Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Look at Me! Look at Me!

The Sunny Day at the 2008 Mushroom Festival: photo by Dianne Salerni

Festival Preparation Ideas

Dianne Salerni's account of her experience at the recent Mushroom Festival has inspired me to add my two cents to this subject often pondered by new authors. Two cents is actually the understatement of the century. I have spent the majority of my allotted book promotional cash on similar opportunities to meet the readers face to face. Keep in mind the obvious interrelationship between any outdoor festival and most other, off-line promotional methods. The great majority of the money I have spent on the promotion of my books readily spilled over into other activities, but the central inspiration for the employment of such tactics were the festivals common to my local area. In other words, I may have unloaded a wad of cash carrying out these plans, but much of the expenditure could be applied at other venues, too.

I happen to reside in a particularly active city for readers. Not only do we have many local outdoor festivals year-round in our pleasant climate, some of the most successful B&N's in the country, and the single largest independent bookstore in Texas, but Austin is home to the annual Texas Book Festival. The TBF is a weekend event held on the capitol grounds every autumn that attracts huge crowds. Launched by Laura Bush back when she was the First Lady of Texas, TBF has grown steadily for more than a decade. Unfortunately, so have its exhibition fees, which border on the outrageous. The main difference between exhibiting at TBF and at most of the other outdoor festivals is that TBF is set up in huge tents that cover whole blocks of a couple of streets. Most other events require you to either bring your own tent or wear sunglasses.

You should begin your preparations for one of these events as early as possible. Be as prepared as a Boy Scout in order to bring the most attention possible to you and your books. When you and your stuff are lined up to catch the eyes of strolling visitors, you are competing for attention with all the other exhibitors at the event, not to mention whatever might be the actual main event. The curse of the new author is that you are a sideshow personality at best. Most such events are actually featuring something or someone else, whether it's mushrooms or the most popular author in your state. You are just there, silently screaming, Look at me! Look at me!

The first thing you should consider is to sign up for the event as early as possible. For the TBF, and I am sure this also applies to the major events in your area, too, that always means months in advance. For TBF, and probably others, too, this also means you get a discount off the exorbitant exhibitor fees most of these event organizers charge. Just as importantly, this sometimes means that you get first choice of the prime exhibit locations, which can make all the difference in the world as to your personal success at the event. Regardless of the price you pay or the rules for booth location, arrive at the event on the day of show as early as possible. If they open the gates at 6 a.m., be there with your first load of exhibitor's stuff ready to set up. TBF allows setup the night before, and all the smart birds are there that night, using the entire allotted time to develop their exhibits. The early birds always eat the worms at these sorts of events. Translation: sometimes the earliest customers are some of the best of the day.

If you need to supply your own tent at the show, and you don't mind spending the money for one, keep these hints in mind. Choose one that sets up easily and practice at least once before the event! Although E-Z-Up is probably the best and leading brand, don't let that name lull you into thinking there won't be problems. These usually go under the names dirt, mud, wind, and I can't quite reach it. Always include a small kitchen stool or ladder in your load of extraneous exhibitor's equipment. You'll be surprised how many uses you will find for it. If the tent is offered with optional sides, they can come in handy, too. Everyone thinks of rain, but how about that obnoxious exhibitor next door, or that side-wind that blows your papers everywhere. Be sure to take small sandbags or four big rocks to hold down your tent in case it is a blustery day. E-Z-Up even offers nice, color-coordinated sandbags.

The next step may be your most important one, but it is somewhat difficult to define, so I shall give you a few examples. You need to spend considerable time developing large display materials that will draw people to your tent. Posters, miscellaneous large displays, t-shirts, and other items fall into this category. My first book is about Americana, and I went to the Texas Book Festival the first time a couple of months after 9/11/01, so I pinned a large American flag behind me as the centerpiece of my display. Yes, I know it's a cliche, but considering the circumstances, do you have a better idea? For my second visit to TBF, I was selling t-shirts and sweatshirts with clever slogans on them promoting my third book, so I hung some of the best examples of these in a colorful array that a visitor could read from across the aisle. One of the more problematic, but useful items I employed was a long, colorful, laminated banner that my wife and I created to hang across the front edge of the E-Z-Up tent or across the table edge at TBF. The reason I call this problematic is because you have to fasten it to different surfaces in different conditions in order to use it repeatedly. We stuck copious lengths of velcro to ours to stick it to our own tent, but it still required additional effort to display correctly at TBF within their larger tent. You probably will need at least one sort of easel stand to hold a poster, and two, one for each side of your display, are even better. When designing your materials, consider two separate viewing distances: the one from the far side of the aisle and the one closer to your booth. You want to grab attention from a customer standing at a booth across the aisle or walking by at a distance, and you also want to secure the eye view of someone walking very close to your booth.

Speaking of walking, you are likely to be doing your fair share of this activity on the day of show. There is absolutely no downside to wearing a t-shirt, sweatshirt, cap, or other article of clothing that displays your book cover or logo or whatever you wish to use to promote yourself or your book. It's true that this can be costly attire if you hire a professional printer. (I recommend this one.) However, there is no financial excuse not to at least personally design and create a few shirts for all the people manning your booth. If nothing else, just scan your book cover and print it on a package of t-shirts from Wal-mart! The cost may be minimal, but the difficult part is getting the bugs out of your design transfers to make them look presentable. This process may require more practice and effort than you expect, but otherwise, what have you got to lose? Every time you or one of your booth workers goes to the restroom, you are advertising to a crowd. Make your design or slogan as catchy as possible, and be sure it is readable without a magnifying glass. It should be obvious that you should carry a few bookmarks or business cards with you on that pit stop, too. When your cap or shirt catches someone's attention, give them something with even more information about your book on it!

You might consider the next issue the equivalent to politicians kissing babies, something you need to do to be really successful at these events, but you don't much care for it. What can you give away to the many lookyloos and few actual customers that will spread the word about your product or bring a constant stream of visitors to your booth? Yes, in one way or another, this will cost you money for which there will be little immediate return, but we all know the more successful, experienced exhibitors do it because it works. Let's discuss the options one at a time, in no particular order.

For booksellers, flyers are the easiest, most cost-effective way to tell prospective readers what your books are about. They can be printed in color or B&W, and they can be elaborate or simplistic in design. They can display your book's cover, the table of contents, or some other applicable content from your book. Since two of my books include extensive quizzes as part of their entertainment value, I have used flyers displaying key samplings of these trivia tests. I have made flyers of the table of contents for several of my books, an element most appropriate for nonfiction. Carefully chosen excerpts are more appropriate for fiction. Be sure to get a few trays or stands to hold various displays of your flyers, keeping in mind the limited space of a display table.

Bookmarks are the authors' new best friend, so I should not even have to mention them here, but I shall. A bookmark should always include: the book's cover, the author's name, the author's website, and where the book can be purchased. Use both sides of the bookmark, including quotes or other self-explanatory material. Many festival attendees like their bookmarks to be signed by the author. Since I laminate all of my bookmark designs, I have even produced one bookmark design in which I signed all the bookmarks individually prior to lamination. Another idea I have employed is to utilize bookmarks created specifically for a particular event. The only downside to this concept, of course, is that your leftover bookmarks will never again be as useful to you. The upside is that customers can get something that both commemorates the event and helps them remember their experiences of meeting you and what your books are all about.

Business cards have only one claim to fame, but it's a very solid claim. They can be put in a back pocket or wallet without bending or protruding. For this simple reason, you should always design and print business cards for yourself and/or your books. What have you got to lose, other than a little time and minimal cost?

The next giveaway item is so obvious that it is edible. Candy, cookies, cake, or other snacks will always draw a crowd. The problem is will they stay and buy something, or will they just eat your free grits and leave you to clean up the mess? Each author should ponder this question for himself or herself and give it a try if you think it is appropriate for your personal situation. If you are selling a children's book, this should be one of your staple tactics. If you think you have quite enough to deal with already on your plate, then maybe the additional mess and complication of food is not for you. If you are a food fanatic at heart, or cooking is your expertise, or you simply don't mind spending the money for something that might disappear quite quickly from your display table, leaving very little positive result, then go for it. Just keep in mind that books, Butterfingers, and Picante sauce don't always go well together.

The last giveaway item is the most expensive one, but it also brings the least number of negative side effects. Personalized ball-point pens are available in a multitude of designs from National Pen, an old, established company that offers pens, pencils, and many items that you would never expect, most of which are inappropriate for book promotion. If you choose to place an order with National Pen, be sure to hold out for one of their numerous specials. As is common with magazine subscriptions, cruises, and even iUniverse, the best deal is never in the official catalog. Contact National Pen to get on their mailing list and they will send you at least one special offer you can't refuse. Order from them and you will continue to receive even more special offers. Yes, you may spend a couple hundred dollars up front, but consider the lasting results. The festival attendees may drop your flyers in the next trash can, but not a pen! They may stash your bookmark or business card in somebody else's book or other promotional material and never look at it again, but they will use a pen. Practically all the visitors to your booth will choose a pen over a bookmark, flyer, or business card. The pen is mightier than everything but the free food! Aside from the cost, there is only one downside to the pen: will anyone ever read it? Unlike the food, it has your name on it, and unlike the other items, it easily avoids the dreaded trash can.

There are many more extraneous items you may want to consider adding to your arsenal. Like the kitchen stool, these are things that may not directly promote your book, but they can certainly make your exhibitor experience more pleasant, and possibly even more productive. Here is a quick checklist, in no particular order: scissors, Scotch tape, clear mailing tape, string, velcro, paper towels, paper clips, tacks, paperweights, display racks for books and other items, an ice chest holding food and drinks for you and your booth associates, at least one folding chair, and a lift-truck of some sort to carry heavy loads of books to your display area. My wife has been laughing at what I call my Linus towels for years. There is an old bath towel near me wherever I go, and all-day events like these can make a Linus towel (or two or three) a handy item, indeed! You never know when a few tools such as a hammer, screwdriver, and pliers might come in handy, too. It may be distasteful to mention, but a spare roll of toilet paper just for those manning your booth might save somebody's butt back at the porta-potty. Pack a sweatshirt and/or jacket, but wear short-sleeved, comfortable clothes because you will work up a sweat with all the setup and excitement of the event. After all, that's why you're doing this: it's fun!


DSalerni said...

That is a prodigious list of items to bring, and I have to laugh because many of them were things we needed and didn't have! (Yes, the portapotties ran out of TP before the end of day!) I love the idea about pens. That is definitely something for me to look into.

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Wow, you ought to turn this post into an e-book for $19.95. I'm serious, this is good stuff!