Selling books directly to readers via an event booth is a very personal, hands-on approach to marketing your titles. It can give you instant feedback on what readers are looking for, like, and buy. It can earn you some cash sales. And it lets potential readers meet and feel invested in you as a person as well as an author. After several years of selling books at a variety of events, I've developed some tips for making booth sales work for you:
1 - Evaluate your genre and market, then decide which events will be right for you and your book. For example, if you write Westerns, consider rodeos, Western horse shows, cattle drives, and cowboy reunions. If you've written a historical, think about Civil War festivals and re-enactments, meetings of the local historical society, and the like. If you written a nonfiction title, find out where people interested in your topic gather. A book about beekeeping could be sold at a beekeepers conference, gardening festivals, and home shows. In short, think outside the narrow box of I-must-sell-my-book-at-a-book-festival. That's not necessarily true.
Also, at a book festival you're competing with dozens of other authors. Sure, the attendees are readers, but do they necessarily read about your book topic? Consider the novelty factor when selling at niche market events. A book about cats may do better at a cat show than at a book festival. A romance about a dressage rider and thoroughbred racing owner may do better at a dressage show. Sometimes a narrowed, rifle approach to your audience works better than a general, shotgun method of targeting buyers.
2 - Start off with local and regional events. Most small towns and counties have a summer or fall festival of some sort. Read your local newspaper and get a feel for what types of events are coming up. Is the town's gardening club having its semi-annual sale? That may be a good place to sell your women's fiction title with a garden enthusiast as the main character. Does your county have a festival to commemorate the area's indigenous cooter turtle? Then a booth with your book about regional wildlife might fit in quite well.
If your book has a local slant, you might want to try a test-run at a local flea market. Booth rentals are usually very inexpensive, as low as $5 a day, and this will give you a feel for your local market's response to the book.
Web resources for finding festivals abound. Start with a general web search, and if that doesn't bring up something of interest, try http://www.festivals.com. This is a commercial resource that lists an amazing array of local, regional, state and national festivals of all types: literary, music, art & crafts, livestock, historical, and you can search by zip code, state, region, or interest. Or, if you'd rather focus on a book festival, start with the Library of Congress list of book fairs and other literary events, at http://www.read.gov/resources/statefairs.php.
3 - Start small and local to test the market and get a sense of cost vs. return. A local festival will have less expensive booth rental fees than a huge, national event. It will be easier for you to travel to, you may have local fans who will come out to support you, and it might be possible to get media coverage if you send out a press release with enough advance notice. Small, local festivals may have more of a hometown and easy-going vibe, while a huge, commercial festival will have a lot of hustle-and-bustle. Consider trying one or two local events as a test run before you commit to something that requires a lot of expense, long travel, or a bigger commitment than you can make. For example, many large festivals are Friday through Sunday, and some don't allow vendors to break down a booth early. Large events can charge from $200 to over $5000 for a booth, and that's not the best place to experiment. Start small, learn, and grow if results warrant expansion.
4 - Consider teaming up with another writer to share the expense and the work. The logistics of unpacking, setting up, running a booth all day, then re-packing can be daunting. Sharing the work is both fun and productive. For a local fest, almost any other local writer might be interested. For a larger, more genre-specific festival, try asking a writer with similar interests. For example, if you've decided to try working a flower show because your book is about a florist who solves mysteries, another writer with publications about flowers (even nonfiction) could help. Having someone to spell you while you eat lunch, hit the restroom, or just take a stroll around the event is a physical and mental relief. And it's fun to chat with another writer as the day progresses. You can help cross-sell your books, and hand out promotional items to customer who do buy from one of you.
5 - Register online or by mail.
Read any forms carefully, provide any needed information (many festivals wants an exact description of what you'll be selling), request tents, tables and chairs if needed, figure your vendor fee and make payment. Keep the confirmation email or receipt; you'll be taking it with you to the festival to set up.
6 - If you have multiple titles, plan which ones you want to take, and place orders with your publisher as needed.
Allow shipping time. If you're self-published then you know your discount. If you're traditionally published, most contracts call for the author to be able to buy copies for resale at a discount, typically 40% off the cover price. You may be able to purchase other titles as well with that discount. If you're going to a cat show and your publisher also publishes a series about a mystery-solving cat, it might be good business to take a few copies of another author's work. You can still promote your own work and make a few sales to enhance your cash flow at the same time.
7 - The week before the event, confirm your vendor status by contacting the festival organizers, write up your packing list, and recruit a helper. Items you'll want to take include: tables and chairs (if you're not renting them from the festival), a tablecloth, posters of your book cover, a banner with your name and book cover, promotional items such as bookmarks, postcards, pens, key chains, etc., business cards, brochures or chapbooks with a free except from your book, a change fund for cash sales, a nice pen to sign autographs with, and, of course, your books. Items that I've found make the day feel more comfortable include: a cooler with food and drinks, toilet paper and moist towelettes (many festivals are outdoors and have only portable toilets), a pillow for your back, insect repellent, a hat, and sunscreen.
8 - The day before the event, pack up your items using your list. A rolling suitcase or dolly can help with moving heavy books. Box up the other items and label them for easy unpacking. Unpack in set-up order: table, tablecloth, banner, books, then the rest. If you're not familiar with the locale, print off a map, and get exact directions on where to unload. Decide when you need to leave, set your alarm, and get a good night's sleep!
9 - At most events, a vendor unloading area is set up. This is where having a helper is important because you'll need to transport your items to the designated booth area, unpack them, then go park your vehicle. Even if you have to hire a local high-school or college student for an hour, doing this with an assistant is much easier than trying to do set-up by yourself. If you're sharing the booth with other authors, you can spell one another, and take turns lugging items back and forth.
10 - How many books can you sell? Zero to thirty has been my experience based on going to smallish festivals with attendance of less than 10,000. Of course, the larger the event and the more people attending, the more chances you have to make a sale. If you have multiple titles available, bring all of them. (A display with lots of colorful book covers can often garner attention in a way a single title can't.) If you only have one book, consider using your author discount to buy a few other titles from your publisher in the same genre. That way folks who don't want your cozy mystery about a quilter can still buy a romance about a quilter, and you'll still make some profit. If you're self-published, this is where teaming up with another author can benefit both of you. Be optimistic and take as many copies as you can comfortably haul, especially for a one-day event. You'll only have that one chance to make the sale so don't miss out by running out of books.
The reality is it's difficult to sell enough books to make a profit, especially if you're working a booth alone. But by selling books directly as a vendor at festivals, you'll have the chance to meet new readers, promote yourself to potential readers, make some cash sales, and have a lot of fun. Festivals are usually busy, noisy, high-energy, entertaining events so pick one in your area and give it a try! Part II will focus on working the booth once you're there.
If you have success stories of your own about selling at a festival or event, I'd love to hear them! Feel free to contact me.
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