12 tips to make the most of your book fair (and 3 ways not to)

Friends in low places:
Truman the Reading Dragon says “Hey.”

As independent authors, we have to promote ourselves, and one place to do that is at a book fair. After a few unsuccessful book fairs, I began to dread and loathe them as crowded and noisy – or deadly dull – and I sold few books. Not only was that frustrating, it was a waste of my time and money – to get there, to stay overnight somewhere if it was a weekend event, and the time away from family and deadlines. But a recent book fair changed my outlook.

The Sonoma County Book Festivalwas set for outdoors, but unseasonable rain changed the entire day’s plan. Book vendors, authors and publishers were squeezed indoors, along hallways and in the cafeteria of the college, and gave me the opportunity to see what other authors and publishers do to succeed at book fairs. Here are some tips I picked up for the next book festival.

1)      Hang a banner. The banner says at a glance who you are. Indie-Visible, our publishing collective, has a distinctive bright green silhouette of a girl reading, and from across the room, you could really see that and get a sense that women and books were of utmost importance. And since you can’t always choose your placement, an eye-catching banner helps pull you into view more than no banner at all. (Order one from an online print service for less than $50.)
2)      Give it away. Always have something with which the public can walk away. Postcards or bookmarks, business cards, or other printed material are ways to keep your title in mind after they head for home. Hand out stickers or pens with your book’s title, logo, or a motto from the book. Candy? Yes. Kids head for candy, and the parents follow. One of the most memorable takeaways from my most recent book-fest was a bubblegum eyeball from Damnation Books/Eternal Press. My son loved it, and I remember their name, don’t I?
3)      Don’t get trapped behind your table. Authors and vendors who stand in front, to the side, are able to engage with readers. The sound level may be high in the authors’ hall and readers may not be able to hear you across the table. You can actively speak of your book, or give away your stickers or postcards, rather than leave it to passive patron “takeaway.” Use at least some of your time to stand up and engage instead of sitting the entire day.
4)      Offer a discount for fair-goers only. You can tweet and post about this ahead of time, even giving a discount code for followers, if you like. “Mention my Twitter feed and you can take 20 percent off at the San Francisco Book Fest.”
5)      Think vertically. Your book table is horizontal. Add visual interest with an easel to hold a large-size book-cover poster. Some authors hang quilts or display upright items like a full human skeleton, a costume or flag. On the table, think tablescape: Use a small stand to display up your book, and keep the additional books under the table, out of sight. Use a cake stand, a footed dish, a tiered rack – anything that looks more than flat on the table. Even a vase of flowers adds vertical interest.

6)      Wear a costume. Why not? If you write historical fiction, for example, dress the part. Author Linda McCabe dons her Italian Renaissance gown and draws readers, especially with children who want to “see the princess.” Her costume is an excellent way to interact with patrons. My Doris Diaries books take place in the 1920s, so I often wear a cloche hat, long beads and a dress or sweater that brings the era to mind, even if it’s not exactly full costume. Writing for children? How about hiring a teen to dress as the character for all or part of the day? You don’t want to look ridiculous, but if it sets the tone, cos-play may be right for you.

7)      Use props.My candlestick telephone or Victrola are props I often take to readings or to book fairs. They set the mood for wandering fair-goers to see these items from the 1920s. Other authors use teddy bears, a rolling pin, a skull, a typewriter, or anything that might play on the theme or subject of the book. A globe, a bowl of goldfish? What prop could you use on the table to start a conversation?
8)      What’s your name? With so many people coming and going at a book fair, it’s difficult to tell who is official, who’s an author, and who is a member of the reading public. Make one in advance in case the book fair doesn’t provide you with a nametag. “Julia Park Tracey, author,” tells the wandering reader exactly who I am without having to guess. This is especially important when it’s noisy in the hall. Trying to shout your name across the table is rather demoralizing.
9)      Take a friend: ideally, another author who will share expenses and space with you. Two people can take turns manning the table when one wants to eat, drink, stretch legs or make a phone call. Hosting a table with Christina Mercer, a sister-author from Indie-Visible, changed my whole experience. I had someone to talk to, we shared our ideas about writing, and were able to tag-team tweet, post and snap photos with ease.
10)   Trade your book for another author’s if you see something you like – or that might be similar to yours. It’s a good opportunity to see what worked and what didn’t in someone else’s work. I met Patty Kogutek of Phoenix at the San Francisco Book Festival this year. Our books had similar themes of guilt and Catholicism. We are planning to read together when I head to Arizona later this fall.
11)   Start a mailing list on a clipboard. Write a few of your friends’ or children’s names on the list to get it started. For some reason, people won’t write on an empty mailing list, but will jump at a list that looks popular.
12)   Make eye contact. Say hello. Stay engaged with the patrons instead of tweeting, playing a game on your iPad or reading. If asked how it’s going (business or the fair), answer enthusiastically (even if you have sold nothing). People don’t want to buy from a loser; they buy from a winner (basic sales psychology here), so say, “It’s a great festival – I’m meeting so many fans! Sales are fantastic!” Who wouldn’t want to buy a book that “everyone” is buying?
A positive attitude – combined with realistic expectations (you might sell a lot and you might sell nothing) will set you up for success at your next book fair. And because I’m generous like that, here are a few Don’ts for your book fair, too.
1)      Don’t eat.Biting into a sandwich or scraping at plate of food at the booth is unprofessional. Even munching on chips (or gum) can be very unattractive to prospective buyers. Step away from the table to eat, and no gum! A covered cup of coffee or bottled drink are fine.
2)      Don’t bring your dog/baby/teenager, unless your book is about dogs (Nancy Levinetakes her pug Wilson to book fairs, as a star attraction); a breastfeeding author with a book about same is an advertisement. Otherwise, leave your little ones at home and give your full attention to the books. Make sure teens are there to help, not hinder with a surly or disruptive attitude.
3)      Don’t be rude to your fellow/sister authors, who may hear your elevator pitch 200 times that day. Don’t wear heavy perfume or play music without permission; don’t take the extra chair or space under their tables without asking, etc. Good boundaries make good neighbors.

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3 Replies to “12 tips to make the most of your book fair (and 3 ways not to)”

  1. Julia,
    The Sonoma County Book Festival was a fun event. I only wish that our tables were not quite so small and close to one another. It made it difficult for setting up and also moving around. Otherwise, I did enjoy sharing a table next to you and being able to chat when there were small lulls.

    Thank you for mentioning me in this post and looking forward to getting to know you better.

    Linda C. McCabe, author of Quest of the Warrior Maiden

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