Shameless: How to Fail a Book Signing (but Not the Writing Life)

“Art is born out of humiliation.”  W.H. Auden

I had a fantastically unsuccessful book signing in a big box store not long ago. (Yes, signings still occur, despite the takeover of social media.) Afterwards, licking my wounds, I turned to a book on my own shelves, Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame. In it, Margaret Atwood, Rick Moody, Billy Collins and a constellation of such literary brights offer up the most companionable ignominies and embarrassments. (Fittingly, I bought the book used, online, for a penny.) My own parade of humiliations that night were paltry next to theirs. Still, couldn’t I do better?

Two weeks later, an Internet search on “book signings” confirmed my suspicions. According to several book signing experts, I did indeed do everything wrong. First, I missed the Webinar on “The Seven Steps to Turn Yourself into a Celebrity.” In another  article, I violated nearly every one of thirteen steps, beginning with, “Decide, in advance, what sort of clothing you want to be seen wearing by your reading public.”  (Did I do this? No.) Step #6 advised bringing along a printout of your manuscript for fascinated readers. (Really?)  My most egregious error was the last step: my failure to inform the store managers that I would be the bookstore’s official greeter while I was there. Nor did I walk around with several copies of my book introducing myself to everyone in the store, as he advised, pressing my own books and bookmarks into their astonished hands.

I would rather demonstrate the wonders of Balinese kitchen knives through the Christmas season at Walmart than resort to such tactics.

We all know we need to successfully promote our own work. But when we sacrifice leisure, sleep, money, and most costly of all, time with our families so that we can write, none of us makes these difficult choices to be stalkers or hawkers with a leer and a bookmark. We write because we believe in our deepest-down spirit that God has called us to keep naming the world. We write to serve a meal to the famished, to dress the wounds of the betrayed and lonely. We write to offer hope and a story to the depressed. We write to offer clear thinking in a muddled marketplace. We write in humility, in insecurity, in desperate prayer.

And when our book releases, shall we then don our best barracuda suit, polish our teeth, slick back our hair and begin the hard, shiny sell, suctioning ourselves to every unfortunate person who innocently wanders into a bookstore? Did any of us sign up for this?

Let’s take a breath. We don’t need to sell. We don’t have to sell out or sell ourselves short, or sell our own snake oil. We need to offer. We’ve just spent two to three years composing, listening for God; we do indeed have something to offer. We offer our work, and, more importantly, we offer ourselves. In all of our promotion, we need to think, how may I serve others? How may I serve my readers? We might end up giving books away—a lot of books. We might do some speaking gratis. We might end up on the short end of the accounting sheet. We might end up praying with a stranger. But at the end of the day, the year, the decade, we’ll count it differently:

We got to give. We got to give more than we knew we possessed. We got to be part of a global conversation. We got to know new readers, who taught us more than we knew. We got to pray for strangers who became friends.

Don’t listen to “sell-a-ton-of-books” schemes when they violate who you are and what you’re to be doing in this world. Go ahead and “fail” a book signing if you must. Be a real writer, without shame.

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23 thoughts on “Shameless: How to Fail a Book Signing (but Not the Writing Life)

    • Good. And good for you—and good for your readers. You do have something important to offer to them, no matter how many or how few. Thank you for your faithful persistence in writing what only you can write.

  1. Oh, Leslie… been there, humbled, and failed at that. Last book signing I did I felt like holding up a sign that said, “Will sign books for food.” I’d rather do almost ANYTHING to promote a book than a book signing. Thankfully, publishers aren’t pushing authors to do them much anymore, as there are (mercifully) many less humiliating and more enjoyable ways to get the word out now.

    • Yup. So agree. Because the post here is short (as needed) I did leave out all the funny particulars of the humiliations—like, the store manager plunked my table down right in front of the entrance, so anyone who entered or left practically tripped over me and my books … . sigh. Who buys books from a traffic violated?? But yes, social media is so much fun in comparison!!

  2. Bravo, Leslie! Loved this. I appreciated your emphasis on serving and giving and the contrast of “offering” to “selling.” Thanks for this excellent post that is so timely for me.

    • Thanks so much for reposting, Wendy. I know that pachyderm lives in my living room—and office and bedroom and every other corner of the house. But–I am determined to live and write without shame! (Thank you!)

    • Anita–thanks for reading and writing back. My favorite “get to” is being part of a larger conversation out in the world. I am still amazed that I “get to” contribute …

  3. Thank you, Lesieley. Your words are filled with Godly wisdom for everyone., As a Christian writer, I want my focus to be on producing an inspiring story and to bless the reader. Sometimes that means making a sacrifice of time and money when it comes to the marketing part. Thank you for your honesty in describing your book signing experience..

    • Pat—you’re so very welcome. I would have described my humiliations in detail but for space limits here—they were so very humbling I just had to laugh loudly—afterwards. But the great virtue of being a writer is that you can always write about it. And the virtue of being a Christian is you can always gain wisdom from it! Thanks so much for reading, Pat!

  4. Wow. I love your last paragraph. Yes, we are all writers trying to make it in a tough business, but that’s no reason to go against your true nature and your true self.

    • Jessica—-yes, we do have to live with ourselves at the end of the day—and at the beginning of the day as well. We’re all finding our way in this less-than-brave new world. Thanks so much for reading!

  5. Loved reading this days away from turning in my first “real book” to Zondervan. I have totally switched genres, from “how to” youth ministry books to “Finding our Faith in the Dark”. Thank you for reminding me why.

    • Wow Laurie—congrats on this big move, and your perch on the edge of launch. I hope you take many deep breaths along the way, and that you’re given the strength to labor in faith, and rest in faith for whatever comes .. .

  6. I used to work for a Barnes and Noble. Some of our book signings were successful, others weren’t. However, I have never seen any of the successful book signings include any of those steps mentioned above. I think you’re okay : )

  7. Leslie, I loved your line about selling the Balinese knives – I feel the same way about book signings. At least the knives would only last a season, unlike book marketing which involves signings all year round! I’ve come to have rock-bottom expectations for book signings and much prefer doing signings in conjunction with a festival or other event – more people are around and I don’t feel nearly so obvious about not packing in the fans. My best signings have been at small local gift stores with a loyal customer base – the customers are chatty and friendly even if they don’t buy.

    • Jan, I’ve had some great signings in certain places—but not random bookstores. I won’t do them anymore unless they’re local—or connected to a speaking event I’m doing. Well, the good in this is that even failure, in the hands of a writer, and even better a writer who knows God, can be precious, and even, in the end, terribly funny!

  8. I loved this post. I’ve been there too. Humbled and walking away discouraged. It’s not easy sitting behind a table and being a salesman. I like the idea of giving books away.

  9. Leslie, I’m so glad you wrote this! I often feel inadequate or disgraced when I hear or read urgings such as a the one you describe here, because I know such actions would violate my sense of honor, service, and self. Thank you for putting down words that legitimize a different approach and sense of values.

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