Most authors learn the hard way that when starting out, traditional bookstore signings can be discouraging. Very quickly we are forced to find or accept more creative, even unusual venues to sell our books. When my first novel was released, I was horribly inexperienced in the world of marketing. I focused almost primarily on bookstores or festivals, scheduling twenty or more events in and around the Midwest that first year. Out of those twenty plus gigs, only two drew sales worth writing home about. Two.

Then I was invited to sign and sell copies at an assisted living facility in my small hometown. The administrators were planning a grand opening event and thought a local artist would be a nice addition. Admittedly, I didn’t jump at the chance when it was first offered. An old folks’ home wasn’t exactly my target audienceómy novel was about a woman struggling to keep her family together after her son commits a high school shooting. But having already passed the one-year anniversary of my book’s release, and facing lagging interest, I grudgingly accepted the invitation.

What I hadn’t realized, though, is that when facilities such as this host a grand opening, it isn’t necessarily for the residents and family members. They also routinely invite administrators and faculty from other similar facilities in the surrounding areas. To my astonishment, several hundred guests walked through the doors, and right to my table. I sold an entire case of books in just two hours.

After my evening at the assisted living center, I let go of the sting from previous unsuccessful bookstore events, and started to think more creatively. Because my book dealt with the theme of loss and survival, I sent fliers to several grief support groups and almost immediately booked appearances. I worked with my large church to hold a book signing event around Christmastime with free gift wrap, and then donated a small portion of my sales to a local counseling center my church supports. Later, that same counseling center asked me to be the keynote speaker at their annual fundraising dinner. Again, I sold a case of books.

I contacted area English and creative writing teachers or guidance counselors and offered to visit with interested students. More than once those very teachers belonged to a book club and would then select my book for their month and invite me to speak. Buoyed by the great response from those book clubs, I went back the bookstores, the sites of so many earlier disappointments, and instead worked with the owners or managers to market to their book clubs. The result was completely different the second time around.

I’m certainly not the first to learn the hard way, and start marketing more creatively. Plenty of other writers have done well in nontraditional venues. Both Pamela Carter Joern, Minnesota author of The Floor of the Sky and The Plain Sense of Things, and Debra Marquart, Iowa author and poet of the The Horizontal World, have booked successful events at assisted living facilities. My good friend Kimberly Stuart, author of the humorous “mommy lit” novels Balancing Act and The Bottom Line, always draws substantial crowds as a guest speaker at mother’s groups, clubs and organizations. Iowa poet John D. Thompson, author of 99 Voices, 99 Lives, County Poems of Iowa, circled the state making appearances and selling out copies at county historical societies. Michael Haskins, author of the Key West murder mystery Chasin’ the Wind, wrote in his blog that an invitation from a friend to sell books at a local bank branch anniversary party with a Key West theme turned into one of his most lucrative evenings ever.

So take heart. The audiences are out there. You just might have to look a little harder to find them.

Kali VanBaale’s debut novel, The Space Between (River City Publishing, Montgomery, AL. October, 2006) earned a 2007 American Book Award, the 2007 Independent Publisher’s silver medal for general fiction, the 2007 Iowa Reader Literary Award for Fiction and the 2006 Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novelist Award. Her second novel, Mercy Road, is currently under representation with the Russell & Volkening Literary Agency in New York City. In 2009, she was awarded a State of Iowa Arts Council major artist grant to begin work on an untitled third novel.

Her short stories and essays have appeared in the anthologies A Cup of Comfort for Adoptive Families, Voice’s of Alzheimer’s and Voice’s of Caregiver’s. She resides outside Des Moines with her husband and three children.

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