Periodically, I participate in book festivals as a vendor and can’t help recognizing an astonishing contradiction. When the festival is in full throttle and the grounds teaming with patrons, I notice two things: the patrons often walk right past the tables that proudly display the authors’ works, and the authors sit behind their tables with dejected appearances. These two phenomena result in a fruitless day for the authors who paid the table fee in the hopes of promoting their name and book titles while generating a handsome profit.
It’s not uncommon for authors to envision a mass of book lovers crowding their tables asking for personal inscriptions as they buy the author’s book. The author is ready with boxes of their books prepared to replenish those sold. The anticipation of lines of fans, maybe even local television cameras spotlighting the authors, enter their minds only to face the stark reality that most of the patrons at the book festival are out to enjoy the day and have something to look at, be a member of the crowd, listen to live bands, and spend their money on hotdogs.
When a patron does meander to a table, they may pick up a book for a cursory examination then go to the next table and do the same, excusing themselves as “just browsing” or “just curious.” “$16 dollars? That’s OK, I download e-books for $4.99.” “OK I’ll get a copy. Do you accept American Express? Oh, only cash. Sorry, I’ll come back later then with cash.” You never see them again.
Given that authors must pay a table fee, profitability is a hard bet. First, they must make up the cost of the table, then the cost of the books. Calculate time and labor, and the equation is far from break even. Especially if few, or any, books are sold. It’s a lesson in futility.
In the many book festivals where I have participated as a book vendor, I have reached up to 20 book sales generating in excess of $225 for the day. I averaged a book sale about every 15 minutes. With a $50 table fee, the day far exceeded break even and soared into a profit.
As I made these sales, the author to the right of me draped his table in a fine linen. He displayed large signs in front of his table. He wore a purple vest, a stylish fedora, and suede shoes, looking the dapper part. His table was fertile with many copies of his book. Yet despite his readiness, his aspirations dulled as the hours passed. He retired to his chair and assumed the stupor of the rest of the beaten authors.
To the left of me, an author had six different books he wrote. His gimmick was that he was giving away his books for a donation in any amount the patron wanted to pay. He did have a couple of customers who took him up on his offer, took one of his books, and willingly deposited $2 in his money jar while trying to conceal their smirks that they were getting away with something.
So, how is it that most of the authors at a book fair, including someone essentially giving away his books, cannot move their merchandise? And how was I successful in moving 20 copies of my books?
The secret: “barking.”
While my colleagues to my left and right sat with dejected faces, I stood and called out to people as they walked by. “What do you like to read?” I would bark out to people. Many people ignored me or would respond with a flippant answer “everything.” My riposte would be, “I have ‘everything’ right here. Come take a look.” Sometimes they would come over and peruse my products, but about one in every 15 patrons would love the attention I sought from them. They would look back at me excitedly and candidly answer my question, “I like mysteries, romance, books with happy endings, etc.” When they came over to my table, I gave one-sentence descriptions of the titles I displayed. Then the dialogue with the patron unfolded more organically, and they would read the back covers that interested them. Once engaged, then intrigued, then inspired, they committed to buying a book.
All day long, I barked out different questions to engage the quickly passing audience. “What do you like to read?” “Who’s interested in … (book title)” “We have coming of age stories, memoirs, crime novels, murder mysteries.” I assure you this is work and, after barking all day long, my voice was raspy, but I was the one who found the way to capitalize on the buying public when the other authors had the same platform and chance to do the same. The difference wasn’t how nice the table linen was or how big the sign, or how dapper you are. Although I have no objection to any of these things, the real difference in achieving successful sales was the barking.
Cory Schulman owns bestsellerpublications.com and has authored six books. He has worked as a technical writer for 33 years and taught writing at Montgomery College.