In December 2022, author Chelsea Banning had 37 people RSVP “yes” to her book event. On the day, only two showed up.
In March 2023, Jamar Perry showed up to his 7 p.m. book event to find the bookstore empty, and figured he would give it another 40 minutes. Still, no one came.
This week, Suzanne Young tweeted out a photo of empty chairs at her own book event.
In each of these cases, an embarrassed tweet from the author went viral, with big names like Margaret Atwood, Cheryl Strayed, and Neil Gaiman chiming in with their own stories of barren reading rooms (Atwood says the only person at one of her signings was a man asking where the Scotch tape was located).
Amplification of Perry’s tweet helped the bookstore sell 450 copies of his book, as orders poured in online. Banning says she has been able to make a living off writing since the publication of her book, thanks to support on social media. With benefit of several months’ perspective, she tells Literary Hub, “I am very grateful for the experience,” inclusive of the empty chairs.
Join the club. I did a signing to which Nobody came, except a guy who wanted to buy some Scotch tape and thought I was the help. :)
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) December 5, 2022
An onstage “death” is a rite of passage for comedians, but book events are ideally built around authors connecting with readers rather than “practicing” their material (since it is, alas, already printed in a book), and your average retiring author will tell you they did not get into writing for the public exposure. So, why do we keep seeing these soul-crushing photos of empty chairs alongside the doge icon? Is the mortifying ordeal of being known—but not known quite enough—simply a part of the publishing process?
“The truth is: it has always been this way, but it simply wasn’t as visible as before,” Jane Friedman, a professor, consultant and commentator on publishing, tells Literary Hub. “I guess it’s becoming a badge of honor and a way to get some engagement. A little counterintuitive, but hey, if it works!”
Kathleen Schmidt has worked as a publicist going back to the noughties, and says, “I can’t tell you how many sad weekends I’ve spent during my career sitting at a table next to an author … with no one in line to see them. The worst of these were at B. Dalton when they were mostly in malls.” She used to try to flag down passersby to join the crowd. “Yikes,” she says of that time.
Everyone who has wandered into a bookshop on a weekend has at some point accidentally encountered an author sitting alone at a table, and possibly bought their book out of politesse. Authors like Sally Rooney who have a sure thing on their hands sometimes opt out entirely from in-person promotion and the related anxieties. As Franz Kafka put his thoughts on the #writerlife, “I waver on the heights; it is not death, alas, but the eternal torments of dying.”
On the other hand, some author events are true ragers: This blogger was barred from entering an event for Taffy Brodesser-Akner after arriving too late to a packed house; a woman who arrived even later begged gently to be let in, explaining that she was Taffy’s mother. (They let her in.)
Many authors are able to blow the lid off a given bookstore, or basement. That’s the dream, anyway. (That, and TV money.)
Schmidt sees a constellation of factors in the decline of in-store events: a flagging economy, the death of local media, Amazon controlling market share, and the arms race of the attention economy.
FWIW, trade publishing shrank to $10.6 billion in 2022 from $16 billion in 2021 (and the top seller was … you guessed it, BookTok fav CoHo). The number of bookstores in the U.S. has steadily declined from a late-nineties high.
Suzanne Young, author of In Nightfall, told Literary Hub the empty book event was her first since COVID, but that audiences still want to connect in person. “I’d been part of a group signing a few months prior that was well-attended, so people are still showing up,” she says. “I just think how to reach those readers has changed.”
Young says that even social promotion doesn’t give the lift you need. “If you don’t pay to boost a Facebook post, well, chances are only 15 people out of 10,000 might see it. The posts also seemed to get swallowed up by Twitter.”
More and more, authors are teaming up with other authors for a conversation that might draw more people, or considering hybrid formats; something to shake up the formula. (Not for nothing, Jan Brett charters a bus and brings her own mascot, “Hedgie.”) For the average author, it’s hard to compete with celebrity authors and salons full of chainsmoking nepo babies.
This is an absolute low in my writing career. No one showed up to my book signing (except for haunted ventriloquist dummies) pic.twitter.com/Rgf1qN2hqH
— Eve Harms @ Ghoulish Book Fest, San Antonio, TX (@EveHarmsWrites) April 3, 2023
And authors need to appreciate what goes into attending a reading—babysitting, spending money, and scheduling around a night out. (Apologies to my father-in-law for taking the time to attend my comedy show, only to be mocked as resembling “the Monopoly Man” by one of the comedians.)
Then again, thimbles of cheap wine, folding chairs, and the chance to spot up-and-coming talent and be in a room with people who are, however briefly, not on their phones—what’s not to like? Get yourself to an event, won’t you?
Postscript: For a masterclass in how to do an author signing, please see Brandon Sanderson the man, the fantasy-cycle, the phenomenon: