30 June 2023

Thinking outside the book signing box

Gift shop at Colonial Williamsburg.

Today I’m revisiting a post I wrote years ago for another blog that now appears to be inactive. I wanted to share this with you because I spent many weeks leading up to Fourth of July on the road, hawking one, then two, and finally three nonfiction history titles.

I learned a lot about bookstores, book sales, and marketing during this period of time. So much so that about a year after the first book pubbed, our small publisher contacted my wife and me, asking if we would speak to the heads of their marketing and sales departments. They had noticed that in the last year or so, they had accrued an impressive number of new accounts. All of them were gift shops at museums and historic sites, and all of them were ordering the same book—ours and ours alone.

“What are you doing to sell these books?” they wanted to know. Until that point they had not really considered historic sites as a potential market for their products, but shortly after this they began acquiring and publishing more nonfiction history titles.

I’m offering this as a case study, more or less. And since I know this does not speak directly to the realm of mystery novels, I’ll offer some comments at the end of the post about how a mystery author (or any other) might put some of this into practice. So please bear with me and try to think creatively about how you might apply this to your work.

We sold books in the Philly cemetery where Ben Franklin is buried...

One of the most humiliating rites of passage for any new author is the book signing.* Despite everyone’s best efforts, you can end up sitting for hours at a lonely table at the front of your local bookstore while legions of potential readers blow past you as if you’re invisible. If anyone dares make eye contact with you, it’s to give you a pitying smile. The same people who will wait hours to have a book signed by a “name” author cannot wait to get out of your line of sight. Why? Because they don’t know you, they don’t know your book, and they don’t know why they should.

How can you make sure this embarrassing experience never happens again? Simple: Stop trying to sell books in a bookstore.

This may sound heretical coming from a traditionally published no-name author, but I think it’s solid advice that can be deployed judiciously from time to time. Seventy percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years. Those who do venture into bookstores are habitual browsers, or else infrequent buyers looking for a specific title. Maybe they read a lot, or maybe they’re just there to pick up a book their kid needs for a class. Bookstore regulars are jaded by the sight of an unknown author sitting a table signing books. The others just want to grab the book they came for, and get the heck out. You cannot move many books in such a tough crowd, all the while surrounded by hundreds of other competing titles.

...we sold in historic churchyards...

If you want to sell books, you must break out of the pack and become the only must-buy book in the store. Consider signing instead at non-bookstores, such as specialty stores, gift shops, galleries, museums, historic sites, etc. My wife/coauthor and I have sold upwards of 100 books a day in some of these places. We were as surprised by this result as our publishers, but we finally figured out that unless you’re a name, successful book signings often depend on reaching shoppers for whom the experience of a book signing is a rare treat.

At non-bookstores, signings are worthy of press releases, cakes, balloons, and hullaballoo. What’s more, gift store browsers have one raison d’etre: they’re looking to shop. The wallets of everyone walking in the door are psychologically cracked and ready to spill cash. If you sell in a souvenir shop, for example, your book now becomes a souvenir-by-association, a relatively cheap must-have from that tourist’s vacation.

Here’s how to turn these events into over-the-top successes.

...we sold at the gift shop at the National Archives in DC, where the Declaration of Independence is housed and displayed.

Get the sales staff involved. Have a staffer greet each person as they enter the store and say something like, “We have a book author with us today. She’s here autographing her book about X.” This primes shoppers, answering the question most are thinking but will never ask: “What’s that lady doing behind that table with all those books?”

Stack your book around the store. Your book should not only be on your table but on every available surface. Place some on a table behind you, so people can walk right past you and inspect the book on the sly, without you hovering over them. (I swear this happens, and results in sales.) A stack of books should be at the cash registers too, and every salesclerk should say, before they ring up each person’s purchase: “Did you see we have an author in today signing copies of their book?” This gives shoppers one last chance to buy before they check out. If it’s a venue such as a museum or attraction that sells admission tickets in addition to having a gift shop, sales clerks will have two opportunities to pitch your book.

Get attention in a fun way. People hate approaching a table where someone is obviously selling something. Help them get over it, and do it in a way that connects with the theme of the store. To sell our history title set during the American Revolutionary War, we targeted gift shops at historic sites—the visitor center in Philly near where the Liberty Bell is housed, for example—and asked an actor friend to dress in colonial costume and read quotes of the Founding Fathers all day long.

The late Scott Sowers was a Broadway actor, audiobook narrator, and character performer who had appeared on Law & Order numerous times. Miss him terribly.

As each new gaggle of tourists flowed into Ye Olde Historick Shoppe, the actor yelled in a booming voice, “Hear ye, hear ye!” and proceeded to read a rousing line or two from the letters of, say, John Adams or Ben Franklin. At the end, our friend joyously yelped, “Huzzah!” Shoppers soon got the idea that this was all part of the fun experience of shopping in this particular store today. They froze in their tracks and listened, they snapped pictures of the dude in costume, they conquered Their Fear of The Table—and they bought a book. At the Old State House in Boston, by the end of the day the sales clerks were even yelling “Huzzah!” as the actor concluded a quote. A clerk confided to us, “I’m really loving my job today!”

Give away something free. Whether they buy a book or not, everyone you meet should get a bookmark or business card depicting the book cover and some info on the back. If they don’t buy the book now, they’ll buy it online later. Tell them how to connect with you via your website or socials. If parents stopped by with kids, we gave every kid a U.S. flag sticker. That single act usually broke the ice with parents. (Avoid giving candy or treats.)

Make eye contact and connect. Every time I see an author with his nose in a book at his own signing, I feel like swatting the tome out of his mitts. Engage your customers! Look them in the eye. Smile. Say good afternoon. Hit them with the pitch: “This is our book about the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence,” we used to say. “The cover unfolds to a copy of the Declaration of Independence.” Then we flipped open a cover to show them how it “worked,” and waited for the inevitable, “Oh, that’s cool!” Then we’d say, “We’re the authors of the book, and we’re autographing copies today any way you’d like.” Sadly, people who don’t buy books often don’t immediately comprehend that authors autograph books, and that such books make a nice keepsake or gift. Be prepared to repeat these lines all day. Getting a book signed by you is, in a way, a limited-time offer. It’s the only reason to buy immediately versus buying the book a month from now online or at another store.

Keep a sign-up sheet handy. Inevitably you will make connections with people who want you to do talks, visit their classrooms, or want to receive your newsletter. Make it easy to collect those names. Collect the contact info and socials of the the gift shop employees as well. You may be hitting them up in the future, and they will mostly likely promote you on their socials.

An impromptu signing on a 2023 visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philly.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: I write mysteries, you say. There are no historic site gift shops for mysteries. Well, sure. But with some effort, I think most authors should be able to find suitable non-bookstore venues for their book. We met a photographer selling his gorgeous coffee table book at a busy camera repair shop on a Saturday. Once, while my wife shopped at a Victoria’s Secret in a New Jersey mall, I saw the author of a book on brassieres—I think it was this one—presiding over a hilarious book event, complete with pink champagne and a tempting, boob-shaped chocolate cake. Sheer genius.

Why couldn’t you sell your cat mysteries at a local Petco? Your cozy series about a cupcake-baking sleuth at a local bakery? Your PI mystery set in your small city at the local visitor’s center where tourists come to grab maps and sign up for the trolley tour?

Now, there are some hurdles and challenges with this approach. In most cases, you must a) persuade the managers or owners of these venues to give you a shot, and b) iron out who will order and sell the books. Will the venue buy them from you or the publisher and sell to customers, or will they let you sell direct? And will they ask for a piece of the action? You really have to summon your courage to ask and negotiate—two things authors admittedly hate to do.

Still, using techniques like these we burned through cases of books and have been invited back at nearly all the venues we’ve done. And before someone asks, this all happened years before my wife’s later solo titles hit the New York Times Bestseller List. So, at the time, she and I were just average midlist authors.

Believe me, I’m naturally quite shy. I really prefer sitting at my desk writing. It took all I could muster to convince stores to have us, and to persuade the sales staff to turn their stores into a circus for a day. But it was all in their best interest. The stores profited from every sale, often earning more per copy than we did. At the end of our first Boston signing, the manager told us this was one of the highest-grossing days in the store’s history. He offered us a free shopping spree—I blew part of my credit on a John Hancock Bobblehead—and picked up our dinner tab at a nearby restaurant that night.

That does bring me to the biggest challenge: cost. We did these multi-city trips each Fourth of July Week for three or four years straight. When other people we going to the beach, we were slogging our way up the East Coast of the US, visiting hot, humid, expensive cities such as DC, Philadelphia, and Boston. We visited out-of-the-way National Historic sites run by the National Park Services. Park rangers, not booksellers, presided over many of our signings (and later talks). These were, to be blunt, work trips for which we always took a tax deduction on our federal and state taxes.

Still, we knew that such an effort—complete with meals, lodging, etc.—was not cost-effective in the short term. (Our travel costs far outstripped our per-copy earnings.) Would this investment pay off over time? Well, watch what happened. When we pubbed the second book, the publisher offered us a travel grant—in other words, we did not have to pay it back out of royalties—to do our annual July trip. And one of the venues arranged for free lodging (in Boston!) via the site’s nonprofit foundation. The first book has since sold about 100,000 copies, the second about 30,000, so yes, I do think in the long run, it was worth it to cement the saleability of these books in the minds of the non-bookstores.

* * * 

* Please note: In the parlance of U.S. bookstores, a "signing" is considered different from an "event." The former is just an author autographing at a table placed at the front of the store, the latter is a evening or afternoon presentation where an author is expected to lecture/speak, read from the book, and answer questions from an audience. Most of the ones we did in the early days were signings. As the books became more popular, some of the historic sites invited us to do speaking events. One, a historical society in RI, paid us an honorarium for the talk.

Happy Fourth of July to everyone, and see you in three weeks!



  1. By George, I think you've cracked it! Wonderful ideas. And a great picture!

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn30 June, 2023 13:01

    Sounds fun!

  3. I know someone with quilting mysteries. He sells cases of books at quilting guild meetings and quilt shows where he is the only one selling mysteries. The books have quilts on the covers, and he has small versions of some of those quilts hung around his booth at quilt shows. He gets honorariums to speak at quilting group meetings across the state and is fed dinners. He found his niche.

    1. Yes! This is exactly what I'm talking about. He has found exactly the right way to market to the people who are most likely to buy those books.

  4. Joe, this is a great post. Interesting and helpful also.

    And let me say, I have these two books (along with others of yours and Denise's) and they're wonderful! I wish you both continued success!


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