Agent Monday: Making the Most of Book Festivals (even if you don’t sell gobs of books)

Eliza Bing jktHappy Agent Monday, and happy September everyone!  Fall, for me, is a time of new beginnings. New books to read. New books to pitch to editors. New things to write… If you are writer, you may soon be staring down at a terrifying new thing: THE BOOK SIGNING. Well, fear not. Today I have some words of advice and encouragement for you from my wonderful and talented author, Carmella Van Vleet. Her most recent titles include the middle grade novel ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG, FAT QUITTER (Holiday House, 2014), which features the hilarious and endearing Eliza (who also happens to be coping with ADHD); and the picture book TO THE STARS! co-authored with astronaut Kathy Sullivan (Charlesbridge, 2016).  Take it away, Carmella!

Making the Most of Book Festivals – Even If You Don’t Sell Gobs of Books!
guest post by Carmella Van Vleet

When I walked in the door, exhausted from spending the day at a local book festival, the first thing out of my husband’s mouth was, “So, how many books did you sell?”
I’m proud to report I resisted the urge to unleash some inner-ninja on him. I knew he was doing his best to be supportive, but it’s a loaded question. Those of us who attend book signings and festivals know that it’s not always about the number of books we sell.
For the record, I sold and signed around nine books that day. I’ve had better days in terms of sales and I’ve had worse. But despite the lower sales, I had a great time and was glad I participated in the event. Why? (I mean other than the fact I spent the day sampling the candy I’d set out to lure readers to my table.) Simple: I focused on all the other successes of the day.

Here are the cool things that happened that didn’t include actual book sales:

I got to meet another writer from the Class of 2k14 (a group of 20 debut YA and MG writers who’ve banned together online to support and help promote each other). This was a first for me.

I spent the day chatting with several writers sitting nearby me. We shared advice and tips for other book festivals, school visits, and promotional materials.

I handed my card to a librarian who was interested in me doing an author visit at her school.

I got to participate in two well-attended panels about writing for children. Not only did I get a chance to do one of my favorite things in the whole world – talk shop – I met an editor who asked me if I would be interested in writing for their new biography series for middle grade readers.

While doing the second panel, I also got to connect with an illustrator I heard speak a while back. Something she’d said in her workshop resonated with me and it ended up being a key puzzle piece that allowed my picture book to finally fall into place. It was such a gift to be able to tell this other writer she helped me and my book sold and is now scheduled for release in 2016.

I was able to help a fellow writer who was struggling with the close-but-no-cigar stage of her career. (I told her the old adage is true – just when things seems darkest and most hopeless is usually when your “Yes” is just around the corner.) And I got to rave about Marie to another writer who queried her.

At lunch, I spent a few minutes hanging out with an author whose writing I deeply admire – and totally experienced the “getting to sit at the cool kids table” thing.

Something really funny happened to me at the festival, too. This boy around ten years old walked up to my table. When he noticed my cover, he pointed and said, “I read the first two pages of that book.” (I was pretty sure he didn’t realize he was speaking to the author.) “Oh yeah?” I asked, all excited. “Did you like it? What did you think?” The boy shrugged. “Eh. It was okay.” His mother turned red and promptly began apologizing. But I waved her off; I thought it was hysterical. I thanked the boy for his honesty and offered him a candy bar.

So, in other words, I got a good story about humility to tell!

You never know what you’re going to encounter when you attend book festivals. They aren’t always going to be rainbows and glitter, long lines and adoring fans. But if you keep yourself open – and remember there’s more to these things than just selling books – you’ll never have a bad day.

My tips for book festivals

* Get to know your book neighbors. Listen to their pitch and give them yours. When they step away for a break or lunch, help cover their table and talk up their books to readers walking by. They’ll do the same for you.
* Standing up at your table is a great way to increase your visibility during crowded times.
* Bring your own water and snack in case you can’t get away or there’s not a nearby volunteer. You’ll need them to keep up your energy.
* Have readers spell out their names and write them on slips of paper before you sign a book. This will help cut down on inscription mistakes.
* Always give a reader more. For example, I have a collection of rubber stamps I like to use after my signature. (Each stamp corresponds to a specific title. For instance, I have an old fashion key stamp that I use in my Ben Franklin book.) Another writer I know personally attaches “Autographed Copy” stickers to her books after signing. An illustrator friend sketches a kid-friendly doodle. These little touches make the book extra special.
* If you’re comfortable talking to groups, volunteer to participate in panels and other activities; the people who plan book festivals really appreciate this and will remember your name when it comes time for the next event.
* Don’t be afraid to connect with people even if you don’t think it’ll mean a sale. Compliment someone on their cool shirt or ask what kinds of books they read. Always be genuine but never pushy.

 

Carmella Van VleetCarmella Van Vleet is a former teacher and the author of numerous hands-on science and history books. Her debut MG novel, ELIZA BING IS (NOT) A BIG, FAT QUITTER (Holiday House) is a Junior Library Guild Selection  about a girl with ADHD who takes up taekwondo. Carmella is looking forward to the release of her first picture book, TO THE STARS! THE STORY OF ASTRONAUT KATHY SULLIVAN, which she co-authored with Dr. Sullivan (Charlesbridge, 2016). For more information, please visit www.CarmellaVanVleet.com

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Writer Wednesday: About those Book Signings…

I have a book signing coming up this Saturday at the beyond wonderful indie bookstore Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope, PA.  It’s from 1-4 p.m. Stop by if you can!  I haven’t really done too many book signings this year, so this got me thinking about all those book signings I have done in the past.

I used to have several a month, sometimes even a few a week.  I kept my book signing stuff together in one spot in my office, ready to grab and go. A bag of book plates, pens, fliers, signs, and candy to give away (usually chocolate kisses).  But now I feel almost rusty.  Since it has been a while, well, needless to say the chocolates are all gone.  My fliers are used up or just out of date, missing the most recent reviews.  And is that sign seriously turning yellow?

Jeesh.

The last huge book signing I did was back at another beloved indie, Doylestown Bookshop. That was for the launch of DRAWN way back in January.  Since then, my books have been for sale at various events where I’ve put in appearances. At these, I’d sign a copy of  a novel if someone approached me with one.  But I haven’t really done one of those “sit at a table for a few hours and smile” thingees for DRAWN.

Book launches are a blast to do. It’s the first time your book hits the stands, and all your friends and family rally with readers to show up and celebrate and eat cake. At these the author feels an outpouring of love and appreciation.  There’s constant conversation. And, as I mentioned, there’s cake. Many books are sold.  You head home feeling awesome.

But other signings, well…

I’ve recently talked to a number of new writers all fired up for their very first signing.  It’s such a landmark, and such a thrill.  I never want to bring them down, but I wish there was some tactful way to prepare the new author for that second signing. Or that third and fourth.  Not every signing will sell 100 copies like you did on launch night. If I could somehow make them lower their expectation and view every signing as a success even if not a single book was sold, it might spare them from that sinking feeling of misery.  Same feeling you got as a kid when teams were picking sides and the captains argued over who would get stuck with you. Blech.

I’ve been at signings where not one person showed up. I’ve been at signings where someone came up and asked, “Do you people sell rubber bands?”  I told them I didn’t work there, and I was the author.  “Oh, really?  You wrote these?”  So, fine. Lesson learned. I started wearing a tag that said: Marie Lamba, AUTHOR.  And I made a giant poster with the book cover, and my picture.  And at the next signing someone walked up to me and asked, “Do you guys sell magazines?”

I’ve had people come and talk to me forever about my book, about writing, and then not buy the book.  I’ve had people not stop or talk to me at all, which is far worse.  I’ve been scheduled to give a talk, and showed up to a space with seating for 100, and only the bookstore person and my daughter came.  I gave a talk at an urban Barnes and Noble, and the audience was made up of a sleeping homeless guy, and a woman who sat in that space every day just to knit. No clapping that day.

But you know what?  It’s a total crap shoot.  I’ve had talks that I thought would surely be a disaster, and when I got there, the room was so packed they had to drag in extra seating.  And I sold a ton of books afterwards.  I’ve done signings where people flocked to the table, eager to buy. I’ve been at signings where old high school friends showed up and brought their kids.  I’ve been at bookstores where fans of my books came and acted like I was a rock star!

You never know. So you lower your expectations to none, and smile.  Book signings can definitely keep you humble. You’ve got to remember that not everyone is a reader. That people are busy. That times are tough. That reading is a subjective thing, so not everyone will be interested in what you write about. That some people feel they can’t walk over to talk to you, because if they don’t then buy your book it’ll be weird.

So how can every book signing be a success? Well, I always use a signing as a newsworthy moment. An appropriate time to tell the area about my books through press releases and feature stories that I send out to press, and through announcements on social media.  That’s a win.  Someone could read about your book and buy it at a later time. At signings, I always enjoy interacting with the bookstore staff and supporting what they do.  I work hard to make the event fun (bringing munchies for the booksellers, too), and I’m building relationships with these fellow book lovers. The bookstore also always has me sign the remaining stock, so that even if the signing felt like a bust, the books will probably be prominently displayed and sold.

And then there is the experience of meeting people…something we isolated authors don’t get to do on a daily basis.  We can yak about books and writing, and share our book info with others.

So, if I could speak directly to those new authors out there, I would like to tell them to not count the success of a signing by the number of copies sold. To check egos at the door, but haul along your sense of humor.

And you may want to find out ahead of time if the bookstore sells rubber bands!

Wish me luck on Saturday…