10 Things Selling Books at Festivals and Cons Has Taught Me About Writing
1. It's a Business and If Your Books Don’t Sell It’s Hard to Stay in It
A lot of writers I know hate the business side of writing. They hate it with a passion, and I have felt that way too, but going to conferences and festivals to table books has helped me make peace with the commerce side of creative work. Tabling forces you to see the business side with third grade math: I’ve paid for a table, books, traveling, and my goal is to sell most of these books and at least break even. Tabling at festivals and cons has balanced out my dealing with the muse and dealing with money. I learned real fast that I am selling art and entertainment, and either strangers are going to find my books interesting and give me money for them or they are not. Experiencing this a dozen times, I now approach the page with balance. I am doing what I love and strangers need to love it too.
2. There is a Big Reading World Outside of Social Media
When I lived in NYC, I could go to readings any night of the week, but since I moved to a small shit town in New Hampshire, my connection to anything literary is online or an hour away. This can make me feel a little nuts. I can start having tunnel vision thinking Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads represent the entire reading and writing world. This outlook can impact your writing morale, which can lead to you writing for validation and approval instead of focusing on improving your craft. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be appreciated in online writing communities, but tabling at a book festival can remind you that there is a larger literary community out there, and many diverse readers in the world. I had to take a big financial risk to learn this, but luckily I ended up in the black and saw that writing is not just about online literary scenes, but about writing books and finding readers to read them. I also feel very empowered after a festival and I approach writing with a renewed enthusiasm to create future books.
3. Loglines Matter, They Show You Know Your Story
You don’t have to be a great salesman to do well at a book festival, but you do need to know you story and why people should read it. I know many writers like to believe that their book is completely original, that it fits into a genre that doesn’t exist and can’t be described, but this is usually bullshit. Either they don’t know their own story or there isn’t much of one. Even plot-lite literary novels can be pitched well. I noticed with my own work, the tighter the logline, the tighter my story was. After selling books at festivals, I see that I need to know my logline after I finish a rough draft. The book will be better if I know the main driving force behind the narrative and the characters. Not only is it good for me, it's good for small press editors and for my agent, so they can know if they should carve out time to read it or tell me to start something else.
4. You Learn That Your Job is to Serve Readers
I am sure certain writers will disagree, but after tabling at a bunch of book festivals and cons, I see my main job as serving readers. It’s more about them than it is about me, and if I don’t please enough of them I am going to have a lot less time to write and sell my books. This mindset has helped me accept some of the more difficult aspects of revising and killing the darlings of earlier drafts. It is a lot easier to take criticism and suggestions from a good editor if I am focused on the readers instead of my own ego or showing off my style. If I think a suggestion by an editor will make the book better, I will do it.
5. It's About Humor, Heart, and Hanging Out
If you make people laugh while tabling they are more likely to buy something. People like to laugh. I definitely notice I have an advantage at festivals and cons because the one thing all my books have in common is humor. This is not to say you should go write a ton of humor books, but regular readers want to laugh and they want something with some heart. I noticed when they are browsing my table they are really searching for a book that they can connect with and enjoy. Potential readers are looking at your books like road trip partners. If we are driving for over 24 hours, I want someone who can make laugh, but also make me pause, reflect, and ponder the difficult and enjoyable aspects of being a human being. I have taken this realization to heart and when it comes to my books. I want my stories to stay with the reader so they can recall the book the same way I might recall a great road trip.
6. You Should Be Excited By and Loyal to Your Characters
It’s really hard to fake enthusiasm for a book. I’ll keep it real and admit there a few books I’ve done that I’m not that proud of. Even if readers like the hook, they are less likely to buy the book if they sense I am less than enthusiastic about it. If I’m not proud or excited about a book's existence, it is a tougher sell no matter how much I hype it. The most common trait I’ve seen in books I feel less excited about pitching is that the story doesn’t have a character I feel attached to. If I’m just writing a ‘cool story,’ it might be cool enough to get published, but it is missing what makes fiction great. I now make sure my stories have a protagonist that I will love and care about for a long time.
7. Every Single Random Page Has to be Good
Potential buyers will many times open a random page of your book to see if they like your style. I have secured many ‘final sales’ this way, and it feels great because that means they are digging my writing. But for all those types of sales, they pale in comparison to losing a reader because they read a page and didn’t enjoy it. Those moments stay with me and they remind me that every line has to be solid. Even if it is minimal exposition or an uninteresting but needed transition, the language still has to be on point. In that final draft, I’m combing through every line to straighten it out and fine tune it.
8. You Have to Make Readers Care
At one festival I like to go to, there is a place for predominantly self-published writers called Writers Row. You are only there for a day instead of the normal three. It can be pretty depressing to walk through Writers Row because you see new hubristic writers learn that no one cares what they to have to say or what their book is about. It's heartbreaking to watch these amateur authors go through the five stages of grief in a span of six to eight hours. The brutal truth is that unless your book is really good or has a really good hook, no one gives a shit.
It’s important to have a few people you trust as beta readers to bounce new book ideas off of. Like the newly self-published author, you can fall in love with an idea and have it be a celebration of yourself, but you might be the only person who will get excited about it. That's cool if you want to write for fun, but then you shouldn’t drop three hundred bucks on table costs and be upset when you are out $270 dollars.
9. Uniqueness and Authenticity Go A Long Way
Readers love genres that satisfy certain expectations, but at all these festivals they are also hungry for something unique. They want something that feels new and fresh. I write a lot of books that fall into the Bizarro Fiction genre. It's a genre I love, and when you're at a festival with so many of the books you’d find at Barnes & Nobles, Bizarro Fiction stands out in a big way. But I learned it isn't just about having something weird or out there to get readers' attention, it's about having an authentic voice on the page. My fiancé says my best book is The Passion of the Christoph. It was my first book and it consists of a series of nonfiction essays and vignettes. It grabs readers because they like hearing my perspective about working at a porn store and being a fuckup as a teenager who ended up in both military school and rehab. I am giving them the most unique, interesting, and authentic parts of myself in that book. It's what I strive for with every book, because at most of these festivals there are A-List writers doing readings and signings. A majority of readers are there just to see them, but they are still receptive to a new voice.
10. It’s Okay (and might be a good thing) That Not Everyone Will Like My Book
There will be people at festivals and conferences that will tell you your book is stupid, or that they would never want to read something like that. I had one guy stare me down because he didn’t care for Mandy De Sandra’s political satire. It was uncomfortable, but luckily he didn’t attack me. When I cracked up, he looked like he wanted to punch me in the face. Most people don’t give me violent stares, but I do get a lot of dirty looks. It is okay and might even be a good thing to get strong responses. I'd rather that than have 95% of people walk by my table and say something along the lines of, “This seems like a nice book …. Congrats … have a good day.” Apathy is the greatest enemy of authors at all stages in their career. Whether it is a crowded festival or a crowded open submission, you want something that is memorable, but you must also accept that not everyone is going to like it. When you accept that people could hate your writing, you focus on writing what you and hopefully others will love.
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