hand-selling books: what’s worked for me

This blog post is for writers (especially new ones) and those curious about the business side of writing, particularly “hand-selling” books in person, such as at book signings or book festivals.

I’m a relatively new author (I self-published my first young adult fantasy novel in 2012) who’s managed to gain some attention on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I live.  I get most of my book sales at events, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve found—from trial and error—that works for me in selling books.

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Picking a Venue, Part I

The kids in my town often set up card tables outside the Kmart to sell Girl Scout cookies, or take over an empty parking lot to wash cars, and while that works for them, it certainly wouldn’t work for me and my books.  I read the local newspaper, keep my eye out for flyers posted at area businesses, and follow social media to learn about upcoming events which I can join, and where I think I’m likely to have luck selling.

Obviously, I want the event to be in a good location, with a lot of people attending.  But just as important, the event should have some connection to me and my books, so that what I have would interest many of the people attending.  There’s not much point in trying to sell my young adult fantasy novel for girls at a “Wounded Warriors” fishing trip; better to offer my book about dogs to folks who are into adopting animals.

So I tend to gravitate towards events (like the Kent Island Day festival held every May) that celebrate the Eastern Shore, and emphasize my local roots.  Or, for my novel Lost Dogs, I ask the local pet rescue charities if I may sell and sign books and split the proceeds 50/50 with them.  Which brings me to my next topic…

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“To Fee or Not to Fee?”

Usually, an event will want a vendor fee, and as you might imagine, the bigger the event, the larger said fee.  I’ve been burned before by shelling out quite a bit, only to find that the return on my investment nowhere near covered my entry costs (never mind what I paid for books, gas, parking, tolls, etc.).

So now I’m much more cautious about paying entry fees—my limit is usually $50—and I tend towards events that I would support anyway.  For example, the Queen Anne’s County Arts Council holds a bazaar every December called “Heck With the Malls.”  Even if I don’t sell anything at “Heck With the Malls” (quite the opposite, actually—more about that in a minute), I’d be happy that my entry fee would be helping promote the arts in my county.

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The same applies to splitting profits with the Animal Resource Foundation or Chesapeake Cats and Dogs.  Last week, I sold copies of Lost Dogs at a CC&D event and wrote them a check for $80.  That’s more than I would typically want to spend on an entry fee, but it’s for such a good cause, I don’t mind.  And the volume of sales I make at these animal rescue events is phenomenal: the CC&D patrons bought every copy I brought.

Picking a Venue, Part II

I mentioned “Heck With the Malls,” where local artists and crafters sell their wares during the Christmas season.  Two years ago, I decided to enter (paying my $35 fee) to see how well I’d do.  I was the only author—local or otherwise—there.

I made a killing.  I went back to “HWtM” this past December and did even better.  I also did great at two church bazaars this past November.  Every time, I was the only author there.

I’ve done dedicated book signings before, where a bunch of writers get together to sell their stuff.  The first time we did it, it worked well.  The other times were….ehhh.  I’ve found that pure book signings and book festivals, where that’s all there is, can be either hit or miss (too often the latter).

But something like a craft bazaar?  Almost always a hit, mostly because a lot of people (not just readers looking for signed books) come to those events.  And as you might expect, events around Christmas time are good, because people are in the mood to spend.

Indoors or Out?

A lot of events where I want to sign books happen in spring, summer, and fall, and often, these are held outdoors.  I always take weather into consideration, for my physical comfort and for my prospects at selling.

Before the event, I check to see if I’ll be under cover, and if not, I’ll try to bring a pop-up canopy to keep sun and rain off me (and my books).  From experience, I’ve learned that even a little bit of rain will dissuade quite a few people from attending, cutting down on potential customers; a downpour will guarantee that I’ll be twiddling my thumbs for hours.

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Even if the event is held indoors, there’s no guarantee that weather won’t be a factor, particularly in late fall and winter (like those Christmas sales).  If an event fizzles because of weather, there’s nothing I can do but shrug.  Hopefully, the folks running it will have a make-up date, or if not, perhaps they’ll refund my entry fee.

Getting My Stuff Ready

For a book signing, I usually bring:

  • Copies of my book. Well, DUH!, but I make sure I bring enough: it’s better to have too many than too few.  Leftovers can go back into storage, for the next event.  I base how many I need on past events; the first time I ever did a signing, I brought 20 copies.

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  • Stands for the books. I bought some plastic folding picture stands (for a few bucks each) from Kmart to hold my books up.  It helps visibility, and it looks more professional than just laying them on the table.
  • Table, tablecloth, and one to two folding chairs. Some venues provide a table, most do not.  I use a plastic-topped folding table a smidge over 5 feet long and about 2 feet wide: it’s smaller and lighter than standard tables, making it easier to carry, set up, and break down (sometimes I use a regular card table, instead).  Tablecloths make the display look nicer (and more professional).  I use either a solid brown or solid dark blue cloth, with no distracting print: I want folks looking at my books, not what’s under them.  Eventually, I’ll want to sit down, so I bring a chair; a second one is good if someone is working with me, if my wife tags along, or if someone wants to chat for a while (hopefully, that “someone” is a member of the media, or the event organizer, and not just someone who wants to talk my ear off).
  • Pens and scratch paper. You laugh, but I’ve forgotten to bring pens to a signing.  I NEVER assume I know how people spell their names (or the names of whom they’re buying for) and I ALWAYS ask (“Is it ‘S-A-R-A,’ or is there an ‘H’ on the end?”).  And I ALWAYS practice writing people’s names on scratch paper before I sign their book.
  • An envelope for holding payments, and plenty of change. I charge $15 for a copy of Lost Dogs, so before any event, I get at least $100 in 5-dollar bills from the bank, to make change for people who pay in 20’s.  I also take checks (and haven’t been burned by it yet—knock on wood).  I don’t have a smartphone, but if I did, I’d want one of those Square readers so people can pay with credit cards (bearing in mind that Square charges you fees, starting at 2.75% for each transaction).
  • Business cards and promotional items. Before the event, I go on Vistaprint and order business cards with my latest book cover on the front; on the back goes a short blurb about the book, where they can get it, and my website address.  For Lost Dogs, I gave away magnets of my book cover image (below); for Dragontamer’s Daughters, I gave foldout paper dragons (sadly, discontinued) from Oriental Trading.  All of these make decent bookmarks, so I include one with every sale, and give them out even to people who don’t wind up buying.

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  • Newspaper clippings and Amazon reviews. My area newspaper is great about running articles on local authors, so when they cover me, I clip out that article, laminate it, and put it on display right up front, where people can see.  It makes me look more legit.  I also have handouts where I’ve copied from Amazon the 5-star reviews that my latest book has picked up.  If buyers want to know what other readers think, I can give them the handout.

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  • Water bottle/snacks to stay lively.  Mints to keep my breath smelling nice.

Getting Myself Ready

Most of the events I do are within a few miles of my house, and/or are places I’ve been to before, so I usually don’t need to worry about directions.  I wear comfortable, casual stuff that still looks nice: collared shirts when it’s warm, sweaters in fall and winter.  Mandatory shaving and toothbrushing right before I leave the house.

Just as important as how I look is how I think and feel.  I’m an introvert, but no one wants to meet an author who mumbles and avoids eye contact.  Just like athletes pump themselves up for a game, I psyche myself up for signing events by playing some metal—KISS is a favorite—while I get ready, and more on the car radio as I drive there.

Like KISS, I view each signing as a performance: I don’t pretend to be someone I’m not, but I emphasize the (admittedly small) part of me that’s friendly, outgoing, and dynamic.  I may not wear spandex and makeup, but by the time I get to a book signing, I’ve convinced myself that I’m a rock star.

signing Get Me to the Church Signing On Time

I don’t need much time to get set up, so I usually get to the venue about a half hour before the event starts.  This works well if I know that vendor spots are already assigned, but it’s not so good if it’s first-come, first-served.  In that case, I show up early, and try to get a spot—such as near the entrance—where most, if not everyone, has to pass by.

Arranging the Display

Tablecloth first, of course, then a copy of my latest book on a stand at each corner of the table.  Newspaper clippings and Amazon reviews in between: if I’m donating portions of the proceeds for the event, I’ll have a paper saying that right out front, where anyone can see it.  A few copies to be signed towards the back of the table, along with pens and scrap paper.

If I’m selling copies of my other books (currently Dragontamer’s Daughters, though I have a children’s book coming out this spring), I’ll have them on stands towards the side and rear of the table.  My box of copies, drinks/snacks, cash envelope, and my phone go under the table, out of sight.

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I try to resist the urge to get on my phone during slow times.  Instead, I’ll open copies of my books to the last page and write: “If you’ve enjoyed [title of book], please go to Amazon.com and leave a review.  Thanks!”  Then I’ll sign my name.  Hopefully, this message will motivate people to do just that.

Standing Up for Myself (and My Books)

Though it can be tiring on my back (I’m not getting any younger), I prefer to stand during book signings.  I’m more noticeable, I can burn off any nervous energy, and I’m more confident.  Maybe it’s just me, but it feels weird to me to sit and look up at someone as they stand in front of my table.

Softly Sales Pitching

I’ve seen a lot of authors do a “hard sell” as soon as someone comes within 20 feet of them, launching into a rehearsed sales pitch about themselves, and they book they wrote, and how great it is, and how many they’ve sold, and wouldn’t the other person like to buy one, too, like all the other cool kids?  It’s one part harangue, one part desperation, and it rarely works.

I prefer a more laidback approach.  Here’s my hardcore opening line whenever someone comes over when I’m signing books: “Hi.  How are you?”

If they pause at my table and look at my latest book (let’s use Lost Dogs for this example), I’ll give them a one-liner about it: “I wrote a novel about dogs on Kent Island.”

(If I’m doing a fundraiser with one of the animal rescue places, I’ll add, “—and I’m donating half the proceeds from sales today to [name of organization])

If they seem interested, I’ll pick up a copy and continue: “It’s about a German Shepherd named Buddy.  That’s him on the cover.  He lives with a Beagle mix named Sally.  Something happens, and all the people are gone.  The story is what happens to Buddy and Sally after that.  Here: take a look.”

I’ll turn the book over and hand it to them so they can read the back cover blurb.  Then I won’t say anything for a few moments while they do just that.  If they want to flip through the book, that’s fine, too.

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It’s usually about then that people ask me questions: How did I come up with this idea? How long did it take me to write it?  How long has it been out?  (Parents buying for their kids usually have a whole set of questions—see below)

Of course, I answer them.  Some people want to tell me about their dogs, so of course, I listen, and I usually tell them about mine.

If they’re still interested, I’ll mention that it’s been getting great reviews on Amazon (which it has—I don’t ever lie to readers).

And then I just sit back—okay, stand back—answer any more questions, let them consider it, and wait to see if they’re going to buy.  I don’t push them, and I only mention the price ($15) when they ask (if they offer a lower price—which rarely happens—I’ll usually take it).

If they say they’d prefer an electronic version, I’ll tell them it’s on Amazon as a Kindle download, but usually, if they haven’t walked away by now, they’re probably going to buy.  Once they say they will, I ask if they’d like me to sign it for someone, or do they just want my signature.  Once I sign and they pay, I put a business card inside the front cover, hand them the book, and ask them to please leave a review on Amazon if they like it.

No fuss, no stress, no high-pressure hard-selling.  And it works great.

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Answering the Parents

I write young adult fiction, so sometimes parents will ask me about my books’ contents, and whether they’re appropriate for their kids.  While I think only they can make that determination, I try to give them as much information as I can, in a way they’ll easily understand. So using Lost Dogs again as an example, I tell them:

“If it were a movie, it would be rated PG-13.  It’s an end-of-the-world story, so there is some violence (including dogs fighting each other); some gore; and language like you would hear on prime-time network television.  There is no sex; there are no ‘f-bombs.’  I would recommend this for kids 12 and up.”

I have yet (knock on wood) to have any parent complain to me about the content of either of my novels being inappropriate for their child.

Get Out There and Sign Some Books

Below are links to other blog posts you might find useful.  Good luck to you at your signings!

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2006/06/booksignings-everything-you-need-to.html

http://thebookshelfmuse.blogspot.com/2013/09/hand-selling-your-book-how-savvy-are-you.html

Kenton Kilgore is the author of Lost Dogs, the story of a German Shepherd and a Beagle-mix who survive the end of the human world, only to find that their struggles have just begun. Kenton also wrote Dragontamer’s Daughters, a two-part young adult fantasy novel based on Navajo culture and belief.  Follow Kenton on Facebook for daily posts on sci-fi, fantasy, and other speculative fiction. 

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5 Responses to hand-selling books: what’s worked for me

  1. SJ Mitchell says:

    Excellent post!

    I’m a very social person but if there’s one aspect I’ve always struggled with, it’s selling ‘myself’.

    I get uncomfortable talking about myself and my accomplishments simply because I know there are people out there more deserving of praise. I was raised to be humble…almost to a fault.

    When people ask me about the book I’m writing, I have yet to say the same thing twice and I always stumble over my words. I’m afraid what I’m saying isn’t convincing enough, so I say it again differently.

    After reading this post though, repetition is probably key and it sounds like you go with KISS motto and ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ when describing your book. I like that. Also…I’m a big fan of KISS and I have several of their CD’s in my car for those long rides 🙂

    I’m absolutely bookmarking this page for future reference. It’s nice to get some insight and some behind the scenes looks at how you work your book signings/appearances.

    Have you ever tried local bookstores or do you find that a bit too cliche? I have friends suggesting that to me, but I’m concerned that people are looking for something on the shelf more than something from a newcomer who self-published.

    What are your thoughts on that?

  2. SJ, I’m glad you liked this. 🙂 There aren’t any bookstores on Kent Island, where I live: the closest ones are in Annapolis (20-30 minutes away), and they have not been a good fit (that could be a whole other blog post). There’s a bookstore in Chestertown (45 minutes away), who expressed some interest, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.

    I share your concerns about bookstore signings. That, and some of them I’ve interacted with seem to be more concerned about getting a fee from me than working with me to make a good event. There was one that wanted $75 for 3 hours on a weeknight (in an area with little parking), and they weren’t going to promote my signing by e-mail list or Facebook. I turned them down.

  3. JR Mackenzie says:

    Kenton, we’ve never met, but as a fellow author, I find your post one of the best I’ve seen on the ins and outs of book-signing. When I had my first book ready to hand-sell, I conducted signings at various venues–never once having to pay a fee. (not here on the Shore) I guess I was lucky. I think book signings in general get mixed reviews as to whether or not they’re a good idea. Personally, I find them to be fun and you’re introducing yourself to readers, whether they buy a book or not. 🙂

  4. JR, I’m glad you liked it! Whereabouts on the Shore do you live? Are you coming to the Bay to Ocean Conference on Saturday?

    • JR Mackenzie says:

      I live in the Salisbury area. I know that I’ll miss the camaraderie of other local writers at the Bay to Ocean, but I won’t be attending. I look forward to seeing first-hand your books and yourself at some point. Thanks so much for sharing such down-to-earth advice!