Reflections from the York Book Expo

York Book Expo Peschel Press

Our display at the table, minus the banner (which I forgot).

career indie author logoSometimes, I really am slow on the uptake. That’s part of the reason why I’m writing The Career Indie Author. Sure, I’d like to help you learn how to become a better-selling author, how to get your message out about your books, and how to conduct yourself so that you can attract the fans you want.

But writing this book also helps me think deeply about what I’m doing, what I’m trying to accomplish at Peschel Press, and what my goals are.

I’ve learned that the path to success in this business is not a process, a direct A-to-B path that everyone must follow. Instead, it’s a map. Not a treasure map that only shows you one path, but a map of the world, perhaps even a map of space, where you’re exploring in your personal starship.

Along the way, there are smaller journeys that you’ll take, with a goal that does not directly involve selling books. And that’s what I learned last weekend at the York Book Expo.

First, let me say that it was a successful, amazingly well-run event, courtesy of Demi Stevens of Year of the Book and her crew of volunteers. This was the first time we’ve attended an event that focused solely on books, instead of the Winter Arts Show and the Arts on Chocolate, so I wasn’t sure what would happen. This is due solely to my pessimistic nature, because at every step of the way, Stevens showed that she was not only the consummate professional, but that she had thought about how to market and advertise the event.

david rosenfelt

David Rosenfelt with some of his dogs.

First, she got best-selling mystery writer David Rosenfelt to attend. The former movie executive had used his love of dogs to start a foundation to help find homes for abandoned and abused dogs and to write a mystery series and standalone novels, many of them revolving around dogs. Rosenfelt’s personal journey helped attract dog-lovers to the event, many of whom brought their pals along to walk the aisles.

(If your books revolve around a group you’re passionate about, then you have created a natural place to sell your books. I’ve seen this happen in the wild twice: Lillian Jackson Braun signed tons of books at a national cat show in Charlotte, N.C., and Rita Mae Brown—who has one mystery series revolving around animals and a second on fox hunting—signed book at a horse show in Harrisburg, Pa. From a marketing standpoint, this is a brilliant technique. It exposes your books to people who would be natural customers. Even if they aren’t regular readers, they will be more likely to buy a signed copy from you if only for a souvenir. Warning: This is not a tactic for the cynical writer hoping to play to a particular audience. If you don’t know beans about the subject, don’t think you can write convincingly about it. If you don’t live and breathe the subject, they’ll sniff you out like bloodhounds and your reputation will pay.)

Back to the expo.

Demi Stevens was equally professional in giving us the tools to promote the event. She filmed three videos of each author, talking about their work, their life, and reading from their book. This gave us an exception tool to use on our blog and social media to advertise the event and give potential readers a chance to learn a little more about us and what we have to offer. At that point, I felt that even if we didn’t sell one book, it was worth it for the videos alone.

This attention to detail and organization applied to the event itself. We were smoothly checked in by the volunteers, who showed us on the map where our table was and the nearest door we could use to unload. More volunteers were on hand to make sure the side door was open and to answer any questions we might have. The program was beautifully laid out and had all the information anyone could want. There were even little check boxes so that visitors could remind themselves of books they’d want to either buy now or put on their wishlist.

One really clever idea was her use of raffles. The authors contributed prizes to two raffles that were held at 3 and 4:30 p.m. We could put up anything but books, so Peschel Press contributed four book bags, from the line that my wife sewed using all kinds of odd scrap fabric (we’ll have more bags to sell at the Winter Art Show at Hershey High School on Nov. 7). Holding the raffles in the afternoon encouraged visitors to stay until late in the show, which also encouraged us not to break down our tables until the clock chimed at 5 p.m. (the last hour of any show is pretty much a dead time. We’ve seen vendors packing up and ready to bolt for the door as soon as they thought they could get away with it).

There were other lessons to learn at the event. We got a chance to talk to authors, see their displays, and how they portrayed themselves and their works. I got a chance to talk to Heather Heyford, who write romances set in the wine country of Napa Valley. When she told me she was doing a signing with Nora Roberts, I asked her to pass along my greetings from a fan of her Eve Dallas books.

Heather Heyford table at York Book Expo

Heather Heyford’s table with her display of books and the all-important sign-up sheet.

Her table was neatly set up, with a book cover on an easel to attract the eye, a bit of October decorating in the form of candy corn and a pumpkin, her books on display, and a notebook to record email addresses for her newsletter.

*blink* *blink* Holy moly! Why are we not accepting emails for our monthly magazine/newsletter! This was so obvious an omission that my wife got my notebook out to write it down IN BIG BOLD LETTERS SO I DON’T MISS IT. (Sometimes I do need to be hit with a two-by-four).

There were other marketing ideas we picked up. This was our first show in a convention-type setting, so we didn’t realize we could hang material from the top of the curtain rod, as Laura Rudacille did.

York Book Expo

Laura Rudacille’s posters, hung from the curtain bar

Her table also displayed lower-priced items that could be considered impulse purchases, such as postcards and little stuffed animals. Very clever.

Laura Teague Rudicille table York Book Expo

Laura and Teague Rudacille had smaller items for sale as well as their books.

Michael Simpson created an effective way to give passers-by a way to look inside his children’s book, “B Dogg Goes to School,” with the help of a music stand.

I was also impressed by the way D.C. McLaughlin designed her table around the supernatural theme of her novels. Devon and I chatted about Wicca and how it is perceived (the fact that my first wife wrote a book about runes had something to do with my interest in the subject).

D.C. McLaughlin

D.C. McLaughlin designed her table to promote her supernatural novels.

By all these measures, the event was a success. We had sold a few books, we had met interesting writers and readers—hello to the Who fan with the cool skeletal-hand necklace!—and we had already decided not only to return, but to buy a booth so that we could display properly everything we had to sell (we also knew we’d have more books to show).

Sometimes, we get the biggest, most important answers only by asking the right questions. When we talked about signing up for next year, I said, “Our sales were OK, but what if they’re the same two years down the road. Would we still want to come back then?”

That’s when an insight hit me, one that seems so obvious in retrospect, but it did not occur to me until that moment:

We were not just there to sell books. We were there to interest potential fans.

Think about attending this event as a reader. If I didn’t recognize any of the vendors, would I buy a book?

Truth to tell, probably not. I’m a cautious cuss. I like to read a bit of the book, look at the cover, even check the reviews on Amazon. I do that for nearly all the books I’ve bought.

So why should I expect anyone else to do that? I shouldn’t.

Instead, I should focus on showing people what we have so that they can buy a book later.

How to do that?

It can be by passing out our catalog, like we did with the one-sheet that listed all our titles and emphasized that they were for sale as trade paperbacks and ebooks. We must have handed out about 30 of them, representing potential sales.

If they gave us their email address, I could send them an ebook containing samples of all our books, giving them an easy way to taste before they buy. If nothing else, they’d get our monthly newsletter and maybe they’ll see something there they like.

If we had cute postcards with our name on the back, they may be willing to part with a buck or two and take home a reminder of where they got it from.

If we had blown up our covers and hung them from the bar or mounted them on stands, we would have drawn the eye of visitors, saturated with images and scanning everywhere quickly, and drew them to the table.

The purpose of these events is not to sell books—although it’s still a pleasure to do so—but to convey to readers quickly and efficiently who we are and what we have to offer.

And we should present ourselves there with that goal in mind.

Career Indie Author cover croppedThis post is from The Career Indie Author series of posts that will become a book in 2016. It is intended to provide in-depth information for writers who want to make a career out of indie publishing. More stories from the CIA series can be found here or by clicking on the logo.