It might seem like an odd question, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about as I drive around Mississippi to readings and signings. Bookstores would seem like the logical choice — and they are, though I’ve also read at colleges, libraries, etc. Recently I heard a talk by a publicist who said she tried to get her authors speaking engagements anywhere but in bookstores, and maybe with good reason. Bookstores usually don’t pay an honorarium, and books sold at other events are often sold by the author directly, so there’s a bigger profit margin. So I get her point, but…
I’m still more than happy to drive a few hours to a bookstore at my own expense, give a reading and sign books for awhile, all without seeing any direct profit, only that eventual royalty check. So why do it?
First, I’m a poet, so if I were in this for the money, you ought to question my sanity. Of course, I want my books to break even and even garner a profit, but my expectations in that regard are fairly low. So if it’s not about the money, what is it about?
One answer is that it’s about getting books into people’s hands. We write to be read (and we hope to earn enough through writing to make it more than just an expensive hobby). Bookstores are where people who love books hang out. It seems like a logical place to find people who might want to buy your book!
Another answer (still thinking about the economics of it) is that sales in the store during a reading/signing are just the tip of the iceberg. A bookstore reading does a number of things. It gets the store to order your books and gets them to put up a notice about your reading. Your book is featured for a time. More people will see it, pick it up, and maybe buy a copy. Often by the time I get to a store, someone has already made a purchase.
You can post on social media about every signing, and usually the stores do, too. People see you as an active, interesting writer who goes to bookstores. And finally, when you’re at the store signing books, if the store will allow it, sign some more so they can sell signed copies later. These can’t be returned to the publisher, so they are books the store is essentially committing to sell. Even if only a few people show up to a reading or only a few buy a book while you’re there, you’ve likely sold several more copies through that store.
Which brings me to the main reason I’m happy to give a signing or reading in a bookstore: to support the store. Whether I sell a book or not, people will come into a store when there’s a reading, and they will buy books. Hosting readings, bringing authors to their public, is one of the roles a brick and mortar store can fulfill that the online megastores can’t. Having an author in their store promotes the store, and having live authors around helps promote reading. When I’m doing a signing, I talk to people about my book, but I also talk about books in general and about writing. Does it matter if they buy my book, if they are more likely to read a book?
In creative writing circles, we call this literary citizenship. It is part of taking part in the culture of writing and keeping that culture going by buying books, reading books, and writing about books. So if one person shows up or 100, connecting with each person, whether they buy my book or not, is important. So is reading at libraries, book clubs, universities, book festivals, and anywhere else you can find. Some may earn you more money than others, and hopefully that all balances out in the end. But I will always be happy reading to an intimate crowd in a bookstore or signing books and talking to a few people about what I write.