it. You really have to go for something exciting – sex, violence, death. If you’re going to read something from the middle it might be lost on the audience because they don’t know the characters like you do. If your beginning is really exciting read a few pages from there. Otherwise give a short explanation to set up the scene you’re reading before you start.

Some of the most common mistakes Johnson’s seen authors make include reading for too long, or reading something that isn’t interesting on its own. “Don’t read something you think is really pretty writing,” Johnson says. Avoid reading something that “isn’t interesting on its own.”

The other major mistake authors make is not promoting the event themselves. The most critical aspect of a bookstore event is getting people in the seats, and without the author doing their own promotion that isn’t likely to happen. Authors are more likely to be connected directly to their family, friends and readers, and they can’t assume that those people will see promotion from the bookstore.

It’s really important to Johnson to support local authors and the local writing community. Getting Owl’s Nest to host an event is pretty straightforward. Owl’s Nest usually asks the author to bring by a copy of their book or send them a copy of their book. The good news for local authors is that they hardly ever say no.

For traditionally published authors whose publisher has distribution through one of their suppliers, Owl’s Nest can order the books in and whatever doesn’t sell is returned. Johnson noted that they usually keep a couple copies in the store after the event. If you’re an indie author, or with a small press that does print on demand, Owl’s Nest will sell your books at the event on consignment. The author brings in copies of the book and at the end of the night they take home whatever didn’t sell. The bookstore doesn’t order in books that are POD because they can’t return them if they don’t sell.

What does Johnson think of giveaways and food?

“I think giving away little prizes is always a great idea. A couple weeks ago we had an author who wrote a YA Sci Fi novel and she had these little toys she was raffling off. It’s always really fun for the audience. We provide wine and cookies and water free of charge. Sometimes authors want to bring their own stuff or want to put out a bigger spread; there’s a fee for that package. Some authors bring food that’s themed to their story, like a cake with their book cover or some kind of food that’s featured prominently in the book.”

When Johnson launched her short story book she had 11 prizes themed to each of the 11 stories in the book. “We played truth or dare and people had to volunteer and it was a lot of fun. Most people picked dare. One was that you had to go sit on the lap of someone in the audience that you don’t know. One was putting an ice cube in your pocket and letting it melt. Another was giving your best version of a Tarzan yell.”

Johnson stressed that not only are bookstore events a lot of fun, but they can have other benefits for the author. The benefits?

  1. It’s how you sell books. “We can bring your book in and put it on our shelves, but unless you’re already well known and have name recognition, it’s just going to sit there. Bookstore events are how you sell books. That’s how you connect with readers and fans.
  2. It’s how you make the bestseller list. “Our store reports our sales to the local newspapers for the local bestseller list. It’s generated from our store and two other independent stores. If you do homework you’ll find out which bookstores to hit to end up on the local bestseller list. Just about everyone who does events ends up on our bestseller list the next week.”
  3. You build community relationships. “If you want to be successful in this business you need to be part of the community. I can’t overstate that enough to be active in your community.”
  4. Social media publicity. At Owl’s Nest events, Johnson takes photos and posts them with captions on the store’s social media pages, which means that patrons of the store may hear about you and your book even if they weren’t able to attend the event.

Beyond the author inviting friends and family, Johnson says that the local arts and entertainment paper will post at their discretion. If you reach out to them you may be able to get promotion that way. She also suggests targeted promotion for your event. “If you’re launching a romance novel reach out to the romance writers. Or invite an author from that organization to join you. Multi-author events. Reach out to the writing community.”

Why targeted promotion? “Readers parallel writers and have what they like to read and a lot of people don’t step outside that.”

What does Johnson think of bookmarks and buttons and the swag that authors sometimes pay for to promote their books? Although she says they can make a display look nice, she isn’t convinced that a bookmark has ever sold a book.

Owl’s Nest doesn’t do a lot of daytime book signings because they don’t have the foot traffic needed to make them successful, and Johnson says the big box stores are the best places to do a signing because the Indies just don’t have the foot traffic. Signings are a necessary evil. “Signings are the worst. I know. I have to do them. I can sell other people’s books but my own… I think I’m a good writer but I’m a bad author. I don’t stay at my table and I end up selling other people’s books to them but it’s still something we have to do.“

What should authors do to have a successful signing? “What tends to work is standing in front or beside your table and just saying hello. (Having) a bowl of Hershey’s kisses never hurt because the kids come over to the table and then their parents come over. The rule of thumb is that the more people you talk to the more books you’re going to sell. A lot of authors have bookmarks, cards, buttons. I’m not super convinced that those help sell books.”

In addition to on-site events, Owl’s Nest does offsite bookselling. “A lot of writers will hold their event at the library and we’ll come there and be their bookseller. We partner with the libraries a lot because they have bigger rooms and theaters,” Johnson explains. “We are the official bookseller for Wordfest. They have all their events about town, and we go there and we sell the books, which is really exciting because each year it’s building up steam. Tons of times people come up to the table to buy a book and they didn’t even know Owl’s Nest existed and they want to support Indie bookstores.”

Authors in the Calgary area should consider an event at Owl’s Nest. Not only is it a thriving local Indie bookstore, but Sarah L. Johnson knows just how to put authors at ease as they prepare for bookstore events. Follow her quick tips to alleviate your nerves and enjoy the experience of sharing your book with a supportive audience.

Johnson’s quick tips:

  1. Make it a social thing. People want to hear you read from your book and talk about your book but only for so long.
  1. Authors who haven’t done an event can feel intimidated. “I tell them this is the friendliest room you’ll ever face. Because a lot of writers are introverted people they’re quite nervous beforehand but once they get up there they usually do quite well.”
  1. It can sometimes take weeks to deal with back and forth email to set a date. More questions and communication is better.
  1. Make friends with your local independent bookseller. Get to know the people working there. Support them. Give them shout-outs online. The bookstores want to be part of your community and want to support you but they need your support in return.

Owl’s Nest is a thriving indie bookstore in Calgary, AB, Canada. Check out their website or follow them on Instagram or Twitter .

For more information about author Sarah L. Johnson, check out her website, follow her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.