Unexpected Blessings from the Trenches of Book Fairs. . .

It was May 2009, and I was totally psyched for my first book show. I had published four books and attended several schools, bookstore signings, and library presentations, but I’d never taken the plunge and signed up to have my own a table at a book show.


I’d been encouraged to do this specific show by my friend, Annette, a fellow writer. As a homeschool mom, Annette had gone to this particular book show (which was part of a weekend-long homeschool fair) several times. “The place is always packed,” she promised. “The parents will love your books. You’ll sell a ton.”


I spent the weeks leading up to the show creating a curriculum CD-ROM to compliment the books (since Annette mentioned that something like that would go over fantastically with the parents), creating and printing bookmarks and business cards, and working on an attractive table display full of pictures related to my books’ setting: Christian summer camp.


The day of the show arrived, and I was pumped! After years of sluggish sales and marketing schemes that had bombed, this was the thing that was going to kick off my transformation from unknown author who made sales to her mom’s friends to wildly popular, regionally-known writer-in-demand. Kids would be begging for the books, and adults would read the back cover copy and say, “Hmm. We need the whole series.” My table was going to be sooooooo busy that I wouldn’t even have time to go to the bathroom (which was a valid concern, seeing as I was five months pregnant with my son at the time). My only problem would be what to do when I ran out of the couple hundred books I had brought with me.

I set up my table, and it looked good, if I do say so myself. The books were displayed in an inviting manner, and my picture display had turned out fun and colorful. I stood behind my table, put on my best “Can I help you?” smile, and waited.


And waited . . .


And waited . . .


As all the parents walked by without much of a glance in my direction. Oh, sure, they oohed and ahhed and spent hours in the used book section (they had it curtained off, but my table was right next door, so I could peek between the black drapes and see the mountains of books people carried away from that section). Some of the parents even showed great interest in booths like the guy who was selling history books and the family with the homemade science workbooks.


But nobody wanted a book series about a girl at Christian camp. Not even one that came with a curriculum CD, tailored to this group of people, with fun activities, worksheets, and quizzes that took me months and months to make. Well, that’s not entirely true. Four somebodies wanted books. And, sure, one of those somebodies was Annette, who had waited for the fair to buy my latest book so she could loudly exclaim, “This looks like a great book!” as a pack of parents walked by. (Thanks for trying, Annette…)


Between the previous year’s homeschool fair (in which, according to Annette, the seminars were standing-room-only and the book show was packed) and my debut as a booth owner, the economy had tanked. People didn’t even want to buy the books they needed for their kids’ required subjects, much less an unnecessary fiction book (even one that came with an awesome curriculum CD with lessons such as “Create Your Own Camp” and “Learning About Time Zones”).


I felt like a total and utter failure. I stood there for two days and talked to hundreds of people about my books (and didn’t even get to eat every two hours like a five-month pregnant lady wants), and in the end I didn’t even make back the cost of the booth.


Dejected, I helped my husband pack up my things and brought them out to the car where we started the hour and a half drive home, and I immediately burst into tears (although, to be fair, that could have been partly due to being pregnant). That whole ordeal had been humiliating. What kind of real author stands there for hours and only sells four books (one to her friend)? If I were any good, the line would have snaked all the way out the gymnasium. Heck, if I were any good, I wouldn’t have to go to book shows. People would just search my name at Amazon.com and have countdowns to my next book’s release on their own fan websites.


There was no way I was going through that again. The weeks of work leading up to it. Standing there bored when nobody wanted to talk to me and having to talk up my books without looking egotistical when they did want to talk to me. The wasted weekend. The cost of gas and entry fee and taking our friends out to dinner to say thank you for letting us stay overnight at their house, which was near the event location (although they did introduce us to Golden Corral, which is an amazing buffet so I wasn’t that broken up about that).


I was done. There was no point to this whole writing endeavor anyway. What’s the point in pouring your heart and soul into something if nobody’s going to read it?


A year and a half later, another book show opportunity came up that was too good to pass on, despite my vow to never do another fair again. This time, it was a well-attended craft show on a college campus in the town my parents lived in. I’d have a five-minute drive from their house to the location and Grandma as a free baby-sitter.


So reluctantly, I sent in my registration form and money. I went to this fair determined not to get too excited, the memory of my last attempt’s failure still pretty fresh. The show started, people began to trickle into the room, and I, again, put on my best smile.


And this time, things went well. I’d like to think that people stopped by my booth because my books sounded intriguing in the booklet given out at the door, but it was probably more due to the fact that my table was next to the guy handing out free lightbulbs to anybody with a Michigan driver’s license. But whatever the reason, I spoke with many friendly faces, sold a ton of books (okay, so it wasn’t a ton, but it was a ton in my book), and gave away several business cards.


More importantly, at that show I made many promising contacts, including Tyler, another author who I now consider a writing friend. He introduced me to UPPAA, a fantastic group of fellow writers, based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, who are helpful and supportive and whose members have, in the past year, taught me things I had no clue I needed to know and opened doors for me that I didn’t even know were there.


I also found, through talking to other writers in the group, that selling four books at a homeschool fair, or any fair for that matter, isn’t that uncommon for a regional writer. After telling my tale of woe at the first meeting I attended, several people chimed in with their own, similar stories. Not having many other author friends until I found UPPAA, I had no idea that other authors struggled with this. I had only seen bits on TV featuring JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer and the panning of crowds of thousands waiting at their local Barnes and Noble to meet them.


Having other writers to commiserate with and bounce ideas off of has been invaluable to my growth as a writer, and UPPAA is full of kind-hearted people with both experience and ingenuity who are always willing to give advice and/or encouragement and go the extra mile to help a fellow writer out. Even if I hadn’t sold any books at that show, discovering this group would have been well worth the time and money I spent (plus, hearing about the finer points of lightbulbs over and over and over was fascinating as well . . . okay, not).


My second stab at book vendor life gave me way more than just sales. If I hadn’t sucked it up and taken another try at this venue, I’d have missed out not only on sales and new fans, but friends who have greatly influenced me over the past year. I look forward to getting to know and becoming friends with more members in the future.


As writers, a lot of things we do to market our books will fail, just as many of the sentences we write won’t make the final draft. But we have to pick ourselves up, reach into that creative brain, and try again. You never know what will come of that next attempt.


4 thoughts on “Unexpected Blessings from the Trenches of Book Fairs. . .

  1. Thanks for the kind words, Jenifer. The event we met at was a disappointment for me – the light bulbs clearly got the attention, but I am so glad we met and you could become an active part of UPPAA. When I started research publishing, I read about how many books and authors I had to compete with, but it turns out that fellow local authors and their books are your best friends in this business. I’m glad to have you as a member of UPPAA.


  2. Pingback: Why join an author’s association?? « Upper Peninsula Publishers & Authors Association

  3. Great, realistic article. I went to a home school conference in 1990 because an author told me I should. She was very well known due to her children’s titles and let me display my few titles on her table. She sold like crazy all day. I sold next to nothing and counted it a waste. I can’t even blame a poor economy for my experience.


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