What Doing Book Shows Taught Me

We’ve had a couple of event recently at Peschel Press that spurred some ruminations about book shows, capitalism and the writer’s role in the marketplace. This is going to be disjointed post, I confess. We’ve been so swamped with work and book shows recently that I didn’t allot time for writing Monday’s CIA post. So I’m writing this Monday morning, after spending the week working on the ebook for volume 4 of “Sherlock Holmes Great War Parodies and Pastiches: 1910-1914”, Teresa’s manuscript on Making Cloth Grocery Bags, and another book on the meaning of flowers and gems that we haven’t talked about anywhere (sometimes, even important stuff doesn’t get done).

career indie author logoThe spirit of CIA is in building a company over the long term, putting out books that are worth reading and rereading that reflect the writer’s interest (and hopefully the audience as well). I’m not interested in writing to market, although we’re learning to understand the market we can reach. I’m not interested in streamlining every aspect of the company toward sales, optimizing our time and marketing efforts towards the most hottest segments.

At the same time, there’s another evolution going on within the company. Running the business side has created a feedback loop that is teaching me about the marketplace and my place in it. You may not be interested in capitalism, but when you hang out a shingle, spread a blanket in the market and display your wares to the people, it becomes clear that capitalism is interested in you. Your nose is rubbed into it when you see people pass by your work with a profound lack of interest. A few stop, pause, and walk on. Fewer will touch a book, riffle through a few pages, then wander away.

This happens online outside your ken and it doesn’t affect you much because you don’t see it. But if you go to book fairs and craft shows, you can’t help but be exposed to a brutal fact:

Few products sell itself, and books aren’t one of them.

For example, Peschel Press has appeared at a few shows recently. We visited Choctoberfest, and sold books at the York Book Expo, the post-apocalyptic book signing at Cupboard Maker Books, and last weekend at the Winter Arts Show 2017 at Hershey High School.

(By the by, we’ll also have one more event at Cupboard Maker Books, appearing with several other authors at noon, Dec. 16, at Cupboard Maker in Enola! Michelle will also be holding a small business signing on Saturday, Nov. 25, but we don’t know at this moment if we can make it.)

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that by doing these shows for several years, we went through a trial by fire. We experienced multiple rejections. We slowly learned what we needed to do to put up an attractive booth. We made mistakes. We probably blew sales that should have been made. We also made sales to customers that surprised us. We met fun people, and gave people a fun moment that I hope cheered them up.

That’s important to me when I play the Public Peschel. I’ve been internalizing something my darling Teresa said, “People may not remember what you said, but they remember how you made them feel.” Anyone who stops at the Peschel Press booth should feel better when they leave, whether they buy a book or not. When we talk about our books, there should be a story in it, a joke, a humorous observation.

The cookies help a lot. We give away Teresa’s butterscotch crunchies, along with the recipe (which has our catalog on the back). People stop, try them out, take a recipe, listen to us talk about our books, and move on. We don’t know how many sales have resulted, but we’ve had people come back the next year and remember us. After four years at the Winter Arts Show in the same spot, we have people who remember buying books from us, and some of them buy more (I really need to work on that sequel to “Writers Gone Wild”–that’s been our biggest seller at the shows).

What was most surprising about this show was not the sales. We sold enough books to make our booth rental, plus a little bit over. We gave away a lot of flyers and talked to a lot of people. That’s not surprising.

What surprised me most was what I felt inside.

I was calm.

This is astonishing. In the week leading up to an event, I fall apart inside. I get a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. I tighten up and sleep poorly.

This time, nothing. We knew on Friday we’d bring everything we need upstairs to the Florida Room couch. We’d go over our lists. I’d pack the car.

Part of the reason was the pre-planning. The previous week, I updated our catalog and cookie flyers with our latest books. We had everything sorted that we could lay our hands on at a moment’s notice. We had done the show three times, so I knew where to park, where our booth space was, what we needed to bring on the first time (table, screen, toolbox, bags) and the second trip (cash box, books). Teresa would stay and set up while I drive back to the house (hint: A Ford Forcus is a terrible choice for doing the craft circuit), pick up the rest of the stuff and Darling Daughter, finish setting up.

We knew the plan; all we had to do was execute it.

Without us knowing it, we had crossed a line. We had become professionals.

This is the journey everyone undergoes as they progress from a single craftsperson creating something, to a businessperson building a business. Whether they realize it or not, they’ll have to make decisions that have nothing to do with being creative, but everything to do with staying creative.

It’s a journey you don’t have to take, but there are consequences. Your books won’t sell. You won’t reach an audience of readers who would love your books if only they knew about them. If you do go to book expos with your single book, it means looking at people passing by because they weren’t attracted to cookies, or a pleasant face happy to see them, or a poster so compelling it stops them dead.

It also means you don’t have to do things that are not very interesting. Who wants to record their sales from the previous month? Calculate the price of your trade paperback? Pay taxes? Worry about buying Facebook ads and what keywords describe your book? How to deal with that website designer who you paid in advance and gave you crap (I won’t make that mistake again, let me tell you!).

It’s easy to say that writers didn’t have to do that, but after spending two decades gathering information about them for “Writers Gone Wild” I can tell you that’s not true. Every writer you’ve heard of had to dance with the devil. Shakespeare had to write plays that would attract the groundlings. Mark Twain built contacts with newspapers that would pay him for his letters, deliberately chose a pen name that was easy to remember, and wrote the copy for his lectures that were funny to read. Hemingway moved to Paris so he could network with other writers. Even Walt Whitman wrote a temperance novel for money, and deliberately cultivated a public image that dovetailed perfectly with his “man of the people” poetry.

To put it brutally, it’s not possible to make a career from simply writing your books. There’s no magic bullet marketing plan out there that will guarantee a flood of readers for your book. Someone has to do the work, and you have to pay for it, either with cash or with your brains, and energy, and labor.

It’s the difference between enjoying a hobby, and making a living from doing what you love.