We just had Brian K. Vaughan in for a very successful signing for the "Saga" hardcover -- hundreds of attendees, and a brand new record for "Best Day Ever" in our 25-year run. Beat the previous by over 20%, too, so this one might stand for a while.
We've done a ton of signings over the years -- enough so that I've actually long ago lost count -- starting with sixty-three different ones in the first five years of business. Slightly more than once a month! But then we pulled way way back after that, only doing a small handful most years -- signings weren't "special" anymore, and it is absolutely positively possible to do "too many" events and to burn your customers out on them.
These days we tend to just do events that are "zero" cost, or make them really special -- like with BKV and the first "Saga" HC (really, just a gorgeous piece of quality comics in an excellent package!).
I was asked at least a dozen times at the signing last week how we pulled it off, so I figured there's enough general interest in how the backstage stuff works.
So: the first step is simply to ask.
I mean, duh, right? But the way we arrange signings is by asking.
Now: we have at least one structural advantage -- we're in the beautiful city of San Francisco, and that's a place that many people want to visit, even outside of promoting their work. It makes it an easier "yes" for certain, but you still have to ask.
And in the case of a guy like Brian K. Vaughan, you have to start asking a long long time ago, because he's so busy.
I started asking BKV about the possibility of doing a signing in July of 2012!
I e-mailed about the crazy success we'd been having with the comics at the time, with that link, and basically revisited the topic every three months thereafter. Eventually, I wore him down.
For big signings, that kind of 2-3 years of planning is not that unusual -- for both our last, and our next, Neil Gaiman signings this is about the same time frame of asking. Busy creators are busy, with many many people who are competing for their attention.
Now, "smaller" signings almost always proceed faster -- there are certainly events we've done with 3-4 weeks of planning, and even a few with a "Hey, I'll be in town next week" (though, honestly, I hate those because that's just enough time to make a solid plan and to properly promote things) -- but I like having at least 8 weeks to put things together.
There are several components in pre-planning an event: estimating your audience, organizing travel and lodging and meals, promoting the event.
The first step, for me at least, is trying to figure out who an event might natively attract, and then how you can expand the audience beyond that. By this I mean that a work that is currently selling five copies is probably not going to attract hundreds of people to line up for the author, and while you might be able to double or treble the audience in that case, if you work hard, you have to have reasonable expectations about who is going to attend.
By the same token, if you're having a Big Name like BKV, you have to plan for hundreds of people showing up, which takes a different kind of strategy.
In a way, at the base level, having a signing is as simple as setting up a table and chair, making sure there are books to sign, and pens, and refreshments for the guests, then just setting up a greeter to keep the crowd moving (and not crowding the guest, etc.). Pretty simple stuff. But when you're expecting hundreds, you need to have a tighter plan.
For BKV, I even went the step of writing out exactly how it would work so that every attendee understood the plan and policy. Let me reprint that for you here, now:
BRIAN K. VAUGHAN APPEARANCE GUIDE
We are preselling SAGA HCs starting immediately.
People who buy a HC will be assigned a number in a FIFO fashion. The first person to pre-buy will be #1, the second will be #2, and so on. This FIFO positioning will be between both stores! (305 Divisadero St. and 2381 Ocean Ave.) It doesn't matter which store you buy it at, or if you purchase a copy over the internet, we'll do FIFO by time/date bought!
We will give people their number when they pick up their pre-sale copy -- which you can do starting on Wednesday 11/19/2014 -- any time before the signing. ALL COPIES HAVE TO BE PICKED UP AT DIVISADERO ST. You may pick your copy up the day of the signing, obviously. We will not know your number until that Wednesday (because: two stores), so please do not ask before. Copies bought between the Wednesday release date of the book and the signing on Saturday will be assigned a number on the fly.
That number will then give you a general "time slot" to show up, rather than having to line-up early. In other words: people who are #1-20 will be let in between approximately 3 and 3:15, #1-40 will be let in between about 3:15-3:30, #1-60 will be between 3:30 and 3:45 <------ THOSE ARE NOT EXACT TIMES, YET.
The goal is that if you are #64, you'll know that you don't need to show up before 4 PM, rather than having to get in line at 10 or 11 AM and wait for 4-5 hours. We expect a very large number of people attending, and we won't be surprised if we have up to 1000 attendees, so managing a pleasant experience in line becomes a paramount thing.
The day of the event, we will provide regular updates on twitter (ie: "#1-15 can now line up," "#1-30 can now line up" and so on) -- that Twitter account is @comixexperience, so please consider following it.
If you are person "#1," that doesn't mean you are "the first person in line," per se (though you might be!), it just means that you'll be able to show up at any point during the signing and get "right in." Person #64 "can't" get in before 4 PM. (for example)
Person "#1" could show up at 6 PM if that's better time for them, and they won't have to wait for more than a few minutes because we'll be allowing in people #1-200 (or whatever) during that period -- the first 180 of which have hopefully already cycled through.
There will be a three-item limit on items signed -- the HC and any two other things for most attendees (though, clearly, you could buy the HC, and not have it signed, if you really wanted to). If people want more than three items signed, they can get into the non-preorder line (see next point).
Because we don't want to cut out people who have supported BKV's career for years, but whom don't want to buy the HC (though: it makes a lovely Christmas gift!), we will have a secondary line. That line will be a traditional line-up-and-wait set-up. People in this secondary line will be allowed in as space allows in the line. While it is possible that a person in the secondary line could be allowed in the first 20 minutes, it is probably much more likely that we're talking about a 3+ hour wait, depending on the number of people attending. People pre-buying a copy of the HC will be guaranteed to meet BKV, those who don't (or who get back in line for their fourth+ item to be signed!) may not be (but we'll make every effort to accommodate everyone, to the limits of BKV's stamina).
Copies may be pre-purchased at either store (305 Divisadero St. or 2381 Ocean Ave.); or over the telephone (Divisadero only: 415-863-9258) with a credit card. We prefer in-store transactions, though, because it saves us about 1.5% of the cover price of the book to when the card is "not present." We can also take Paypal payments of $54.36 (that includes sales tax) to firstname.lastname@example.org that will FIFO by time stamp-received. Please make sure to include a phone number with any Paypal order, in case we need to contact you!
If you have any questions whatsoever, don't hesitate to e-mail email@example.com or call 415-863-9258! We're looking forward to seeing you at the signing!
The short version is essentially: instead of making people line up, we gave them numbers and a rough time to show -- this meant that wait times out on the street were closer to 15-20 minutes than the 2+ hours it would otherwise be. By giving people the ability to pop over to the cafe for a coffee (or the bar for a drink), and not lose a place in line, it makes it a much more organized and stress free event.
If you're doing a signing that lasts three hours and you expect only fifty people or less, you don't have to do anything remotely that complicated -- that's more than enough time to move everyone through the line, and the waits will be pretty low. It's only for Big events that this kind of numbering system needed at all.
Or even that level of written out communication.
For BKV, I also wrote out instructions for the staff -- we had eight people working that day, so it was important to have everyone on the same page. Here is a little backstage action of what I wrote out for the staff:
OK, so here is the general outline of the plan and how things are going to work for the BKV signing.
I've made a horrible little sketch to roughly outline positions.
Person A: In some ways, this is the most critical position -- the person standing IN FRONT of BKV has the job of keeping people about 3-5 feet away from him. At the same time, they're making sure that each person getting an autograph is READY to do this. This means making sure that each person has no more than three items, that they are out of any bags and boards that they might be in, that the shrinkwrap is off the HC, etc. BEFORE they're moved up to the table to sign. With approximately 45 seconds allotted per person (what Neil Gaiman called "The Endless Parade of Belt Buckles") their job to make sure that things are ready so as to not cut into that 45 seconds. "HI, it's almost your turn! Are you excited? Please make sure that everything you want signed is out and ready to go. No, hon, you can't have four things signed." And so on. High energy, all smiles! The Good Cop!
Person B: stands on the other side of the table. Person B is "security," but also the one who keeps people moving after BKV has given them their time. This person will also be the "Can I take a picture?" people's actual picture taker. Will be the one who says to BKV "Are you tired? Is it time for a break?" every hour or less. This person coordinates getting BKV water or more pens, or whatever he might need, and makes sure HE is always happy. This person will be saying, "We need to make sure things keep moving, would you mind taking your conversation back outside?" to people who will clump up on the right side of the store. Not quite "Bad Cop," but absolutely high-end nightclub bouncer. (Without violence -- these are comics fans, not drunks!)
Persons C & D will be crazy busy at the beginning as they'll be responsible for pre-sold copies -- "checking people in" (looking them up, crossing them off, letting them know the score) You'll be repeating the same speech a lot: "Here's your copy, and this sheet of paper shows your number in line. When your number is ready, you can line up in the line to the right. The other line is for walkups." As the event goes on, probably one person can handle the Check-ins, while the other one will switch to suggestive selling (since they'll both be at the BKV display we're going to make on top of the back issue bins) -- "Oh, yes, EX MACHINA is a great comic because blah blah blah, and have you read PRIDE OF BAGHDAD?," because we really want to sell everyone something other than just the HC, if we can. Other than that, both people should also have square and a dongle ready to act as back up cashiers, as needed.
Persons E & F will be Behind the Counter. One will be doing the actual ringing-through on MOBY of stuff, while the other will be there for "express lane" purchases -- if someone is just buying the HC and nothing else, they can quickly ring up that $54.36 (or $108.72 or $163.08 or whatever) through Square without parsing those sales through MOBY. We're strongly hoping to not have people stack up at the reg, so having as many people as possible who can help move people through is a great idea. If there aren't any Express Line customers ready, switch over to bagging purchases, or running the credit card, or any other way in which the line can be kept as short as possible and helping the "Main" cashier.
Person G is the line manager, and question answerer. "This line is for people who have bought the hardcover, this one is if you don't want the HC." "No, if you're not here for the signing, you can go right in." (We're open for non-signing business, of course.) "No, if your number isn't (whatever we're letting in right now), you can come back in (whatever) minutes." "The next 5 people can go in! #1-80 only" You're the one keeping track of WHAT number can be let in, and controlling the steady flow of people getting in. Hopefully this person can also be doing regular twitter updates every 15 min or so, since they'll be the one keeping track of numbers. "OK, we can now take 2 people from the walk-up line" and so on.
Person H is me: with no set position, but pacing back and forth between all positions covering and supporting and giving people breaks and generally being Mr. Rourke on this particular Fantasy Island ("Smiles, everyone!").
Honestly, the Guest Experience will be largely about keeping the lines moving, about keeping energy levels up -- hopefully the number system will keep people from having to wait TOO long, and getting grumpy.
We're building the schedule based upon the notion that each person will have 45 seconds, but it may adjust up or down depending on how BKV wants things. Our initial schedule, which WILL CHANGE as the day goes on is:
10 am: store opens, any people already lining up should be instructed to go to the left (the side with the window display) -- the right side (where books are displayed) is for HC buyers.
2:30 pm (no later): all staff will be in place, last minute instructions, etc. Even being there at 2 is probably not a bad idea.
3 pm: signing starts -- assuming 45 seconds per person:
(Detailed timing instructions here, including 15 minute breaks, once an hour)
Now, if BKV takes more like 60 seconds per person then things will look more like this:
(Detailed timing instructions here, including 15 minute breaks, once an hour)
So, any questions from anyone on how this is going to work? I'm certain that I've forgotten SOME aspect in this first draft. Please please please voice any concerns or "I don't understand!" or anything else, please!
Turned out that Brian was taking more like 90 seconds per person, so my plan was shot from the word "Go," but at least we had a plan we could adjust from, and we weren't flailing about trying to figure things out.
Now, again, 90% of signings don't need this level of fretting and pre-planning, but even without the detailed breakdown, this is generally how it plays out during a signing -- you don't want to have more than "X" number of people inside the store at one time (variable based on the size of the store, etc.); for us that's maybe 8-10 attendees at a time. After that, they need to go outside so you're not blocking off too much of the store, or access to the register, etc.
Further, you want to, whenever possible, to accommodate customers who are not interested in the signing! This could be a significant number of people, and you don't want regulars to feel like that they can not shop, or are not welcome in the store.
Mechanically the goal is to keep people moving, make sure everyone has a great time, reduce crowding or bottlenecks, and service regular customers as well.
A strong pre-plan can drastically reduce headaches on the day of the event!
In addition to the kind of line-up pre-planning we've been discussing here, you need to think about logistics for getting your guest to the store. This can include getting them to your city in the first place -- though, generally, I'm not very likely to pay (all of) flights and hotels for anything but a "Big Name" guest because that's a large nut to crack all by itself; you generally need to at least triple those kinds of hard expenses just in order to break even on events. If you're paying $200 for a flight, and $100 for a hotel, and there's $50 of meals, etc. then you really need to do $1000 in sales just to break even, because of the cost of goods, and cost of promotion and extra labor. That's not very hard if your guest is promoting a $50 hardcover book, but it is very very difficult to do if they're signing $3 comic books.
For me, a significant portion of the reasoning in doing events is to both support/reward the existing, as well as build a new audience, for a creator or a work. The very first time we had Neil Gaiman in for a signing, way back in 1990, I'm certain that less than thirty people showed up (no one knew who Neil was back then), but Neil also slept on my couch because he wasn't Rock Star Famous back then. But those thirty then became proselytizers for both Neil and "Sandman," because they had such a great experience, and that's one of the reasons he went on to become Rock Star Famous.
Either way, it's really easy to blow your chance of breaking even by having too many up-front costs. You don't have to break-even or be profitable when you do an event -- sometimes you do it just to be "cool," or enhance your reputation/build your community, and that's fine as long as you go into it with that mindset.
Like I said back at the top of this, I did for my first five years, before pulling back to a more fiscally prudent response.
Either way, you have to get the guest to your store and home again, so you're going to want to confirm, and reconfirm, and maybe even reconfirm one more time, of exactly what the travel plans are and who is supposed to be when and where. If you have someone picking up at the airport, or that kind of thing, make sure they get their early, not late. Make sure you have a phone number for everyone involved, so that if there is a problem of any kind, it can be dealt with.
(I actually made that mistake, recently, with a publisher-sponsored event; I did not get local contact information for the creator, so when there was a minor miscommunication about start times, we had a hectic few minutes of playing telephone tag that was nerve-wracking; and if it had been an East Coast-based pub, they would have been closed due to the time difference, and that would have been much more difficult to get answers.)
Then you have to promote the event.
There's a lot of range of how to do such things -- everything from the essentially-no-cost "send your mailing list an e-mail" to taking out paid ads. For big signings we will occasionally do paid advertising (I spent about $100 on targeted Facebook ads promoting the BKV signing), but usually in-store ads are the best you can do (especially if you live in an expensive media market like I do).
Frankly, I wish I was better at social media, because that's a really big lever these days, but we work with the tools we have, not the ones we don't.
Either way, the key to event planning, for me at least, is organization and systems and a clear plan. Everything else after that is just details, and details can be made essentially trivial with good organization.
Events can be very DYI-cheap and they can also be kind of crazy expensive, so I always advise looking at the bottom line over and over; while I understand the promotional value of a signing, and making sure that your store seems "cool," I also think that the best events are ones that are profitable.
One thing to bear in mind for signings is that most publishers are very open to getting you stock on consignment, where you'll only need to pay for what you sell, after the event. In the case of Brian K. Vaughan, he was here to promote the "Saga" HC, but we also wanted to make sure we had a copious amounts of all of his other backlist to sell as well. A few e-mails, and you've got a lot of stock thanks to the diligent work of your partners (I especially want to thank Image and Diamond for some serious amounts of above-and-beyond support on this one) -- the one caution is that you're responsible for shipping both directions on consignment stuff, and that books are heavy. Especially that "Saga" HC -- each copy weighs six pounds. We shipped two and a half tons of that one book!
Eventually, you hit the point on a signing where you've done all of your work, promoted the best you can, made sure that everything is in place, and then the only bad part comes in: waiting to see if it is a success or not. I'm usually pretty nervous and depressive the morning of a signing -- and I'm usually near-crawling out of my skin about a half hour before it starts, where there's nothing to do but wait to see if you're a success or a Fufkin.
Like I said, our planning on this one worked out well, and we had our best day ever (by far), but it also had a lot of expenses to go with it, so it probably wasn't our most profitable day ever. But that's fine because hundreds of people had a chance to meet an author they treasure and, hopefully have a really excellent experience in our store while they did so. We certainly saw scores of new faces, and hopefully some of those will return.
Generally you also have creators sign all of your store stock as well, and in Brian's case we also had him sign a whole bunch of extra copies of the "Saga" hardcover. So many, in fact, that he came back the next day to do it. We made stacks of the books on a pair of tables and Brian walked in circles around them, signing and signing, while staff followed behind him removing the signed copy from the stack and putting them back in boxes. That was a pretty surreal experience, actually, but it means we've got lots of signed stock of a great book for the holidays (and we can even mail order *wink wink*).
This kind of specific opportunity is pretty rare, but incredibly satisfying when it becomes available. Thankfully, it was also very successful.
My thanks again to Brian K. Vaughan!
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.