The Hidden Lessons of Moving Product

So …

I spent some time this year (local pandemic restrictions permitting) at a handful of live events (craft fairs, holiday markets, etc), where I had a chance to do a little book selling. I’d not done it very much before; I mean, getting out and trying to sell your products live, not from behind the screen of the internet, can be daunting. But I have to say this: taken collectively, it has been an awesome experience. Not only have I enjoyed it but I have learned a ton in the process.

Oh, there are the standard lessons they teach you about doing any type of live-selling, at anything from a yard sale to a curated art show. You know the lessons I’m talking about: having change to make when people pay cash, figuring out the best way to display your goods, and the usual rigamarole. But I did trip on a few things I’ve learned that maybe wouldn’t be in everyone’s first thoughts. So I thought I would share them here.

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#1) Keep a smile on your face.

I know that sounds terribly obvious but given how I see other people running their booths, I’m not sure it is. I saw a lot of grumpy vendors out there, and I saw how people reacted to them. In contrast, I was pleasant, welcoming, and open to conversation, even if it had nothing to do with my books. I had a standard routine and verbiage to talk about my stories, which I would vary a little with each shopper, to make it sound a little less rehearsed. I avoided those Valley-of-Death subjects like politics and religion and kept the banter upbeat.

Did this test my patience? Yes, a few times, like when I ended up in a five-minute conversation with someone who had no interest in books and just wanted to talk my ear off about their husband’s dog or something (I kind of tuned out part of it). I also had the mispleasure of someone snapping at me that they didn’t read anything with witchcraft in it, to which all I could do was smile and nod. But on the other hand, I attribute several of my sales to engaging a shopper, asking them about their morning, talking about the weather, if they had seen anything good at other booths at the show, the shirt I was wearing (which was chosen on purpose as a conversation starter), or anything else that crossed my mind. Whatever I had to do to draw them in. If they were wearing a veteran’s hat, I would thank them for their service and mention I was also in the service. If they had a tee shirt bearing the logo of a band, I would ask about that. I was also honest; when one woman asked if Rumble in Woodhollow would be suitable for her twelve-year old who liked fantasy, I said I didn’t think so, because it has some adult language and violence, and recommended some mid-grade books. Other shoppers took note of that and commented on me being upfront. Trust-building is a thing.

By the end of each day, was I tired of being chipper and was I ready to punch my smile off my own face? Yes but that’s hardly the point. I think the technique of being upbeat and cheery in sales making the buyer more receptive is a long-established one. That’s all this is. Keep smiling.

#2) You don’t have too many books.

I don’t mean titles but copies.

Going into one of the shopping fests in November, I had several copies of each book in the The Holly Sisters—maybe twenty books altogether. I thought for sure that given that this two-day bazaar was a holiday market in a small town of under ten thousand people that it would be enough.

It wasn’t. I sold out the first book of the trilogy and was reduced to one copy of the third. To be honest, I was stunned.

I think you have to maintain a sense of proportion about these things. You don’t want to have thousands of copies on hand (and have the money tied up in them) if you are not able to move any. But a couple dozen overall? Or even a hundred? I’m thinking that is the minimum you want, even at a small venue. You have no idea if you are going to get hot on a given day and get just the right blend of shoppers … and you cannot sell books you don’t have. Your rate of return per book of selling physical copies live is likely going to be better than anywhere else. If you’re getting books from Amazon (as most of us are, in some capacity), it is, as of this writing, taking fourteen to seventeen days from time of ordering to get author copies. Plan and stock accordingly.

#3) New tech is a thing.

I get it; having something like a Square for credit card processing has become a (moderately) standard staple of selling at these types of venues. It makes sense. But for the first time, at the above-mentioned bazaar, I had someone try to pay with Venmo, a cash-transmitting phone app that I really had no knowledge of.

It’s hard to stay on the cutting edge of technology and I admit, I lag behind in these things. But like when I said you can’t sell the books you don’t have, you also can’t sell the books if you can’t take payment. In the case above, the person was able to make an alternate form of payment but if they hadn’t? I would have been shit out of luck.

So now? I am looking into Venmo and/or CashApp and seeing if I can get myself set up on them. It may not come up often but when it does, I want to be ready.

#4) A partner is invaluable.

At most of these venues, I set up with a friend and local author, Paula Winskye. She writes mysteries and dabbles in some other genres. Having a partner does several things for us. For one, it gives us an interesting spread of genre fiction on the table. When we ask a potential shopper about their reading preferences and they say, “A little bit of everything,” (a common answer), we can say, “Well good, because we have a little bit of everything.”

Secondly, having someone you trust who can watch the booth while you step away for a moment is great for peace of mind. You don’t spend the trip to the restroom wondering if someone is swiping something from the table. You can cover each other with a five or a few ones when you’re short, secure in the knowledge you will be able to settle up.

Third, and maybe most importantly, you can talk up each other’s books and be a great sales advocate for your partner, and them for you. Granted, it helps if you have some knowledge of their books, but since Paula and I test read and proofread for each other—and because we talk writing when do these things—we’re familiar with the other’s works. That means when some wisenheimer looks at me and says, “Which one of hers is your favorite?” my response is immediate and confident. Mutually boosting each other falls into that territory of “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Of course, it helps if you get along with the other person. Fortunately, we do.

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Okay, so that was a quick summary. Lessons learned, and all that. If anyone has lessons to share, I’d love to read them.

Cheers!

Now, back to work. I’ve had a large number of buyers ask when Sydney is going to return, and I need to see to it that she does. As of now, I am about halfway through the first book in her new series.

3 thoughts on “The Hidden Lessons of Moving Product

  1. The math on “copies on hand” is the same as it is at a game convention.
    Don’t think about “x people attend this, so I want to sell to 2% of them”

    Instead, think about “If I sell 1 copy every 30 minutes…” or “1 copy every 10 minutes…” and adjust your throughput benchmark based on your experiences after a few shows. Crunch the numbers based on the hours that the booth is open.

    We took 150 copies of the first Warfighter game to Origins 2005 and some 45 or so, which seemed disappointing, but was more than 1/hour to an audience that had never heard of us. Once we added up all the total product we moved over the weekend (RPG books, maps, hats, etc) we figured out we averaged 1 sale every 8 minutes or so, which seemed like we just did the math wrong, but wasn’t.

    That dramatically changed our benchmarking for any future game conventions.

    Liked by 1 person

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