Gay romance fiction

Signing Bonus: claiming your stall at the inkslinger’s cattle call

by Damon Suede

(A-game Advice was a monthly column offering practical tips for winning promo that fits your personal style, strategy, and measure of success.)

For genre authors, public signings are part of the professional landscape. Most conventions build up to a massive public signing, and sometimes the signing represents the entire event.

To encourage hustle and flow, organizers often situate name-brand authors at end caps or separated along the room’s margins. As readers navigate a path to the big names, they may meet new authors as well…in theory at least. Authors sit in some order so readers can browse, grab photos, and harvest signatures. For an event, it provides obvious press-worthy appeal: all that talent and craft under one roof! Sure it’s chaotic and crowded, but fans have access to personalized messages and facetime, gathering proof they’ve really, truly spent a few moments one-on-one with their fave writers.

Of course, with the incessant mutation of publishing, what used to involve sixty authors may attract six hundred or more. Worse: many readers don’t actually want physical books anymore, or don’t hang on to the physical copies they already own. What exactly can a signing provide these days? A lot of fans aren’t collecting souvenirs at a signing so much as gathering evidence of their own enthusiasm.

That’s pretty weird when you think about it. Why would folks want to stand in line for hours to pay full price for books they already own, just for some ink on a page or a hug or a selfie?

Because of you.

A book provides private, internal, emotional entertainment; readers have seen through your eyes and heard you speak inside their heads in painful and private moments that echo in their real lives. Your voice and imagination has taken readers on wild rides across fascinating landscapes. A signing arranges us in orderly, interactive rows so they can find us, corralling all those stallions under a single roof, so that the punters can come visit and give us a lump of sugar.

Or not. What they want is not the stable, but the ride.

With the explosion of indie and hybrid publishing, signings have grown wildly overcrowded with authors who expect to make their names in a couple hours sitting on their butts behind a pile of books. Do not expect a signing to conjure fans out of thin air or kick your career from dirt to stars. All too often, young writers turn up on the day convinced that sitting behind a shared table in a hotel ballroom is going to magically transform them into Sylvia Day or Julie Garwood. This is self-involved nonsense.

If you think about it, a signing is an atrocious place to attract new fans: hundreds, even thousands of strangers, deafening noise, overstimulation and distraction. It’s more of a raucous bonfire, not a friendly backyard barbecue. Instead, treat a signing as a place to connect with existing fans who have missed seeing you elsewhere and to spread general enthusiasm (and publicity) for the genre.

At best, a signing gives you a place to harvest the seeds you’ve planted before it began, either at a convention or in your prior career activities. Remember: the signing is not for YOU; it’s for the readers. Treat the signing not as promotion but as service to your genre community. This isn’t group therapy and the readers don’t owe you anything. If you didn’t invest time prior, don’t be surprised if no one shows.

What if you didn’t do your job prior and no magical line of slavering minions starts lining up at 7am to touch your hem? If you’re too lazy to lay the tracks, don’t be shocked when the train doesn’t pass by. That’s on you, boo. Just sit there and eat your ego pie. Be gracious in the moment and do better next time. Besides, it doesn’t have to be all about you. You’re sitting in a room filled with people who love this genre and work like hell. If someone else has a crazy line it’s because they DID their job leading up to today. Support them, celebrate them, learn from them.

Be thankful someone is there to show you how it’s done and take wisdom where you find it. Before every signing the first thing to determine your goal and the context:

  • How big of a draw are you on your own? How much time, stuff, and space do you need to merit a healthy return on investment?

  • Who does the event attract? How much time can you afford to spend with each visitor? What do you want to emphasize and encourage?

  • Are you promoting a title, servicing existing fans, meeting new folks, supporting colleagues?

  • What does your existing audience prefer, print or e-book? Swag or souvenirs? Facetime or public display?

  • Do the new readers who connect with your work tend to lurk, gab, or tremble at the perimeter?

  • How many copies do you need? At what cost? Are you sure? Why?

  • What’s the smartest, sanest way to prepare for setup, survive the melee, and break down after?

Every signing will not be a slam dunk. Sometimes you do all that prep, work the conference like a pro, and still no one shows up. Too bad, so sad. In some ballrooms, you’re gonna end up a wallflower while everyone else dances with Darcy. What to do, what to do? Smile. Relax. Find joy in the moment because it’s there even if it wasn’t what you expected. You get paid to make up stories just like these other folks. That’s a legit blessing. Be happy for your popular neighbors. Find a way to engage with readers who do stop by, but above all be grateful and relax.

And for heaven’s sake, please don’t hide behind your phone if you feel bored or ignored. Texting and tweeting defensively does you no favors in the personal outreach process. Anything that distracts you (or your neighbors) from the attendees for more than 15 seconds is rude and unprofessional. Rude and unprofessional is not a brand; it’s a cry for help which no one is obligated to give you. Readers got themselves into that room and they deserve your attention.

Play well with others! Because of pen names and subgenre, organizers tend to group certain authors in clumps. Over a healthy career, you will spend hundreds of hours sitting next to the same ten to twelve neighboring colleagues. Respect your signing ‘hood. They will remember your graciousness and/or your jackassery. Be a stellar ambassador for your own brand. Share extra supplies if you can and accommodate reasonable requests. Be a positive presence so that they’ll return the favor. Tit for tat, yo!

Leave the megaphone and fireworks at home: you are only one tile of this crazy mosaic. Keep it relaxed and civil and easy on the cacophony. You’re sharing a room with anywhere from several hundred to several thousand people. Don’t bellow like a carnival barker… let alone shriek, whine or broadcast displeasure just to force everyone to play a role in your personal telenovela. Sheesh. Your colleagues have their own fish to fry and your hysteria is not their problem. If you can’t play nice, don’t come to the park.

Do yourself a favor by doing everyone else a favor: Help your neighbors. Take photos. Chat openly and help freely. People will remember the emotional experience you give them. If you’re bitter, toxic, or whiny THAT is the emotion you attach to your brand. If you develop a reputation as a perennial mess or a con bully it will stick. A signing can turn into a zoo, so don’t be a beast. Stack the deck in your favor with some basic signing courtesy:

Pack your bags! You should have extra pens including a Sharpie for slick surfaces, water, breath fresheners, and lozenges. If you’re using your phone, consider buying a small portable battery to keep it charged while you’re on the floor.

Pen it right! If you write under a pen name, practice that signature a few thousand times before you show up. Make sure it feels natural and meets brand expectations. Also learn the places you have space to sign easily on your swag and book’s front matter.

Mind the gap. Decide how much swag and signage is reasonable, desirable, and ideal. Respect the space you’re given and don’t slop onto your neighbors, even if their space is empty. Their space, their choice. Broadcast your brand stylishly and professionally, and allow everyone else to do the same.

Roll with it. Be ready to scrap any banners too intrusive or distracting because of event rules or hotel codes. They’re cool, but they don’t matter enough to make a scene. Better that you be known as a team player than a vicious loudmouth who can’t stay sane without a piece of overprinted vinyl.

Spell it out. You’ll forget fan names right after they say them. Simply ask to see their con badge or have them spell it. Always verify exact spellings. If you botch their book, replace it graciously and eat the cost.

Rack it up! Consider the display options. Anything that foregrounds your book covers and lifts reader eyes to your face is a bonus. Shop for portable racks and mountings online. (For more options, see our display supply list at

Move it along. Whenever you attract a long line, learn to nudge them along without rushing them. Pre-signing your books with a simple message can save time and you can always add their name as they approach. And don’t forget to keep your blood flowing: stretch your legs, snap photos for your neighbors.

Keep it clean. If things are slow, tidy your space and see if anyone else needs help. And don’t leave your area like an abattoir. Someone has to scrub up after, and you don’t want a reputation as a jerk.

Take a break. Always try to set aside time to recharge before and after a signing if humanly possible. Signings require constant, upbeat focus for hours at a time, exhausting even the most dedicated extrovert. Breathe. Shower. Rehydrate. Call your family. But take a moment to clear your head and reset your psyche.

And a final sobering note: over the past few years I’ve heard many authors say they were skipping an entire public event because they didn’t snag a space in the signing. I’ve seen bestsellers OUTRAGED they were compelled to sit next to a “lesser” name who might bogart their fans. I’ve seen newbie authors show up expecting to pay for their entire conference by selling a hundred books. That is ridiculous. Two hours on your butt behind a table as a promo strategy? Seriously? On what possible basis? A signing doesn’t make you significant money, win a larger audience, catapult you to fame and fortune, or even promote your titles efficiently.

If you think signing behind a table is the best reason to attend an event, you aren’t paying attention to the numbers, the facts, or the fans. Mythologizing signings and their mystical value to any career betrays a deep, unprofessional myopia and a fundamental ignorance of the industry. At best, your seat at a public signing is service to the genre. At worst it can devolve into a childish ego-tastic delusion. You don’t sign so fans can come pat you on the head; you sign so that you can thank them for supporting your voice.

If you ARE a genre-defining name-brand author, sitting in the signing is a courtesy to the event and your readers. But if you aren’t a name-brand author with a constant line of 80 trembling fans, the most significant, useful portion of any genre event takes place in the days leading up to the signing. Why would you skip the meat of the promo opportunities, then gripe about not getting your chance to suck on the gristle and bone left over?

A signing is not a single-focus catapult for your personal convenience, but a gracious tide that lifts all boats.

And remember, there’s always another signing down the road. A signing offers essential market research live and in 3D. Notice what works, what sucks, and how you can raise your game the next time. Learn from your mistakes and celebrate your successes. Think about how the next signing could be better.

When you attend a signing, be clear  about your goals and the obstacles between here and there. Know what a signing is and is not. Make the most of all your opportunities and invest your energy where it can improve your professional life. And then show up, pen in hand, and give the love back where it belongs.

A professional development article for writers by M/M author Damon Suede

Copyright 2017. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved

Originally published as part of A Game Advice for the Romance Writers Report.

If you wish to republish this article, just drop me a line.