Book fairs and other local events can be a great way for authors to connect with readers and make new fans. They are immensely valuable, but at the same time it can be hard for first-timers to get the most out of an event.
That was certainly true for me. I didn’t used to exhibit much (meeting new people is stressful) but lately I have been working to overcome my limitations. Over the past few months I have been exhibiting more and more, learning as I go, and I have picked up a few tips I would like to share with you so that you can benefit from my experiences.
The following post is a mix of mistakes I made at my first trade shows and tips inspired by my time as a volunteer at the Fredericksburg Independent Book Festival on Saturday.
Update: I added to this list in April, May, and November 2019. Now that I have a few more cons and festivals under my belt, I can see more ways to improve.
If you have tips you learned the hard way, I would love to read them in the comments.
Plan in Advance
It’s taken me longer to figure this one out than I would care to admit, but if you invest time in planning your activities at an event, it will pay off in spades.
And when I say you should plan your activities, I don’t just mean write out a schedule or make a list of what you need to bring. What I now do is write what are essentially business process documents that lay out every step of every activity. I have a doc for networking, and another one for being an exhibitor. I have a doc for doing a presentation, and another for media interviews.
Bring a Camera
This one is on me.
I realized, about ten minutes after I started talking to authors on Saturday, that I had neglected to bring any way to document my day. I had left my camera at home, and forgot to charge my smartphone that morning.
Don’t make my mistake; bring your smartphone so you can show your fans what you’re doing.
While I am rather camera shy myself, I also know that as a fan I follow the activities of my favorite authors. Fans are interested in this kind of personal detail, and you will make them happy when you share it.
In fact, your fans will want to meet you in person.
After exhibiting at five events I can confirm what we had all suspected for years: Chocolate is the one sure-fire way to get people to approach your booth.
If you spend ten dollars to buy a large mixed bag of chocolate, you will make dozens of new acquaintances (you will also have something on hand to keep your blood sugar up). Just make sure that you put the chocolate in an attractive bowl, and periodically refresh it throughout the day.
BTW, if you forget to bring chocolate, and your event is located in a hotel, check to see if there are any mints or other candies set out for attendees. You can put those in a bowl on your table, and achieve almost the same effect as chocolate.
You are only one person, and you can only carry on one conversation at a time. (Even if you have several people staffing your table, the same limitations apply.) One way to make up for this limitation is to have several inviting signs ranging from a banner hanging behind your table to smaller 8.5 x 11 signs sitting on your table.
Just remember, these are signs, not hand outs, so be sure to keep the content simple. I limit each sign to just one headline for a single topic, and I phrase the headline like a directive: “Sign up for my mailing list”, for example, or “Enter a raffle for a free X!”, or “Ask me about my free service Y”.
There are many options, and 8.5 x 11 signs can be printed at home, so there’s no reason not to try several ideas until you find the ones that work the best.
That’s why you should tell your fans about your events in advance so they can meet you at the event. In the weeks leading up to your first event, be sure to announce both on social media and via your newsletter that you are going to be at a book fair, show, etc.
You might even want to set up an event schedule on your author site so your fans can plan ahead and make sure they have room in their schedules.
All the authors I met at yesterday’s book fair brought books to sell, and they all came prepared to talk about their books, careers, and other topics, but do you know what I would have done?
I would have found a way to continue the conversation after the event. To wit, I would have brought a tablet so I could let attendees sign up for my mailing list. (Coincidentally, this is something I only thought of after my first trade show.)
Trust me, if attendees like the genre of books you write, they will want to sign up for your mailing list. There were five or six authors at Saturday’s event that I wanted to connect with later. I would have signed up for their mailing lists if they had offered the option. Instead, I had to type their names into my smartphone.
Do you know what would also be a good way to continue the conversation after the show?
Bring flyers that you can give to attendees. Seriously, it is SOP in almost every industry that exhibitors have flyers to hand out to attendees. This is one of the better ways to get an attendee more info so they can decide whether to follow up later.
Authors can adapt this practice by having 4” by 6” flyers printed either at a local print shop or online. The flyers can talk about an author’s latest book, the main characters, or the series. You can even have more than one flyer printed, tailoring each one to a specific topic.
On the other hand, flyers are rather expensive ($0.50 to $1 each) compared to the price of most indie-published ebooks, so authors should probably run a cost-benefit analysis first to see whether the flyers are worth the investment.
Here’s something I had to learn the hard way: If you’re going to talk about a product (not your activities, but something that has a specific name) then it would really help to have a flyer to give out to those who are interested.
The usual advice on prepping for an event is to do a dry run. Set up your table, make sure all the signs can stand up on their own, and that your displays do not look cluttered.
That is all great advice, but based on what I saw on Saturday I think that when prepping for an event authors should make sure that they also go out in their backyard and set up the canopy they are going to bring to the book fair.
The standard collapsible canopy is really easy to set up once you know how, and all it takes is watching one Youtube video and setting it up one time in your backyard to learn details like there are four specific spots where velcro on the canopy’s cloth attaches to velcro on the metal frame (attach the velcro and the cloth will be lined up correctly). Also, you can tell the frame is properly assembled when the bracing “clicks” into place.
I helped set up a couple dozen canopies on Saturday, and I can tell you that a little bit of prep time can mean the difference between getting the canopy set up in 90 seconds and struggling with it for half an hour (my first one took me half an hour to set up, yes).
As a rule, you should put a similar amount of time into setting up your displays in advance, but in my experience the canopy was the one thing that authors needed help with the most.
Sure, bring books to sell, but don’t stop there. An attendee might not want to buy your books (some of us prefer ebooks) but they might be interested in buying merchandise related to your books.
Remember, one of your goals is to break even or turn a profit from today’s sales, so if you can offer posters, collectibles, bookmarks, or something else that might interest an attendee, and it’s related to your books, you should seriously consider selling it at your table.
I for one would really like to buy ebooks from the authors I meet at cons, but very few authors are equipped to sell them. Here’s a post that will give you more info on how to sell ebooks at an event.
Here are a few of the things I learned the hard way; how about you?
What did you learn at your first public events?