What if you gave a book signing and nobody came?
That’s what happened, more or less, to new author Chelsea Banning, who took to Twitter in despair in December when only two people came to the launch of her fantasy novel “Of Crowns and Legends” at an Ohio bookstore, even though nearly 40 had said they would come. “Kind of upset, honestly, and a little embarrassed,” she tweeted after the event.
And then suddenly everyone showed up: The tweet went viral and the replies began. “I did a signing to which Nobody came, except a guy who wanted to buy some Scotch tape and thought I was the help,” wrote Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood. “I did a book reading where only my husband’s cousin showed up,” tweeted Min Jin Lee, whose bestselling novel “Pachinko” was a National Book Award finalist and became an Apple TV+ series. “At my first SALEM’s LOT signing, I had one customer,” wrote megabestselling author Stephen King — a kid who asked if King could point him to the “Nazi books.” And Jodi Picoult, author of multiple bestsellers, tweeted that “I have sat lonely at a signing table many times only to have someone approach … and ask me where the bathroom was.”
Banning, whose second book signing sold out, is now feeling much better, writing on Twitter that she was “overwhelmed by all the love and encouragement in these replies.” But her thread served as a bigger reminder: In-person author appearances are back in local bookstores, after a long pandemic absence. And for every standing-room-only reading featuring a massively well-known name, there might be a quiet event, with empty chairs outnumbering occupied ones.
Spencer Ruchti, author events manager for Third Place Books, said his three stores are currently presenting about 15 to 20 author events per month total, with an average attendance of “anywhere between 20 to 40.” Of these, a little more than half are Washington state authors; the rest are from elsewhere, generally sent on tours financed by their publishers. Karen Maeda Allman, former longtime booker of author events for Elliott Bay Book Co. and currently a member of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ board, said typical numbers for her store would vary widely, from maybe 24 (or less) to 150 people. Both noted that book tours are becoming less frequent; Ruchti said that “publishers’ budgets have been a lot tighter” since the pandemic.
But bookstores are grateful to see even a few authors coming through: Zoom author events, common during the pandemic’s height, sold few books. Which is, of course, the primary purpose of an author event, benefiting the store, the publisher, and the authors themselves. (Most bookstore events are free, though occasionally a book purchase is required.) Typically, Ruchti said, maybe 50% of an audience will buy a book — though it could be far more for a local author, with people buying extra copies for friends.
And a sparsely attended event might still work out for the bookstore, in time. Ruchti remembered that Hernan Diaz came to Third Place’s Lake Forest Park store last spring with his novel “Trust,” close to the book’s May publication date, and “maybe 15 people” attended the event. Though few copies were sold at the time, Diaz signed a couple of hundred hardcovers, which were stored away in a back office for months. And then The New York Times 2022 Top 10 list came out, and the Booker Prize longlist, and Barack Obama’s reading list, all of which featured “Trust.” Suddenly everyone wanted to read this book, and “we were one of the only bookstores in town who had copies,” Ruchti said — signed first editions, at that.
The attendance figures that Ruchti cites are averages, but there are extremes on both end of the spectrum. For author Jamie Ford (“Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”), in town late last year for his new book “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy,” Ruchti thought they might have “a solid 40-person event” — but thanks to Ford’s tireless promotion on Facebook and the book’s popularity, over 200 people showed up.
And yes, they did have a no-show event recently; a children’s book author who Ruchti diplomatically does not name. It can be especially hard, he said, getting families to come out for children’s book events, and in this case no one came. (Banning, surely, would sympathize.) But the author was “extremely gracious,” and the staff chatted with her for the hour. “I’m going to remember that author forever,” Ruchti said.
For a smaller bookstore, it’s more about gathering readers together, said Laurie Raisys, owner of Island Books on Mercer Island, noting that she doesn’t think of author events in terms of book sales. “It’s nice if we sell books, but for me and for our store, it’s about community.” She tries to have an author event once a month when possible; a large event at her store, such as Taylor Jenkins Reid’s appearance for “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” might draw 50 people, while a smaller one is most likely single digits.
It’s important, she said, that authors do their part with promotion; bookstores will work hard to raise awareness of events, but fans of a particular writer might be best reached by that writer directly. She cited a recent example in which a local author — “a great writer” — had an event at Island Books but didn’t promote it on her social media until the day before, and only two people showed up. It was, said Raisys, “a wonderful conversation” between the author, the two audience members and two staffers, but it was frustrating. “There’s a certain level of responsibility on the part of the author,” she said. “It’s their book!”
Allman remembered giving “the tough love speech” to writers, encouraging them to promote their events among their circles. She’d tell them, “People don’t necessarily know that you’re going to be here, and you want them to know, because they want to come see you and support you.” As an example, she cited Abraham Verghese, who filled the room at Elliott Bay for his first novel, “Cutting for Stone,” by sending a personal email to everyone on his list. “Almost everyone who showed up for this book, they had all been contacted by him personally. They hadn’t read the book, but they knew his writing and they wanted to support him.”
And Lish McBride, who’s familiar with both sides of the equation as both a local author (her YA debut, “Hold Me Closer, Necromancer,” was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults”) and former bookseller, emphasized that meeting readers is only half of what’s important. “The other half is to meet the booksellers and meet the bookstore. It’s not a one-off event with them, it’s a continued relationship.” Booksellers are inundated with books to read, but an author who makes a good impression will be remembered.
“It’s a very small industry,” McBride said. “People move from bookstore to bookstore, and they talk. They’ll be saying, ‘Hey, we had this event, no one showed up, but the author was so nice and this is what her book is about.’ So you can still get something out of a no-show event.” And yes, McBride has had her share of no-show or almost-no-show events; she’s even written a survival guide about them for authors. Sample advice: “Don’t set fire to your book in effigy or sob uncontrollably onto the shoulder of the few people who did show up.”
Today’s low-attendance author may indeed be tomorrow’s bestselling writer. Bainbridge Island author David Guterson remembered a 1994 book-signing of his novel “Snow Falling on Cedars” at The Tattered Cover in Denver — attended only by his brother Ben. “There were apologies and as I recall a mention of snow being the only possible explanation,” he wrote in an email, noting that the bookstore at the time had sold exactly zero copies of his book. All was fine; he and his brother “have a long history of laughing together. Plus we had the whole evening in front of us now and could laugh our heads off. Which we did.” And he did get the last laugh: “Snow Falling on Cedars” eventually became a bestseller, a PEN/Faulkner Award winner, and an Academy Award-nominated movie.
But whether two or 200 people show up, an author appearance just might create the kind of bookstore event audiences remember long afterward. Allman remembered the graciousness of Celeste Ng (long before “Little Fires Everywhere”), the friendliness of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Elizabeth Strout, the charm of David Sedaris (who now fills huge halls, but was once an author who barely scraped together an audience of two dozen at Elliott Bay).
And Ruchti shared a story told by author Charles Yu (“Interior Chinatown”), speaking at Seattle Arts & Lectures last year and describing his first time in Seattle. “He didn’t say what bookstore it was, but it was for his debut novel, and the bookseller hosting sheepishly came down the stairs to greet him and said, ‘Hey, by the way, I should let you know before you go out there, there are only four people in the audience.’ And he replied, ‘Oh, my God, four people in a town I’ve never been to, who are complete strangers to me, who just want to hear about my book? That’s amazing!’ That’s a story I’ll never forget.”
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