Selling books at cons and book fairs… and how not to scare your fans

Elizabeth Donald
Jul 28 · 9 min read

There’s a piece going around the internet that is about 85 percent really good advice. So at first, I hesitated to say what bothered me about it.

Here, read it. It’s good stuff. “How Not to Sell Books at an Event.” I’ll wait.

I’ve been selling books at events for at least 15 years. I’m still not going to claim to be an expert. I know people who could talk a monk under a vow of chastity into buying a salacious BDSM romance novel. I know people who could talk me into buying a Western (but only that once). I don’t claim to have mastered their extroverted skill of charming the passers-by into forking over a twenty for their latest opus.

But if I had a dollar for every beginning author I’ve seen with one solitary copy of his book resting on a bare table…

I always have at least one backup tablecloth in my bag, sometimes more. I have been known to offer them on loan to cloth-less authors, and every single time that author came back at the end of the day to say, “Wow, that really made a difference! I’m going to pick up some of these.”

Note to authors: Remnant sales at fabric stores. Get an eight-foot length because you never know the size of the table you’ll get. Horror authors can pick up nifty patterns in the post-Halloween sales.

It’s the little things that make a big difference.

Where did I get that great book rack? Store Supply Warehouse, folks. If you’re in the St. Louis region, you can go by their warehouse and pick it up yourself to save the shipping cost. Otherwise, order online. Tabletop, freestanding, gridwall, everything from comic book racks to jewelry displays.

They also have those terrific folding stands that work sooooo much better than Wal-mart pie plate holders and don’t break in your luggage. Use something — anything — to get your book up off the flat table and in their line of sight.

Do offer: Business cards, with your website and blog on them (you do have these, don’t you?). Don’t make the mistake I did and print business cards of your book with the publisher’s website on them. You’re building the brand of you, not serving as the publisher’s unpaid marketing department. If you have the means and ability, include a code for a free ebook and/or a discount on your site so they see the card as something of value and don’t leave it in their hotel room when they check out.

Don’t bother: Bookmarks. Expensive and so commonplace the vast majority of them end up in the trash. Business cards cost a fraction of what bookmarks cost you, so if they end up in the trash, you haven’t lost much. Bonus: They also work as bookmarks! Multi-tasking!

All the rest of the article is very much on point. If I have to do an event solo, I know I’d best be at my booth at all times possible, and have a minion available for when I’m doing a panel or escaping for sustenance and hydration.

And it should go without saying that professionalism means no complaining. If you have concerns, take them up privately with the on-site organizer. If you have constructive suggestions for future events, email them privately, unless a public forum is created seeking suggestions. Even then, remember that it is a privilege to be invited and you are/were a guest of the show, so can the ego and remember the word constructive.

However.

I do have quibbles with 1.5 of Ms. Allen’s items, and I think they’re worth exploring if you intend to sell books at an event (or, really, plan to hawk your creative wares on the road anywhere. Art fairs, craft shows, Ren Faires, they all kind of apply).

The half-measure: insisting on standing every time someone comes up to the table. It’s traditional advice, and I’ve heard it often from really good salesmen, but it’s a touch ableist. I personally cannot stand for 9–12 hours a day (more at the big shows). I’m not in the best of health, and neither are many other perfectly capable authors and artists I know. You won’t sell much if you’re in agonizing pain, and a convention is a marathon, not a sprint.

Supposedly you’ll be more active and engaged with the customer if you’re on your feet. But if you believe in your work and you know how to engage with a customer, you can do that on your feet or in a chair. Personally, I’d give body parts for one of those specialty “seller’s chairs” that looks like a director’s chair but isn’t so low to the ground, so you’re basically at eye level anyway. My current budget keeps me in an ordinary camp chair, and so leaping to my feet like a grasshopper every time someone comes to the table is going to require more muscle groups than I currently command.

Also: As a shopper, I find it’s counterproductive. I actually feel guilty when I approach a table and an obviously-exhausted seller staggers to her feet. I will sometimes pre-empt them with, “Oh please, you can sit, it’s okay.” Almost every time, she sinks back into the chair with obvious relief.

Worse: it can intimidate the shy shopper. Sometimes the introverts just want to browse, and they’ll steer clear of a table with Mr. Energetic practically leaping over the table at them. The standing seller means they can’t just browse, they’ll have to converse, and thus they avoid. And book people carry a higher percentage of introverts than many other potential customers.

Which leads me to my biggest quibble: “What do you like to read?”

Please, for the love of Stephen King, let’s just stop that one.

First, because it’s the standard question. If you walk through an event, you will get that question at. every. table. I’m not sure when we decided that was the default ice-breaker at a book fair, but it is now the author version of “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” At one book festival, I walked the room and was asked that question no less than five times.

Second, as mentioned before, readers are often introverts. I find The Question tends to lead to recoil and a hasty retreat. A shy reader perusing for books needs a gentler approach. A question like that makes them stop thinking about my books on the rack in front of them and start thinking about an appropriate answer to my question. I’m naturally shy — shut up, why does no one believe me — and it takes an active effort to engage in conversation with strangers. I have lots of practice, but it’s work.

Third, when I’m shopping, I never know how to answer The Question. “Oh, horror, science fiction, urban fantasy, medical thrillers, legal thrillers, whodunits, post-apocalypse, creative nonfiction, graphic novels, the occasional sword-n-sorcery, short stories and once in a blue moon romance.” Great, I’ve covered the entire genre spectrum. Except Westerns.

What do I suggest we say instead?

First: Leave them alone for a few moments. Let your books speak for themselves. Readers want to explore on their own, not be assaulted by the literary equivalent of a department-store perfume spritzer. “Ew, she got her book on me, run away!”

Then engage them in conversation, but make it light. If they’re wearing a lovely dress or a funny T-shirt, mention that. But (very important) be sincere. Don’t fake flattery. If I hate the earrings, I’m not going to say, “What cute earrings! Where’d you find them?” On the other hand, pop culture conventions tend to have really amazing clothes and costumes, not to mention absolutely hilarious T-shirts, so it’s not hard to find something to chat about.

I stole some of my best lines from author Selina Rosen. “Money is the root of all evil, and we are here to save your soul.” This never fails to get a laugh.

I have been known to wave my hand Jedi-style and say, “These are the books you’re looking for.” This works at genre conventions and author fairs with a high percentage of speculative fiction. Try it at a craft fair and you’ll get blank looks. But at con? I usually get a guy snarking me: “That only works on the weak-minded.” Hey, it was worth a try.

If they seem shy, just a friendly, “Let me know if I can help you,” indicates that I am available to answer questions without putting pressure on them. Don’t push the introverted reader! They may become your most dedicated fans, but they scare easy. Anything like a hard sales push tends to send them running.

If they pick up a book, I wait a few seconds. Let the book talk to them. If my publisher and I have done our jobs right, the cover art and the back cover copy should do most of the work selling the book. Then I might tell them something about it, like, “That one’s out of print. I think those are the last few copies.”

Again: Honesty. Those really are the last copies. Don’t lie, because you might get a sale, but then you’re an ass.

Or I’ll explain a little bit about the book. “It’s a short story collection, kind of Twilight Zone-creepy style of horror and science fiction.” If there’s something I can add to its pedigree, I might say, “That one won the Darrell Award a few years ago.” They’ve probably never heard of the Darrell Award, but an award generally means they give it a closer look than if I sit there and say nothing.

Be wary of getting too personal. Someone who wrote a book about piercings that come to life might ask, “So, do you have any piercings?” Yeah, I’ve heard it, and instantly the person recoils with an expression of dismay. We’ve just met, you don’t get to examine my piercings until the third date, pal.

But you also can’t be too generic. “Let me tell you about my novel series!” This is perfume-salesperson level. It does nothing to draw them in and everything to scare them away.

Sometimes they realize I write horror and recoil with, “Oh, I can’t do scary stuff.” (There’s a skull on my table, it’s their first clue. His name is Yorick and we’ve been through a lot together.) I could be an ass and insist, “But it’s not that scary! Look, it’s just kinda creepy!”

Then you’re that guy, like the forty-year-old trying to buy a twentysomething a drink and insisting he’s not married because women don’t get him.

Instead, that’s when you return to Ms. Allen’s advice: Who else is in the room? Direct them to the hard SF guy next to you or the romance writer down the aisle. My friend Sela Carsen and I have been Butch and Sundance at more signings than we care to count, and she writes happy sci-fi romance. If I’m not their taste, probably she is.

Don’t ever, ever try to sell to someone who isn’t at your table. If he’s looking at the sword-n-sorcery author next to me, I leave him the hell alone until he’s moved on to my table. Only the biggest jerk tries to steal customers from other authors. The reader may or may not realize that you’ve been an asshole, but the other authors will, and repeated offenses mean you will not be invited back.

Worse: there are editors and publishers in the room, and we all talk to each other. The reputation of Asshole Author means you will not sell. As one publisher told me: “I don’t care if he’s written the next American Gods, life is too short to work with assholes. I won’t publish anyone who’s a dick.”

(Pardon the language, but really… this is the language of the dealer’s room.)

Being an author means selling yourself. We all know this, or we should, by now. But keep a sense of humor, and remember to be a person. If you act like the chamois salesguy on a 3 a.m. infomercial, you will scare away the readers and you’ll annoy the other authors.

If you can’t think of anything else, then fine: go with “What do you like to read?” I guess it’s better than nothing. Just keep in mind, they’ve already heard it from the other 49 authors in the hall.

Except me. I’m probably using the Jedi Mind Trick on them. From my chair.

Elizabeth Donald

Written by

Journalist for more than 20 years, president of St. Louis SPJ, masters candidate/teaching assistant, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author.

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