Friday, October 3, 2014

Selling at Festivals

Part 1 - Introduction

Michael W. Davis

This post is being offered 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. 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 (

In the vast majority of localities you’ll find a number of events where everyday people like you and I (versus commercial businesses) can sell items they make, including local authors. These events can be viable markets IF you effectively promote and display your books, and keep your expenses low. When I use the term festival (or fest), it includes: seasonal harvest celebration, annual events a town holds for their community, fairs conducted by libraries, and craft shows. I speak not of events oriented toward commercial products like boat shows, gun shows, industrial product fairs, etc. Rather one or two day events aimed at people pushing self-made items. Although flea markets are possible, my assessment is that customers at such activities are primarily aligned at expecting junk one person has sold to another and unlikely to be interested in new books, but I’ve never sold at one so my experience there is zip.

In the next installment (part 2) we’ll discuss the entire process associated with preparing for and attending an event. First, the most critical decision you need to make is whether a fest is a viable outlet. All events are not created equal in terms of selling books. Based on my observations at roughly a dozen shows, there’s seven key factors that drive their “goodness” in terms of selling books, namely: size of attendance, economic health of area, composition of customers (ref gender), legacy (how long show has been established), location where you’re placed at the event, competition from other shows that day and weather. Here are a few examples to illustrate what I mean.

1.     I’ve been doing events related to book sales for a while. Last year I did a local fest where loads of people attended a one day event. The show enjoyed a fifteen year history but the economy of that county has tanked and most occupants had careers in the agricultural sector. I participated with ten other authors and our combined display was visually supreme. About a dozen books were sold by the entire group. That stinks big time, given the haul, setup and hours wasted in the booth. Here’s the rub. Only packages I saw in visitor hands were food (apples, popcorn, candy, etc.)

2.     I attended an event at a mini mart in my area that other authors raved about. The day of the event it poured the entire show. Fortunately we were under an extended overhang. I estimate in a five hour period only roughly 200 customers came, yet I did good, well worth the effort given it was free. With such poor drivers (weather and volume) what was the difference? Health of the customer set. The area is mostly tourist oriented, 90% of attendants were female, and everyone had money as illustrated by their cars, attire and jewelry.

3.   Three years in a row I’ve participated in a new (unestablished) town festival. It’s set in a rural location and my costs were zero (tent paid for by the town). First year was marginally okay, last two sucked. Why? Competition from a dozen other shows on that specific day within a 40 mile radius decreased attendance, and the local population just did not support the event (not sure why.) I stayed with it because one of my writer budettes worked so hard to make it successful, but the boredom of sitting there for seven hours with no flow of traffic was painful. If not for my other writer friends to talk to I’d gone insane.

4.     I had a space with two other authors at a local fest that pumps through about 12K people a day. We expected record sells. Why? Pre-event sampling of attendance and the health of the surrounding area. My wife and I checked out the event two years in a row and a significant percentage of the massive crowd had bags full of products beside food. The downside? It poured most of the day until the end when the clouds parted and visitors rolled in, along with sales (in an eight hour show, I made 80% of my sells in the last two hours.) We each covered our cost and will do again because the potential is definitely there, weather permitting.

My point? Like I said earlier, all events are not created equal. Evaluate each fest with a pre-visit to increase likelihood of success. In the “results” section we’ll discuss how to make that decision.

An undeniable, yet qualified, “Yes.” If you subtract sales derived from my publisher outlets and at gift shops/boutiques; festivals exhibit the largest slice in my personal promo effort “pie” of sales. The caveat is “which shows do I attend?” It’s not just a question of attendances; you have to be choosy in your selection process. I’ve learned to apply the following criteria before I commit to sending in an application:

1.        I bypass areas known to be experiencing suppressed economics. Two perfect examples are two shows in Danville and Martinsville (VA). Both areas were manufacturing based and have undergone major down turns.

2.        I ignore shows with a primary food oriented theme (chill fest, barbeque, etc.) Did one such event and only saw a few visitors carrying vendor bags.

3.        Technology and med oriented areas have good potential. For example, RTP in Raleigh is hi tech and the economy is booming. Roanoke is a hub of two dozen medical facilities with a professional oriented customer base. Most (but not all) towns with large universities have good potential. I don’t mean community colleges but institutions with 20, 30, 40 thousand students. Lake localities are generally tourist or prosperous regions, except in off season.

4.        I no longer consider festivals not specifically oriented toward a customer purchase basis (like a craft show). If it’s celebrating a historical event, a steam engine demo, pottery demos, gem show, etc., the reason for people to attend is not “purchase oriented”, other than food.

5.        I’ve learned to pre-attend all high fee or distant (more than an hour) events least one year in advance with my wife, plus it’s a two for given I get credit for a wife’s day out (g). Here’s some things to consider to help evaluate the potential of an event:

·     If the weather is real hot, cold, windy or raining skip visiting until the next year.

·     The primary period of attendance and purchasing is from about 11 to 3 PM. Try to schedule your visit then. At a good fest, one where the crowd is more merchandise vs entertainment oriented, many ladies circle through the entire event then return after lunch to buy.

·    I like to use a technique known as proxy causality to estimate the potential of an event. Simply means, given I can’t know how much vendors actually sell at a show; I use a visual indicator that’s correlated. In this case I count the percentage of people with bags in their hands from purchases (ignoring food related products.) I created this method across eleven years and a hundred shows (used to do crafts with the wife) to predict what sells can be expected at a particular fest and it correlates fairly well with actual results EXCEPT if three uncontrollable variants rein their head: foul weather, competing shows that weekend, and being placed on a side street off the main drag (a killer for sales). Here’s how you use it. Define the following factors as:

o C = Your share of cost at the festival (usually $30 to $125 divided by # of partners)

o Af = Attendance (promoters often have last year’s number on their website.)

o Bf = This is the fraction of (nonfood) buyers you see in the crowd. How do you get that number? Easy, go to the center of the festival (not a side street) and for five minutes stand to the side and count two numbers: how many have "non-food" packages and how many stroll across your line of sight. Record the numbers then later in the event do it again. Make Bf = (packages at time 1 + Packages at time 2)/(attendants crossing your line of sight at time 1 + at time 2).

o V = Number of vendors at the event.

o Estimate the number of sales (S) you can expect by using the following formula:

S = (Af) (Bf) / V

     So, say you make a profit of P (discount + royalty) for each product. Then once you do a pre-visit to the festival, if "S times P" is greater than C (your event cost) you’ll break even or make money, otherwise it’s not worth selling at that show.

o This method WILL NOT get ya 1% or 2% accuracy given the coarse nature of your input parameters, but it will provide a ball bar estimate that's amazingly close except for the three event drivers I discussed earlier which can mess everything up (rain, competing shows, side street). For me, over the years I've found it to be quite useful, usually coming within 10% to 20% of actual sales.

There is one more caveat to this predictive method in terms of how close it comes to what you actually experience: namely audience reader likelihood. For example, if the festival is in a professional employment area (medical, technology, university, etc.) or an economically thriving region, the average attendant will have a greater tendency to purchase a book at such a festival. Means if your prediction is on the low side of what you deem necessary to give a festival a shoot, if the reader potential is high you might lean toward doing at least one year to check it out. Yes, it's a subjective input but use your senses when you examine the crowd. If your projected sales are marginal and the attendants are mostly adult females, not stroking through the event killing time and ignoring vendors, rather checking out each booth (going in and out, touching/examining products, etc.) might take a chance. OTOH, if the attendants are primarily kids, people focused on freebies given out by commercial tents, food vendors, children rides, attendants watching singers, etc, your chances are likely the bag count you recorded do not align with the products you're trying to sell.

I estimate a 30% decline in sales at shows. Yet as a portion of aggregate sales, this is still my best mechanism (outside of publisher sales and gift shops.) In small events you can burn your audience out quickly. Means you need to keep varying your selection and drive distance. For example, at a medium to large event (8K to 15K visitors) I can get four, maybe five years before an event dries up for my products. For a small event (2000 or less) the event can become stale after one or two years.

I have learned to be more selective in terms of which events I attend. No longer do I go to every event I catch wind of, only those I’ve analyzed with significant potential. If it’s really close to your location, or you’re looking to get out, or the charge is free or 10 bucks (a church sale, library event, community sale, etc.), no big deal if the outcome is disappointing. Consider it a lesson and subtract from your list next year. I did a new show at a tourist outlet that had very little attendance but my sales were good and it cost me nothing to attend. For the larger more costly festivals ($80 to $150), takes a lot of sales to offset your cost so use caution (e.g. an upfront evaluation/visit is paramount.) Also, coupling up with author friends can reduce overhead/sunk cost, plus help with setup, long as you have a good relationship with them and they have a “sharing the load” vs “demanding” personality. Shows and setup can be very stressful events so you need partners that are stable and mature in their approach toward life.

Next post (on 10/31) I’ll cover the Festival process itself and things to do to help sales. Till then.


Liz Fountain said...

Thanks for sharing the lessons learned, BM. I'm off to one tomorrow and will take a look at that bag count idea (number of non-food purchases) and see what happens!


Olga Godim said...

Very useful post. Thanks, Mike.

Rhobin Lee Courtright said...

Interesting information and advice. Thanks.

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Thanks, Mike. I saved it.

KMTolan said...

Great advice. My correlation for large SF/F events (comic cons) suggests that you won't likely break even due to the high cost of tables however the promo itself is worth it (outgoing cards and hits to website). I did come close to generally (not strictly) breaking even this last convention, however profit isn't the main driver with me.

Big Mike said...

You're right Kerry, it's the after bath that takes ya over the top. Just need two festivals in three weeks and my average per week hit and buy rate on the website is triple the norm. Plus I'd bet the Comic cons cost between 150 and 300 bucks. That's a ton of suck cost to over come. Max I've paid was $150 split three ways between three authors and that's a bunch of books sold before ya break even, but like I said, it's the after glow that makes money.

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