Let's start with this: on the face of it there is not a lot for the author in a signing tour, and the more popular the author the less there is. If it's going well, it's exhausting; if it's going badly, it's exhausting and frustrating and a lesson in humility. I'm not certain it sells that many extra books; it simply means that books sold in that town will be sold mostly at this one shop. It doesn't hugely affect the bestseller list - Bookwatch, for example, 'adjusts' returns from shops that have held signings to ensure these don't distort the national figure, and a very successful author will have to work very hard to influence their position on the list. Meals happen at odd times or not at all. You live out of a suitcase. The world blurs.
Of course there are plusses, but these tend to be for the shop (if it sells a lot of nice shiny books) and the publisher (who consolidates a relationship with the shop or the chain). What the author gets, mostly, is indigestion.
We do it sometimes because we're bullied, we're vain, we've always done it, we have a vague sense that it's the right thing to do, a few of us just like it in some strange way, and - to borrow from another branch of the entertainment industry - we feel that however much work you do in the recording studio, it's not rock 'n roll until you take it on the road.
What you should expect from an author:
To be on time, to be polite to staff (you may need to modify this requirement in the case of one or two authors) and friendly towards the customers, and to stay to the end of the advertised time.
Then immediately you get into the grey area. Should the author sign backlist titles? Write a dedication in every book? Sign all the telephone orders? And orders for other shops in the chain? And, in the case of a successful signing, stay beyond the advertised time to send all the queue away happy?
My feeling is that the default answer should be 'Yes', but signing tours can be crowded, taxing, and generally designed to be the most unhealthy way of spending a few weeks outside the Lard-Eating Olympics. So those areas have to be matters of gentle discussion with the publicist beforehand.
What should the author expect from the shop?
In the last eleven years I've spent 15 months 'on the road'; and here are the little notes I've collected:
Before the event:
Are there books? Don't laugh. Sometimes there aren't - or, at least, aren't enough. You still run across the unreconstructed shop who thinks a good order for a signing is about twenty-five extra copies.
It's nice if the shop staff knows who the author is and why they are there.
A guest should get something further up the scale upon arrival than 'wait here and I'll go and find someone' or, possibly, 'Oh, was it today?' Remember: an author, no matter how successful, is under that cool exterior as twitchy as a shaved monkey, and will be pathetically grateful for a friendly smile and (assuming that they've been good and arrived well in time for the event) a swift stroll to...
...a chair in some office, preferably, rather than a stool in the stock room, where they have...
...a nice cup of tea and can loosen up a bit. I generally use this time to sign orders and stock, and listen to any scurrilous gossip. Authors will always appreciate hearing how much worse other authors' signings went (but if devilment overcomes you and you praise a known rival, you can actually see certain muscles in the author's face freeze up. This is great fun. But don't do it.)
I personally don't dedicate books ordered by 'phone except in special circumstances, simply because of pressure on time, but it's worth finding out from the publicist in advance how an author feels about this. The sensible mantra is 'We cannot promise a dedication on pre-orders because there may not be time' but I prefer to say 'no' right from the start if we know it's going to be a crowded tour - it saves raising and dashing hopes. Incidentally, the desire to get books signed for other shops in the chain is a natural one, but don't force it - most authors will be happy enough to do this if there is time, but don't get insistent and don't pretend that all 600 are really just stock for your own shop. It's been tried. Play fair.
If the local paper/radio/cable station contact you for an interview, for heaven's sake let the publicist know as soon as possible, it's best to pass the request straight to them. They may be able to arrange the day to fit it in, but that depends on knowing in advance. It makes for a tricky situation if they simply turn up unbeknownst to the author (mumbling something on the lines of 'we spoke to someone') and expect a 20-minute interview while the queue waits. That's bad manners.
It's a good idea to make sure advertising for the event takes place before the event. I wish I didn't have to say this.
Is there a table and chair? I wish I was joking, too. One shop once forgot these completely, and elsewhere I've sat on, at or around various strange items of bookshop furniture. It should be a real table and a real chair, not a stool in front of a shelf unit with no room for the knees. Try and put together something you would be comfortable sitting and writing at for several hours.
Give some thought to where the signing table is. I prefer to have my back to something - a wall, shelves, whatever. That means the kid with the blue anorak and one blocked nostril can't stare over my shoulder for two hours, which is off-putting (there's always one...)
Some shops like to put the author near the doors. This is a problem on winter tours - I've frozen before now, so try to put the table out of the worst of the icy blast. Shops in malls sometimes get the author to sign out in the mall. This is probably fine for a 'media' author or an author who can definitely draw a big queue, but it's hell on wheels for the rest. Besides, it's always too noisy and you get a Greek chorus of Uzis - the little old ladies that stand around glaring at the luckless author and muttering 'Uzi? Uzi den? Izeeonnatelly? Uzi?'
Vase of flowers on the table? That's nice, but someone will knock it over, so take it away when the signing starts.
A lot of authors travel with their own pens, but it's a good idea to have a few available, including a marker that will take on a shiny surface. Try to avoid Biros with chewed ends - they lack that certain something. The author may require -- or at least haughtily expect -- help with opening books at the right page and so on, although in my experience most are quite happy to get on with the event and require nothing more than that staff keep a look out for the mad axeman.
Give some thought to the queue itself. Try not to make it stand out in the rain. Some bookshops appear to think of queues as a nuisance to be punished rather than a long line of customers, whereas I will definitely go back to the shop which, having been forced to make the queue stand outside their (small) premises on a cold November day, went to the bakery across the road and got a really good deal on 250 hot mince pies. That was style, and probably good business, too.
Ladies with small yet terminally loud children should be ushered to the front while everyone still has their eardrums. I've learned that people in wheelchairs are usually happy (even determined) to wait their turn -- as one said to me 'After all, at least I'm sitting down.' It's worth tactfully policing a long queue, though, for those who will clearly suffer during a long wait.
If you have got a TV personality promoting something with a title like 'The Whoops-Where-Did-That-One-Go? Christmas Fun Book' don't pass comment if they spend a lot of time reading their book while they're in the shop. It may be the first time they've seen it. Do not offer to help them with the longer words.
Hardly anyone turned up? If it's absolutely no-one then something has gone really wrong, especially if you've done a decent promotion. It's probably not your fault. Don't leave the author alone but chat to them, keep knives away from them and tell them stories about how even this is good compared to what happened when Miss X did a signing here.
Have loads of people turned up? In the wash of relief, most authors will at the very least sign for everyone who was present in the queue by the official end of the signing, and many of us will simply sign until we run out of people or time. There are a few (rumour says) who will leave at the end of their hour no matter what; if they want to give a bad impression to a large number of readers, this is their choice. Be stoical about it, bear in mind that there may be another event that day, and it may have been a very long week already. A good publicist should have budgeted the time correctly, but we're all prey to unexpected six-mile tailbacks on the motorway.
Care and feeding of authors
Since many signings take place over the lunch hour, a snack is appreciated before or after the signing. A sandwich is fine, although the author may well have been living on sarnies for weeks and would be pathetically grateful for a jacket spud or something exotic. Haughty demands for smoked salmon and champagne -- well, that's up to you. I can't help you there, but you will probably be prosecuted if you hit anyone with a fire extinguisher.
Authors have their likes and dislikes and these get magnified as shops pass on the information. According to rumour I demand sushi, Australian Chardonnay, kumquats, chocolate-coated coffee beans, those little blue things in Liquorice Allsorts, and gin and tonic. No, it's all a mystery to me, too. Some shops go out of their way to put on a good spread (so's the staff can fall on it when the author has gone) and this is good PR, but in truth authors tend to eat lightly on tour because their stomach is knotted into a figure eight.
These are 'signings-lite'; the author and publicist drop in while they're in town to sign some stock. Do not underestimate them. A bit of friendliness and a sense that this is a welcome occasion will pay off. Treat it like a proper signing, but without people. The author will remember. Trust me on this. I've done stock signings at shops that left me feeling guilty that they weren't given a 'proper' event, and insisted that we do them 'properly' next time we're in town.
Please make sure that whoever arranged this event is either there or at least has made it known to the rest of the staff. There's going to be some icy looks if the author is greeted with ‘You're here to do what?’ and there will also be a feeling that if a shop cannot manage a stock signing that doesn't leave the author feeling like an scribbling intruder they may not get behind a full signing either.
Do make sure there's someone around to say 'goodbye'. Perhaps you'd be surprised at the number of shops who seem to think an author is an automated signing engine. My publicist and I have wandered mystified out of empty shops at the end of a long signing because the staff have all bogged off somewhere to count the money.
Authors are impressionable, especially on tour. Some shops have impressed me so much that they are the shop I will sign at in that particular town. Organising a good successful signing is part of that, of course, and that does not have to mean a huge queue, just a sense that the shop made an effort. What authors recall is 'that was the shop where they did that really good coffee/cracking window display/were nice people', and you get a reputation as a good shop to sign at (which spreads among authors, believe me.)
Sometimes shops shyly give little presents, like a bottle of wine. This is nice, but really, really is not required or expected by real authors (and may even be an embarrassment if the author is travelling light). If generosity sweeps you up, then suggesting that they select a book is a good idea all round. But a simple 'Many thanks' works wonders.
Written in 1999 for Ottakar’s, Pratchett’s “Advice to Booksellers" was published in A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-fiction (Doubleday). Reprinted with the kind permission of Colin Smythe.
Sir Terry Pratchett, the author of more than 70 books, died last week at the age of 66.
Image by Rob Wilkins