30 Seconds With Your Favorite Author: Book Signing Conversation Tips

For a book nerd, an author book signing is no small prospect. Standing face-to-face for 30 seconds with an author whose work you love is equally thrilling and nerve-wracking. You don’t know this person, yet, after reading their stories, you almost feel like you know them better than you know some of your best friends.

Four years ago, when I found out Judy Blume would be speaking and signing her book, In the Unlikely Event, in Austin, Texas—a three-hour drive from my home in Dallas—I immediately bought tickets and then danced gleefully around the room. I was going to meet The Judy Blume.

But then a few weeks later, the truth hit me hard. Judy. Blume. What will I say? What will I do? What if I get so starry-eyed that I end up just staring at her, slack-jawed and in a stupor? Fortunately, because Judy Blume is so lovely, it turned out the months I’d spent agonizing hadn’t been necessary; my experience couldn’t have gone better.

Since then, I’ve been to a lot more book signings. I still get nervous about the face-to-face meetings, but over the years, I’ve learned a few book signing conversation tips.

Book Signing Conversation Tips, photo by Stacey Megally

Book Signing Conversation Tips: Prepare a Few Options Beforehand

When you have only a minute or less to talk to someone you admire, every word counts. “Thank you for coming” or “I love your book” are lovely things to say, but they won’t make the experience as meaningful as it could be for you.

I like to take some time to figure out the most important thing I want to convey. Since I’m not great at thinking on my feet, I come up with a few options beforehand. Some thought starters I find helpful are:

  • Was there a specific phrase, character, or story point that particularly moved me? When I met Tayari Jones, I told her about a phrase in An American Marriage that was so beautiful, I immediately stopped reading so I could find my husband and read it out loud to him.
  • Did the story inspire me to think about something differently? To be creative or take some concrete action? According to one bookstore employee, authors enjoy seeing a little bit of fan art.
  • Did I hear or read something about this author and did it stay with me? When I met Tessa Hadley for her book signing of Late in the Day, I hadn’t yet read the book. So I told her I’d recently heard her short story, “Cecilia Awakens,” on The Writer’s Voice podcast, and about the impact it had on my imagination.
  • If I wrote a book, what would I want the reader to tell me? Yes, I’d probably want to know that they liked it, but I’d also want to know why. At Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere signing, I told her how much I appreciated her well-crafted prose. I was pleased and even a bit surprised at how much her expression brightened from my comment.

Book Signing Conversation Tips: Say Something Relevant to the Event

What if it’s a first-time author’s book launch or you just haven’t read any of the author’s work yet? Chances are, you’ll hear something that day that will inspire you.

Once in a while, I’ll show up for a signing, certain I know exactly what I want to say, only to change it once I’ve heard the author speak. When Ann Patchett was in town for The Dutch House tour, she relayed the most wonderful story about the myriad people who, in various capacities, helped her perfect her book. As she signed my copy, I expressed how much the story she shared had resonated with me. When I saw what she’d then written in my book: It takes a village, I knew I’d chosen to say the right thing.

Book Signing Conversation Tips: Keep It Brief

You can’t go wrong with something concise, but still meaningful. After all, you want to respect the time of the author, all the other readers in line, and the people who are working the event.

At the Judy Blume signing in Austin, there were so many eager fans, the store staff made sure the signing was as efficient as an assembly line. One store employee kept the line moving. On the other side of the table, another employee kept the books moving—perfectly timed so that the milli-second Blume lifted her pen off the page of one book, the next one magically appeared in front of her.

Fortunately, the fans in front of me kept it brief enough for me to say everything I’d planned, but right then, I vowed to always have an option that would work for an assembly-line-style signing like this one.

Book Signing Conversation Tips: Keep Expectations in Check

Time for truth. No matter how much you prepare for a book signing conversation, sometimes you’ll be disappointed. You’ll be awkward. The author will be awkward. The author might seem distracted or annoyed or bored. In some way, it just won’t be the perfect, magical moment you dreamed of.

There could be many explanations for this. Maybe the author is having a bad day. Maybe the author is still reeling from the last conversation. Recently, when I was at a memoir book signing,  the group in front of me was raucous and fun and had the author in stitches. When it was my turn, I quietly brought up a provocative point she’d made somewhere in the middle of the book. Not surprisingly, she looked a little taken aback and distracted. She hardly said a word as she signed my book. Yes, I left a little disappointed even though I knew it probably wasn’t anything personal.

At the end of the day, a book signing conversation is a single, brief exchange between two imperfect human beings. It doesn’t define the author nor does it dictate the author’s impact on your life. That’s what the book itself is for. It’s in the writing of their work that authors take the time to truly think about and express what they want to leave with you. So when it comes to your favorite authors, first and foremost, love the book. Getting a chance to meet them is the icing on top.

For me personally, the stars have aligned many more times than not. If I hadn’t gone to these signings and taken a chance with the authors, I wouldn’t have memories of talking to Lauren Groff about a shared passion for running, discussing writing challenges with Tayari Jones, and even making Judy Blume—the author I can’t ever remember not adoring—throw her head back and belly laugh.

Here’s another Rioter’s take on how to talk to authors at book signings, plus a few tips on prepping for the book signing.