There is considerable discussion out there about whether in-store book signings are of any value to the author - or to the book store itself for that matter.
As far as the retailer is concerned (particularly with e-books and online availability and everybody and his brother writing stuff, good or bad), as long as purchasing sufficient quantities is not a bookkeeping nightmare, they have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Other than the expense of purchasing your books with guaranteed returnability (a biggie!) and perhaps providing a quickly whipped up blurb on their website, and maybe a little on-table poster, there is virtually no expense to them. Some places will offer you a cup of coffee. No big deal.
As far as the author is concerned, this can be a little hairy. If you are a mega celebrity like Stephen King or Madonna, there is no problem. Your publisher takes cares of all expenses and the books stores stand in line clamoring to play host, ditto the customers. If you are like the other 99.99% of the author-world however, there are definitely some out-of-pocket expenses.
Forget about your time, as in “time is money.” Unless you still haven’t quit your day job, your time should be considered an investment. If you need to provide your own books for sale, this is usually not a huge issue, since you probably have sufficient quantity in the closet. Your car, on the other hand, can be very cranky. It is one thing to travel ten or fifteen minutes down the road. It is something else to drive fifty miles ONE WAY. There's gas, wear and tear, insurance, and maybe tolls involved. There is also no guarantee that anyone will buy a book.
Most authors do not mind too much if they don’t MAKE money. They do mind, however, if they LOSE money.
Probably the key to the value of book signings is the author’s expectations. One must be realistic. Where is the venue located? Little-Town is not New York. How many people are interested in your subject? (Be honest) How many books do you think you can reasonably sell? (Be honest) How much money can you expect to make per book? Your books cost you money to purchase. The store wants to make a little something. The reader wants a good value. And again, There is also no guarantee that anyone will buy a book.
But what will happen if you do nothing? Nothing. If you do nothing, nothing will happen for sure.
The bottom line truly depends on the author. How engaging are you? Announce yourself as the author of the day. If you stand, make eye contact and engage the customer, you may not always make a sale, but you stand a better chance. If you plunk down at the signing table and wait for people to come to you, you will have a long wait.
Major advice: You need to develop a sense of your target customer. Male or female? Old or young? If you write children's books, go for the grandparents. Kids don’t buy books. Grandma does, and she is more likely to buy one than tired, harried, worried and financially stretched parents. If you write serious or academic material, you need to be in a bookstore near a college or university.
Hand out your cards or bookmarks or flyers or whatever else you want to give away. You don’t need to bake cookies. You don’t need free pens. A backdrop poster is fine – if you are going to a book fair, or a venue with other authors. Otherwise a small dish of wrapped hard candies works just as well with no effort. And they don’t get stale. Encourage your prospect (if you get one) to email you with their comments. Have a guest book, and let them sign it if they want to be on your mailing list. If they don’t, let it go. And do not be surprised or disappointed if somebody's gives you a bogus email address. That comes with the territory.
Like Polonius said, “know thyself.” Shy does not work. Bored does not work. The store provides a venue, a chair and perhaps a public address announcement. That's all folks. They cannot provide customers, and they cannot make the customers interested in your book.
It is up to you. If you haven't done a book signing, you absolutely need to do one if you can. See if and how you can make it pay off.
Feather Schwartz Foster
MARY LINCOLN’S FLANNEL PAJAMAS and Other Stories from the First Ladies’ Closet
THE FIRST LADIES
LADIES: A Conjecture of Personalities