Before I published my first novel, no method of promoting books terrified me as much as selling at a bookstore, behind a card table loaded with pristine copies. I’d suffered through other authors’ awkward attempts to interest readers in their books, with bright smiles pasted on, and I thought it akin to torture.
Still, author events are always on the menu of marketing possibilities. To be realistic, you can’t expect a line of excited readers to appear, particularly if you’re a new, unknown author. But, these folks don’t materialize on their own. The best advice I got was from a community relations person at a Barnes & Noble was this: BE PREPARED TO HAND SELL. What it boils down to is: (1) don’t sit or stand in one place; (2) build common ground.
As you enter the store or library, look around. Chances are someone has selected a place for you. But, be careful NOT to plop down in your designated position immediately. Instead, walk the store, building or grounds with a copy of your book in one hand and bookmarks or cards in the other. Strike up a conversation with anyone in the area as you walk. I began with “Hi, I’m today’s author” because I was. Who could dispute it? I mentioned I’d written a book and five words about it. If the person didn’t want to talk, I didn’t force it. Sometimes I’d say, “I had so much fun writing this book,” which was an undeniable truth. I might ask what kind of books they like, and relate what they said to my work. I always tried to give them a marketing flyer, and direct them to the sales location.
Other tips are simple logic:
- Get out from behind any barriers, such as desks, tables, and displays. Your objective is to mix and mingle with possible customers.
- Wear something prominent to announce who you are and what you’re hustling. At the very least, wear a name tag with your name and your book’s title in large letters. Include in your flyer information about your book, and where it can be obtained. Have something they can take with them, such as a business-sized card.
- Think about good conversational hooks to kick off conversations with readers. This isn’t about bragging about your qualifications. Your goal is to initiate a conversation with a possible enthusiast.
- Find common ground with the customer. Questions like “what kinds of books do you enjoy?,” or “how do you decide what new book you’ll read?” enable you to evaluate interests or background in common with that person. I was surprised how many visitors related to an incident in one of my books when the protagonist remembers learning to twirl a six-shooter, a memory from my childhood that I included.
- Consider what might appeal to this particular person. This doesn’t necessarily require an exact match. If the visitor mentions a thriller, and that’s not your book’s plot, perhaps the location or time is similar to yours. Or it could a plot point, or a character’s background.
- When you approach a visitor, don’t hard sell. No one wants to be backed against a wall as you stand in front of them, enthusing about your own work. You’re trying to establish a connection, not win a political campaign. Maybe you and the customer are both parents, or homeowners with leaky ceilings, or amusement park enthusiasts. Fish for information with questions such as “How do you spend your off-hours?,” or “did you get cabin fever during Covid?”
- Make friends with the sales personnel. These are your connections after you leave. They should, at least, know where people can get information about you and your book after you exit. It wouldbe nice, if possible, for them to have a pleasant feeling about you and your work so they’ll show some enthusiasm.
My results from taking my own advice? In about an hour, I hand-sold 13 books, a record for me. I definitely will rely on this technique in the future.
Bonnie McCune has been writing since age ten, when the Saturday Evening Post rejected a poem. This interest facilitated her career in public relations and freelance writing. She’s published five books of women’s fiction. Her husband, children and grandchildren are all book-mad. Other recent credits include: Flash fiction, “King of the Class”, about young love gone right, Every Day Fiction, July 2022. “The Girl Who Loves the Boy Who Loves the Girl Who Plays the Cello,” describing the circuitous path romance can take, The Sunlight Press. Speculative fiction short story, “Final Report from the Land of Red-Headed Children,” Winter 2021, Third Flatiron Publishing, anthology, Things With Feathers: Stories of Hope.
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