Hand-Selling Your Books—Without Hating Yourself In The Morning

Hand-Selling Your Books—Without Hating Yourself In The Morning

By Laura VanArendonk Baugh



It’s the author’s curse: We want to sell books. But we don’t want to sell books.


We want people to walk into a bookstore and pluck our particular baby off the shelf, read the back, clutch it to their chests, and rush to the checkout line. We want people to line up at our live events, ask for signed copies, and hand us crisp bills or shiny credit cards. But we don’t want to have to talk to those people at those events, to get them interested in our books. We don’t want to feel, you know, like a salesperson. Ew.


I don’t go to many live bookselling events, maybe six to ten a year. But when I go, I tend to be one of the better-selling authors in the room. A couple of weeks ago, I sold just under three times the next highest total I heard for the day. I have a few tips to share to help you get over the selling hurdle and improve your next live event, maybe selling more books without feeling spammy or like you’re standing in a lot of pre-owned junkers.


Your goal at a live event is to sell a book to someone who will give you a good review and recommend your book to someone else. The buck or two you’ll make off the sale simply isn’t enough to justify your time if it’s not leading to other sales as well. So your approach will be to identify your ideal reader and sell to them, and not waste time or energy, or frustration trying to sell to someone else.


Beautify Your Table

Even if an event promises signs and tablecloths, I bring my own. In fact, I have a tote full of table décor and display materials that travels to every event. My table covering sets off and compliments my book covers, and I have bookstands and a vertical rack which make the table easy to navigate and professional-looking.


I have bold, easy-to-read signs which give prices and other relevant information. I have a small tabletop popup banner to advertise my latest novel, and a large free-standing popup banner which advertises me, my latest book covers, and my website. And then I practice layout to make my table balanced, to create a “flow” for the eye’s movement, to make it easy to discern titles and genres and combos.


This is more difficult if you have more titles, as the table can quickly get visually cluttered, but too often I see authors with only one or two titles skimp on their table displays. Take advantage of that space! Make your table gorgeous and irresistible! This doesn’t have to be expensive; my table covering is scrap fabric from a costume, and my tabletop rack was about twenty-five dollars for years of reuse.


Remember, at a live event, your table is like your book cover—both a suggestion of what the reader might find inside your book and a hint of the level of professionalism and care taken with the book. I once shared selling space with an author who scrawled something illegible (I never did figure out what it was supposed to say) with ballpoint on the back of wrapping paper and unrolled it over the front of his table, beneath a stack of books, no outfacing cover. He didn’t move many (any?) copies, and it probably had little to do with the quality of his books. They just looked unprofessional in that setting.


If you want to be professional, act professional. Would Neil Gaiman sit at a bare table with a stack of paperbacks, no signs or visible covers or other visual accoutrement, and scowl at passers-by? Then why would you? Give your table its best face to greet your shoppers.


Get Out Of The Way

Now that your table is lovely, get out of its way.


Remember, many readers are shy, are introverts, or just plain don’t like pushy sales. (I’m an outgoing ambivert and I still dislike pushy sales.) Your hovering and staring, ready to pounce, triggers ancient warnings deep in the brain which dimly recall saber-toothed tigers and other fearsome predators. And it’s a solid marketing maxim that anyone even dimly contemplating fleeing for his life is less likely to buy books.


When you enter a store, don’t you tend to browse alone and then ask for help only when you have a question? If you enter and immediately want a salesperson to follow you closely as you shop, you are the exception. Give your potential customers the same space and courtesy. Let them browse; you’re there to sell books, not conversation.


At a recent event, I moved a bit away from my table to eat my lunch and immediately noticed an uptick in shoppers pausing to browse at my table, which was now visibly “safe” from aggressive techniques employed at other tables. I just ate and waited until someone raised her head from the book, looking around as if to ask a question of someone, and then I’d speak up. I sold several books over the course of my sandwich, simply by making my table a safe space without any threat of pushy sales. (I hadn’t been pushy before, but others had, and it was making shoppers spooky. Yes, your behavior does affect the entire room.)


At my last event a few days ago, I was speaking with another author at his table when someone approached mine. He paused our conversation, expecting me to rush back to my place, but I just shook my head and stayed with him, though now with one eye on my shopper. I knew she’d look longer if I gave her time and didn’t scare her off.


I’m not saying to abandon your table altogether! You should definitely be there when you’re needed. But that first curious browsing is not when you’re needed.


No, Seriously, Give Them Space

This hands-off approach is very difficult for some authors, I know, I get it. But trust me, being pushy is not worth it.


Do you remember that scene in Disney’s The Little Mermaid when Ariel is swimming toward Ursula’s lair, and all the hands and tendrils and tentacles stretch to grab her? A friend of mine—who makes a good portion of her living selling in artist and author areas at conventions and events—likes to compare that scene with a shopper’s experience down an amateur sellers’ aisle. Authors reach from their tables to snatch at terrified shoppers, trying to snag them before they can escape and in fact scaring them further onward.


Do not offer fake compliments to try to get people’s attention or draw them toward your table. “Oh, nice shirt! I like Captain America, too. Hey, do you want to read my paranormal flyfishing romance?” Even the most obtuse shopper can work out that you faked the compliment to try to sell him something, and that feeling of deception is not a great basis for a great selling relationship.


Even more—and I cannot believe this needs to be stated—do not physically block people’s paths and do not, do not touch them to try and stop them at your table. This goes for both men and women, but especially for men, where it can get real creepy real fast. I recall being backed against a wall for 15 minutes or so while a very enthusiastic but unprofessional author tried to sell me his novel by detailing the plot step by step, as I tried to work out if my own adventure was going to have a happy ending or a closing line of “and she was never seen again.” Another marketing maxim: People who feel physically threatened don’t write good reviews.


Step back and let people browse your table without help. Why can you afford to be hands-off as people drift down the aisle? Because you set up a beautiful table which sells your books for you. Remember, your table is just like your book cover—it should suggest a genre and a mood. If someone walks by, actively looks at my table, and then walks on, it’s because she’s considered and decided that she’s not interested in my books. (Watch, she may stop at the Amish vampire table two stops down.) If I’d accosted her and tried to sell her a paranormal flyfishing romance, I would only frustrate both of us.


Remember, half of marketing is filtering out people who aren’t your target market. Let your table do that for you. It’s less work, and it’s much less personal and frustrating.


Move In When Ready

So you’ve stayed out of the way, and someone has picked up your book, and he’s not immediately setting it down. Now is your time to move in for the sell.


Time to use that logline you have ready. (You do have a logline ready, right?) “That one? That’s Jurassic Park with mermaids.” “That’s a murder mystery. You’ve got five thousand people all in costume, no one is using their real names, so how do you find the murderer?” “Oh, that’s my newest one. It’s about a girl abducted to Asgard, where she tells Greek myths to entertain the Norse gods—until one of her stories leads to murder.”


This should be one sentence, maybe two, and no more. Wait for your customer to either nod and ask a question, or realize it’s not what he thought and set it down. (Either is fine. Remember, half of marketing is filtering out those who aren’t your target market.) If he asks a question, you’re officially in conversation, and now you can talk and sell.


Sometimes I get shoppers who stand at a table and look for a long while, but don’t pick anything up, reluctant to commit. I step in and ask a question at this point. (Note: this question is never the ubiquitous “Do you like to read?” They’re standing at a book table, for Pete’s sake, and more importantly don’t make them feel you’re striking up awkward conversation just for the sake of sales.) I might ask, “Are you shopping for yourself or for someone else?” (Bonus: this often prompts people to think of gifts when they weren’t a moment ago. Now maybe they’re still shopping for Amish vampires, but they might also consider my paranormal flyfishing romance for a friend or grandchild.)


Alternately, I go for humor. “It’s okay, touching is free,” I often whisper, flipping a book or three over to show the back description. This usually gets a chuckle and they pick up the book, ice broken, as I step back out of the way.


Keep in mind these lines are not magic spells or recipes; they work for me because they’re very natural for me and my brand. Don’t just take my examples and try to use them, find helpful questions or jokes which work for you and your books.


“Son, Just Don’t”

There are a few please-don’ts which not only may cost you sales, but will cost you standing with your fellow authors. Networking is a big part of this game, and we’re not competing against each other. (I don’t know about you, but my ideal reader is not the person who buys just one book per year.) We benefit by playing nice.


Don’t try to snipe shoppers from other authors. This was a problem at a recent event, where one author would actually interrupt buyer/seller conversation at his neighbor’s table to push his own book between the shopper and the books she was looking at. There were two results which I don’t think he really processed: He got no sales this way, because shoppers found him very off-putting and thus didn’t want to spend time or money with him even though he had high-quality books, and he made darned sure he’ll never be invited to any book events I organize.


Don’t try to sad-guilt shoppers into buying. I once had a table beside an author who complained loudly and directly to shoppers that it really hurt to come to such an event and not have people buy his book. Not only did people not buy his book—remember, you want to feel comfortable giving money to someone—but people started avoiding that entire section, which included my table too. (I do have a few books I bought out of guilt or sympathy, and I haven’t read any of them. This means no reviews, no word of mouth. It’s not efficient selling.)


Don’t offer to trade books with other authors. If I come to your table and offer my book for one of yours, you may have to choose between giving away a book for free or telling me to my face that you’re not interested in my paranormal flyfishing romance. Counting on the first is rude of me, and we’re all going to feel awkward if you go with the second option. (Exception: If you want to buy my book, and I want to buy yours, we can agree to trade. But don’t offer a trade unless we’ve both already expressed a desire to acquire the other’s book and the prices are equivalent.)


Don’t have unrealistic expectations. At many book fairs, a dozen sales is a successful day—but if you expected fifty, you’ll be frustrated. Some events just aren’t going to draw your target demographic, and that helps you choose the next one. Know what you can expect at a particular event, and always have a secondary goal for the day as well, such as networking with authors or adding to your mailing list.


Christians and Sales

It’s harder to sell something you don’t think you should be selling, and there may be a conscious or unconscious hesitation which is hurting your efforts. I want to briefly address a question I’ve seen come up a dozen times in recent months, and that’s whether Christians have any business promoting themselves and their work. Isn’t self-promotion a sinful lack of humility? He must increase, and I must decrease, and perhaps Christians shouldn’t even have their names on their book covers, much less be actively promoting and selling their products?


This is well-meant bunk, but it’s still bunk.


First, I notice that the folks who criticize self-promotion (or those who worry about the same) seem to have little problem shopping at Meijer, Kroger, Macy’s, Sears, JC Penny, Wal(ton)-Mart, or any other of the major chains bearing a founder’s name. They buy medication made by Lilly or Pfizer, they cash checks from JP Morgan or Charles Schwab. No, they seem to fret over only the small business Christian, and even then they ignore Smith’s Bakery or Joseph and Sons Construction and go after only the Christian artist. Don’t let this artificial double-standard interrupt your work.


But more, effective selling is not really about self-promotion, and especially not for the Christian.


Why do you write? Think about it a second. I’ll bet hard cash there’s more than one reason. It’s absolutely fine if one of those reasons is “to make money,” but that wasn’t the only reason you listed, and probably not even the first one. Perhaps you want to entertain people, to help people explore thorny questions, to inspire people, etc. These are all good things.


Now think back to the start of this article, where I gave examples of being good at hand-selling. Did you immediately think I was a terrible braggart and a bad Christian? Or did you think, Huh, I wonder what she’s doing that I could learn from, and then “buy” by continuing to read this? If the latter, then you’ve hit upon a truth of marketing: It’s not about promoting yourself (“I’m really good at selling in person!”), it’s about promoting solutions to problems (“Let me help you to sell better”).


No one wants to buy from a braggart; self-promotion isn’t even effective marketing. We want to buy things to solve our problems from people who can help us solve our problems. The better you are at marketing, the less it’s about you, anyway.


(Also, reality check, you’re probably not going to hit John Lennon status and become bigger than Jesus. It, like wrestling a bear on slippery ice for possession of a rental house key, is not a problem you’re likely to face, so it’s silly to worry about it.)


Go And Sell

This has run a bit long, but I hope you’ve found some useful information in it. Go set up a table and practice your display, work on your loglines, and prepare to promote your useful work!


Laura VanArendonkLaura VanArendonk Baugh is an award-winning writer of speculative fiction, mystery, and non-fiction. Her works have earned numerous accolades, including 3-star (the highest possible) ratings on Tangent’s “Recommended Reading” list. Laura speaks professionally on a variety of topics throughout the year—in her day job she’s a professional animal trainer and behavior consultant, and for a hobby an award-winning costumer—and admits a mental turning point in her career when she realized she could buy that sexy red Tesla with her books! Find her at www.LauraVAB.com.


This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Crystal

    Awesome information to tuck away for the day I start doing this. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Randall Allen Dunn

    Fantastic post, Laura! Helps me see some problems I’ve had with selling, as far as setting up a proper table that draws people by itself.
    Any thoughts on the value of selling at events that aren’t focused on books? I have had more book sales with a writer partner(s) at a couple of craft fairs than at literary events, and I believe it’s because people weren’t expecting to find books there, so we got all the attention from any book shoppers. Thoughts?

    1. Laura VanArendonk Baugh

      Good question! I’ve only done very few book sales at non-book events, and they’ve ranged from pathetic to okay — but my sample size has been so small, at events which were also fairly small, that I don’t think I can draw any valid conclusions. I think you’re right about having all the book attention to yourself, but on the other hand, it helps to have buyers primed to buy what you’re selling.

      However I will be attending a few larger non-book-specific events in the next month or two with my books, so I’ll try to gather some meaningful data there. Here’s to good sales!

    2. Laura VanArendonk Baugh

      Not sure if my previous reply truly vanished or if this will turn out to be a double-post, sorry!

      Yes, you can certainly benefit by having all the bookbuyers to yourself! but there’s also something to be said for having customers primed to buy books and not thinking about something else. I’ve seen it go both ways.

      I’ve done only a few non-book events, so my sample size is too small to have valid opinions, but I’m doing several more in the next few months. Maybe I’ll get a better feel for that approach.

  3. Cathy

    As Crystal said, this is something I need to bookmark for the day I finish my book and start selling it. And now, I also have the urge to pick up a paranormal flyfishing romance. Sounds much more fun than Amish vampires.

  4. Kerry Nietz

    That was informative–and timely. Thanks, Laura.

    (May those shopping for Amish vampires always reach their goal. 🙂 )

    1. Laura VanArendonk Baugh

      Absolutely! 😉

  5. Ginny Smith

    Excellent advice. Thanks!

  6. Jean E. Jones

    Thank you! This was excellent. I’ll be doing my first book table soon, and I am so glad to have read this. I will, however, have to get a friend talented with table design to help me.

  7. Karen Sargent

    Perfect timing! I’m setting up a table at my first book festival and have been wondering what I should put on my table beside my one debut novel. So many great tips! Thank you!

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