Monday, September 15, 2008

Street Fairs and Authors' Booths

From left to right: Juliet Waldron, Donna Nordmark Aviles, Michael Katz, & Dianne Salerni

The Perspective from the Mushroom Festival
by Dianne Salerni

Last weekend, a small group of independent authors from the Philadelphia area collaborated to set up a booth at the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival, an annual, two-day street fair that usually draws 100,000 people and is featured on The Food Network. Donna Nordmark Aviles (author of Fly, Little Bird, Fly, Beyond the Orphan Train, and Peanut Butter for Cupcakes) and I spearheaded the idea. Booths at this festival are notoriously expensive, and booth-sharing is not allowed. However, by applying under the name of the Independent Authors Guild, we were able to qualify as an organization and had no trouble winning acceptance by the Festival Committee. Both Donna and I are very local, having grown up in Kennett Square, PA, and we hoped that our presence would draw a number of people to our booth. Joining us in this endeavor were Michael Katz (author of Shalom on the Range and owner of Strider Nolan Publishing), Juliet Waldron (author of Mozart’s Wife, Independent Heart, and Genesee), and Jack Dixon (author of The Pict). For months ahead, we planned how to promote not only our books, but also the IAG organization and the growing respectability of independent publishing.

Based on the sales from Sunday, I can predict that the booth would have been fairly profitable for all attending authors – if Hurricane Hanna had not swept up the coast on Saturday, washing out one entire day of the festival. In the eleven years of the Mushroom Festival’s existence, this was the first year they suffered even a drop of rain. I know this because at least ten people stopped by our soggy booth on Saturday to tell us this fact, while rivers of water surged down the street beneath our feet. Luckily, the second day was sunny and warm, bringing back the crowds, but two of the authors were unable to be there on that day. Still, the three authors in attendance passed out flyers promoting all the books, as well as newsletters featuring the various IAG members who have contributed articles over the past several months.

I have to admit, we still had fun getting together – some of us meeting in person for the first time. We also spent a lot of time reflecting on what went right and what went wrong (other than the weather), and perhaps these reflections might be of use to other authors considering attending such an event.

Tap into the spirit of the festival. This was the Mushroom Festival, after all. Most people came to eat, and we saw far more people carrying Italian ice cream and funnel cake than anything else. Nevertheless, a booth selling Nicaraguan pottery across the street managed to sell 44 pots averaging $80 apiece in one day. People expected to see crafts at this festival; an author booth was new, and we needed to work harder to change the mindset of the crowds. We realized belatedly that 6-foot banners shouting “LOCAL AUTHOR BOOK SIGNING” would have been useful to catch eyes from a distance. Every event has its own special focus, and we needed to be more creative to connect our product to this festival.

If possible, find a way to take credit cards. People wanted to reserve their cash for mushroom delicacies! Our ability to accept credit cards made several sales for us – and once the card was out of the wallet, the buyer sometimes picked up a couple extra books! Of course, acquiring a merchant account is an expensive proposition, but if you can team up with somebody who already has one, it is worth it. For instance, we were able to accept credit cards because my husband has an account for the purpose of collecting rent on a vacation house we own. He offered to use this account for all the authors’ sales, and we settled up with everyone afterwards.

Play up the local angle. Donna Nordmark Aviles brought laminated posters featuring local newspaper clippings about her books. These colorful posters stopped many passers-by, who paused to read the articles and then wandered into our booth. I, too, have newspaper clippings about my book, identifying me as a local schoolteacher and highlighting a literary award won by High Spirits, but I didn’t think about making them up into a poster! That’s a mistake I won’t make twice!

People like photographs. In addition, passers-by were attracted to vintage photographs displayed by Donna. Her books are historical fiction based on the true life stories of her grandfather’s family, and the photographs were unmistakable eye-catchers. Juliet Waldron and I made particular note of this. Our books also feature real, historical people, and you can be sure that we will have their images on display at our next event!

Spread the word. My daughters stood in the street all day and distributed over 400 flyers describing our books. Some of the vendors told us this was a mistake, because it encouraged people to keep walking. But books are different than crafts. A person isn’t likely to read about a Nicaraguan pot and come back later to get it – but several people did just that at our booth, waving a flyer given to them earlier and asking for a specific book. And unlike Nicaraguan pots, our books could be purchased after the event at a bookstore or online.

Contacts can be as important as sales. People who came into our booth may have left without purchasing a book, but they rarely left empty-handed. We gave out flyers, IAG newsletters, bookmarks, and business cards. One of our authors made a contact from a private school which might result in a speaking engagement. A woman from a book club that enjoys supporting local authors picked up information about all our books to bring back to her group. We even acquired a new member for the IAG, an artist whose talents will no doubt contribute a lot to our group.

Anything that helps the group, helps us all. One gentleman who approached the booth had no interest in any of our books, but his eye was caught by the picture accompanying Mary Simonsen’s article in the May IAG newsletter. Turns out, he was once stationed at the base pictured in the article. We chatted with him extensively about Mary’s book and sent him on his way with a copy of the article, totally unconcerned that he didn’t want our books. That, I believe, is supposed to be the spirit of the Independent Authors Guild.

See Also: Dianne Salerni's website
Juliet Waldron's website
Donna Nordmark Aviles' Authors Den site
Celia Hayes' review of Michael Katz' Shalom on the Range
Jack Dixon's website - (Jack was unable to attend the festival due to an unexpected emergency.)
The website of the Independent Authors Guild


castelane said...

I also do craft fairs as my picture book is illustrated with fiber art. Even small local fairs can be worth while. I usually sell a couple dozen books, but more importantly, I give out promo material to every one who walks by. Tables at community fairs or church fairs are usually pretty cheap, $10-$50. It's an inexpensive promo opportunity.

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Very interesting post for those of us who are scared of these kinds of events. (I always figure people in groups might turn into an angry mob at any moment, especially when the porta potty TP runs out.) :-)

Actually, these things can be fun in spite of all the work.


Juliet Waldron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juliet Waldron said...

Was really happy to sell 4 more books after the fact, because of a sales piece and pitch given on the single day of this particular Festival. It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been there, and as I'm a "challenged" marketer, this was a good experience.--Juliet Waldron