For years, I’ve read in publishing trade journals, or heard in speeches, or been advised in the bar at conferences that it’s a good idea to develop relationships with local booksellers, and that it certainly never hurts to pop into any bookstore where your work is being sold and offer to sign the copies in stock. Indeed, I often hear my fellow novelists talking about what a warm response they’ve received upon casually dropping by bookstores to sign stock, about what good public relations this is, even about the word of mouth it helps to create.
Work in theory. In practice, though… it’s never gone well for me.
The first time I tried this seemingly simple public relations strategy was years ago, after I’d done about half a dozen books for Silhouette under the pseudonym Laura Leone. I was laughed out of a local Waldenbooks where the manager (a) didn’t believe for a moment that I really was Laura Leone and (b) said that no one was allowed to sign books without the district manager’s permission—and, no, they weren’t willing to track him down just for my benefit.
Nor was this the only time I received this sort of you-must-be-INSANE response when popping in to offer to sign books for a bookseller. However, one place, attempting to console me with the knowledge that there was nothing personal in their refusal, assured me that they’d given the same response to some mystery writer who had dropped by a few weeks earlier. They thought his name was Ed McBain or something.
After that, as you may have guessed, I took a long break from casually popping into bookstores and offering to sign my books. But when my first fantasy novel came out in the late 1990s, In Legend Born, a hardcover with shiny raised type and glowing cover quotes and good reviews and everything, I decided it was time to get back on the horse.
So, okay, I gird my loins and boldly pop into a local chain bookstore where I offer to sign my new book which has been on the stands for a couple of weeks.
They don’t have it. And their computer lists it as still unpublished, which is why they haven’t even ordered it. Moreover, they think this is a glitch in the entire computer system for their chain nationwide, meaning the book probably isn’t in any of their stores.
After being revived by paramedics, I go home and make lots of phone calls, but I never get any clear answer to this disturbing claim, and I eventually wind up just wishing I’d never popped into that bookstore in the first place.
But I’m a slow learner. So next… I casually pop into a bookstore where a friend has seen my current book on the New Releases table. It’s a local independent that’s about a 10-minute drive from my home (at the time). This, I assure myself, is the sort of place which thrives on establishing friendly relations with local authors.
I enter the store and identify myself. The bookseller stares blankly at me. He certainly doesn’t appear pleased to see me. I offer to sign his (two) copies of my book. He hems and haws, sways and stutters, gurgles and gibbers. Hoping to move things forward, I ask if he perchance has any “Autographed” stickers on hand? His negative response is issued in a tone suggesting my question is in bad taste, along the lines of, “Will you model a sequined thong for me, sir?”
I say that that’s okay, I have brought some “Local Author” stickers with me which we can use instead.
A look of dark suspicion comes over his features. “What would these stickers look like?”
I pull them out. (You know what they look like. Little gold stickers that say—wait for it!—Local Author.) He reluctantly agrees to let me sticker each book (probably because he has seen that he can easily peel them off). But when I open the cover of one book and flourish my pen, an expression of panic crosses his face, and his tongue stumbles over a request that I NOT DO this terrible thing.
He’s so distressed, I’m confused and embarrassed for a moment… And then I realize why he doesn’t want me to autograph my books.
“Because… you want to be sure you’ll have no trouble returning these for full credit?” I venture.
He burbles his agreement, pleased I have so perfectly understood his position.
Absorb this with me for just a moment: A local independent bookseller refuses to let me sign two (2) whole copies of my book because he’d rather vigorously protect his right to return them for full-credit than try to sell them. (I don’t even know if a signature would indeed impede returns on a hardcover; but he obviously isn’t willing to risk it.)
I’m now so angry and appalled that the power of speech deserts me (so that’s what it takes, in case you’ve wondered), and I stumble out of the store without another word. (Needless to say, I’ve never returned there as a shopper or an author.)
Tired of being treated over and over as if autographing my own books was defacing, damaging, or devaluing them, I ceased going into stores and offering to sign them, and I ignore authors who advise me to do so. I also ignore authors who advise me to get around this surprisingly common problem by sneaking into stores to sign-and-sticker my books by stealth. Given my track record, the best case scenario is that I’d be escorted out of the store by a security guard if I did that.
However, it’s interesting to note that among the stores above which I can specifically remember (I’ve forgotten some over the years), none of them still exists. The Walden Books is gone. The store that turned away Ed McBain is long gone. The local indy that wouldn’t let me sign In Legend Born is still there, but it changed hands and now sells books only as a sideline (being primarily a café, along with selling jewelry and other goods).
I love bookstores, I want to see them survive and thrive, and I have enjoyed and valued my many encounters with savvy booksellers and well-run bookstores. But I cannot mourn the demise of bookstores that treat authors who offer to sign books as intruders, party crashers, or weird vandals.
Laura Resnick is the author of the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series, whose releases include Disappearing Nightly, Doppelgangster, Unsympathetic Magic, Vamparazzi, Polterheist, and the upcoming The Misfortune Cookie. She has also written traditional fantasy novels such as In Legend Born, The Destroyer Goddess, and The White Dragon, which made multiple “Year’s Best” lists. She began her career as the award-winning author of fifteen romance novels, written under the pseudonym Laura Leone. An opinion columnist and frequent public speaker, she is also the Campbell Award-winning author of many short stories.