So you have a book published.
You’re selling it online, you’ve got it in stores, and you’re waiting for the sales to roll in. When lo and behold, it’s time for a convention or conference! This gives you the chance to have a signing and selling table, and you’ve decided to take the plunge. But we’ve all seen the authors who fail to generate sales at such events. How can you ensure you’re not one of them?
I’ve sold my books at half a dozen different events. I’ve had both extreme success and sold every copy I brought, and I’ve had events where two copies were all I was able to move. I’ve sold through a central convention vendor, through my publisher’s central table, and myself. I’ve carried my novels, novellas, and anthologies. I’ve never had an event where I sold no copies, but over time tweaking my sales pitch, varying my table display, and altering my “writer uniform” a bit, I’ve hit upon some strategies that work.
Here are things I’ve done that have generated more sales at an event, whether this is your first book or your fifteenth.
In my non-author life, I currently teach English and cultural studies courses to college students but have worked in college recruitment and retention, and even spent many years in retail (including as a bookseller) and customer service work. I’m not, by nature, super extroverted. You don’t have to be an extreme extrovert to hand-sell your books, but you should probably practice being comfortable talking to strangers one-on-one.
Remember: convention attendees are already into reading; you’re just talking to someone else who, like you, loves books. You already have an in with them; it’s simply a matter of closing the deal.
First, I wear something I feel extremely physically comfortable in, but that is just the tiniest bit different from what other people might be wearing. Even if your “writer uniform” is mostly psychological, you want to feel good, you want to look your best, and you don’t want to wear something complicated and fussy that will have you tugging at your clothes all night. Look good, but be able to move freely and easily.
I now have a lucky event outfit that I once sold out in, so now I try to wear it or a variation of it to all my events. It also gives me a visual brand, but it’s extremely low-key.
Maybe your writer uniform is jeans and a blazer, maybe it’s a favorite dress that you look really good in, or maybe it’s a lucky necktie or a pair of earrings. You don’t have to go fancy, and you don’t have to spend money. But dirty, worn clothing isn’t going to impress your fan base.
Imagine you’re in a band—you don’t have to wear a tuxedo or ball gown or anything, but you should look like one of the musicians, not one of the roadies. Don’t wear a T-shirt advertising the convention you’re attending, for instance. You will look like any other attendee or perhaps a con volunteer. You are advertising yourself and your work, not the event. If there’s an outfit you’ve gotten compliments on, that’s a good choice.
When you’re selling your books, you’re technically at work, so think about how you’d dress for a job while still being yourself, and consider adopting a few visual signatures, even if you vary them up a little.
I’ve become known for always wearing crazy shoes—platforms, boots, what have you—and these serve several purposes. The rest of my outfit is pretty staid (typically jeans and a white shirt and black blazer), so having one crazy thing that also acts as a conversation starter is fun. But also, as a short person, it adds some height that I can use to my advantage in order to better hear tall people talking to me as well as lending me a visual form of authority in a way.
For you, maybe a pair of TARDIS earrings or a Star Wars necktie can do the trick—it’s like having a superpower. No one knows you’re secretly a Jedi or a Time Lord or not as tall as you look, but you’re magically able to project an air of confidence because of this secret “power” item in your uniform. Look like your version of polished and writerly to allow you to work from the outside in on your self-assurance and poise. We don’t want to believe that appearance matters, but on a basic level, being neat and clean and professional does help quite a bit.
When navigating customers, smile at everyone who passes your table. Always look friendly and approachable. Say hi to anyone who lingers even a second. Make eye contact. Ask if they’re having fun at the event. Ask them what kind of books they like to read or (if appropriate) write. Comment on another book they’re holding or compliment their outfit or a piece of jewelry.
These are nerdy people at many of these events. If you’re at an SF con, there will be some Whovians or Whedonites with let’s say a Firefly T-shirt or maybe a TARDIS jewelry piece. Comment on it. Ask if they got it there. Link their interest to your book(s) somehow. Just get them talking about what they like, and see how it might parallel your own work. Ask who they’re shopping for and what other books they like.
Talk to the authors selling beside you. Tell each other about each other’s books so you can recommend each other’s work. Be willing just to do trades with other authors. “Would you like a copy of my book for a copy of yours?” If they don’t want to trade, that’s fine, but again, cross-selling is a great networking tool.
When talking to your fellow authors or your customers, be a good listener, but make sure you can also be heard. Speak more loudly than you think you need to. Those places are terrible for hearing people well. When someone approaches, stand up. You can sit back down to sign, but try to stand up as much as possible. If you’re chatting with the author next to you, stop (even if you must ignore the other person for a moment) and stand up and talk to your customer.
And finally, when customers are dithering, don’t be afraid to say, “Would you like a copy?” Be kind even to people who don’t buy. Offer them some swag. Give them a postcard with a QR code on it where they can at least buy the e-book. If someone is hesitating and the sale is open for another 15 minutes, consider a “fire sale.” Offer a bundle price if they buy multiple titles or offer them a little extra discount. Claim it’s so you don’t have to take any copies home with you. If I’m making my own sales, I pre-program a few different types of discounts in my sales software depending on what type of event I’m going to. Most of these apps will also allow you to add a one-time discount in, too, so you can make these decisions on the fly.
So, in sum, make sure you look and feel confident, be friendly, and get people talking about their interests. Network with your fellow authors. Consider discounts to help close the sale. After a few events, you’ll discover what works best for you personally, where you feel the most confident, and what tends to make sales happen or not happen. I’ve managed to sell books even at events without all the best conditions. Make the most of what you’re best at. Make your table look visually appealing. Be positive and upbeat.
And most of all, have fun. Your enthusiasm for your product will be infectious.
Kathleen W. Taylor Kollman received her MFA from Seton Hill University in 2015 and is now a Ph.D. student at Bowling Green State University. As K.W. Taylor, she writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Her latest novel, The Curiosity Killers, was published by Dog Star Books in spring of 2016. Find her at kwtaylorwriter.com.