In praise of book clubs that actually buy books

Chihuly florabunda rose

Chihuly florabunda rose

I’ve still got a residual glow from my Sunday visit to a book club meeting at Lake George. The women of the Illiterati bought lots of my books – both Mood Swing and Eldercide – and now I’m trying to figure out how to find more groups like them. I’d been feeling increasingly jaded about in-person appearances, and I was terrified on the way up to Camp Wiawaka. Not because of my impending talk, but because I was running late as usual and took a gamble with the gas tank. By the time I was nearing my exit on the Northway, the lone remaining bar on the fuel gauge was blinking ominously, and I glided into the camp’s driveway on little more than fumes. The suspense was worth it, though, because these ladies rekindled my enthusiasm for face-to-face talks and signings.

I was invited by Ruth Van Brocklen, whom I’d come to know through our participation in the Mental Health Players, an improvisatory theater group that performs before a wide variety of community groups in an effort to raise consciousness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Ruth bought both my books when they came out, and she’s a high-energy woman of contagious enthusiasm, so I imagine she had little difficulty persuading the others to choose me as featured author at their annual get-away. I only wish I knew more readers like her.

These women actually expressed a sense of responsibility about buying my books. Since I’d driven 65 miles from home and wasn’t being paid for my time, that was the least they could do, several of them said. That’s the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. I’ve done quite a few readings and signings over the past two years, primarily with the Mavens of Mayhem, the upstate New York chapter of Sisters in Crime, at Capital District libraries and independent bookstores. By and large, sales have been disappointing. Often readers have told me that they’d love to buy my books, but that they’re on tight budgets and they simply can’t afford it. They tell me they’ll get them from the library instead, which would be okay, except that I’ve been remiss about getting my books into the various branches of the region’s library system.

Blaze of Glory climbing rose

Blaze of Glory climbing rose

Maybe it was flying solo that did the trick. I had a whole hour to talk about my books, read excerpts and field questions. The fact that we were all sipping wine in a beautiful lakeside setting didn’t hurt either. With panels of four or five authors, in contrast, usually none of us has sold more than a couple of books. At least one author has theorized that when a group of writers speak, readers feel guilty about buying from just one or two of us, so they end up buying nothing at all. A few months ago, five Mavens spoke at a small bookstore. We outnumbered the audience, and not one of us sold a single book. On top of that, the store’s owner told us afterwards that she couldn’t carry any of our books, not even on consignment, because she didn’t have the space. Just being there to spread the word and build our reputations should have been more than enough, she said. I feel the bile rise in my stomach even as I write, and it’s not just the black coffee I’ve been sipping all day.

But after my experience with the Illiterati, I’ll probably seek out more talks and signings. I love hearing the laughter, the praise for the quality of my writing, and I love signing my books, stuffing cash and checks into my handbag after my talk. When I tallied up the returns after the rainy drive home, it occurred to me that my writing might actually contribute in a meaningful way to my family’s standard of living. What a novel idea! Next time, though, I’ll leave ample time to gas up before I go. After the signing, I managed to get safely back to the sole gas station on Lake George’s main drag, but that kind of brinksmanship and the resulting high anxiety can’t be good for my cardiovascular system.  

What are your experiences with book signings? Which venues work best? Where have you found the audiences most likely to buy? What about group vs. individual signings? Are signings worth the time and aggravation? And the most pressing question of all: how do you find those book groups?

17 thoughts on “In praise of book clubs that actually buy books

  1. What a grat post, Julie. I’m really glad the event worked so well for you. Particulalry as you say driving so far and not being compensated any other way. I’m sure there must be other book clubs like that with similar thoughts of supporting their guest who is giving time to be with them. It surprises me how there seem to be different personalities of groups – even at libraries. I used to live in Burbank, CA. There are three libraries within probably a 5 mile raidus. One of them doesn’t attract audiences at all for special events, and one of them brings fairly good sized audiences in who seem interested in the speaker and buying the books. I never had the opportunity to attend signings at the third library. I’m not sure where the difference lies in bringing in the supportive audience. That seems to be an illusive answer.

    Nancy, from Realms of Thought…

  2. I’m still trying to figure out the answers to those questions, Julie. It often seems that what works one time may not work the next. What works in one library fails miserably in another. It’s a mystery!

    Did I really say that?

  3. For me, the niche markets work best. I can sell a couple of cases of my paperback “miniature mysteries” at a dollhouse show or a dollhouse/miniatures store. I’m the only author amid a hundred vendors of small things!

    At a bookstore, however, I’m one of a hundred authors they may have hosted this month. And I’m not a household name.

    And don’t get me started on Indies vs. chains. There are good and bad in both — not every Indie is accepting of small presses (as in Julie’s example) and not every chain is evil.

    Much to think about from your post, Julie

    Camille Minichino/Margaret Grace

    • Thanks for visiting here, Camille. On which site did you find me?

      Sounds like you have a great niche market. I have a couple of them too – the mental health field, and bipolar consumers in particular, is a biggie I haven’t even begun to explore. And then there’s elder care and issues of aging. There are lots of readers who care passionately about these topics, but they’re not exactly fun or cozy, so it’s tricky to find out how. Hmmm, there’s another blog topic . . .

      Anyway, I hope you’ll stop by again!

  4. Hi Nancy, Patricia and Elizabeth – thanks for checking in! I guess none of us has the perfect answer, but it helps to keep sharing.

    Now I’m off to a pool party given by a woman in my Nia group at the Y. She’s bought both my books, and she also belongs to a book club, though she hasn’t invited me to speak at it yet. As usual at public events, I’ll bring some of my books, but I’ll keep them stashed in my trunk to avoid seeming too obnoxious. For this party, I’m more concerned with my pedicure, shaving in judicious places, etc. What a bore! Usually not of great concern to me. (Sorry, this is probably too much information – and don’t even get me started about the flea bites on my feet!)

  5. I’ve only done individual signings. Never been in or found a book club, but then I’ve never sought them out, either. This post makes me think maybe I should.

    Signings are fun, I love to interact with people, and I’m a natural entertainer, so it’s great sport, and selling books and signing them for people is like the best!

    Marvin D Wilson

    • Hi Marvin. Sounds as if you’re a genuine extrovert – how fortunate for you in terms of your public persona. I’m basically an introvert according to my Myers-Briggs. I can enjoy interacting and being “on,” but sometimes I have to put on an act.

      How do you entertain people when it’s just you alone at a signing table? I wish I knew!

  6. After 300 store appearances but only a handful of book club appearances, I’d like to do more of the latter.

    Book store business has been dropping for the past couple years and the past year or so even worse. I used to do so well, but it’s a struggle now. But that’s still hit or miss, as I doubled my previous sales in one particular store just last week. (Also the B&N in my home state ONLY do group signings, and I really prefer solo ones.)

    It’s FINDING these clubs that’s tough! Tough to find listings for them. Meetup seemed promising, but the ONLY response I received ended up cancelling the date the night before because she slacked and forgot to promote that there was a meeting. And as a professional speaker, I live by the rule one NEVER cancels!

    Bottom line, it’s my speaking engagements that pay the bills. Book sales elsewhere are just fluff – when they aren’t eaten up by promo costs. I make far more money doing my seminars – and sell more books at these speaking engagements – than using any other venue.

    And writer’s conferences? Don’t even waste your time trying to sell books. Writers don’t BUY books. It’s the oddest thing I’ve ever seen…

    L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”

    • Thanks for a most informative post, Diane. Gives me lots to think about, especially since as a creative arts therapist, I used to do lots of workshops and trainings. Makes me think maybe I should shift gears a bit.

  7. Mark and I have signed books at stores, bookclub meetings, festivals, and restaurants. We’ve had very successful and unsuccessful days at all (except bookclubs – only one experience so far and it was great).

    Different factors seem to play into level of success. At our first festival, for example, books were part of the theme. We were told “Authors on the Square” would consist of authors at signing tables. That turned out to not be an accurate representation. Our little signing table was dwarfed by publishing house booths with hundreds of selections. Also, the estimated attendence of 10,000 was off. I don’t beleive more than 200 people attended – and most of those were kids who showed up at 4 PM to meet Santa.

    At the other end of the spectrum, any time we’ve been asked to speak, people have shown up ready to buy – from as few as 12people to an SRO crowd (that was exciting).

    Being plopped at a signing table has never worked for us. We’ve tried all the recommended tactics – standing, talking to anyone who ambles by, putting candy on the table, etc. However, at one of the stores where we sign, an employee reads the book in advance of the signing and stands at the front door to hand out bookmarks, tell people authors are in the store to sign books, and tell people about the book(s). This always works well. We see sales while there and the store sees elevated sales for a few weeks afterwards.

    We, of course, enjoy any opportunity to meet readers, so these events are always fun – even when we drive 70 miles out of town, meet 20 people who take giant steps away from us when we say we write murder mysteries, and don’t earn enough to buy lunch at those golden arches. (Yes, this really happened and it was our first ever booksigning.)

    • Thanks for the comment, Charlotte. Learning of other authors’ experiences is enormously helpful. And you’re fortunate to consider these events “always fun.” Actually, I can say the same in terms of group appearances, since I enjoy talking and scmoozing with my fellow authors – yes, and readers too.

  8. Hi Julie,
    I have to agree with L. Diane Wolfe. I sell more books at venues where I can tell people why I wrote the books. I’ve gone to a couple of retirement communities and someone recommended that I try places like rotary clubs.

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