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How to sell out at a book signing without being a celebrity

When Jane Sutter Brandt told me about her hometown book signing plans when we met for lunch in March, I knew it would be a huge success. I asked her on the spot to write a blog post for us after it happened. Jane is an award-winning journalist with more than 30 years of experience writing, editing, blogging and managing newspapers, magazines, and web sites. She resides in Rochester, N.Y., where she runs Sutter Communications, which provides a variety of services including writing, editing, public relations, and social media. Her book, Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy: A Memoir of 90 Years of Sutter Drug Co., was published in April 2015. For more information visit her blog or Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter.

How to sell out at a book signing without being a celebrity

By Jane Sutter Brandt

I recently returned to my hometown of Burlington, Iowa, for a signing of my first book, Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy: A Memoir of 90 Years of Sutter Drug Co., about my family’s business, which existed from 1903-1993.

It was an amazing success: I sold every book that I had with me – all 99 of them. The book store owner ended up taking orders for two dozen more that day.

I must have done something right, right?

Book signing success tactics

Here’s my to-do list of tactics that contributed to my success:

  • Write a marketing plan. Putting a plan on paper forced me to focus on public relations in advance, in addition to developing ideas for the event itself. I modeled my plan after ones I’d seen in books and on the Internet. Ultimately I didn’t do everything on the list, but I did much of it.
  • Develop a partnership. Chris Murphy, the owner of my host, Burlington By The Book, alerted the Arts Center of Burlington next door about the signing two months in advance. His enthusiasm was contagious, and Assistant Director Hillaurie Fritz-Bonar came up with the idea to schedule a coordinating event involving “Pop Art” exhibits to draw people downtown to meet up-and-coming artists.
  • Build excitement in advance on Facebook. Of course, we had a Facebook invitation page and I created a Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy Facebook page. But a key to my success was a page called “Pictures of Burlington, Iowa,” to which anyone can contribute photos (new and old). While I was writing the book and before the book event, I would post a vintage photo every few weeks. Some of these generated more than 300 likes and more than 100 comments. So, when the book signing came around, people’s appetites had already been whetted.
  • Share part of the book in a blog. My book signing was on May 2 and on March 17, I launched a blog using WordPress. Just like on Facebook, I shared interesting photos with a few paragraphs of information. On the right side of the blog’s homepage was information on the book signing. I promoted the blog via Facebook and Twitter.
  • Plan the book signing as an event. I called it “Sutter Drug Store Homecoming and Book Signing” in press releases and on social media. I invited former employees and patrons to come meet other Sutter family members and reminisce. My mother, sister, and cousin were all there to greet people.
  • Be diligent about contacting local media well in advance. I mailed press releases with copies of the book about a month before the event. The local newspaper did a large article with photos on the Sunday before the event (and covered it the day of). In the interest of full disclosure, I was a reporter at that newspaper in the early 1980s but almost none of that staff remain. The local talk radio station did a live interview with me on the Monday before the event.
  • Make the event participatory. I had a poster board on an easel and colored markers and asked attendees to write memories using colored markers. Many did. It’s a treasured memento now, which I’ve shared on Facebook. I asked every person whose book I signed if I could have my photo taken with them. Most said yes, and my family took turns shooting photos with their iPhones. (I posted these on Facebook later.) A headshot of my great-grandfather was another prop.
  • Have promotional materials to give at the event. My budget was limited, so I opted for business-size cards that simply stated the name of the book, my name and phone number, and the URL for the blog. I put a card in each book after I signed it.

And a few regrets

Sutter's Sodas SatisfyI have a few regrets from the day:

  • I didn’t have enough books with me. When I returned home, I mailed enough for the additional orders and then ordered more from my printer.
  • I needed a guest book that people could sign and include their email or mailing addresses.
  • I also would have had my family who took photos record the names of each person they photographed.

My homecoming book signing event was memorable in so many ways, and I’ll apply what I learned to future book signings.

What have you done right at your book signings? What would you change? Please comment.

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  1. Thank you Jane Sutter Brandt for inspiring me to take the 2 hour drive to the Hometown of my children! I’ve been thinking about it for quite some time, but life happens and we put things off. Your article provided the spark of an idea that will make it a huge success if I can get the venue I want…Right in the middle of everything during their summer celebration. So again, thank you for the right information to get my creative juices flowing!!

  2. Congratulations, Jane on your successful book signing. Thank you for sharing your tips for success. It’s clear that planning ahead is a key factor in maximizing the chance for success. What fascinates me is the unplanned benefit when you sent your press release and book to your local media. Getting a feature story in a Sunday edition is huge. Your tips are very practical and proven. I’ll be sharing them!

    1. Kathy, I’m so glad you liked Jane’s post! I know she will comment later, but I’ll add that as far as the media exposure/publicity is concerned, Jane knew what she was doing — she knew what would interest the local press and she knew how to present that information to them. I would have been really surprised if she didn’t get any advance publicity. You can’t “expect” it, but you can manage things so that it’s likely.

      Thanks for stopping by!


  3. Hi, Kathy. I would also add that if you don’t hear back within a week or so from local media, don’t hesitate to re-email them or call them. When I didn’t hear back from a host of an Iowa Public Radio show, I re-emailed her, and she told me that she had overlooked my original email, and that she was interested in featuring me on a show. Reporters and editors get a lot of email, and just can’t give each one the attention it deserves on a given day. I know that to be true, as a former journalist. “The squeaky wheel” often does get the grease!

  4. I love the idea of participation for those who attend – something for people to do and get engaged. Brilliant and easy to adapt.

  5. Thank you for this important post! It’s especially cool that you shared the regrets.
    I had the opposite problem. I had plenty of books & I should have been happy with the ~35 people who showed up. I was expecting more.
    It just occurred to me that s friend of my husband’s made a video. We just saw them a couple days ago and I didn’t even think to ask him about the video!
    I feel like there is so much to do & to remember, that it’s really hard to get everything right!
    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

  6. I’m just a beginner, but I enjoy listening and reading your comments, I hope you know you all have been helpful to me. My books have been printed and I’m trying to decide where to start selling, I never did anything like this, I’m a retired pipefitter and excited about this venture.
    Thank you, Bob

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Bob. I’m grateful to Jane for sharing her experiences here.


  7. While Jane isn’t a national celebrity, her connections and book topic make her a bit of a local celebrity. I can tell that she did an excellent job with marketing. Still, those efforts would likely not have yielded the same results if she had launched the book in any other city. For those of us whose topics aren’t tied to a specific locale, getting the attention of local media is harder.

    1. That’s especially true in this case, Julia, because it’s a very regional book. People in another region will be far less interested than those in Jane’s family’s hometown. Your best bet when it comes to local media is nearly always the media outlets where you live and work.


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