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.


Online Issue 7

Kevin Wignall talks about his new novel, To Die in Vienna, which is going to be a major motion picture starring Jake Gyllenhaal and I weigh in with my review.

Chris Roy chats about his short story collection, Her Name Is Mercie, and his journey to publication.

Jo Perry has a big author event coming up this weekend – find out more here where she talks about her new work in progress and what Neil Diamond has to do with hell

Or learn more about Jo Perry’s upcoming event here, where she talks about the four-legged friends who keep her company when she’s in the office in her Author Assistant feature.

Plus: Reviews of Cult X and The Shadow Killer.


I could weigh in about the hated book of the week but really, what’s the point? Making posts about how it’s getting all the press and word of mouth just adds to its profile. The simple truth is that I think a lot of publicists and authors are lacking motivation and ingenuity to promote books. It’s easy to be jealous of the name that gets all the attention, but there are venues such as this one, Toe Six, and Underground Book Reviews and more that offer meaningful ways to raise an author’s profile. Would you rather people go to your website and see what you have to say about yourself, or see that you’ve been interviewed in different places? Doesn’t that make you look more important?

I have reached out directly to approximately 60 publishers and publicists asking specifically to interview an author or letting them know about feature opportunities here, which are free. All they take is a little bit of the author’s time.

My return rate for people taking me up on invitations or opportunities is down to about 19%. And the majority are authors. A publicist could get promotion for every book they have coming out in the months ahead. Instead, the odd few who respond tell me to go to NetGalley to get ARCs. (Man, I have ARCs out my wazoo and I can only read a couple books a month. And my priority is authors I’m interviewing here. I think I’ve officially reached the point where I won’t even ask an author for an interview if I have to contact a publicist, because my return rate there is 2% so it just isn’t worth my time.)

So don’t whine about not being profiled. Stop bitching about the lack of attention for small press books when there are places out there trying, and having a devil of a time getting authors interested in chatting about their books. It isn’t just about Toe Six. I was having a hard time getting people lined up for Spinetingler. My return rate there was sitting at about 30% before it ended.

The next time you want to post about how sad it is to lose places that publish short stories and how awful it is that only a few big books get the big press while these other good books get ignored? Places like Spinetingler and Toe Six live or die on the interest level. If nobody wants to be interviewed there isn’t much of a point in doing issues, is there? And if nobody is buying your short story collection when you publish it or investing in advertising on your site then how do you fund the issues?

The question for me is should I invest in promoting someone else or my own book? And maybe all the time I spend doing this is best served sitting on the porch with my dogs. Ultimately, maybe people just want something to complain about. The same people upset about JP and BC’s book could instead be spreading the word about a great book they’ve read and liked, about feature interviews with authors on sites all over the internet.

Or the gripefest can roll on for a few more days.

Practice pitching. That way, when life hands you lemons you’ll have good aim and free ammunition. ~ Sandra Ruttan

In other words, life is what you make of it. And we could take that approach to publishing and turn it upside down. The real reason people don’t do it? I can only guess it’s because they’re still hoping for that mainstream acceptance and their day to have all the attention.

Want to do an interview or a feature? Email toesixpress @ gmail.com with ‘author feature’ in the subject line.

Author Snapshot: Charles Salzberg

Pre-order alert! Second Story Man will be available March 26! Order your copy now.


Charles Salzberg has written over 20 non-fiction books, including Soupy Sez: My Zany Life and Times.. He is author of the Shamus Award nominated Swann’s Last Song, Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair, Swanns Way Out, Devil in the Hole, named one of the best crime novels of the year by Suspense magazine and “Twist of Fate” one of three crime novellas in Triple Shot. He teaches writing the New York Writers Workshop where he is a Founding Member.


SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?

CS: Obviously, it’s been a while but I think the first book, other than the usual picture books, like Dick and Jane (which probably was inspiring because I figured I had to be able to do better than that) would probably have been Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It showed me you could write in the first person and in the vernacular, and create character that way. Here was a story I could connect with, even identify with: the outsider. An earlier novel was one called, The Winning Forward Pass, a sports novel about an All-American college football player. It showed me how to tell a story. I actually found a copy of that book in a second-hand bookstore and bought it. And the other book that probably helped shape me as a writer, was Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I read as a teenager, simply because it was on sale at the local drugstore, which was attached to the building where I grew up. I think it was the title that grabbed me, and somehow, I identified with the ineffective “loser,” Tommy Wilhelm, most likely because I was so shy as a kid.

SR: What’s your new book/work in progress about? What inspired you to write it?

Second Story Man Final Cover

CS: I’m working on another Henry Swann novel, called Swann’s Down, which would be the fifth in the series. I thought the last Swann, Swann’s Way Out, would be the last in the series because I thought I’d taken the character as far as he could go. But after a year or so, I was suddenly struck with another idea for him, something that would tell the reader something more about Swann and his outlook on life. In it, Swann is working two cases. One, is for the ex-wife of his partner, Goldblatt, who was swindled out of a large sum of money by a fortune teller. The second plot, involves Swann being hired by an attorney friend to find a missing witness on a murder case which involves a professional hit man who swears he did not commit this particular murder.


SR: What do you think the hardest emotion to elicit from a reader is? Why?

CS: I don’t write horror, so for me that would be the most difficult emotion to elicit: fear. Why? Because what hasn’t been used before? I mean, the normal scary things, including clowns, have been done to death. Of course, no one can do that better than Stephen King, so why even try?


SR: Practice pitching: tell us what your book is about in 30 words or less.

CS: Second Story Man: Two lawmen, a retired Connecticut State investigator and a Cuban/American Miami police detective team up to bring down the arrogant, brilliant, athletic, manipulative master burglar, Francis Hoyt.


Charles Salzberg PhotoSR: What’s the best thing about writing?

CS: You can do it at home, in your pajamas, and you never have to leave the house, or in my case apartment, when the weather is bad. And, no tie and jacket. And I guess that moment, which doesn’t come often, when you think you’ve written the perfect sentence.


SR: What’s the worst thing about writing?

CS: Having to do it.


SR: Due to oppressive taxation you have to move into a tiny house. What are the ten books you aren’t giving up?


  1. Lolita
  2. Herzog
  3. The Great Gatsby
  4. The Sound and the Fury
  5. The Natural
  6. Portnoy’s Complaint
  7. The Continental Op
  8. A Short History of Nearly Everything
  9. In Cold Blood
  10. The Executioner’s Song


SR: What’s your protagonist’s greatest fear? Why?

CS: There are three protagonists in Second Story Man, and they all have the same fear: failure. All three are obsessed with being the best, with winning, and to differing degrees they will push the envelope of decent behavior to be the best.


SR: Did you set yourself a specific writing challenge with this book? What was it, and what was the reason?

CS: The challenge was to write from three completely different points-of-view, in the first-person. That meant I had to create a different “language” for each of them. There was always the risk that they would sound alike, and so, using their different backgrounds, I had to make sure that each voice was distinctive, that I didn’t necessarily have to label who was speaking at any one time (I did, but I think if I stripped away their names, the reader could easily tell whose voice he or she was listening to.)


SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?

CS: Movies—I’ll see practically everything—reading, and hanging out with friends. Fortunately, I have enough freelance friends to schedule lunches at least three times a week, including one with my pal and fellow writer, Ross Klavan. Every week, we meet at the same restaurant, and try to solve the problems of the world. Not much luck, so far, but we’ll keep eating until we do. And then, of course, there’s Fantasy Baseball to keep me busy six months out of the year.


SR: What strategies do you use to keep your books fresh? Particularly if you write a series character, how do you keep them consistent without retelling the same content book to book?

CS: That would be deathly for me, and it’s why I almost ended the Swann series with the last one. But I have a simple way of keeping things fresh. I usually do not write about murder. In other words, I’m not interested in writing your traditional mystery, where there’s a dead body, a host of suspects, and the detective solves the crime. That leaves me so much more room to create, because I can choose from a host of other crimes: fraud, theft, blackmail, crimes of the heart, embezzlement. In fact, I’m kind of proud of the fact that in Swann Dives In, which takes place in the world of rare books, you’re not sure what the crime is until halfway through the book and then by the end of the book you’re not even sure there was a crime. So, one of the fun things for me is to figure out what crime I’m going to write about and what world I’m going to set it in. I have used murder in my novels, but for instance in Devil in the Hole, the murder takes place before the book even begins, the reader knows who committed the crime, and there are no other murders in the rest of the book.



SR: 6 Fun facts about you, or your protagonist:


  1. Favorite color: blue
  2. Favorite game: baseball
  3. Favorite vehicle: a city bus
  4. Favorite social media site: Facebook
  5. Favorite subject in school: English, as in literature. I read so much anyway it wasn’t even like taking a class, and I was exposed to so many new writers.
  6. Favorite pet: dog.



SR: Do you have any special events coming up? Where can people catch up with you in person or on a podcast?


Book signing at Mysterious Bookshop (NYC), April 3, 6:30 p.m.

Book signing at Book Culture (NYC, Columbus Avenue), April 30, 7 p.m.
Book signing at Page and Palette (Fairhope, AL), May 19th, 2 p.m.

Blog Talk Radio, “Literary Viewpoints” with Fran Lewis, March 26, 10 a.m.

Blog Talk Radio, “Gus’ Guy’s Radio, Robert Manni, April 25th, 7 p.m.

Author Snapshot: Michael Niemann

I’m a bit of an expert on the world of chocolate. I used to teach a course on the politics and economics of cocoa and chocolate. ~ Michael Niemann

Michael Niemann writes international thrillers. Illegal Holdings is his third Vermeulen novel. The others are Legitimate Business and Illicit Trade. During his academic career his work focused on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region.

SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?

MN: I grew up in Germany and at that time, almost every boy read the adventure books of Karl May, a 19th century German writer. They were all set in the American West and I remember reading as many as I could get my hands on. The first one I read had an Apache chief Winnetou as the hero. I still remember the dramatic scenery, although I found out much later that May had never visited the United States until very late in his life.

Illegal Holdings Cover

SR: What’s your new book about? What inspired you to write it?

MN: Illegal Holdings is about access to land in Mozambique, a poor country in southern Africa. It dives into the machinations of powerful international donors and the resistance of ordinary people against it. My protagonist Valentin Vermeulen, an investigator for the United Nations ends up in the middle of this and has to choose a side. I was inspired by my personal experience in the country and my distrust of the increasing power wielded by large philanthropic organizations in poor countries.

SR: Due to oppressive taxation you have to move into a tiny house. What are the ten books you aren’t giving up?

MN: Actually, my wife and I moved to a very small house three years ago, and not because of taxes, but because we wanted to. So I’ve had to pare down my book collection to a minimum. Although I have more than ten books, here are the top ten that made the cut. You’ll notice few fiction books on the list. That’s because I’m an avid user of my local library and because these days I can have as many ebooks as I want on my devices.

  1. The Production of Space – Henri Lefebvre
  2. Security, Territory, Population – Michel Foucault
  3. Critique of Everyday Life – Henri Lefebvre
  4. The Constant Gardner – John Le Carré
  5. The Long Twentieth Century – Giovanni Arrighi
  6. Citizen and Subject – Mahmood Mamdani
  7. On Writing Well – William Zinsser
  8. Werke – Heinrich Heine
  9. Vengeance – Lee Child, editor (because one of my stories is in it)
  10. Jim Knopf und Lukas, der Lokomotivführer – Michael Ende (one of my favorite books as a child)

SR: Do you listen to music when you’re writing? How does music/art influence you creatively? MN: Yes, I do. For my first Vermeulen thriller I listen to The Clash a lot because it was his favorite band. Funny, really, that I chose that band. I was never much of a punk fan, but grew to like the band and it helped me get to know my character better. He’s mellowed since, but the occasional Clash song will still show up in later novels. My musical tastes are wide-ranging. For this novel, I listened a lot to Mabulu, a Mozambican marrabenta band. Music creates a cocoon of sound in which my imagination can thrive, at least that’s what I tell myself.

SR: What detail in your writing do you obsess over the most? Character names? Locations? Description? Dialogue? Research?

MN: Is all of the above an option? Let me focus on character names. Since my novels are set in far away places and involve many local folks, I do have to research first and last names. So I do spend a fair amount of time finding out what are common last names, common first names in the country. Once I have a set of names, I play with different combinations of first and last names until I find a combination that sounds good to me. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. In some circumstances, certain names are tied to specific ethnic groups. So I have to be careful not to combine the wrong names.

SR: Is your protagonist more likely to go insane or end up in prison?

MN: Prison, definitely! One of his drawbacks is his stubbornness. Once he’s figured out what’s what, he doesn’t let go. Although he hasn’t been in prison yet, the nature of his work and the locations where he does it will eventually land him in prison. Not every country has a Bill of Rights. It’s only a question of time.

SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?

MN: I like to cook and bake. For example, I bake all the bread we eat at home. I make a damn good flourless chocolate cake and some tasty biscotti. Cooking is a creative process almost like writing. The choice of ingredients, the pairing of different food items. Having said that, I don’t consider myself a “foodie.” I don’t follow the latest trends. I have a repertoire and add to that when inspired.

SR: What strategies do you use to keep your books fresh? Particularly if you write a series character, how do you keep them consistent without retelling the same content book to book?

MN: Because Valentin Vermeulen works for the United Nations, I get to send him anywhere in the world. That’s probably the first ingredient to keep the books fresh. One of the challenges is to keep introducing him in fresh ways. So far it hasn’t been a problem because he’s only appeared in three novels (I’m working on the fourth). There are many tricks to get background into the story without becoming stale. In Illegal Holdings, for example, his first appearance is told from the POV of a different character.

SR: Do you have any special events coming up? Where can people catch up with you in person or on a podcast?

MN: I have a book release event at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland OR on March 1 at 7 pm. I’ll be at While Away Books and Espresso in Roseburg, OR on March 17 at noon and at Barnes & Noble in Eugene, OR that day at 3 pm. Readers can also listen to an interview with me on Literary Ashland