by Tosh McIntosh
(Originally published 10/28/12)
It’s Sunday morning, October 28, 2012, and sitting at my computer with my first cup of coffee, I can’t resist the temptation to document a few personal observations from my experience in the Violet Crown Publishers booth at the halfway point of the 2012 Texas Book Festival weekend.
This being my first time attending in any capacity, I had little advance notion of what to expect. I spent the previous afternoon and last-minute preparation time that morning helping to move all the books, poster display grids, posters, chairs, two tables, and small giveaway promotional materials from my truck into the exhibition tent and trying to make everything fit in a limited space.
I’m no good at the visualization of how the booth should look, so my role becomes that of a helper. Which is a good thing, because my compulsion to straighten everything up would have been completely incompatible with the carefully designed look of clutter on the big eight-foot table supplied by the festival. Books, books, and more books. Not like Penguin, USA in the booth close by, of course. They fill about three booths on our side of the tent and one or two across the aisle. But for an itty-bitty indie operation, especially with our poster display at the rear of the booth, we have no reason to hang our heads.
Truth be told, I expect to spend seven hours in the booth twiddling my thumbs while shoppers buy all the other books on the table. My three will be sitting in lonely stacks, forlorn and pitifully indicative of no one’s interest. I don’t know where to stand. The booths are small, with narrow spaces on both sides of the display table, and no matter where I decide to park, I don’t want shoppers to feel as if they step inside, I’ll be on them like a used-car salesman who doesn’t understand “Just looking” and becomes a shadow.
At one point early in the first hour, a shopper stops and picks up Lara Reznik’s The Girl From Long Guyland. One of the other participants makes eye contact with her and mouths something like (and I paraphrase with embellishment), Pounce on him and sell your book! Lara and I subsequently talk about this tactic and agree that we aren’t comfortable with it.
A little while later a visitor picks up Pilot Error. My heart climbs into my throat as I get ready for the first of what I expect to be many rejections during the day. But this time, another author uses a different tactic. Rather than wasting her efforts on me, she steps up to the guy and says, “If you’d like to meet the author, he’s standing right here.”
That’s my cue! I shake hands, we talk a bit, and in a drop-my-jaw move, he asks me how much.
“I have a special for you today, sir. Purchase the novel and receive my two small non-fiction books on flying and writing in a bundle for only ten bucks. Now that’s a deal, don’t you think?”
Lo and behold, wonder of wonders, he agrees.
Enter the tag-team approach to greeting visitors to the booth. Here’s how it works:
Someone picks up one of the four novels at the head of the table from a stack of a few lying flat beside an easel with a copy displayed front cover out. Custom bookmarks rest casually between each stack of books.
Secret eye-signals pass between the authors. An author who didn’t write the book engages the visitor in casual conversation, always with the message that the author who did is close by.
Nine times out of ten, the visitor makes eye contact, accepts a handshake, and engages with us.
I’ve got one day of the book festival behind me and have no business making any observations of import, but too-little knowledge has never stopped me before.
I’m an unknown author with books no one has ever heard of. And although visitors can be attracted to a cover, flip the book over, read the back-cover description, open the book and read a little of the first chapter, they still have to get past their natural reticence caused by never having heard of Tosh McIntosh.
Seven hours of standing in that booth has convinced me that personal contact, beginning with a question or two directed at the visitor rather than an immediate sales spiel, opens the door. I often asked the visitor if he or she might be a pilot and/or a writer, and in every case, the conversation shifted easily to what the book was about. And in retrospect, I believe that the author’s passion for the book is the key to generating enough interest for the visitor to take a chance with their money.
My bundling tactic has to be considered as well. I sold three books together for an amount that barely covers my cost to pay for the copies and the shipping. But it’s not about the money, and never will be for the vast majority of indie or legacy authors, for that matter.
A book festival is about promotion. Most if not all of my writer friends might read this and think (or more likely say), “Are you just now figuring this out, Tosh?”
Well, yeah. I’m a slow learner, I guess. But in the final analysis, whether or not any of the buyers recommend my books to their friends and assist with promoting it, this has been (and will be today) an amazing experience.