A Day in the Sun… on the Sidewalk: An Author Table at a Local Festival

My little table before the throngs of people arrived
My little table before the throngs of people arrived

This weekend, I had my first author event. Many authors do book signings at local bookstores, but I don’t have one of those, so to reach my own community I chose something a little different. I set up a table at a local festival, one of Warrenton, Virginia’s First Fr!days events. Overall, it was a very positive experience and I learned some lessons along the way that I’ll take to the next event, and I’d like to share my experience for those of you getting ready for your own events. Some of these guidelines and warnings are specific to festivals, others apply equally well to traditional book signings.

Signage Doesn’t Equal Book Cover.

Making your cover nice and visible is important, but at an event with many different kinds of offers, sometimes the cover alone isn’t enough to communicate your message. It might be eye-catching in a place where people are looking for books, but in this environment, authors needed something that said “Hey, it’s a story!” or “Hey, information!” I brought a large poster in the style of my cover to ask passersby “Are you ready for college writing?” People caught sight of the poster and beelined over in a way I doubt they would have done if the poster had just reproduced the cover. (The word college wouldn’t have been large enough to catch attention at a distance, not a problem in a bookstore or online where the college focus would become clear from shelving or category, but a big issue here.) Emphasizing the word college drew the right crowd: parents, students and educators. A fiction author might do something similar with genre and/or category.

Pack Sunglasses.

It might sound weird, but sunglasses would have helped me be a better salesperson. With the angle of the sun for the first two hours, I could only comfortably look for customers coming from one direction. Therefore, I smiled and looked helpful to customers walking toward the sun, who were squinting and shading their eyes to see me. When I faced the other direction, customers could look at me easily, but I had to squint and shade my eyes to see them. With sunglasses, I could have had a friendlier expression for either direction.

Bring Handouts.

Handouts could be bookmarks, cards, or whatever you like. Regardless of form, the vendors with nice visible handouts seemed to get more traffic and have a more enjoyable time than those without. It’s too easy for someone to look at the book, say “Oh, maybe I’ll order it later,” and forget all about it. With some kind of handout, you don’t have to lose that sale. They’re also great to promote ebooks for folks who prefer to read digitally. (Some authors also make ebook cards to sell at events. Each card has a download code for the ebook. If you’re in KDP Select, you can’t do that, but you can print up cards with the URL of your book’s Amazon page.)

Nuttiness Happens.

Anytime you interact with the public, there’s the potential for something weird to happen. My weird incident of the evening was a fellow who saw my sign, came to the table, and told me how useless my profession was. According to this guy, by teaching writing at the college level I’m promoting the liberal agenda… by making people take unnecessary classes and wasting taxpayer money, I guess? That seemed to be the gist of the argument. There are many well-reasoned rebuttals I could have made, but none of them mattered, because it wasn’t a real debate or even a real conversation. I wasn’t going to convince him or engage in meaningful discourse. This was an exercise for him in hearing his own voice and feeling good about himself by trying to make me feel bad about myself. After trying to redirect the discussion and giving him multiple opportunities to end it with dignity, I finally asked him, bluntly, to leave. Even then, it took time to get him moving.

Now, I’m an educator, so I’m used to people trying to push me around and keep me from doing my job. And my work puts me in contact with the public frequently, so I was well aware that things like this happen at the times you least expect. Even so, as I’d spent the whole week worried over printing the handouts and mounting the poster and making sure my Square would actually scan cards, my reaction time was way down. It took me much longer to shut down this distraction than it should have. If your own profession doesn’t expose you to these elements, it might come as something of a shock, so be prepared. Weirdness will occur. Rudeness will occur. Maybe not the first time, but eventually and more often than you’d like. Your goal is not to engage nor to convince. Your goal is to get that person moving, nicely if possible but firmly if needed. Then you can talk to people who are actually interested in your message.

It’s More about Exposure.

After it was all over, the other authors (and there were several present) and I agreed that the event was better for getting our names out there than for actual sales. I won’t tell you mine, but they were abysmal, and I knew they would be going in.

So why did I sit out in the sun for three hours? Now I’m on more people’s radar. I met other local authors, artists, and businesspeople. I had parents, educators, and librarians stop by my table. I connected with influencers, and that’s key. Those connections go beyond one sale; the influence of these people could lead to many sales in the future.

Festivals for All

Festivals are a great alternative for authors who live far from bookstores to reach their local community, but I’m going to take it even further. I think festivals are a great idea for everyone. Of all the people who stopped at my table, how many of those would have been willing to go to a book signing at a bookstore, even if one had been nearby? Not as many. Then, how many of that smaller group would have gone to a book signing for an educational book? Let’s be honest. Probably zero.

If you’d like to find festivals in your area, try your local chamber of commerce, arts groups, community organizations, and partnerships for downtown areas. Then get your gear, put on your shades, and be festive!

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