Friday, October 31, 2014

Part 2 – Selling books at festivals

The Process

Michael W. Davis

This post is being releases to help our loyal followers who struggle with promoting their products, but it is LONGGG. Accordingly, I’ve split across two months, 1. Introduction and 2. Detailed process. Part 1 was posted last month (10/3/2014). Feel free to copy for your own use but not to distribute elsewhere without permission. If you want to upload as a guest post to your blog, email me via my website (

I divide festival participation into seven steps:

1.     Identification – I’ve used two sources to find events: my local writers group and the web. For the latter, use the search terms “festivals, craft shows, fairs, XXX” where XXX is your state/province. You’ll find both specific fests and databases that allow you to search shows that fit certain parameters (city, sports related, attendance, history based, entertainment, wine festivals, etc.)

2.  Solo or multiple? - If the fest has minimal cost (under $35) I'll attend on my own if I have no other option. For more expensive booth fees I will not attend unless my author friends commit to the event. Why? Say a show costs $120. If your discount/royalty rate is, say, 3 bucks per book you need to sell roughly 40 books (entry fee and gas) to break even. Case in point, my fest in Sept (photo below) cost 125 to participate in. Without partners, that’s a ton of books to sell just to cover expenses. I checked with two local authors I respect (their writing, the appearance of their books, their reliability, their attitude) and we split the cost. Meant even on a rainy day we each covered expenses.

3.  Pre-sample - I’ve learned that unless I’ve had author friends swear by an event, I do a pre-participation visit to evaluate “should I apply” or not. A lot of thought (which I shared in part I) goes into deciding should I or not give it a try.

4.     Getting in – Unless the event is set up by your writer group, or it’s brand new and begging for applicants, getting in the fest is not automatic. Each group of promoters has a procedure you must go through. A few, very few, actually require a 10 to 25 dollar fee just to apply (nonrefundable). Forget those promoters. To pay to apply is insane. Sometimes they ask for a display photo, which is totally acceptable and a good thing for others. You can snap a picture of a mock set up (on your driveway) or at another show you’ve done. I think the resume you submit with the application is key to getting in. Be sure to cite your variety of experience, any awards, top reviews (even bulletining a few) and a couple of your best covers. If any of your stories are back dropped locally (within a 200 mile radius) highlight this books specifically and double the stock you bring of that novel (I do best on those products). For any of our followers that would like to see a copy of the resume I use, go to, click the yellow “Contact author” box and send me an email.

5.     Display – I truly believe customers relate to the appeal of your display. My author friends and I do several things to draw the visitor’s eye. The photo below illustrates our current setup and display. The following discussion provides details of things to consider:

·       Book cover stands – From a craft supply store you can buy plastic displays with a T shaped base where you can easily slip an 8X11 inch copy of a cover. My first attempt was a bit amateurish, and made on my own printer. I now use a local graphics company to produce two hi-res copies of my visually best covers (coated with laminate.) The first copy is used in the standup displays on the table. At the bottom 3-4 inches I use a solid background that matches the cover and overlay 3 or 4 bullets of key worded (one line) review extracts or awards for the book. People will actually stop and pick the display units to read the one line reviews. The second cover copy (about 20% larger and minus review bullets) are attached to the overhead banner with double backed rubber glue squares. Why minus bullets? People streaming by in the crowd beyond a few feet cannot read the small words and the letters clutter the visual appeal of a cover.

·    Banner – I created a large banner for the top of the booth canopy (see display photo.) It contains the artwork for my website header and tagline to catch the customer eye from a distance. The banner is 14 inches tall by 8 feet wide, blended into the canvas fabric and coated with a laminate to protect from moisture. A brass grommet is built into each corner so I can bungee the banner to two hollow aluminum tubes. The tubes are attached to the canopy with circular (loop) bungees vs straight length hook bungees. Does it work? You bet. I’ve watched visitors walk by, stop and look up at the banner with attached covers, talk with a friend/husband, then turn, walk into our booth and half the time when drawn in by the display (not our pitch), they make a purchase.

·       Theme – To spruce up your booth, select a theme that relates to your books (romance, history, mystery, SF, etc.) For example big shows I do with a set of two other authors that strictly write mystery/suspense. We draw customers in with crime tape (attached to the table) and it does help. How do I know? Because customers comment on the design and tape. That idea was the brain child of one of my author budettes and it is a good one. We also wear shirts with writer themes and the customers interact specifically about out shirts/slogans.

·       Table - Most booths are 10X10 feet in size or 10X8. You can fill the front with a 3X6 and 4X4 together or a 3X6 with other display material beside the table. For example, one author friend uses a black retriever in all her books so she brings a life sized stuffed dog to fill the side space (when there’s room.) The doll brings in a ton of kids and ladies and she does very well because of that display. Decorate in line with your theme, but whatever you do, cover the table with a rich colored clean cloth.

·       Books – Customers have a tendency to finger every book you have on your display table. Plus kids use their caramel candy coated fingers to explore the pretty colors. Accordingly they become soiled and bent. Reduce damage by keeping only one copy out front for each book. When it sells, replace.

·   Containers – To prepare for rain, get plastic containers that lock closed for your books. Cardboard gets soaked quickly, even under the canopy and penetrates into your inventory. You can get a 12 Quart clear container for about five bucks at Lowes, Walmart, etc. and they allow two stacks of paperbacks side by side which totals sixteen books per box. You’ll be glad you spent the $15 for three boxes (about what you’ll need if you have an assortment of novels) if you every do a fest in the rain. Oh yeah, cancel out for rain and you may not be invited back.  Here’s a suggestion on using plastic containers. Because lower corners are rounded, the tips of the book on bottom can get pushed/bend slightly. Cut a piece of cardboard from a pizza top or shipping box to be a half inch narrower on all sides than the bottom of the container then lie inside. When you place books in container position with binding toward outside. That way the curve of sides doesn’t ruffle pages.  

6.     Festival operation – Few things to consider on how you operate at the show:

§     Be sure to arrive AT YOUR SPOT least ninety minutes before the show starts. Why? First, it always takes longer to set up than expected, especially if you have an elaborate booth display. Second, many visitors come up to thirty minutes early to beat the crowd.

§     When you park your car, if early enough, try to pick a spot in open view of other booths (vs in an alley or cubby hole). Thieves do rob vendors. Had it happen and heard far worse stories than mine. Try to store stock under you table vs back in your car in plain view. Boxes, even empty, are attractants to crooks.

§     Surprise! Most "buying" attendees at shows are female. Sure, husbands are drug alone but they’re not the main purpose of the festivals you’ll be selling at. If you’re like me and have books that cross gender genres I suggest you reserve pushing your romance, mystery, fantasy or suspense to the ladies. From 90 to 95% of fictional readers of those categories are female. If a guy does walk up and reads you display or reviews or touches a book, for them push political thrillers and SF. Never sold mysteries or romantic suspense to a man, but I have guys buy thrillers and SF.

§     Never express your price as “15 dollars.” You can have a sign on the table or state at the end of a confirmed sell, “That’s 14.24 plus tax which comes to 15 even”. Why? Don’t know about Canada, but I’ve sold products at shows in a dozen states and many had govy’s that patrol the events SPECIFICALLY to catch and fine people. Yes, I’ve seen it happen next to me and across the aisle. If you say “that’s 15 bucks” without a sign explaining the breakout, in several states you’ll get fined big time because they “assume” you’re trying to avoid paying tax. If you don’t want to screw with chance, make a list pre-show with the sale price adjusted downward (if you’re trying to offer a discount) by the amount of tax. Place the sign (can be small) out forth then say “That’s 15 including tax” or “price is 14.25 and tax brings it to 15” or the equivalent.  I always set my price at a discount rate at shows so with tax it rounds to the list price, but that little lose on each sale, IMO, is well worth the pain of counting out change, ESPECIALLY when things get busy at big shows.

§    Location – A word on another factor that can significantly affect sales. If you’re on a side street versus Main Street, you get much less traffic. People plan to come back and visit the side streets but they get tired and usually don’t, so just because others are doing well and you’re not, could be your location.

§   Flow direction – Did you know, based on ergonomics (people patterns), humans have a tendency to go right versus left when they enter an event. Thus if there’s a lot of exhibitors and you’re on the tail end of the flow, customers may spend all their money before they get to your booth. No, nothing you can do about these last two factors but if you don’t do well and others do, doesn’t mean it’s you or the display necessarily.

7.     The push - Each person must do what they’re comfortable with in terms of how they behave and promote during the festival. Here’s some topics to consider:

§     Survey the crowd – Not everyone strolling by or even coming into you booth is a “potential” buyer. Plus, pushing too hard is a turn off to many (including myself.) You can actually chase people away from your display by pushing too much or too soon. Think about it. Every go into a display were the seller is pitching to every single walker by, again and again. Appears like they’re begging. Only a limited set of attendees to the event have any chance of buying from you. Try to lure everyone in and an actual potential customer will walk on by. Why? First, they’ll only hear a fraction of your spiel. Second, people want to feel you are there waiting just for them. No joke. Pitch constantly at every walker by who just smiles out of politeness and you’ll miss real opportunities. So how do you differentiate potentials from strollers? It’s a knack that takes time to learn by watching visual clues in people’s faces and movement pattern. Each marketer uses different “tells” to signal “throw out the bait” candidates. Here’s my method and it works pretty good. Smile or wave to everyone that makes eye contact. If someone pauses, then scans your display of covers, or diverts into your booth and studies your products, then make your spiel.

§     The pitch – If you go to any type of show, watch sells at tables where the owner interacts and those where the person just sits in the back and reads a book or plays on their IPhone.  Guess who sells more. I have a routine I use to hold people who venture into my zone to increase the likelihood of sells, but I only use it on visually interested potentials.

-      Person stops, looks up at display or down at books on table, hesitates then moves closer for a better look, to those I toss my pitch.

-     I ask “What type of books do you like to read?” If they give a non-committal response (nothing specific, a variety of categories, anything that strikes me, etc.) I continue with the broadcast pitch (next bullet). OTOH, if they say, cozy mystery, romance, political thrillers, SF, whatever, I pick my books that best align with their interest and pitch those novels.

-    When someone says, “I read everything” or some other general statement, I start a series of interactions:

o    “Do you like books on the local area, events, or history” and if yes, I pitch those books.
o    If not, I start with books that have received significant accolades (awards, five star reviews, won 2nd place in the P&E best romantic thriller contest, etc.) and rattle off a few books that way.
o    If that doesn’t get ‘em I point to the author label I insert inside the book (back of cover) that contains 3 or 4 one line top reviews/awards and my signature on a 3”X4” label with the header “From the desk of Michael Davis” at the top and “” at the bottom. I verbalize, “If you’d like to see some of the top reviews they’ve received you can read a few examples right here.” That’s usually the clincher.
o    If that doesn’t get them to pick up the book and start to read, I add, “My wife’s favorite is…because…”)
o    Until that sale is completed, I never stop focusing on that customer (unless someone wants to buy or interrupts to ask a question). Why? Because you are there for them and them alone. Know that’s how I feel if someone stopped talking to me mid-stride. Start talking to someone else and you cloud the effect with the person who is now interested. Besides, people picking up and touching your books are a good attractant to walker bys.

§     Post interaction – You will not succeed on every attempted sale. If they start to walk away, or say “I’ll come back later” or “I prefer electronic” then give them one of your cards with the words, “If you decide you’re interested later, you can check out all reviews, award, and excerpts on over twenty of my stories at this website and order online from amazon, B&N or varies other outlets.” That’s it, let them walk and wait for the next visually potential customer. Up to four weeks after the event I detect visits to my buy page resulting from cards I gave out at the festival. I’d estimate 35% to 50% of the total benefit from the show comes afterward. For example, I did a local (twenty miles away) event where I sold a number of books at the event. The next 4 weeks I tracked twice the hits to my actual “buy” page from local visitors (my hit tracker displays location of visitor.)

Yes, I know that’s a lot, especially the interaction part, put consider it a fun thing. I’m a real chatter, so much so that the next day after a show I can’t talk (cancer weakened my voice box) but I enjoy every interaction. If you couple with another author, learn their pitch too and if they’re on a break or busy on a sell include their books in your talk. Don’t look at it as a competition. In my experience, because every author has their own voice and specialties, what turns on one visitor may not for another person. For example one of my budettes does a series about a grandmother caring for her grandchild. I learned my partners pitch and in the process of pitching her book to a customer the visitor exclaimed, “That’s me” and focused on my budettes series which better fits their interest. My other partner has the same black lab in all her stories and covers and customers who love dogs beeline right to her area. I have several stories based on local areas and events and those that like local based novels center on my books. Even seen people said, “I’ll take one from each of ya” because they want to sample our muse given we’re new to them (they’re your big readers.)

Point is, enjoy yourself, pick partners that are fair, committed to the process and want you to sell too. I’m lucky in that I have such budettes and we have a great time jesting one another. Visitors even kid us, “Boy, ya’ll must be good friends” and we are. People like seeing others have a good time so don’t be a frowny face, even if sales are rough that show or that day (which can be hard to deal with.) Actually had buyers come to other shows and note, “Wanted to buy your book at that show in XYZ but spent all my money.” Think they’d make that effort to hermits? I don’t think so.

That’s about it. If you have questions, use the comments first week after postdate (I’ll check back), after that go to and use my “Contact author” button. I’ll try to reply to all queries. Hope ya’ll found this post helpful. Good luck.


Liz Fountain said...

I participated in an author day at a local market last month, and used exactly this method: if anyone made eye contact, I smiled; if they came toward my place at the table, I asked "what do you like to read?"

I didn't sell a ton of books, but no one did. I sold enough to make me think it's worth trying again. Plus, I love the interaction with readers.

One other thing I did - if someone said they liked to read a genre I don't have books in, I pointed them to another author at the festival who did write those kind of books. "Oh, go see so and so - she has a great new mystery out."

I figure that's just good karma.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, most of the return is enjoyment. However, so far I've had three times the post event sells than I got during the shows *visits to my buy page) which makes it well worthwhile.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)

Rhobin said...

Very good advice. I haven't seen anything like this freely given. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

No problem, Rhobin. Luv to share lessons learned.


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Very good stuff here, Mike. Thanks.