Lessons From a Book Fair (or two)

Some things I have learned from sitting at book fairs over the past few years that help to make them more successful. Or make them less painful anyway.

Bring snacks.

Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive partner or spouse, you are often alone at the table. When the event runs several hours (as most do) and over the lunch hour (as most do) you can’t go get a burger without potentially missing sales. So bring some simple snacks. Dried fruit, nuts, and power bars work well. Though most fairs provide access to some form of drink, it is a good idea to bring something with you. Again, while you’re off getting a coffee, who’s selling your book?

Dress for the weather (if the event is outdoor)

In July, I attended a fair in Pioneer Square, downtown Portland, Oregon. Portland had been sweltering for weeks under triple digit temperatures, so I dressed lightly and brought plenty of liquid. It rained for the first two hours of the event. It was chilly and my light dress shirt offered virtually no warmth. The same works in the opposite way too. Always bring fluid, hats, and sunscreen. Better to have it and not need it, than stand there shivering.

Be ready to answer “What is your book about?”

It is the most common question you will be asked. So be ready and able to answer it quickly and in a succinct manner. The public doesn’t want a treatise; they want a general guide. The professionals call this an “elevator pitch.” Think of riding an elevator when someone asks what your book is about. It should be no more than a sentence or two, providing the customer with everything they need to know, such as genre, setting, targeted age, and anything that might be objectionable. You need to be honest. If a person doesn’t like scary stories, don’t mislead them into buying your horror novel. Not only is it unprofessional, but you will anger them and they will tell everyone they know about it. Bad career move.

Be ready to explain the differences, if you have more than one book.

If you have more than one title, have an elevator pitch for each. But also have a brief sentence explaining the difference between them. In my particular case, I have a horror/fantasy trilogy, but my newest novel is a fairly mainstream detective/mystery novel.

Learn to Judge genuine interest

Like most retail endeavors, most of the people passing by the table are just browsing. Most of the time, when I’m in a bookstore, I’m browsing too. Unless I’m after a particular title, I’m just wandering through, scanning covers until something catches my interest. If the book seller starts hitting me with a hard sell, they are just going to chase me off. So let the browsers browse. Be friendly, but low key. When someone is interested, they will stop. They will ask questions, or read the blurb on the back cover. Then you can try and persuade them to buy.

Be approachable

The entire point of the book fair is that people can come down and meet the author and even have a conversation with them. You need to make that as easy as possible. Be the guy next door who happens to write, not the prima donna artiste. Even if it’s hard, make the customer believe you’re enjoying meeting them.

Have callback material

However good we are, however appealing our written works might be, almost no one can attend a fair with fifty or a hundred authors and by something from every author. Most cannot even afford to buy every title they find interesting. I know I certainly can’t. That’s why experienced authors have lots of marketing giveaways people can take home: bookmarks, postcards, magnets, stickers. Anything with your name and the title of the book can produce a sale next month, or for Christmas five months later. Make it as easy as possible for them to remember you.

Be willing to talk without a sale

Sometimes people come through a book fair for reasons other than to just buy a new book. Sometimes, they are aspiring writers who are hoping for some encouragement from you, one who is more accomplished. Sometimes, they are just interested in your process. Sometimes, your subject matter. So talk to them. It can be interesting. It passes the time, and it earns you good karma. (And it doesn’t hurt if they go home and tell their friends about this cool writer who was willing to spend fifteen minutes talking with them.)

Be patient

Anyone who has ever worked in any kind of retail trade knows one eternal truth. Customers never arrive in an orderly fashion, spread out over the available hours. They tend to come in waves, punctuated by periods of nearly nothing. The same holds for book fairs. There will be long stretches when no one comes by the table. That is to be expected. Many writers bring a novel along to read, or work on their next project in the down times. Others chat with the folks at the next table. But even if you haven’t sold anything for the first four hours, don’t give up. Don’t leave. That person who might think your book is perfect may not show up until ten minutes before the fair closes down. You need to still be there.

Be professional

This ties in to the patience part of this. You are a professional writer. Part of that means you honestly try to produce the best reading experience for the money you can. But there are other facets to being professional. You need to look professional. You don’t need to be wearing a tux, but you need to have not been wearing the same clothes for a week. You need to have showered and brushed your teeth (believe it or not, I have seen writers who haven’t figured this out). As a professional, you also need to be where you say you are going to be. If you advertise that you’ll be signing books from 11:00 am to 3:00pm, you need to be there and ready to sign books promptly at 11:00 and continue to be there until 3:00 or later. In the same vein, if you tell a book fair organizer that you will participate, participate. If an emergency does come up, contact the organizer and explain. They will understand and appreciate the notice. Those who simply do not show up brand themselves as amateurs and flakes.

Public Appearances are PR

Above all, remember that all public appearances—whether book fairs, signings, or readings—are public relations events. This is the chance for the public to the see the person behind the novel, or poetry, or history. Always keep that in mind and try to be the person you would like to see in your favorite author, if you had a chance to meet them.


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