It ain’t Oz and you don’t get to see the wizard: What Indie authors should know BEFORE signing up for an author event.

The Indie Author phenomenon has led to some innovative twists on business-as-usual in the fiction world. In traditional publishing, when an author has a new release with big enough potential, the publisher may send them on tour, stopping over in several target markets and touching base with readers. They also sell a ton of books this way, as even readers who are ebook devotees run out to purchase a print copy, then show up to get the author’s John Hancock  and have a thirty second encounter. These junkets are expensive, take time to organize, and sometimes are logistical nightmares for the author, but ultimately pay off in terms of strengthening an author’s fan base and selling copies.

Most Indie Authors are not in a position to either get a bookstore’s cooperation, or fund the costs for these sort of solo in-house signings. But, as the years have proven, live appearances are an excellent way for authors to meet fans and find new readers. To this end, recent years have seen an emergence of  Indie Author events where a group of authors collectively fund the venture. I’ve seen signings with as few as eight authors, or as many as over a hundred.  Most I’ve seen have a few dozen. Why an author would want to participate in these events is obvious. However, I have a feeling that a few authors, new authors in particular, are going in with unrealistic expectations. I’ve both organized these events, and been an author attending these events when organized by others. What I find is that, too often, new authors think attending an author event is going to be the thing which launches them to the top of the best seller’s list. And while there are some benefits to signings, one should go in with a clear expectation of what the results are likely to be. New Authors, please consider the following before obligating yourself to an event.

  • Don’t expect to sell dozens of copies of your book unless you’re local and you get all your friends and family to come OR unless you’re already selling dozens of copies daily online (and even then…)  I was part of a signing last year attended by a number of first-timers. In the author discussion group (these events usually have a FB group or a mail list for organizational purposes), one author said she was ordering 50 print copies of her newly-released book and wondered if it was enough.  Those of us with a bit more time in the arena shook our heads and told her that was about ten times more than she probably needed. The fact is most readers who come with the intention of having your signature in particular will bring a copy with them.  When I hosted SFINE in 2013, even authors who were then on the NYT best sellers list sold at most a dozen copies of  each title. Don’t bring more than ten or so copies. If you have a series, only bring the first installment and one or two copies of additional installments. Tip: Having an option to pre-order or reserve books for the event on your website will help you know what the onsite demand will be.
  • The number of readers at the event can be huge. Or hardly any.  I’ve been to too many signings that included many authors, but not what I call a “marquee author.” There needs to be at least a few big (or at least, bigger) names on the ticket that will get readers in the room.  As great as your books may be, people will flock to a name they already know. I attended one signing with 20+ authors but no notable names. Over the two hour event, there were thirty attendees. I’ve also heard of signings where turn out was so strong, the line to get in stretched a city block. Also – and this one I learned from experience – ticket “sales” are poor predictors of attendance if those tickets cost nothing. What often happens with free tickets is that readers grab them thinking “just in case I can make it,” but then have little reason to cancel their tickets if they can’t, or no cost to simply not go when the day comes. Tip: Look for events where readers are asked to pay even a nominal fee. This will help assure the organizer can deliver you a sizable enough potential audience to justify the cost, as readers feel invested to attend. If the attending author list hasn’t been made public, ask the organizer who else is confirmed or to whom invites have been sent and are pending response.
  • Attending an indie author event ain’t cheap.  And they’re getting more expensive. The first signing I was invited to back in the fall of 2012 had no per table fee as the organizing author was footing the bill, but I still would have had to pay for travel. Between airfare, hotels, local transit, and shipping cost (you got to get all the swag and copies out there somehow) a single signing can easily run you over $1000. If you consider that you’re only likely to sell a few dozen paperbacks at most, the economics might not make sense. Even some highly successful authors I’ve talked to lately have decided to cut back or stop attending events all together because of the costs. In addition, most events require the author to chip in towards the costs of the event, with most asking between $100 and $400 to attend. Tip: Look for local events that you can drive to, and ask the organizer if they offer an option to share a table with another author for a reduced cost. Network with other confirmed authors to work out sharing a hotel room if you are going to be staying on site. You can find listings for some scheduled indie events at ReaderEvents.com or on this handy spreadsheet.
  • Selling books is not the reason you attend a signing. I know, this sounds like a conflicting statement, but believe me, you’re not going to sell many books there. What you are there to do is make a connection with readers, both those who already read your books, and with new readers. Your goal is to develop long-term readers who will be buying your book a week, a year, five years from now. Don’t focus on making a sale on sight. I have ALWAYS experienced an increase in sales in the few weeks following an event, while selling very few copies on the day of. Tip: Don’t sit at the table waiting. Hook people’s attention as they walk by. Engage them. DON’T just leap out and talk about your book.  Even if they don’t want to buy your book there, if you leave a good impression (and give them some swag with your branding or, better yet, get their email to add to your mail list), they’ll probably at least take a moment to look you up later. If you’re really brave, get rid of the table all together. (I did recently, and I had a much better experience).
  • Once you’re in the room, it’s your job to engage readers. I had one author who was really upset with me after an event because she felt, as the organizer, I didn’t do enough to get people to come to her table. I’ve actually heard of signings that have tried to make sure readers visit each author by putting them on a conveyor belt circulation style rather than letting them use a bee-to-flowers model. This results in frustrated readers, who then encounter authors they see as obstacles to getting to the person they came to see. I’ve already suggested ridding yourself of the table and engaging the readers, but don’t be afraid to use classic marketing techniques to encourage people to stop and make a connection. Tip: Eye candy brings a sweet eye. Use posters, banners, or media (have a tablet? run your trailers on it!) Quality swag goes home with the reader. Have a give away, or work with a few authors in the room to have a prize card that encourages them to visit you in order to receive a gift or enter a giveaway.
  • Just because you don’t live there doesn’t mean the tax man won’t come after you. The details of this are between you and your tax preparer, but don’t think that you don’t have to collect sales tax just because you’re not a resident of the state or don’t make that much in sales. Make sure you’ve done your research and complied with local laws for your own protection. You’d really hate getting hauled in to an audit and having to explain this one some day. Tip: Most states offer a temporary sales tax license for vendors at conference and conventions. Look for it, and be a good citizen. (Double this if you decide to do signings out of the country.)

Your two cents appreciated: