Speaking (and Signing) for the Work

Sylvia Whitman

What I’ve always liked about writing: it isn’t talking. But even in my earliest years as a children’s author, I knew that my work couldn’t just speak for itself. Dutifully, I showed up at a school book fair with an armful of my WWII history titles. A crowd gathered near my table. Had I brought enough copies?  I heard squeals and clapping—as a handler led out a costumed character, a gigantic red dog.

He paw-stamped hundreds of books. I autographed two.

First rule of personal appearances: Don’t sit next to Clifford.

In 2013 I published my first YA novel, The Milk of Birds, about the unlikely, long-distance friendship of an American teen and a Sudanese girl in Darfur. I felt blessed: supportive agent, collaborative editor, established publishing house. The marketing team acknowledged the challenge of a novel set amid genocide: instead of appearing on the fall list with the holiday blockbusters, The Milk of Birds launched with the spring “literary” titles.

Manna continued in reviews: Junior Library Guild, star from Kirkus, spirited blog posts from the likes of Forever Young Adult. But initial sales were disappointing. Within my limits as a single working mom, I tried to create buzz. I made a website and a book trailer. I ordered postcards and sent them to schools and media outlets in my area. I dipped into social media. I even paid for a round of book-club publicity.

But what my book needed was a hand sell—loving, personal recommendations.

A local independent bookstore hosted a launch party. I arrived as a bookseller unfolded chairs.  Two short rows. “We can always put out more,” she said. I had a standing-room crowd.

Second rule: Seed the audience with friends.

Glowing, I applied to book festivals. They’re harder to get into than college.

My publisher flew me to Chicago to “speed-date” at the American Library Association conference: six debut novelists, six tables of librarians, four minutes to pitch.

Third rule: Assume that no one has read—or even heard of—your book.

As a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators member, I participated in a state Teen ’13 panel. Instead of Clifford, I sat next to the novelist with a dishy angel on her cover.  Rhapsodizing about New Orleans, the romance’s earthly setting, she tossed Mardi Gras beads to the audience.

Fourth rule: Bring something to give away.

I am learning. Last month I had the ultimate chance to talk books among friends as an Amelia Walden Award finalist at the National Conference of Teachers of English conference. I was ready:

  • Two pens.
  • Sticky notes. It’s easier to copy names than take dictation.
  • Bookmarks. Cheap to make, they can pack a lot of information.
  • Right-hand page. Signing on the left requires wrestling with the spine.
  • Stock phrases. Rote words free you to chat as you write.

Writers need readers, and personal appearances, whether signings or talks, give us a chance to embody that connection. Thanks to the teachers and librarians who promised to hand-sell my book, I felt bigger than Clifford.