It’s Hard to Write a Book. Harder to Get People to the Book Signing.

From a Wall Street Journal story by Chris Kornelis headlined “It’s Hard to Write a Book. Harder to Get People to the Book Signing”:

Years after she started writing her debut novel, Chelsea Banning settled into Pretty Good Books in Ashtabula, Ohio, on a Saturday in early December for her first author signing.

She waited with neatly stacked paperback copies of her book, “Of Crowns and Legends”—which she calls a King Arthur reimagining that takes place 20 years after his death. She had props, including a crown, a little statue of a knight kneeling and holding a pen, and pictures of friends dressed as her characters, in medieval garb.

The 33-year-old librarian in Girard, Ohio, whose real name is Chelsea Vandergrift Podgorny, was optimistic. Friends in the area said they wanted to stop by and have their books signed, and 37 people responded to the Facebook event listing that they would attend.

During her three-hour signing, just two people showed up.

The next morning, Ms. Banning tweeted to her roughly 100 followers that she was “pretty bummed about it…upset, honestly, and a little embarrassed.” She felt a little sheepish after writing the tweet and planned to remove it, she recalls in an interview. She didn’t want the no-shows to feel bad.

Then, Henry Winkler chimed in. Yes, The Fonz himself.

“That is the beginning,” the star wrote, retweeting her post to his one million followers. “Then word gets out and they come!”

She isn’t sure how, but her online confession had gone viral and was ricocheting around the arts and literary world. Thousands were retweeting it, including big-name authors. She had exposed a truth of the publishing business. Lonely events are a rite of passage for authors.

“Join the club,” Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and many other books, responded. “I did a signing to which Nobody came, except a guy who wanted to buy some Scotch tape and thought I was the help.”

Stephen King—the king of horror himself—jumped in, writing, “Dear Chelsea Banning: When you do your next signing, let us know. We’ll let EVERYBODY know.”

In an interview, Mr. Winkler says Ms. Banning’s tweet struck a familiar chord. In 2003, he held an event at a book store promoting the first installment in the Hank Zipzer children’s book series he wrote with Lin Oliver. It was billed as a reading and a chance to meet Henry Winkler. Six people came. “It doesn’t get easier,” Mr. Winkler says.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz says one person, a friend, attended his first reading as a published author. “I did a reading for my friend and the embarrassed booksellers and called it a win,” he says by email.

Jodi Picoult, who has sold millions of copies of her books, says once, at a signing at her hometown bookstore in Hanover, N.H., she sat alone until a wandering patron needed help finding the bathroom.

Paul Bogaards, who ran publicity campaigns for 30 years at publisher Alfred A. Knopf and now runs his own company, says the in-store author appearance is, in large part, a holdover from a time when they generated local-news coverage. As local news has shrunk, filling seats is harder.

This hasn’t diminished the author’s desire to pitch books in the flesh, Mr. Bogaards says in an email, “if only for one person eating a Twix bar in the front row.”

The same day Ms. Banning signed books to a sparse audience in Ohio, Jon Land was at the Rhode Island Author Expo promoting his new thriller, “Blood Moon,” which he wrote with Heather Graham.

More than 100 area authors spread across a hotel ballroom, waiting at tables laden with books, and lures to entice browsers.

Mr. Land, who has written dozens of books, deployed one of his regular sales tools—free candy. The children come over and take some, he says, and parents feel guilty and buy a book. But the best way to get customers to engage at a signing, he advises, is to bring a child yourself.

“You’re much more approachable if there’s a kid standing at your table with you, everybody feels like: ‘oh, he’s got a kid so he must be a good guy. I’ll go talk to him,’ ” he says.

Mr. Land has done events where he signed hundreds of books and others where the pen gets little use. He once read at a bookstore the day after mega-seller Lee Child. Four people sat in the 100 or so chairs left up from Mr. Child’s event, and two of them were there to see Mr. Child, but had the wrong day.

Emily Powell, owner of Portland, Ore.’s Powell’s Books, which hosts many author events at its three locations, says some writers are such big draws Powell’s hosts their events at a concert venue.

She says it isn’t uncommon for first-time authors to have inflated expectations for their first events.

“Even the phrase ‘author tour’ or ‘reading tour’ sounds so exciting,” she says. “And, of course, it can be a lot of drudgery.”

In October, Ms. Powell went to see a friend, Christopher M. Hood, read from his debut novel, “The Revivalists,” at one of her stores. The only people there were her employees.

Mr. Hood, who runs a creative-writing program at a high school in New York City, sees thinly attended events as paying dues, a way to connect, and didn’t expect to sell many books at the events in the first place.

“How many people come thinking: ‘well, I don’t know, what am I going to do with my evening? I guess I’ll go to Powell’s and hear this unknown writer and if I like what they have to say, I’ll pick up a copy of their book’?” he says. “That’s no one, basically.”

Ms. Banning, the author in Ohio, says she has since gained thousands of Twitter followers, held a packed signing at her library, received interest from literary agents and sold 7,000 books.

She has another signing coming up at Pretty Good Books. Stephen King has already tweeted about it.

Chris Kornelis is a writer and editor based out of a town near Seattle. He writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

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