How to survive vending at a book fair… and actually sell a few books

IMG_7015There’s been a lot going on — all of it good even if some of it not quite the way we envisioned it going — but while we deal with manuscripts with publishers and agents and in submission and in our own edit process while also trying to write new stuff, we’ve also been preparing for the Gaithersburg Book Festival.

The Gaithersburg Book Festival is just one of several in person events we do each year, where we meet readers, sign books, and hopefully make a few sales. Despite being strange awkward people, the fact is, we’re actually pretty good at this. In fact, I actually really really enjoy it, even if I have to stare at the wall for days after I do one of these events. Some of the things that work for us include:

Give readers a chance to browse in silence. Book fairs can be exhausting and everyone is trying to get their books in readers hands and earn back their table fees. Interacting with people can help boost your sales, but give them a moment first.

In a similar vein display your prices prominentlyNot everyone wants to converse with you to find out a price. Not everyone wants to have to react to your prices to your face. And make sure people know you take cash and credit (you can take credit easily and with minimal fees using Square). Have a lot of small bills on hand (A LOT, someone always pays with a hundred), have something to write a receipt on (someone will always ask), make sure you know the sales tax laws and filing requirements where you are vending, and always have a pen. Many many pens.

Similarly, label book content. On our price stickers, we also label books for the genre, sexual/gender identity of characters, and whether the romance elements are monogamous or polyamorous. This helps people see what we do quickly, and find what they want even if they don’t want to talk to us.

Staff your table appropriately. Two to three people are ideal staffing levels for a table. Having someone else to talk to will keep you energized, allow you to do more business during crunch periods, and give readers a choice of people they feel more comfortable interacting with. Too may people can scare a reader off. Too few drops the energy level and puts more pressure on the interaction.

Cast yourself in the movie of the book fair and then play that roleWho you are at a book fair is a public you, not a private you. Be yourself, but be a version of yourself that reflects your work and that your readers can get a handle on quickly as they interact with you. Are your books quirky romantic comedies? Bring your quirkiness and embrace your awkwardness. Are your books about billionaires? Dress up just a bit. Write darker stuff? Erica Kudisch wore handcuff earrings when she visited with us at the NYC’s Rainbow Book Fair; that was a great accessory choice I’d also recommend to crime writers.

Remember that you are there to solve a reader’s problems. Their problems are that they don’t have the right book to read yet. Your books, may not be those books. So don’t start talking to them about what you write out of the blue. Ask them what they’re looking for today, how the book fair is going for them, or what they are reading right now. And be prepared to recommend books by people who aren’t you. For example, Erin and I often get asked about YA books, books with low levels of sexual content, and books with asexual lead characters; we’re able to quickly point to where some of our titles can fit in with those requests, but are also always ready to recommend authors who focus on those particular story elements and styles, since our work mostly doesn’t. You’ll earn friends and fans that way and sometimes make a sale in the process.

Never be defensive about what you write. Be understanding when readers are defensive about what they read. This can be hard. When you’re a genre writer and/or when you write queer characters, you’ve probably heard a lot of crap from people about what you do and are tired of it. Similarly, you may also encounter readers who have reasons to feel awkward about their reading preferences. Let them know that they are safe at your table and with your books by not being defensive about what you write, but also being discreet about what they read. Match your volume, tone, and packaging to your reader’s needs. If someone wants to whisper to me about their need for lesbian werewolves (true story!), I’m happy to whisper back… and sell them a book.

Avoid the hard sell. Or the obvious sell. If you’re at an LGBTQ bookfair, you don’t need to ask people if they like LGBTQ romance; engage with more nuance.  (Again, say hi, ask them how they are enjoying the event, what they’re looking for, or what they’re reading). Someone’s dithering about which book to buy? Confess to them that you always have trouble making decisions too and then try, “If you flipped a coin and it came up [book 1] would that work out for you?” Most of them time, they’ll make a choice or even buy both.

You’re only allowed to be desperate if you’re funny. Sometimes we all have bad sales days. In general, though, you don’t want the buying public to know that. If you’re good at comedy, you can play with this a bit more and sometimes even drive sales that way. Also, we recommend never displaying more than 10 copies of any title on your table at once. People need to feel like your book has been selling and that they have to buy your book before it sells out. It’ll also look less cluttered.

Have an elevator pitch.  Know how to describe each of your books in one sentence. Know how to describe the general themes of your work in one sentence. If there are certain hard questions your work tends to provoke at events, know the quick, cheerful answer for that too.

Have a takeaway handy. I’m on record as saying I have reservations about the arms race in swag (I think authors use it to compete with each other more than it actually brings new readers on board), but do have a postcard or a business card you can hand people so they can remember you and your books.

Have a way for people to sign up for your mailing list. A book fair isn’t just about making sales in person. It’s about getting you on people’s radar going forward for both paperback and ebook sales.

Visit the other booths. See how they do things. Make friends. This is called competitive research, networking, and remembering the good writers are good readers. Also, taking that walk around will definitely help your energy levels.

Smile even when you want to dieLook, I get it. Book fairs are long days. You’re an introvert. Selling your stuff feels weird. You just want to make some money at this damn writing thing, and everyone feels farther along in the game than you. If you’re having a really bad day, you’re also menstruating, have a cold, and forgot to eat breakfast after staying up all night binge watching the 1995 Pride & Prejudice. But smile. Laugh at yourself. Tell your tale of woe when appropriate… while smiling! And you will get through the day and sell books. Promise.

Now, readers, it’s your turn. What do you wish book fair vendors would do when you’re browsing at an event? What makes you more or less likely to buy? What makes you have a good time? How can we help?

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