Top Tips for Selling & Promoting Your Book at a Trade Show or Signing
These days, when most people think about buying books, the first word that typically comes to mind is “Amazon.” It’s certainly understandable considering how many of us now turn to the site for anything and everything, including the occasional paperback. However, there are still plenty of books that are purchased in both chain and independent bookstores as well as those sold directly to customers at conventions, trade shows, expos, and other signings. Incidentally, it’s those latter outlets that can often offer the best opportunities for authors to interact with readers and spread the word about their books.
In my new ebook, Write, Print, Publish, Promote: The Complete Guide to Writing and Publishing a Book, one of the topics I touch on is arranging book signings and attending different events where you can pedal your title(s). However, having recently attended the D23 Expo in Anaheim, California to sell my own book (The E-Ticket Life), I thought it’d be worth going further into detail about what it’s like to attend these types of events and what steps you can take to help ensure a successful show. So, without further ado, here’s what you should prepare for before, during, and after a trade show or signing where you’re selling your book.
Prepping for the Show
Reserve Your Booth
This is probably obvious, but you can’t just show up at any event and set up shop. Instead, you’ll need to arrange to be an exhibitor and likely pay a fee to reserve your booth. These fees will vary from each event and will also depend on your needs (e.g. the size of the booth, complexity of setup, if you’ll need electrical outlets, etc.). You may also be required to obtain a temporary seller’s license and pay taxes on your sales in order to legally participate. Therefore, you’ll want to look into renting a booth as early as possible to not only ensure you get a spot but also allow yourself plenty of time to take care of everything you’ll need to complete beforehand.
Considering the Value
There are several advantages to selling your book directly to readers that can make trade shows and expos a great idea. First, you’ll be able to promote your book to your target market and raise your visibility as an author in your field. Secondly, it gives you a chance to interact with readers who may already be a fan of yours, often turning them from casual fans to what many call “raving fans” — A.K.A. those who will help drive strong word of mouth for you.
On the monetary side of things, selling your book directly means a greater profit margin. In turn, you can choose to offer discounts on your cover price to entice buyers since you will retain more money from each sale. This pricing advantage combined with the overall marketing potential means that a well-placed signing appearance could really boost an author’s sales, both in the short and long term.
On the first day of my first event book signing/trade show event, my friend and I were nothing if not gung ho about the entire experience. We couldn’t wait to express the passion we had for our books with potential readers and tell them why they should buy our books. Unfortunately, all too often this effort went unrewarded.
That’s when we realized that having flyers with our book info would save us a lot of trouble and breath. From that second day on, we utilized flyers to get our messages across. Given that experience, I’ll never do another event without flyers or one-sheets again.
Not only does having something that people can review on their own save you time but also reminds customers to return to you later or perhaps even pick your book up online. In fact, in both of my experiences, we’ve seen an uptick in Amazon sales after the event.
So what makes for a good flyer? Ideally, I like to include the cover art to both grab their attention and let them know what to look for online. As for text, having a few short and well-written bullet points will help you convey to readers what your book is about, what sets it apart, and any other info they should know that might sway them into buying.
Another item I like to include on each flyer is pricing info. At the conventions I’ve attended, my friends and I have offered event exclusive pricing that gives customers deeper discounts with the more books they purchase. That’s why I like to highlight that value and encourage guests to come buy the books at the show. However, since readers may not have the funds to buy on the spot, be sure to include a link to your online store or Amazon listing for them to purchase later. You may even consider making a custom TinyURL, making it as simple as can be for them to locate your book online. Plugging your website and social media accounts on there is always a good idea as well.
Banners, Décor, and Signage
Something you might not realize about trade show booths is that what’s included is typically very bare bones. For the D23 Expos I’ve attended, each standard booth merely comes with a table, two chairs, and some plain pipe and drape. As a result, even with your merchandise on display and you sitting there smiling, the majority of passersby may have no idea you’re even selling anything. Moreover, without anything drawing their attention, they have no reason to stop and visit.
That’s why the first thing I recommend creating is a banner that will not only attract attention but hopefully explain a bit about what your booth is in a simple and succinct fashion. There are plenty of options you have in this field depending on what your budget it. In our case, we had a basic banner produced bearing our site’s logo that we could hang from the provided pipe and drape. This cost us just around $100.
If you have more to spend/invest and plan on attending multiple events, roll-up banners stands are another popular option. In addition to being easy to transport, several booth runners I spoke with praised the durability of these types of signs. One bookseller even told me he’s been using the same ones for eight years and they still looked brand new.
Beyond the basic signage, you may want to brainstorm some other art or features that will help draw people to your booth and/or communicate a message. For example, since my book talks a lot about travel and Laughing Place has recently featured more international content on the site, we choose to create a poster with photos from various Disney Parks around the world, including the recently-opened Shanghai Disneyland and the Disney fan mecca, Tokyo DisneySea.
Another clever display idea we added this time around was a looping PowerPoint presentation that offered Disney trivia questions interspersed with visual ads for the books we had for sale (this was achieved by placing a laptop under the table while an attached external monitor sat on top). Both of these items lured people toward our booth and gave us the opportunity to engage them or at least get them to snag a flyer.
Lastly, one more thing we learned from our experiences at these types of events is that people are more inclined to buy books from you when they know you’re the author. While it was often a fun surprise to spring that information on them after they’d approached, we thought it was better to put up a sign featuring our faces with the heading “Authors Signing Today” so that people could quickly make the connection. If you have room on your flyer, you could actually include this information on there instead and achieve a similar effect.
I’d assume that, in the majority of cases, the trade shows and signings you’ll be attending with your book will be in your area, allowing you to drive in with your books in tow. Sadly for me, driving to California from Missouri for a weekend wasn’t the most rational of plans. Thus, shipping my books became a top priority… and a major expense.
Should you need to ship your books to the event, you do have a few different options. First up, if you don’t already have a supply of books on hand, you can usually order them directly from your POD service or traditional printer and have them shipped to your hotel (note: you’ll probably want to get the ball rolling early as printing and shipping your order may take longer than you’d expect). In my case, I already had a few cases of books at home, so I decided to send them westward. This time around I used FedEx as our site had an account with them, but in most cases, the cheapest option is Media Mail from USPS. That said, be sure to review all of the rules that come with using the Media Mail rate so you don’t end up running afoul of those restrictions.
As I mentioned briefly above, more often than not you’ll be able to ship books to the hotel you’re staying at. However, it’s always a good idea to call your hotel ahead of time to make arrangements, inquire about their policies (which could include significant fees), and figure out other details like how you address the packages for best results. I’d also recommend writing down who you spoke with just in case there’s a problem later on or you’re slapped with a fee you weren’t expecting.
Cash or Credit?
Funny enough, one aspect of selling books at shows that often goes overlooked is how you’ll actually sell them. By this I mean how do you plan to collect money, make change, and perhaps even charge credit cards? For cash only booths, all you’ll really need is lock box of some sort along with some assorted change (which you can likely get from your local bank branch). However, if you want to potentially increase your sales by accepting plastic, there are a number of options available to you.
The biggest option for accepting credit cards (and the one I personally have experience with) is Square. In fact, given the company’s popularity in the space, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered Square’s service at your local coffee house or that time you bought Girl Scouts cookies in front of Target. Anyway, Square allows you to turn your smartphone or tablet into a point of sale by plugging a swiper into your headphone jack and utilizing the Square app to set up your different products.
Alas, this convenience doesn’t come free. In the case of Square, they will take 2.75% of every swiped transaction and 3.5% plus $.15 for every manually entered credit card transaction. Fees from other options such as PayPal or Intuit do vary and each option has its own pros and cons. I will say that, when we first choose Square two years ago, one selling point was the offline function that would record sales even if we didn’t have service — but it’s possible other services have since implemented such an important feature, so I’d definitely recommend doing your own research on this one.
The Perfect Pitch
Have you ever heard the term “elevator pitch?” This is a phrase that refers to crafting a quick and to-the-point summary of your idea or product that can be presented in the time it takes you to ride up an elevator with someone. Incidentally, it’s important to come up with something similar when you’re trying to sell your book to complete strangers.
What’s funny is that I’ve explained what my book is to friends and family dozens of times before. Yet, when I’d attempt to summarize it on the fly, I didn’t know what to say that would perk their ears up and get them interested. However, after a few hours of trial and error, I was finally able to craft my “perfect pitch.” Now if only I had done that before arriving at the Expo…
Granted, what works on selling to one person may not work on another. Therefore you may want to have a few different versions of selling points in mind that you can substitute in or elaborate on. Even then it will take tons of practice until you have your pitch down to a science, but hopefully focus testing some ideas on friends will give you a head start and allow you defeat the steep learning curve on this skill.
Bringing in Customers and Making the Sale
There are many different ways that authors attempt to sell their books. Just from walking the D23 Expo show floor, we saw some booksellers standing in front of their booths try to hawk as many flyers as they could, others would take what we dubbed the “barker” approach of yelling from their booths and trying to bring people in, and then there’d be people like us who were more laid back about the whole thing. Now, it’s hard to say that any of these techniques is wrong — it just comes down to your selling style and what works for you.
While I can’t speak for the flyer guys or the carnival barkers, I can explain our approach to engaging with potential customers. Basically, we had different steps we would take based on what we perceived a guest’s level of interest to be. This started with level one: anyone that looked our way and seemed to be eyeing our booth got a friendly greeting. Then, if they approached the booth, we’d give them a few seconds to browse before giving them an overview of what they were looking at — something to the effect of “We have several great Disney fan books on sale today, including my book, The E-Ticket Life, and some written by my friend Aaron over here.” As I mentioned earlier, introducing yourself as the author of the book can sometimes be a selling point itself.
In many cases, they’d then reach for one of our books and either flip through it or look at the back cover. That was our cue to pop in with our “perfect pitch” before allowing them too much browse time. This would also often repeat as they’d put the book down and pick up one of our other titles.
Finally, when we sensed they were either not ready to buy or were looking for an out, we’d offer them a flyer to take with them. All in all, we liked this series of techniques because it allowed us to provide people with the info they may have been looking for without being too pushy about making the sale. Our philosophy was that we wanted people to buy books they’d read and enjoy — not ones they bought because they felt guilty or pressured.
Giveaways and Promotions
Some other fun ways we brought people to our booth was with our various giveaways. The most basic of these giveaways were the unique stickers we had sitting on our table, which anyone was welcome to take (you’d be surprised how many people are excited to take anything free, no matter how small). While there were many cases where people would simply grab a sticker and go, others would also pick up a flyer or talk to us a bit more about the site and/or our books.
Our other giveaway was a bit more elaborate and was the result of a collaboration with another Disney site/podcast. In short, they created and distributed flyers throughout the show floor directing people to our booth to claim their prize. This worked as a real win-win as it sent traffic our way and didn’t cost us anything (all of the prizes were furnished by the other site) while the other site got a place to host their giveaway and get some of the “cool factor” that comes with having a booth at the Expo. As a result, I’d say that if you have an opportunity to partner with other companies or authors in such a creative way, I’d definitely recommend it.
After the Show
In my mind, the worst aspect of selling your book at a trade show or convention is shipping back your stock and supplies after the fact. Beyond the insinuation that you didn’t sell as much as you’d hoped, the logistics of packing and shipping items while also trying to check out of a hotel and catch a flight can be annoying if not downright infuriating. That said, you do have a few options here.
At D23, there was actually a USPS station located on the show floor. While neither my friends nor I took advantage of this station, we did theorize afterward that perhaps we could have dropped the bulk of our remaining items there to be shipped and taken the rest home in our suitcases. Like I said, we didn’t get to try this plan out and we didn’t get a chance to find out if they offered the Media Mail rate there, but it may be worth looking into if you find yourself in a similar position.
As for what I did, I thought I was getting out the easy way by preparing shipping labels for free in my hotel’s FedEx center and then dropping them off the next morning. That was until I learned that, since this was a specialized location (read: meant to make money off of business travelers and their expense accounts), there were fees tacked on for shipments over a certain weight. Essentially, this added insult to injury as it cost me an arm and a leg to return my unsold books to my house. *Sigh*
So what’s the best option then? For my money, I’d say that would be the method my friend took last year: taking an Uber to a Post Office and shipping from there. If you have the time in your schedule, this is definitely the way to go as you’ll be able to again secure that Media Mail rate and avoid silly fees. Of course, if you have an early morning flight like I did, this may not be an option, forcing you to pay for the “convenience” of other methods.
Follow Up on Social Media
During the Expo and after, one thing I was pleasantly surprised by was the number of people that reached out to me on social media. Not only is this nice to see but also gives you a golden opportunity to keep in touch with them and encourage them to do things like write a review of your book on Amazon. When you see these messages, be sure to retweet or at least “like” and respond to them with your thanks. This can actually go a long way toward building a relationship with your readers and turning them into those “raving fans” we talked about earlier.
Keep an Eye on Online Sales
Similarly, if things go well, you should see an influx in sales from Amazon and other outlets. Keeping track of these sales is important as it may inform your decision on whether or not to attend a similar event in the future. In other words, you shouldn’t judge the success of a show purely on the number of books you sold on the spot but also consider the lasting word of mouth and promotion you received from it. This value, while harder to quantify, can often exceed that of the direct sales you made.
From my experience, selling your book at a trade show, expo, convention, or what have you can be a great way to meet readers and promote your work. The trick is to first find an event you think would make sense to host your book at then consider ways you can draw people to your booth. With that, I hope the lessons I’ve learned from two D23 Expos can help you to make a bigger splash at your next signing event.
P.S. — If you’re still on the fence about writing and publishing your own book, be sure to check out my new ebook Write, Print, Publish, Promote and get started on your dream book project today!
Also published on Medium.