A lot of authors question whether in-person book events are worth doing.
For the last few years, I’ve brought my books to one of the largest outdoor Illinois book fairs, the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. I’ve also sold books at several indoor events during that time.
Here's what I've learned:
Getting People To Your Table
At previous events I stacked my books on the table with a couple propped up for visibility, along with a poster for the first book in my Awakening series.
When people stopped to browse, I’d ask them what they liked to read and tell them about the premise of the series. I often felt awkward and salesy because, as a reader, I usually want to browse in peace.
This year a friend suggested I have a spinner where people could win prizes, as everyone likes to play games and win things. I was skeptical, but the night before the fest, I went to Target, bought a cheap game of Twister, and modified the spinner.
The four prizes were candy (Jolly Rancher), a free audible download code, a free signed paperback, and a free e-book.
To play, people needed to sign up for my email list.
It worked out great. People stopped to check out the spinner. When I explained the prizes, they asked what the books were about. That made it easy to tell them the premise of my series and the other books.
If they weren't interested, they didn’t sign up. If they were, they did. Either way, it felt like a relaxed, natural conversation.
Paperback winners all chose the first book in the series. While that’s a loss to me in the moment, I got an email sign up for each and the potential of three more book sales, as it’s a four-book series.
The exercise also helped me learn about people's reading habits. In previous years, I had a drawing for a free audible code and most people said, “What's Audible?” This year, that was a big reason people wanted to spin, and the three people who won the codes were really happy.
If your primary goal is sales from new readers, you’re probably better off skipping book fairs and spending your time and marketing dollars online.
I say that because unless you’re already a well-known author, most sales you’ll make at live events will be from people that you draw there through your mailing list, social media, or other publicity. Attendees have a limited budget to spend and a ton of books to choose from. If they don't already know you, it's hard to get them to part with those dollars.
Also, it’s hard to compete with the pricing at many fairs. Several large tents at the Printers Row Fest, for instance, sell all their books for $3 each.
[Further–and slightly more encouraging–thoughts on making connections with new readers are included in the 2018 article Sitting, Not Pitching, and Relaxing: Lessons Learned at This Year's Book Fair.)
Current Fans & Friends
So why work to drive people who already know about you to an in person event?
For one thing, it's a reason to contact readers and fans and post on social media without just saying “Buy my book.” A fair is fun, it's exciting, and it's a chance for them to meet you in person if they haven't before.
Also, an event can nudge acquaintances or friends who have been meaning for a while to buy one of your books to take the leap. Finally, for some people, seeing you at a book fair with paperback books that they can touch and handle legitimizes or validates your work in a way that seeing an e-book or audio book online does not.
In e-book and audiobook format, my best sellers are my series books, especially now that it's complete. So I brought only a few each of my standalone horror novel and nonfiction books. To my surprise, the non-fiction and standalone sold quickly, while I only sold one series book, and it was to someone who specifically came to buy it.
My guess on why the standalone sold better is that if someone doesn't know your work already, buying the first book in a series seems like more of a risk or investment. Also, my standalone novel had a tie in to the neighborhood, and I made that part of my pitch: “Gothic Horror In The South Loop.” Plus some people who came already had the Awakening series, and they wanted to buy something new.
One of my non-fiction books also had a tie-in. It's Super Simple Story Structure, and I was under the Chicago Writers Association tent. Quite a few writers stopped to ask about the association and then looked at the book. That made it an easy sell.
Time, Location, And Exposure
One reason to lug books to a book fair and spend all or part of your day is that even if you don't sell much, people who might not otherwise come across your books become familiar with them.
Exposure at a book fair or other live event can be particularly helpful if you mainly sell e-books or audiobooks. In person, you get in front of people who may only read in print.
But to get exposure people need to see you, and that’s not always easy.
The worst placement I ever had was on an upper floor in an indoor book fair. The main room was on the ground floor of a large building. While lectures and discussion groups took place on the upper floor, there were no signs directing people there. If you attended and didn't look at the program, you’d think the only book tables were the ones on the first floor.
At Printers Row, which is an outdoor festival, there really are no bad locations, but some are better than others. Single tables stand along the sidewalks on either side of the street. They seem to get fewer browsers, maybe partly because they're directly in the sun.
I typically buy half a table for a few hours under the Chicago Writers Association tent. That tent is one of many set up in the center of the main street at the fair. (This photo shows the afternoon before the book fair.)
I like that placement because more people seem to explore the tents at the center of the street. And there's shade.
Also, when you're in a row of four or five authors, that's more books to look at and more authors to talk to. The wide variety makes people more comfortable approaching the tables even if they’re not sure they’ll be interested in what’s on display.
While you often won't know in advance where you'll be placed, you can investigate. Usually there are online maps from previous years. Compare them to the prior year's program to help figure out what the main attractions are and how close or far away you'll likely be. It also helps to talk to others who have been at the fair in previous years (readers or authors).
Time of day also matters. Printers Row is a two-day book fair, and I had the best results the morning of the first day. Attendees are more excited about being there early in the fair. They’re not on overload yet from too many books and people. Also, they're still enthusiastic even if the weather is too hot/too cold/too windy. (Chicago weather is rarely “just right.”)
The cost for in person events varies widely. An individual table at large fairs can run thousands of dollars. On the other hand, I’ve paid less than $50 for half a table or a spot under a larger organization's tent. Both paperback book release parties I organized myself were at coffee bars where I paid nothing for the space.
Your time is also valuable. There is travel and set up time, as well as however many hours you won’t be writing, handling other aspects of your writing business, or using your time some other way.
Finally, packing the books for travel and the handling they get at the book fairs means at least of few of the ones you take back home won’t be shiny and new anymore.
I've found book fairs fairly close to home and reasonably priced (below $100) worth doing.
They're great for connecting with people you've met online but not yet in person, or who've bought e-books and want to meet you and buy in print. You can also gain email sign ups and may sell a few books to brand new readers.
There's also the plus of new people seeing your books at the fair and later buying when exposed to your books again.
To make the most of a book fair, it helps to figure out a fun way to draw people to your table, to find out as much as you can about placement and time slots in advance, and to figure out a pitch with a local or event tie-in.
Questions? Experiences of your own to share? Please post in the comments.