Oh sweetheart. I've got bad news: There is no formula for a successful event.
But the good news is: If you have a good attitude about it, your event is highly unlikely to be a failure.
I've been a bookseller for a long (LONG) time. For many years I was an events coordinator. I had events that were insanely, unexpectedly fabulous - and events where somebody wound up crying in the fetal position. And everything in between. I know I've told these stories before, but I have to repeat them.
Once at a store in San Francisco, on a night when the Giants were in the playoffs AND it was the storm of the century (a storm so bad that the heavy glass & steel back door of the store LITERALLY FLEW OFF ITS HINGES)... we had an event for a fairly little-known cookbook author. Not a soul showed up, but the author and her assistant, and the three booksellers. We had a great conversation and ate cookies the author brought. She was absolutely charming and gracious and understanding, signed books, told jokes. And on the back of that event, all three booksellers were so delighted by her that they sold that stack of books...and the next...and the next... and the book became a bestseller for the store, for years. Yay!Get the point? Yeah. So now. In no particular order. Tips for before, during & after the event.
Another time, I held an event for a bigshot author. 150+ people showed up, on a gorgeous day when they could have been doing ANYTHING. She was angry that so few were there, and she SAID so. She was insufferable and rude about the whole thing, even though people had come early and waited hours to see her. She complained within earshot of the crowd. When she left, we boxed up the books we hadn't sold and returned them. Feh.
Tip #1: DON'T BE A JERK. Smile. Introduce yourself to everyone on staff. Be kind. Even if nobody shows up - believe me, the booksellers are as much or more mortified when that happens than you are. A thank-you note to the store events coordinator after the event is not required, but is nice, particularly if they did a great job & you connected with them in some way. Remember, you have a whole career ahead of you... and booksellers tend to have long memories. When they think of you, they should remember your sweetness!
Tip #2: INVITE PEOPLE! For pity's sake, drag your friends, family, facebook friends, old school chums and whoever else isn't nailed down along with you. The bookstore can advertise all day long, but let's face it, unless you are well-known, the people most likely to show up are people that you can kick in the shins later if they don't. If not a lot of people show, you'll be glad of the company - if the event turns out to be packed with strangers, you'll be happy to see some familiar faces in the crowd. IF you send an invite out to people and you get a lot of RSVPs, you should definitely let the bookstore know a week ahead of time so they are sure to have extra books on hand.
Also, before the event, be sure to advertise the event yourself as much as possible, and always link to the bookstore holding the event on your website or blog. And after the event, if you have a blog, mention what a great time you had and put a picture! [ETA: It's probably a good idea to carry a little notebook to write down bookstore people's names, or any fun incidents that happened at the store, because you might be too overwhelmed to remember later. If you have a mailing list, it is cool to ask attendees at the event to give you their email addys if they want to be on it - but don't add people without their knowing.]
Tip #3: Don't oversaturate your market. If you have a couple of different bookstores in your immediate area, don't book events with both of them for the same title in the same month. You'll be cannibalizing your own audience - even your most hardcore fans and friends are unlikely to come to the same event twice. I suggest doing a "launch party" at one store, and perhaps offering to be on a panel event or just sign stock at the other store, at a later date.
3b: If you are not a well known author, the adage is, do one awesome launch party in the town where you live, and another in your hometown or wherever your MOTHER lives. Sounds silly, but many moms have secret ways of influencing people to show up at events. You could also do one wherever you went to college, if you know a lot of people in that area. But don't worry your pretty little head about booking events all over the free world in towns where you don't know anyone unless your publisher is sending you - that is a lot of energy and time that you could be spending on writing another book.
Tip #4: Keep it light, keep it fun, keep it brief. As for what you actually do during the signing? I like it when authors chat a bit about what brought them to write the book, maybe tell a couple of anecdotes on the making-of, read a little, take Q&A and sign.
For most people, reading very short excerpts works best. I prefer a few well-chosen sections - maybe a couple pages each - with commentary about the book in between. VERY few people can read lengthy passages straight through without being boring as sh*t. Plus you are trying to get people to BUY THE BOOK - don't read the whole dang thing aloud! (And don't be afraid to end your section on a cliffhanger!) [ETA: For the actual signing, stores should have good pens at the ready, but if you need special pens, don't forget to bring them yourself - and test them first to be sure they don't bleed through the page.]
Tip #5: Create your own questions. During Q&A, sometimes the audience clams up. I'd definitely create a list of 5 or so questions that you can "fall back on" -- so if nobody asks anything you can say something like "you know a lot of people ask ________" -- and tell a little story to illustrate the answer... this buys you some time until somebody actually asks something. If nobody asks ANYTHING (unlikely), you'll just go through your five or so stories and then wrap it up.
Tip #6: Visual aids raise interest level. Kids especially love to see visual aids. I know one prolific author who has ALL his jackets taped together and unfurls them like a scroll and has kids hold it up - it stretches across the room! People think it is cool if you show off all the book jackets from around the world or early versions of book jackets that didn't make it, or a funny story you wrote as a kid, or a writing notebook with a thousand cross-outs in it, or your own embarrassing childhood photo, the menu from the restaurant that inspired the book, or whatever. People love "behind the scenes" stuff and "making of" stuff, and kids love knowing that fancy published authors were just kids like them once upon a time.
6.b - Caveat about technology! USE YOUR IMAGINATION in your presentation, sure. But be aware that if you are relying on powerpoint, most bookstores won't have a screen or projector... so. Don't rely on powerpoint, is what I'm saying. But if you do, be prepared to bring your own equipment. (If you know that you have a tiny voice and it is likely to be a big crowd, tell the store ahead of time - they might well have a microphone, but they'll probably have to set it up.)
Tip #7: Bribe the audience. It's fun if you have giveaways - like maybe bookmarks or postcards to hand people as they are getting their books signed (or for kids who can't get a book but would like an autograph). Sometimes authors bring little prizes (stickers, pins, a little candies, something like that) for the people that ask the first questions or buy a book -- or something a bit more special (galley of a new book, bookstore gift card, t-shirt, burned CD of a "playlist" for the book, etc) as a raffle or for the person who came from the farthest. At my store we always do giveaways for the teen events, but most bookstores probably don't, so you can bring stuff yourself and make it happen if you want to.
Tip #8: Feed the audience. Personally, I love having little refreshments at events. The bookstore will sometimes provide refreshments, sometimes not. Sometimes they aren't allowed. By all means ask. If you want to bring special treats, CLEAR IT WITH THE BOOKSTORE FIRST so they are aware and have a place to put the stuff - and be sure that you provide napkins, a platter, cups, a wine key, or whatever you will need. Don't bring anything that requires cutlery or is messy - no popcorn or red wine.
For regular signings, I think just a plate of cookies or something is sufficient and nice. For launch parties, it is fun to go a little overboard and have a nice spread, and to have things that are "book specific" - like, Japanese treats for a book set in Japan, or food that is mentioned in the book. But whatever you do, keep the type of refreshment appropriate for the time of day and audience - animal crackers and (light-colored) juice works for little kids. Cookies or mini-cupcakes and lemonade works for older kids. White wine, sparkling water, grapes and crackers & cheese if you are expecting mostly adults.
Tip #9: APPRECIATE YOUR BOOKSTORE! This should go without saying, but kind words about the bookstore you are in is always appreciated. Buy a book or two yourself while you're in there. AND PLEASE, do not direct people to buy the book from a competitor like A**zon while you are IN THE BOOKSTORE having an event with piles of the book in front of you. Yes, this has actually happened. It is absolutely shocking, and makes the booksellers Instantly Hate You Forever. Common sense, no?
Tip #10: VITAL for traditionally published authors: Keep your publicist in the loop. Don't go off half-cocked and book a bunch of events without telling anyone. You really don't want to work at cross-purposes to your publisher. Some publicists will really want to be the point person for all events - others are more hands-off - but even if they don't do anything and it is something you are totally booking on your own, you REALLY need to tell them what is going on & where you'll be at least. This is for your own benefit, so they don't think you are a loose cannon, and because the bookstore will probably need to be in touch with them for various reasons (ordering the book, getting hi-res author photos, or getting co-op money for advertising, for example!) - and boy-oh-boy is it awkward when the publisher has no clue what the author is doing.
Any other questions for me, or tips for our anxious writer-friend?