“HOW TO MAKE MONEY AT BOOK SIGNINGS”
AT OUTDOOR EVENTS & FOR THE INDEPENDENT/NEWBIE AUTHOR
by Lawrence R. Dagstine
A lot of people have been “hinting” recently on places such as Facebook and via email looking for advice. They want to know how I did it. They want to know how to make money selling books and magazines at functions and signings, especially if you’re an independent/newbie author. As many people already know, I came out of a series of signings at Coney Island, New York this past summer with a decent intake on such titles as FRESH BLOOD (see Books & Anthos), and more. Writing is pretty much an extra income field for a majority of us. Once you learn to accept that, and not depend on fiction or look forward to fancy six-figure careers, you find your comfort zone. The checks that come in repetitively or non-repetitively may pay for such things as utility bills, groceries, little odds and ends in places like Rite-Aid, CVS, or Walmart, co-pays on prescriptions, dinner and a movie, or something as simple as a gallon of milk or filling up your gas tank. Of course, all of this might not come from fiction, but that’s okay. After all, it’s a starving profession to begin with. In this recession, every dime that comes out of the written word counts, because you never know how much your next electric bill or gas bill will be. For example, right now I’m doing people’s resumes. If you’re already an established, professional author with a couple of novels out, this information probably won’t help you, as you already make a nice income from being an upper midlist author or being able to relax on what royalties and advances you make from mass market paperbacks. That, and some of your publishers may already foot the bill for some of your traveling expenses from signings. But nowadays it’s very rare unless you’re a lead-lister.
However, if you’re an independent/micro-press author who lives in a big city or a pretty happening little town, whose been published in lots of print magazines, maybe a few anthologies, has a new book or collection available through a POD press, has access to a small newspaper (bonus points here), this information might help you better understand the kind of buyers that you want to attract, the places you want to sell, the performance you want to give when selling, how much to pay for dealers’ tables, number-crunching, and, what seems to work and not work “perception-wise” when selling to an audience outside of genre, because let’s be honest—that’s the consumer you’re gunning for, and they’re hard to reach. At the end of the day they’re still a reader of Charlaine Harris, Dan Brown, or James Patterson. You want to sell to both genre readers and non-genre readers alike. Most likely, you work a day job, or maybe you’re on a fixed income. You need to rely on a budget throughout, cut corners when necessary, because this article is recession-friendly. People may perceive you as a hack, an amateur, people you know for years may perceive you as a pro, a super-pro, or even Superman! But no matter what kind of author you are, the moment you sat down at that table and sold a variety of stuff with your name on it, you were no longer just an author. You also became a merchant and a bookseller, and you need to keep that mindset.
If you do live in a big city or a small town and haven’t been able to get signings in places such as Borders, Waldenbooks, or Barnes & Nobles, that’s okay. In this economy, if you don’t expect family or friends to show up (or friends of those friends), chances are you’ll only sell less than twenty copies anyway and look like a schmuck at a table in the corner with a bowl of lollipops or cookies. Somewhere away from the door if you’re not cozy with the store manager. I chose Coney Island because it was a seasonal attraction—over five million visitors per summer—rather than a one-day gig, and I’d known about it almost a year in advance because I did some writing and research for one of their papers. I knew people, and I made connections. And if you can make connections, and you know the turnout is going to be big and profitable in advance, and it’s inexpensive to show up and conduct your little set-up, then what are you waiting for?
Fact: five-million people do not visit a Borders bookstore over the course of a summer — matter of fact, they’re closing stores, and I would be surprised at how many more survive — neither does that amount visit an independent bookstore, which I find to be a good way to do nothing, sell nothing, and just kill the day in a chair. A world famous amusement park and tourist attraction is a whole other story. Even little carnivals passing through town may attract more visitors.
Of course, there are always exceptions.
If you’re not selling in places like the chains, then you still want to add some diversity to your table, make it look pretty: business cards, flyers, postcards, magnets, or buttons made up cheap. I recommend Vistaprint (www.vistaprint.com). You can get stuff made up by them quite often for free. All you have to do is pay the shipping & handling. Some of the greatest places to sell books, and which attract crowds are book fairs, street fairs, flea markets (outdoor, indoor, churches and synagogues), carnivals, community centers, town halls, schools, festivals, bars… But mostly outdoor events in spring and summer. Warm weather.
One writer asked me how much should he pay for tables (or, in some cases, booths). I would say if you’re an independent author DO NOT pay more than a hundred bucks for a table (but that’s just me). If you don’t come out of your signings making a minimum of 70 to 80% profit, don’t even bother reserving a spot. Why? Because you need to first make the cost of the table back. Then there’s the cost of gasoline, food and beverages (maybe even hotel and airfare). Trust me, it adds up. Make your signings LOCAL, and, if possible, try to split the table costs with fellow authors, too. Oh yeah, you also want to hit up the smaller cons rather than the big cons. Not that you shouldn’t attend the bigger cons, only that some of the smaller conventions are much easier on your pocket when it comes to the dealer’s area. Sam’s Dot Publishing, one of my publishers, always seems to make a killing at these events. They often sell out! Flea markets, churches, and festivals can go as low as $25 to $50. I know this one church which holds a pretty popular flea market on Tuesdays and Fridays for twenty bucks, but you have to bring your own table. Always packed. Just sell a few used books, sports cards and comics on the side, you’ll make that back in no time flat. Other genre wares should be meant to cover the cost of your table and traveling expenses. This is a must!
When you go into a signing as an independent/newbie author, you need to go into it with the mind of a businessman or businesswoman. You need to ask yourself: where do I expect to pick up the most sales and the best exposure. The ice cream parlor, the town library, or the state fair (obviously the state fair). If you need a license, get one. They’re really not that expensive. If you’re a newbie on a fixed income, you need to calculate all this in advance. Don’t just sit at a table with your hands clasped, smiling and nodding at passersby. Get up and be a regular PT Barnum. Be jovial. Prepare what’s called a pitch. For example: “Hello, Ma’am, you’re looking lovely today. You must love to read. Oh, don’t be shy. I bet you have a soft spot for books reminiscent of Stephen King and JK Rowling!”—you get the gist (woman sees table filled to the rim with merch; friendly conversation is under way). You need to stand up and introduce yourself. You need to have confidence, charisma, personality, and a little humor doesn’t hurt either. Books don’t sell themselves. Hence why you need to be business-minded when you approach this, especially in these hard economic times, where the independent writer gets the short end of the stick.
Let’s talk about Coney Island now. My very first signing on that very first day in June was a disaster. Why? Because I had only brought Fresh Blood with me and a few used books by pulp authors. Luckily, that first day I covered the cost of the booth (it was only $30 at the time), but I’ll never forget this one guy who came up to me and said, “Wow, so you like write stuff. Man, I remember books.” I was astonished! Let’s just say the guy was a caveman who’d taken one too many bong hits. How does someone forget about reading and books? Another girl just wanted her photograph taken with me because she never met an author before, yet she didn’t buy anything. Not to mention I looked like a big tool just sitting there with one Dagstine-related item to my name when, back home, I had hundreds of print periodicals I could have toted with me. Duplicate copies, too. Yes, variety, along with ‘public perception’ makes for a very nice recipe, which I’ll explain in more detail in a moment.
After that first day I learned my lesson. Between June and August there were supposed to be seven signings, but there ended up to be six due to a one-day rainout. There would have been a few more had it not rained constantly between June and July. And Flea by the Sea (the name of Coney Island’s summer marketplace), though covered by tents, was an outdoor event. It was on top of the beach. At times, the winds were horrible. The circus was there, too, and one day there was a big hoopla going on because Ringling Brothers were abusing the elephants, but believe it or not a few of the animal rights activists picked up some of my goods. So I can’t complain there. But what I’m trying to say here is that, make sure it’s not going to rain on your parade on the day that you sell. Mother Nature has a funny way of defying writers when it comes to selling outdoors. By July and early August I was paying $40.00 for the booth and then $10.00 to rent the table, which came out to $50.00 for an entire weekend. How could you beat that price? This is the price area you should be looking into. Once again, a hundred bucks should always be your cap, and hopefully, you have more than one book to offer. Speaking of which…
They say never judge a book by its cover. Bullshit. When you’re selling in quantity to a non-genre and genre crowd, cover art I noticed makes all the difference. In most cases it comes down to perception and appearances, or just the way people interpret merchandise. I don’t care what anybody says. They do judge a book by its cover. And what people saw were stacks of magazines with extra copies, six different hardcovers and anthologies, and of course, a stack of Fresh Blood. It was set up professionally and it looked pretty, like my own compact comic book shop. All featuring something by ‘Dagstine.’
People were complimenting me because of the covers of the magazines. Short lines and interested eyes gathered. One person said, “So you must be Brooklyn’s SF Writer.”—I said, “Okay.” I just totally went with it. Everything acted sort of like a cash cow. One Dagstine publication led to the purchase or attraction of another. Not only did one person spend $50.00 in one shot on me, but over the course of those signings I pushed $250.00 worth of old self-published hardcovers from The Year of the Flood, back when I didn’t know what the words ‘Vanity Press’ meant. The point I’m trying to make here: I had a lot to choose from, my buyers had a lot to choose from, and so should you. The cover art, the variety, the set-up, and “come one, come all” pitch made all the difference. Even the shirt I wore! I got to autograph and sell my writing where, with only Fresh Blood, I probably wouldn’t have made what I did over the course of the summer: around $1200.00 – NET. And hey, I got my work and business cards out there. Not bad for a hack, and my table investments had already been covered.
If you’re a writer whose works have appeared in quite a few magazines, talk to the editor about getting extra issues at an author discount. Always use media mail. You might pay $4.00, $5.00, even $6.00 for those extra copies featuring your work in it. You’re going to autograph them and sell them for $8.00 to $10.00… And don’t forget what I said, once you’ve included the cost of the table, food and beverages, gas or transportation to get to your selling destination, you need to make a minimum of 70 to 80% profit, otherwise it’s pointless. Remember to invest in your work, invest in yourself, and before you attend that signing with more than one book or periodical, sit down with a calculator and crunch those numbers. Make sure the location is going to be worth the time and effort.
Whether you’re selling indoors in some chain, an artsy-fartsy independent that has velvet couches and serves Lattes and marble loaf in the back, or you’re giving the outdoor thing a whirl like I did, there is also another reason why you need to impress that passerby. Besides cover art and quantity, nine out of ten times the general reading public will throw down cash on used books, non-fiction, children’s books, fast-paced thrillers, or romances before they will genres or subgenres known for killer slugs, planets with giant lizards, what the future would be like if everybody were pink, zombie stories, and heroic fantasy yarns. If you’re a writer of genre fiction, you’re automatically at a disadvantage, so you need to think of ways to catch up. That’s why the business model/bookseller mentality is so important.
Still, if I could do it with twelve hundred smackers, with a little initiative, so can you.
Until Next Time,
Lawrence R. Dagstine