Any writer today will tell you that the time of just being an author is over. We're now marketers, publicists, promotion machines, and even hawkers of our own wares. The last one is the element that most of us like the least, and yes, it can be both intimidating and awkward. The first time someone put me behind a card table with stacks of my books on top and said, "Okay, now sell these to strangers," I was like, Dear God, but how?
Five years later, I kind of get it.
1) Stand up - Seriously. Stand. Up. If you're sitting, you're passive, and people are less likely to make eye contact with you. Stand up and say hello to people. Most often, they'll say hi back. This makes them pause - in front of your table. Good job.
2) Give them something - People love free things. Candy always works, but think about who that's going to attract - mostly kids. Do you have a book about rape culture or lobotomies on your table? I do. Can you sell those books to these free sugar bandits? No. So what's the point? No matter where you are, your audience is always readers not eaters, and the people that are interested enough to come to an event where books are being sold probably like books. They might even like yours.
So give them something related to your book... like a bookmark. Even if they only stop long enough to lift free loot off your table, now they're carrying around something they're going to use that has your name, book cover, and title on it - not something they're going to eat and then throw away the wrapper. Anyone can give them candy. Why don't you give them something that actually markets your book?
3) Hand them the book - This one can be tricky, but a good way to judge interest is to watch their eyes. If someone makes eye contact with you, ask them the question in #4. If they're not into you but you see their eyes scanning your wares and pausing on one, attracted by the cover, give them the one sentence pitch - then hand them the book, flipped to the back cover or opened to the dust jacket flap that has the summary.
Not taking it is rude, and they don't want to be rude. So they'll take it from you, and you just kind of cornered someone into reading your book summary. Yes, this move is a touch pushy and not for everyone - but remember - these are book people that came here to buy books. It's not like you're standing on a street corner selling meat out of the back of your van to vegetarians.
Example: I spot someone's eyes lingering on NOT A DROP TO DRINK, so I take the top copy of the pile and say, "This is post-apocalyptic survival set in a world with very little water," and hand it to them with the back facing up.
The vast majority of the time if I can get someone to read the back or the flap, they end up buying the book, and I just turned a browser into a buyer.
4) Ask them what they like to read - If you're like me and write across genres, you want to make sure you're leading them the right direction. Eyeing what else they're buying can help, too. If they've got an armful they picked up at other tables, say, "You're a mystery / fantasy / sci-fi reader? You might like..." + hand them the book + one line pitch.
Example: I spot four fantasies tucked under a lady's arm. "You like fantasies? This is the first in my fantasy series, set on an island continent with rapidly rising sea levels." Then I hand her GIVEN TO THE SEA.
Pro-tip: Are their hands full from other books they already bought? Offer to hold them, or at the very least let them set their load on your table so their hands are free to flip through your book.
Super pro-tip: Do you get a ton of tote bags from all the conferences and book fairs you attend? Take them to events like this and offer them to particularly weighed down persons.
5) Know your audience - Be a total Sherlock and dissect their clothing, then pitch appropriately.
Educators and librarians tend to shop in pairs or groups, and most of the time at least one of them will be wearing something that announces their profession, or school affiliation. If I see librarians or educators shopping I am sure to point out that DRINK was a Choose To Read Ohio title with cross-curricular applications, and that both THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES and THIS DARKNESS MINE were JLG selections. That won't mean much to the average reader, but it's selling gold to educators.
Likewise, if I spot that mystery reader I'll add that A MADNESS SO DISCREET won an Edgar Award - something that doesn't carry weight with the Sci-Fi crowd, but will impress them.
What else? Look for geek t-shirts promoting movies, video games, fandoms, or anything else you might be able to tie one of your titles to. But don't be a pretender - if you don't have the street cred to participate in the conversation you just started, you're going to look like an idiot... unless you're a consummate bullshitter. (Ahem).
Lastly, for the adults - check their hats, coats, pullovers, and windbreakers. A lot of employers give apparel with their logo to their employees, and there's a chance - small, but it's there - that you can sell them a book that way. I've sold DRINK to people who work for the water company, SPECIES to police officers, and MADNESS to mental health workers.
6) Make that pitch honest - I use this one-liner for MADNESS - "It's a Gothic historical thriller set in an insane asylum." People either dive for it, or back away - and I mean they actually back away with their hands in the air. That pitch is either a 1 or a 10, much like the book. You're either way into what I'm selling, or you're terrified of me. I'm fine with either reaction (hey, lobotomies aren't for everyone), and I'm being up front with you about content.
Same for my other books, especially SPECIES and DARKNESS. When a younger teen is looking at either of them and a parent is present, I typically ask how free they are with them and reading material. If it's even a question, I suggest that the parent read it first - or I direct them to NOT A DROP TO DRINK and IN A HANDFUL OF DUST. Yes, I want the kid to read a book of mine - but I want to make sure it's something they're ready for... and that their mom agrees with that assessment.
I know I make it sound easy, but it's not. Even for me. Sometimes I'm just not in the right head space to put myself out there, and most of the time I can't keep it up for the full 6 to 8 hours of the festival. I'll retreat into myself for a little bit, ten or fifteen minutes. Check my phone, talk to the author beside me, trade texts with my friends who I know are at the event, just take a little down time and a minor recharge before standing up again and saying hello to people.
Another author who is really good at table selling is my guest for today's Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire podcast episode. Listen below!