The payback for appearances and signings is after–sometimes long after–the event.
The hardest part of working with some bookstores is the apathy of the staff, and I’ve run into that regardless of size or ownership of the store. I think that means that each writer should put the effort in where she sees the reward and “reward” is like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. My experience has been that once the staff knows my name, that’s when the pay off happens for the investment of my time with individual booksellers and staff people. To be purely clinical about a very human business, it’s a cost-reward analysis. IMHO, some places take too much effort for too little sales–but I’m willing to bet that another writer might find it worth it because she’s more adept than I at that kind of contact.
Other stores reward my investment with things I can’t take to the bank, like reader contact, honest bookseller marketing feedback on my work’s appeal to readers, or just plain ol’ ego strokes, etc. I like that sort of thing, but I’m sure there are writers who don’t put that first when deciding where to invest effort. Where to put the effort of investment depends on what anyone values as reward is what I’m trying to say, I guess. For me, that can change from novel to novel, year to year, etc. The changing world of technology also shapes those choices. There are other things besides/in addition to appearances that might well have more impact and I am currently thinking about them as a smarter use of my limited time. The real solution, for me, is like most things in life, a mix of several things instead of a clear-cut choice between A or B.
There’s also the trade-off of “If I’m marketing I’m not writing” to think over. It’s not the best approach, but I work on marketing when writing is for whatever reason not happening. This automatically directs my choices and I realize that. My approach isn’t consistent and surprise, surprise, neither are my results.
Overall, my focus in all contacts is name recognition and genre recognition. (“This is who I am and this is what I write.”) And, for those who think that name recognition is a given at some point in your writing career, I can still walk into a small store with a dozen of my titles on the shelf and get a blank stare when I introduce myself. Occasionally on the night I’m supposed to read there. I never take it for granted that anyone there will recognize me short of showing them my books on their own shelves.
My favorite anecdote is about stopping into a small store a few months after doing a reading there for my very first novel. (Do I confess that this was in 1990?) Anyway, I was browsing in one part of the store and the owner, who hadn’t seen us come in, walked up to my partner offering to help her find a book and asking about her interests. Within 15 seconds she had offered my partner my novel, saying it was great and look, it was signed and I’d just been there, etc.
I said “Thank you Cathy” over the stacks — I’ve never forgotten her name, either. I couldn’t take that experience to the bank, but it was a great reward for the first-time novelist in me.