Tuesday, September 25, 2012

how not to be awkward at book festivals, part 1: the awkward book booth

This weekend, I went to a medium-sized book festival with a mission: to observe which authors were successfully selling books, and why.

Like all situations where you are meeting face-to-face with the producer of an item you may or may not want to buy, book festivals can be sort of awkward. This particular festival was especially awkward, as many of the booths consisted of lesser-known, debut, or self-published authors who were selling their books “cold” with no name recognition to ride on. As a person who will herself claim the illustrious title of Lesser-Known Debut Author in about eight months from now, I am very curious to find out how other LKDA’s were making it work (or failing to make it work).

To begin with, some pointers to authors who are selling their books at booths or tables:

Team up with other authors

I found myself shying away from booths where an author was sitting with stacks and stacks of a single title. Why? Because it’s already awkward enough to walk away from someone’s booth without buying anything, but it’s even more awkward, not to mention personal, when you walk away from the ONE BOOK into which someone has poured their hopes and dreams.

I was much more likely to approach booths consisting of several authors with several different books, because then it felt like browsing, which is fun, instead of crushing someone’s dreams if I failed to make a purchase, which is not.

Unless you are supremely engaging and/or well-known, having your own booth at a book fair is a recipe for awkwardness. On the flip side, if you team up with two or three other authors in your genre, people will feel less pressured and will be more likely to chat, browse, and buy books. Even better, you and your author-friends can talk up one another’s books, instead of (awkwardly) talking up your own.

Be supremely engaging

You would be amazed how many authors were either sitting in their chairs looking bitter and possibly murderous or aggressively flogging draw entries for (totally unappealing) prize packs consisting of their book, a dubious piece of confectionary, and a whole lot of cellophane.

Authors, I could be charmed into buying almost ANY book. I am a huge sucker. Really, I am. But you don’t charm someone by guilting them into entering your raffle. You charm someone by giving them an EXPERIENCE.

Listen. Most people wandering around at these small book festivals feel vaguely disappointed and at loose ends. The festival is not as exciting as we’d hoped. We spend most of our 1.5 laps around the tables thinking about where to go for lunch. We WANT to be engaged in a brilliant conversation. We WANT something memorable to happen to justify our presence here on a Saturday afternoon.

So dress beautifully. Stand up tall. Engage people in conversation—not because you want them to sign up for your mailing list, but because you are genuinely interested in who they are, what they’re reading, and where they bought that delicious-looking falafel because you want one too. Forget about selling your book. Forget about your #%$% prize draw. Be silly if you want. Stay loose. Be the one person at the book fair who is in on the joke. People will be flocking to your booth. You will be fighting them off with bats.

Make me a deal

One preconception I didn’t even realize I had is that buying a book at a book fair is supposed to be cheaper than buying it in a store, or it should come with some sort of bonus. Maybe I’m just spoiled from too many trips to Vancouver’s Word on the Street festival, where you can buy an entire grab bag of new books from Arsenal Pulp Press for ten bucks. Either way, I found myself not just disappointed, but mildly put off when a book for sale cost its full cover price, without some added bonus to make up for it.

Part of the point of going to a book festival—at least, for me—is snagging a whole lot of books and magazines that are either cheaper than regular books or come with a fun incentive. Example: three back issues of a literary journal for $10, new book comes signed by supremely engaging author who has brightened your day with her delightful banter, buy all three of supremely engaging author’s books for $30 instead of $14 each, etc. etc.

If you are not offering festival goers a special deal or experience, why the heck should they buy a book from you instead of getting it cheaper on Amazon or not buying it at all?

Write a book people want to read

There is nothing more awkward than a book nobody wants to read (authors of hastily self-published memoirs of alien abduction, I AM LOOKING AT YOU.) No amount of free cupcakes or prize packs can change this.

So write something saleable. Be supremely engaging. Make it less awkward for all of us.


Have you ever been to a book festival? What makes you more likely to buy a book from a particular table? Does anyone actually enter those prize-pack draws? What’s your advice for Lesser-Known Debut Authors trying to make their way in the book festival world? 


  1. Hmmm...I'm heading to a teen book fair this weekend. I can't wait to be all observant and such. :)

  2. Love these suggestions - as for 'being extremely engaging' there is an interview on Hobart at the moment, with an author who says that writers should dress up like David Bowie (or, with their own inimitable style). If you're a writer who can pull off an eyepatch or lightning strike down your face, I say go for it. Of course, you have to be careful not try too hard. If the spirit moves you, wear a cape.

    1. I agree...costumes, fancy hats, anything to break the ice and make it fun for people to talk to you. Maybe you won't sell any more books, but at least you'll be enjoying yourself...

  3. This was such a fantastic post! I participated in three book fairs this year for my debut short story collection published by a small university press. (Can you say AWKWARD?) I learned right away that it’s supremely uncomfortable for all involved when authors stare people down as they browse. I watched as so many visitors avoided picking up a book to check it out -- even if they appeared interested in doing so! -- simply because they didn't want to have to put it down and walk away right in front of the author.

    My tips: I made little signs about my book and propped them up on the table. That way, people passing by could read about my book without worrying about engaging me and then rejecting me. Since my book is a collection of unrelated stories, this was especially helpful -- I included enticing (I hope) one-line descriptions of some of the spicier stories to get people’s attention. I also had a stack of bookmarks, and as people browsed I smiled and offered them one. No pressure, no sales talk. A lot of people did take one. Sometimes, they’d read the bookmark and then ask about my book.

    In my opinion, the hands-down best way to sell books is if you’re at an event that has interactive author discussions or events. I participated in a panel discussion and apparently some people liked what I had to say, because they flocked to my booth afterward. Okay, “flocked” might mean I sold 6-7 books immediately in a row, but trust me, for these awkward book fairs, that can make you feel like a superstar.

    At one fair I attended, a self-published woman dressed up as a character in her book and approached visitors to talk about her book and this character. It was fun and I admired her energy, but at the end of the day it didn’t work...she sold nothing. In fact, at many of the fairs I attended, many authors sold nothing. Nothing! It can be damn depressing and I admit I made more than one suicide joke (probably not funny, I admit). But I always sold at least some books, and part of it was from networking with other writers. One author realized her daughter would probably love my book; another traded his story collection for my own, which might not sound so glamorous, but we have since networked and shared marketing ideas. Other authors would get to know me and then point people to my booth, and I tried to do the same.

    Also, while I’d be happy to sell my book for less at these events, every book fair I participated in was run by independent bookstores that sold at list price. I’m not complaining; I love independent bookstores and would rather have them handle the sales anyway. But it does take away from your control over setting the price.

    Here are my blog posts about my book fair experiences: Overheard at the Book Fair Top 5 Moments from the Ohioana Book Festival and So Hot We’ll Melt Your Popsicle

    1. wow, thanks so much for sharing your experience! the impression I got at this book fair was that depressingly little books were being bought and sold. but the networking thing can be good. one year when I sold poetry books at Word on the Street, I got invited to do a reading on a radio show, and I also met the editor of a small press I ended up doing some work for.

      PS The signs sound like a great way to overcome awkwardness.

  4. The last book festival I went to, I went specifically to meet two authors who were speaking. My daughter and I wandered around the tables waiting for the speaking times, ate crab cakes at a picnic table under a tree, and frequently felt a pang of horror at the desperation oozing off some of the booths.

    The most engaging booths contained several authors working together, as you said, and pleasant conversation with the folks gathered around. The best of all were in the kids section. There were games for the kids to play, prizes for them to win (my daughter won a frisbee from a booth hawking trivia books. They asked passing kids to answer questions for loot).

    One of the saddest of all was a lady who had several books to sell, but she was so danged pushy. I felt guilty walking away without taking one of the brochures she was shoving into people's hands as they walked past. It made me a little uncomfortable, but it's part of the book fair experience.

    1. "oozing with desperation" = SO TRUE.

      I agree that the kids' booths seemed like the biggest win...because kids are happy to play trivia or whatever, and are oblivious to the awkward obligation that many adults feel.

  5. I attended my first book festival earlier this month, and only one author looked like he was having any fun. He was representing books sold by the Online Paper Airplane Museum, and he folded and gave away paper airplanes from the table! Even his business card had a diagram on the back for folding it into a tiny paper airplane.

    I bought more books from the last sci fi convention I went to than I did at this book festival. I may attend another book festival to meet authors, but if I want paper books (an unlikely eventuality these days) I'll probably buy them at MegaCon.

    1. I should get that book for Techie Boyfriend...last week, we took paper airplanes to the top of a cliff and watched them float down forever and ever :)

      maybe genre-specific book fairs are easier to sell books at, because your audience already has an interest in your sort of book. whereas "general" bookfairs are such a grab bag of literary fiction, alien abduction memoirs, military thrillers, etc, and the people walking past might only be interested in one of those areas.

  6. I don’t know what I can possibly add, because you’ve really covered what I’ve experienced. I've been to a few, and I LOVE the people watching aspect. I usually walk out with an armload of books I didn't intend to buy, but until reading this, I've never really thought about why. Now I'm thinking - here are my thoughts.

    If an author is at a table, not making eye contact - I probably won’t stop. STAND. I'm sure bookfares can be long days. Buy good shoes. I'm a sucker for someone approaching ME at eye level. Dress nice, smile, laugh, but do it all away from a ‘signing table’. Make a joke about your signature looking horrible because you're standing. I'll remember that every time I open your book.

    If your cover looks like a Photoshoped-stockphoto-landfill, you've got a tough sale ahead of you. I don’t care how much fake fire and teal you use. I'm not going to apologize for judging a book by its cover. That's why you have a cover. Right? The quality of a book's cover, self-pubbed or traditional, speaks volumes IMO. However, that being said, I've lugged home a lot of ugly covers. I can be swayed, it's just - not easy. It's a first impression thing. Ya know?

    Raffles are a joke. Seriously. I’m sure some people love them, but I won’t bother entering them even if I’m interested in the authors work. They just seem silly to me.

    Don't assume I won't read your romance novel. Just 'cuz I'm a guy, doesn't mean I'm not interested in good writing and great story. Try me. Give me some credit.

    I LOVE to eavesdrop. If an author is discussing her book with another interested buyer, I’ll dip in and listen. Not to mention, there’s something great about watching an author interact with others. I want to be invited to the party. Competition is a great driver for me. I want in on the joke.

    I once met an author that I connected with immediately. She told me she thought I’d like a character in her book, then signed the book before I bought it with “Let me know what you think about ‘character name’” and then followed up with her email signature. It was so ballsy. She knew she’d made the sale before I even offered to buy the book. The book was a bit meh (hence why I’m not mentioning the character name or writer here), but I did buy it, read it, and email the author. She responded and I’ve purchased 2 more of her books since. The best thing – she was right - I did like that character. She took a few minutes to get know me and match me to a character in her book. It was simple, genuine and brilliant.

    Oh and once an author had a snake on her table (in a cage). I stopped for sure! I love snakes! I asked the author about the snake and how it worked into her books. She replied, “Oh it doesn’t. It’s just a prop. It’s not even my snake.” Her book was a YA fantasy book, so I asked if she at least spoke parseltongue, thinking we’d have a bit of a laugh. She asked what that was. I hissed and kept walking. It was a bit mean, but I couldn’t resist.

    Great post and the comments are fantastic.

    1. haha! these are brilliant observations. and DAMN, that author was bold.

      personal opinion: you should not be allowed to rent or borrow a snake without acquiring some sort of license or learner's permit, the test for which includes basic knowledge of snake facts and lore, including parseltongue.

  7. Like Laura, I've had success with signage. I've never been to a designated book festival but I do attend a lot of fantasy conventions, where flashy visuals are more popular than long-form fiction. Signs with a summary of the story are definitely helpful for getting people to pause and consider my work.

    I've also gotten good results constructing paper mache models of my characters, so that I have a little diorama on the table. (It helps that the main character of my first book is a dragon with eye-catching orange feathers!) People can either ask about the characters themselves, or chat with me about less loaded topics like how I made the models.

    And I always have a designated reading copy of each of my books. They have a big READING COPY sticker on the front, they're creased from being opened, and they're sometimes print error copies with uneven edges. These reading copies are less intimidating than a perfect copy the author is expecting you to buy, and people seem more inclined to pick one up and leaf through. It also protects my sales stock from getting their spines prematurely cracked.

    1. wow, I've never seen the reading copy thing, but that's genius. you're right: I feel nervous picking up an author's perfect, untainted book, because I'm afraid I'll smudge it and have to buy it even if I don't like. an author's copy overcomes that, and encourages people to spend as long as they like looking.

      I am DEFINITELY going to use that trick if I ever have a table at a book festival.

  8. I agree that authors should be engaging; not 'buy my book' engaging, but casual and friendly engaging. Why are they there if just sitting in the chair? This a business trip and they are working. It is exhausting, but they should 'on' pretty much all the time.

    Agree that raffles/drawings/sign-ups are a lousy idea.

    Agree that lone authors with but a single title are in a tough spot.

    Extra signage on the table is a winner. The more of a feel you can give people about a book that can be observed from several feet away increases the chances of drawing them in, and they will already be intrigued. Overall presentation sells books.

    Promo giveaways are always a plus. Bookmarks and such is as close as lots of people will ever get to free swag. It can be a big deal - though it may not translate into selling more books.

    Reading copies on the table = smart author that's done this before.

    If you are published by a 'real' press, promote that in the signage. Being self-published, or worse, looking self-published, is tough to overcome.

    I totally disagree on the discount thing. I get it - but no. This is a business event. It costs money for travel, hotels, etc. I need every dime of income even without extra expenses that I will probably not make back. $42 worth of books for $30? Uh, no.

    1. "if you are being published by a 'real' press, promote that in the signage" = great idea. it gives a leg up, credibility-wise, whether or not that is justified.

      you (and other commenters) have brought up good points about discounts not always being viable. but I stand my ground on the "value-added" thing, even if said added value is simply a smile and handshake from the author.

  9. BTW - If you have just one title and go it alone, it can round out the experience to offer a custom run(s) of one or more short stories or mini collections at a modest price. They can sell shockingly well (and be very profitable) if the design/presentation is first rate. It will be party time if my novel makes the money that some of my short stories have made.

  10. I wandered in from Livia's tweet...

    As a hopeless introvert and professional wallflower, I found your post helpful and interesting. (I wish I could say it was timely, but I'm a long way from pushing my book.) I even cringe for my fellow writers when I see them tweet mercilessly.
    The more I read, the more I realize that self-marketing is part of the gig.

  11. The paragraph beginning "So dress beautifully" says it all, really.
    As a veteran of book fairs, craft fairs, book signings, it pays to smile, comment on a beautiful child or piece of jewelry, the weather...something to show the passer- by that you are human and interested as well as interesting.
    Good luck in 8 months!

  12. These are all great tips. I'm going to look this post up when I get to publishing stage. But from the other side of the coin, as someone who attends book festivals as a library worker, a lot of what you're saying makes sense. I was drawn to the graphic novel tables where three authors would sit together and ask general questions about your day without throwing the book in your face.

  13. We have a huge book festival here every spring, put on by our local libraries. They bring in big authors, and local small ones. And you are 100% right--it's not about selling your book, it's about selling yourself. If I find the author's talk under the tent engaging and entertaining, I go buy their book b/c you just know their book will be awesome. And I love when authors talk about other books with me. There's nothing more annoying than a writer who doesn't read books!

  14. Or you could just put up some games to win prizes just to play as an ice-breaker. Games always work, always.