I’ve happily answered publishing questions and mentored indie authors. At my latest book signing, a few local writers came out to meet me in person and see what it’s like to be selling and signing books.
I realized that while I’ve often discussed the pre-publication requirements, I haven’t talked a whole lot about what comes after. So, without further ado, here are my best tips to prepare for your first book signing!
1. Practice your signature.
An elegant autograph rarely happens by dumb luck. I spent quite a bit of time signing my name, studying the letters, and deciding how to format my signature. And once I settled on a setup I liked, I practiced it over and over and over until it was second nature. Even if you’ve decided to go for the tastefully illegible scribble-scrawl, it’s still a good idea to practice on scrap paper first rather than the pristine first page of your book.
2. How to sign a book — know what you’re going to write ahead of time.
If you’re not sure how to sign a book, it’s helpful to have a basic idea of what you’re going to write before you start. You can keep it simple and just sign your name, but a lot of authors include a little note. It can be as easy as “Enjoy the book!” or “Happy reading!”
Or you might pick a memorable quote or phrase from the book. Author DJ MacHale, for example, writes “Hobey-ho,” which is an exclamation he invented for his Pendragon series. It’s a fun shout-out that fans appreciate.
If you have multiple books, it’s smart to think of a different blurb to write in each book. That way, you aren’t writing the same note in every single book, which comes across as boring and uncreative. By assigning one blurb per book, it’s easy for you to remember what to write instead of twirling your pen trying to think of something clever.
3. Have a clipboard with a sign-up sheet for your newsletter.
Hopefully you have a newsletter already, and if you don’t, I highly recommend it! Having a sheet handy at your book signing makes it easy to collect new email addresses and connect with people who seem to be genuinely interested in your book.
I recently included a prize drawing for people who signed up. It’s a great extra incentive that doesn’t cost too much since there’s only one winner.
4. Memorize your elevator pitch.
An elevator pitch is a brief summary of your book, usually about three to four sentences max. It earned its name from the scenario of standing in an elevator when an agent steps in, and you’ve got only as much time to pitch your book as it takes for the elevator to stop on the agent’s floor. Once the agent steps out of that elevator, you’ve lost your chance, so you have to make every second count.
If someone walks up to your table and asks what your book is about, you need to be able to snap off an interesting pitch in just a few sentences. This is your elevator moment; if you don’t capture your guest’s attention right away and convince them to pick up your book, they’ll simply nod politely at you and walk away.
I still remember one of my early book signings. I’d been struggling with my elevator pitch and couldn’t seem to stop rambling; after stumbling for a few minutes, I stopped mid-sentence, chuckled nervously, and said, “I promise I write better than I speak, and the book is better than I’m making it sound.” Shockingly, the lady actually bought a copy! But that moment made me realize how important it was to have a concise, confident pitch. Important elements of the elevator pitch: genre and conflict. If nothing else, get that information across. People make a quick decision about whether they’re interested enough to hear more or say “no thank you” and leave.
5. Have a unique setup.
This will help you to stand apart, which is especially important if you’re participating in a group event such as an author fair with many other tables of books. Why should a potential customer come to yours?
I was speaking at an author panel in Racine, WI last summer. As I was setting up my display, one of the panelists walked up and said, “Oh, I know you! You’re the girl with the black feathers. I’ve seen your photos on Instagram.”
I was shocked that not only did this author know about my work, but also that the recognizable images of the feathers were so embedded in his mind that he instantly knew who I was. I absolutely embraced that association because it made me stand apart. Ravens and crows are important in my books, which is why I use the black feather aesthetic, but once I saw how critical it was to be recognizable, I incorporated the feathers into most of my table displays, the only exception being outdoor signings when the wind is too strong.
Find something unique to your book. I’ve seen others set up elaborate displays that look like they’re in medieval times with candlesticks, lanterns, quills, parchment, daggers, etc. You don’t have to overcomplicate it; simple is powerful, too. I know an author who utilizes red rose petals to great effect. Maybe a dog is a key element of your book; set a figurine of a dog on your table and incorporate paw prints into the display. Whatever it takes to stand out and draw people’s attention.
Another technique that I use is arranging my novels into a bookstagram-worthy spiraling tower. It adds some height to an otherwise low display, and it’s interesting enough to pull people in.
6. A vertical banner is a great investment!
I was participating in an author fair and noticed that several other authors had a portable, vertical banner that easily assembled into position and didn’t require anything to mount, unlike my vinyl banner. Because I wasn’t by a wall and couldn’t attach my banner to my table due to the tablecloth, I had to sacrifice that attention-grabbing bonus.
I did a little research after that event and bought a retractable vertical banner from Vistaprint for about $100.
Seriously… GREAT investment!
I rarely use my vinyl banner anymore, as this one suits my needs in almost every circumstance and doesn’t take up much room, making it great for author fairs where everyone has a limited amount of space. It’s definitely an attention-grabber!
7. Consider buying customized bookmarks.
Adding in a free bookmark when someone buys your novel is a relatively cheap way to earn bonus points. Readers get very excited when the book comes with a bookmark! It can be a symbol from your novel, or the cover, or character art, or even just your signature, as long as it’s unique and matches your aesthetic and theme.
8. Postcards are another worthwhile low-cost marketing investment.
Making postcards (again, I used Vistaprint) with your cover on the front and the synopsis on the back helps you reach those uncertain readers. If someone seems to be on the fence about buying your book but then ends up walking away without making a purchase, you can give them a postcard to keep your novel in the front of their mind.
It’s helpful if you include information on the back about where they can buy it online, just in case they decide to purchase it later. They may even give your postcard away to a friend or family member who might be more interested in your novel. Either way, it boosts your chances of not being forgotten!
9. Have bags available for customers.
This is something I overlooked in the beginning. Sometimes, people purchase multiple copies to give away as gifts; you don’t want to see them staggering away with their arms full.
I ended up creating custom, eco-friendly bags in the hopes that other guests at events might see the title on the bag and then recognize it when they passed my booth.
But even if you go with simple brown paper bags or leftover (but clean) grocery bags, it’s still an extra step that your customers will appreciate!
10. Have something tactile or interactive that draws people in.
I created collectible pins based on symbols and elements from my books. Having them in a little wooden chest for people to touch and examine gives them a more memorable experience, and it draws kids in as well.
But you can accomplish a similar strategy by having a candy dish on your table. Cookies can also be enticing!
11. Have plenty of pens on hand.
This one should be a no-brainer, but sometimes it’s so obvious that we don’t think to include it on our checklist. The last thing you want is your only pen to run out of ink in the middle of a book signing! Make sure you have several, just in case!
12. Business cards are a must.
Make it easy for people to connect with you, whether they buy a book or not! Have a business card ready to go with your name and website at a bare minimum. You can also include contact information if you’re comfortable doing so. Letting people know which social media platforms you’re on is a good idea as well.
13. Have enough starting cash in your cash box.
Again, it seems obvious when you think about it, but this is a detail that can be easily overlooked. And it’s no fun having to awkwardly admit that you can’t break a large bill to make the sale.
If you’re going to accept checks, do so at your own risk. If they bounce when you try to cash them later, there’s not much you can do. Somebody got a free book at your expense.
I do recommend allowing credit and debit payments. I use Square, but there are other options available. A small fee will be taken out of your total, but it’s worth it. A lot of people don’t carry much cash, so you might miss out on sales if you can’t take a card payment.
14. Optional: cosplay as your protagonist (or villain).
If you’re a fiction author writing in a genre where your characters aren’t exactly dressed in convention clothes, cosplay can be a fantastic way to catch attention.
For my first 18 book signing events, I didn’t cosplay. I wore a nice dress, or jacket, or blouse, put on lipstick, and played the role of a professional author. And it worked out well enough.
But when my second novel in the series was released, I stepped up my game.
I started cosplaying at my protagonist, Cato (featured on the front and back of Book II’s cover). The reason I started doing this was directly linked to the coronavirus pandemic. Book II was released in July 2020, before vaccines were available, so rather than resent having to wear a mask for my events, I fully embraced the mandate and went all-out with Cato’s unique mask and full Arena uniform from the book.
The effect was particularly impactful at festival-type events with lots of booths competing for attention.
I noticed that 95% of the people I talked to when I was cosplaying were really interested in my books, whereas before, it was more like 50%.
Because I was now attracting the right crowd. Before, people would walk up without knowing anything about the book or even the genre. They just saw a normal-looking author sitting behind the booth and came over to find out what the book was about. Some people, upon learning that the book was fantasy, would immediately set it back down and say they read only nonfiction.
But when I was cosplaying, people could obviously tell that at a first glance that my books were fantasy (or at the very least, not nonfiction). They were already interested before knowing any other details.
15. Relax! You’re going to have fun!
It’s easy to get stressed out, but there’s really no need to! If people are interested in your book, they’ll ask you questions and push the conversation forward. The more events you do, the more comfortable you’ll become when you’re talking about your book.
I initially found it to be very awkward when first talking about my first novel. Because I write fantasy and had plenty of invented words, I felt very uncomfortable saying them aloud because I hadn’t practiced. Even saying the characters’ names out loud felt weird! And no, they’re not complicated names. It’s just a very strange feeling to have these people in your head for so long, and saying their names suddenly makes them feel real but taboo, as if you’re giving up a carefully guarded secret.
Don’t be discouraged if you have some events without selling a single book. It happens. If you’re a new author, people don’t know who you are yet. It’s okay; still take photos and add that signing event to your résumé. It’s another notch on your experience belt, and nobody else has to know that you didn’t sell any books! Just post a photo of you smiling with your display and let people know that you’re out signing books. Stay positive! Keep putting yourself out there.
What I love is seeing the evolution of interactions at book signing events. When I first started, I was a complete nobody. The types of questions readers would ask me were very generic: what’s your book about? How long did it take you to write it? What made you want to be an author? How did you get published? I was happy to answer those questions, of course, and I do still get them frequently.
But now that people are becoming familiar with my series, the questions are much more specific. People tell me who their favorite character is and ask me how to pronounce words. They hypothesize what’s going to happen in the next book. They ask me about symbolism and whether or not I had intended for the fantasy story to have so many parallels to current societal issues happening right now. I’m thrilled to have these much more in-depth conversations with fans who know the story, know the characters, and can contribute ideas and opinions!
Was this information valuable for you? I share my experience, knowledge, and advice to help other authors at no charge, but your support with a tip in the virtual jar is always welcome and greatly appreciated so this website can continue to be an accessible resource.
I hope these tips are helpful! Just remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the more book signing events you do, the more you’ll learn until you’re easily able to tailor your methods and displays to suit your personal needs. Good luck!