Ken MacGregor’s Unsolicited Advice on Doing Shows

Ken MacGregor’s Unsolicited Advice on Doing Shows

So you want to sell books to real people, in the real world, for real money. Okay. Cool. Let’s talk about that.

First things first, I know a lot of writers are, shall we say, not the most socially comfortable people in the world. I mean, I’m not one of those, but many are. To misquote the Tick, I’ve…heard of social anxiety. Before I was a writer, I was an actor. I did sketch comedy. I was a jury foreperson (not because I was necessarily the most qualified, but because I wasn’t afraid to express my opinion in the juror’s room). I have always been outgoing. Always loved being the center of attention. So, yeah. I have some tips.

Most in-person author events you’ll be vending at (I know that’s incorrect grammar. I’m writing colloquially, and you editor-types will just have to let this sort of thing slide.) will only last between four and six hours (other types of events run for a whole weekend or even longer!). Rarely, they go longer, but that seems to be pretty much the standard. So, this means that—if you’re one of those writers who would prefer not to remove yourself from your locked attic overlooking the small garden whose bright peonies conceal the dozens of discarded story idea corpses— you only have to pretend to enjoy interacting with other humans for a short amount of time. Yay! You can plaster a smile on your face, and act like this isn’t absolutely destroying your soul for that long, right? Sure, you can.

Now that we’ve got the introverts reassured, let’s move on to the table. Most venues supply them. This is cool because tables cost a little. Trust me: I bought one. Because not all venues supply them, and I like to be prepared. I digress. The table will, in all likelihood, be ugly—plastic, utilitarian, probably stained with some mysterious substance that might very well be the blood of previous vendors. For this reason, you should get yourself a tablecloth. Doesn’t have to be fancy, but fancy doesn’t hurt. I found a cool fabric that looks like dragon scales. I often get compliments on it. From people who then sometimes buy a book (or two, or more). A tablecloth is necessary. Nothing screams “I’m an amateur” louder than a blank table with dubious (blood)stains on it. A good friend who does lots of shows recommends you shop fabric stores during the off-season: if you write horror, go in the Spring; if romance, the fall, when spooky stuff is highlighted, to get your floral patterns. He also recommends, for multi-day events getting a separate cloth to cover your merchandise overnight. On top of the cloth, your books should be on stands. These prop your display copy up in a lovely, eye-catching way. You can be all fancy and use actual racks if you want, the kind that holds several books. I just use stands. I have some nice wooden ones, a couple of plastic ones, and two rather shabby wire stands I use for displaying prints of cover art. Do not just lay your books flat, stacked, or otherwise. It looks sloppy. Stands are pretty cheap. Get some (pro tip: search “Gibson Holders” and buy in bulk).

[Editor’s Note: The following 3 paragraphs include affiliate links to services who you can order the products in question from. Purchasing through these links will give us a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.]

If you haven’t already, invest in business cards. You can look for online discount codes. Some vendors use the back of the card for extra marketing, or you can leave it blank, and use that side for notes, or to give someone your number. A lot of people will come to your table, look at your stuff, and not buy anything. That’s okay; it’s how it goes. Frequently. Many, many of those people will take a card, if you have one (mine are displayed in an adorable little wooden coffin). I know for a fact that at least a few of these people have later bought my books online, because they told me. Have business cards. Bookmarks, too, if you can swing it. Mine have the same information as the business cards (and the same design, because…branding), and I slide one into each book purchased. Boom. Now you’ve got my website in your face every time you open that book back up. Gotcha.

You can further decorate your table with other eye-catching items. I always put out a child-sized (creepy!), black skull on my table. There’s also a wonderful opportunity for self-promotion. It’s actually pretty easy to have your cover art printed on a T-shirt. You can get a button-maker and sell dark (or funny, or both) slogans that relate to your work. Lots of people put out a bowl of free candy. I always intend to, and always forget. It’s because I don’t eat candy. It falls right off my radar. But you can!

Get yourself some signage. I have a banner (also matching the business cards) that stands six feet tall behind my table. I have an older one that stands two feet tall and used to sit on the table. You can also get them that are designed to be draped across the front of your table. There are lots of possibilities, depending on your budget and the kind of look you want. But a sign of some sort will help draw folks to your table. It will set you apart from those who don’t have one. Plus, they look cool. And, really, that’s what matters most. Looking cool. (And, like being successful, I guess. Whatever.)

If you can do it, you should probably stand up to engage with people at their eye level (note: this does not apply to kids or people in wheelchairs, or those who just aren’t tall; sit for those folks). This is not always feasible, for lots of reasons. For example, I did a show yesterday (went really well, thanks!) where my table was on a concrete floor. Now, I’m 55 years old. I might be in good shape, but my feet, knees, hips, and lower back are simply not going to stand on concrete for four hours. You might be young enough to pull it off. Good for you. Now get off my lawn. Having said all that, I’ve heard that the ideal thing is to get a director’s chair: this is foldable, relatively comfortable, and puts you at eye level with most adults. Might wish to invest in one. I might too.

Speaking of engaging your (potential) readers, here’s another good idea (my friend David Hayes is a master at this): find something about them that aligns with your own interests. For example, if a person is wearing an X-Men shirt, I can say that Wolverine is my favorite Marvel character. I can talk about how the whole series is about bigotry and intolerance. We can have a wonderful conversation that might just result in them liking me enough to take pity on me and buy a book. A word of caution here: this has to be sincere. You cannot fake this sort of thing. If you try, they will sniff it out like festering garbage in August heat in Florida, and they will react to you accordingly. Conversely, if you don’t engage…if you avoid eye contact, and maybe spend the whole show staring at your phone, you will just wasted all the time, money, and effort of doing the show, because no one will want to bother you, meaning no one will buy from you either.

Once you have their attention, talk up your stuff! Nothing sells books like enthusiasm. If you’re excited about the material on the table, that excitement will spread to them. People are naturally joiners. They want to be part of the next cool thing. It’s just how we’re wired. So, if you believe you’re the bomb-diggety, so will they. At least for long enough for them to slide you some cash. (Side note here: don’t just take cash. It’s 2022. Have a credit card reader [Square is a good system], download Venmo and CashApp; stay current with how people are paying things. People will tell you, “Oh, I don’t have any cash.” You can reassure them with, “Oh, that’s okay. I take…”) If they do pay with cash, however, you need to be prepared for that. Keep at least $50 in small bills so you can make change. Price your material in nice round numbers, so you only have to use paper money. Hopefully, the excitement will continue once they’ve read your book, and the next time they see you at a table, they’ll buy your latest one. This happens to me again and again, and I’m always delighted to see a returning reader. Makes me feel like maybe I’m doing something right with this whole writing thing.

Every time you make a sale (as soon as they leave the table), make sure you track which book it was. This will help you with inventory, and will let you know when you need to order more. Square has a feature where you can plug each item and its cost into the program, which makes this a lot easier. Cash sales will need to be tracked separately, of course.

Side note here: do not forget your neighbors. You will likely have vendors on either side, and possibly across from you. Introduce yourself. Have conversations. Use that wit that sparkles on the page to make them laugh. You will likely see some of these folks over and over. You may even make some friends. It’s networking! You might even hear about another opportunity from them that was nowhere on your radar. But the salient point is: you’re all there, trying to make money peddling the thing(s) you made. You’re all artists. It’s not easy to make a living with your passion. Support them. You don’t have to buy their stuff (though, it’s always nice to do that), but having a friendly presence nearby sure does take some of the sting out of a show where sales are weak. You can go home thinking, “well, at least my neighbor was cool.” It matters. A lot.

One other important thing I want to touch on. The person, or people, organizing these events are just that. They are real people. (Just like editors, slush readers, and reviewers.) They have feelings. They work their butts off to put this sort of thing together. Be nice to them. Thank them for doing it. Thank them for having you there. Let them know you’d love to come to the next one. If you have a kick-ass sales day, tell them that. They’ll be delighted. They put on this sort of thing, in large part, for you. Just let ‘em know you appreciate that.

Side note to my last paragraph: don’t go into this blind. Do a little research. You trying to sell your trilogy about Killer Space Succubi is likely to go poorly at the Romance Readers Expo. I mean, maybe not. Stranger things have happened. Still, better to know who’s likely to be there.

Make sure you’re well-stocked on food, water, a charger for your device (especially at one of the longer events), hand sanitizer, and maybe a small fan in the summer. Also, a pen. Not only will you probably have downtime where you might get some writing done, you will also need it to sign books. Bring something with wheels, like a handcart. Books are heavy! Keep your stock in plastic bins, with padding (cardboard pieces and packing paper are fine for this) inside so they don’t get bent in transit. They’re stackable and will keep your books dry and in good condition.

All right. That’s what I’ve got on this topic. You know I’ll come back with some crazy-ass rant about something else before too long. I can’t help myself. (I could quit if I wanted; seriously…I don’t have a problem. Hey…are you going to write about that? Can I just see it for a minute?) Seriously, though: the reason I keep writing these is because I do want to help other people. We’re all in this together. I want you to succeed. I had a lot of free help and advice from established writers when I was starting out, and I will always pay that forward.

Thanks, as always, for listening.

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