This year has been an adventure of author appearances for me. I’ve been to three events at the local library (with a fourth scheduled for next month), I did a signing and writing workshop over the summer at the local Barnes and Noble for their first annual B-Fest for teens, I attended both ConQuesT and WorldCon in Kansas City as a guest panelist, and just this weekend, I did a second signing at the local Barnes and Noble—my first ever solo signing, and which just so happened to be my best.
— Brooke Johnson (@brookenomicon) October 22, 2016
Next year, I expect to be ever busier, with three SFF conventions already scheduled and the intent to fill the gaps with local signings and events in both my hometown and neighboring cities (which I haven’t mustered the nerve to do just yet). It’s overwhelming and downright scary to think about all of the future appearances I’ll be putting in over the course of next year, but in truth, it’s something that I just have to do if I want to find success as an author. The first step is going from unknown to known. Then comes the success. Or so I tell myself.
I take heart in knowing that many authors started just exactly where I am right now: planting myself at a table in front of a bookstore for hours on end, hoping someone will stop by and show interest in my books; doing panels at conventions where I feel like the least qualified person in the room; or setting up a booth at a local makers faire and hoping for the best. At worst, I sell no books and lose a Saturday or a weekend trying to foist my books on unsuspecting readers. At best, I do sell books, whether that number is less than five or much much more, and in the process gain new readers and new fans for the next book. And the fact that I sell any at all is still a marvel to me.
(In truth, I have never wasted my time at an event, even when I don’t sell much at all. I go to events with the intent to do more than try to sell books. I network with other authors, with booksellers, with readers, with other nerds, and I learn what I can to improve either my craft or salesmanship. If I learn something or merely enjoy myself, then it was time well spent. Selling books is secondary to that.)
But after doing all of these events over the past year, I’ve realized one very important thing: success is relative. At my first ever event as a published author, well over a year ago now, I sat at a table with about six or so other local authors for the local makers faire, tucked away in a far corner of the library. I sold five books that day, and all of them were to people I knew. I was disappointed, though I didn’t have any real expectations to start with. I was shy and didn’t know how to talk to strangers, much less convince them to buy my book. So I mostly chatted with the other authors, told myself that I’d do better next time, and made the most of it.
The next event I did was a local SFF convention, a horribly organized three-day event with poorly attended author panels and a spot in the vendor’s room where I could sell my books between panels. I sold thirteen books over the course of those three days, made what few connections I could with the other local authors (some of whom I still keep in touch with), and did my best to seem like I knew what I was doing even though I didn’t have a clue. I sold more books than I expected (though less than I hoped), so that was a win for me. I told myself I would do better next time and pocketed away what little experience I gained.
My first year of doing events was a lot of that: showing up and doing my best with absolutely no expectation of what I would get out of it, and selling a few books in the process. At first, it felt like I was putting in significantly more effort than the rewards earned, but I kept on. We writers play the long game, so that’s what I have to keep reminding myself, that all this work now will lead to the inevitable moment when I walk into a room and people know who I am, what I have written. (Obviously, I’m still working toward that moment, but I have faith it will happen someday, just like the other, better-known authors who came before me.) I continued to do more events, a few hours here, a Saturday there, and sold a handful of books each time. I committed to get better at being a Professional Author. I learned how to talk to strangers. I learned how to talk about my books. I learned how to talk in front of an audience. I learned from the other authors around me.
And with each new event that I did, I told myself that I would improve even more for the next one. I started going to larger conventions, and I kept practicing those skills, which coalesced most recently at WorldCon, where I was on panels with Hugo Award winning authors and editors, the proverbial kings of the publishing industry—and here I was, the unknown author in the room whose minimal qualifications were questionable at best. But I put on my Professional Author face, I extroverted my ass off, and I made myself believe—as well as the other panelists and the audience in front of me—that I had just as much reason to sit in front of a packed room and talk about writing as the person sitting beside me. Did it pay off? I don’t know. I sold a few books and made some new connections. I put in the time and effort to learn what I could in the whirlwind that is WorldCon, and I can now take those lessons and be better prepared for the next convention I do, and the next one after that. The experience was valuable in a lot of ways. More than anything, I think it gave me more confidence in myself and my career. This is what I do now.
When I sat down at the small table at the front of Barnes and Noble this weekend, I didn’t expect much. The staff were much more optimistic than I was and had ordered nearly twenty copies for me to sign and sell over the course of the next five hours. I’d only sold six copies at the last signing I did with them, so that was about what I expected this time. I hoped I would sell what they had ordered. I dreaded the thought of the store sending the books back to the publisher, unsold and unsigned.
I brought a notebook with me, thinking I might get some work done between the one or two signings per hour I expected to get. I set up my bookmarks and postcards, arranged the table to my liking, and sat down with my coffee and scone, ready to face whatever the day would bring. This was the first time I had ever been on my own, with no other authors to talk to or laugh with, so I was a bit nervous. I prepared myself to be ignored, to be the elephant in the room everyone was so determined to avoid making eye contact with. I prepared myself for disappointment. That was my experience so far. But with every person who walked through the door, I put on a smile, said “hello, good afternoon”, and hoped for the best.
And people actually stopped.
The first few didn’t purchase either of my books, but they gave me the opportunity to settle my nerves and practice my pitch—“Hi, I’m a local author. This is my steampunk adventure series with Harper Voyager. Are you familiar with steampunk? It’s Victorian Age science fiction, clockwork and steam-power machines and all that. This is the first book in the series. It’s about…”—and so on. I stumbled a bit at first, but refined the pitch with each subsequent customer, until I could deliver it smoothly. I’d been at it less than fifteen minutes when someone purchased a copy and had me sign it. Several more people stopped over the next hour. People purchased the first book more than the second, and before I knew it, two hours had passed and I had run out of copies of the first in the series, the stack of second books barely depleted. I called my husband and had him bring more from home. More customers stopped. Some bought the first book only. Some bought both. I ran out again before my husband ever made it back to the house. He brought more.
definitely well stocked now. lol pic.twitter.com/B06na4qJdI
— Brooke Johnson (@brookenomicon) October 22, 2016
I finished the day with thirty-one books sold, nineteen of the first book and twelve of the second book. Literally my best signing ever. Actually, probably better than my last year of events combined, now that I think about it. And according to one of the assistants, it was the best author signing the store ever had. So, for an event I expected to sell maybe six or so copies (with a hoped-for ten copies) of my book, I sold over thirty.
Part of me—the pessimist part—is convinced my success on Saturday was a fluke. There’s no way I will sell that many copies at a single signing again, not for a very long time anyway, when I’m more well known. Thirty copies sold in a single day is a number I would never have even dreamed of a week ago. But it happened. Fluke or not, it happened. And I’m grateful.
My next event is just three weeks away now, another multi-interest geek event at the library, not likely to net many book sales (certainly not thirty!), but that’s okay. I’ll be there to talk about writing a novel more than trying to sell my own, but for every person who stops at my table, takes a bookmark or business card, asks about my writing, I will be there to tell them about it.
Which is better than not being there at all.