Eons ago, when I rode the Park Service Visitor Center desk, I could see them arrive. Frazzled. Overwhelmed. On an itinerary–five parks in five days! Plopping their elbows on the counter, they would ask the Question That Cannot Be Answered.
“If we (pay for the cave tour, drive to Hurricane Ridge, take the bristlecone pine walk, etc etc) is it worth it?”
I would stare them down. Just like, “How old do you think I am?” when asked your age, there is NO RIGHT ANSWER to this question. How much is something worth? In the case of book signings, it is tempting to say, LOL, NOPE. Because honestly, it’s a lot of effort. You can’t just lurch to the podium and launch into a chapter. You have to think of what to say that will make sense to the audience, make them want to read the book. Then you have to decide what to read from it. I have chosen wrong, on occasion, because there are certain sections that speak more to certain audiences than others. Should it be funny? Dramatic? Sad?
Then there’s the fact that you can hurl yourself across country on your own dime (very rarely does your publisher pay for this) and you probably will sell maybe five books at the event. And when I say you, if you are being hosted by a bookstore, I mean the bookstore. There really isn’t a lot in it for them for that little amount of sales. At least in my experience, many people will come with a book in hand (that hopefully they have bought from said bookstore, but sometimes not) wanting you to sign. Which is great, but doesn’t do much for new book sales.
And another thing. People nowadays want to be entertained. An author droning on from their book really isn’t that much of a draw. When I added a slide show to my Geography of Water talks, it made a huge difference. Turnout is hard to predict even so. I have a friend who does presentations of her hike on the Te Araora Trail in New Zealand that draw hundreds of people (it helps that they are at REI, but the presentation is well done) and when her book is eventually published (she is looking, email me!) I would expect that to continue. But for the rest of us….it’s fair to say that book signings are a financial loss.
But. Maybe you aren’t in it for the money (who can really be, anyway?). I love the questions people ask. I love seeing people discover my books. There’s no price you can really put on that. As frustrating and hard as it can be sometimes, I’ll keep doing the signings as long as people ask.