Picks & Shovels – My Observations on Selling at a Book Fair

Michael & Jay – Set up and ready to sell

“Let’s go in on a booth together for the Tucson Book Festival,” my author-friend exuberantly suggested. I was incredulous because I’ve done fairs and booths before (just not book fairs), and I knew they were a big investment of time and money. So spending a weekend hawking books at our local Tucson Festival of Books, which happened to be the third largest book fair in all of the US, didn’t seem too appealing to me. At least, at first.

Then my friend said, “Hey, I didn’t know what I was doing five years ago when I did this and I sold 100 books, and I only had one book to sell.” “Mmmm,” I thought. What then could two authors, with best-selling books and award-winning credentials, accomplish?  Putting our two heads together and creating the best booth, we could do so much more. That’s when the China math kicked in: “If there’s 150,000 people, and we have a corner booth facing all that traffic, surely each of us could sell 200… maybe even 300 books or more, right?”

“I’m all in!,” I told my friend.

And “all in” I certainly was. In the ensuing months, I poured dollars and hours hashing out ideas, and buying everything that would make our both stand out and attract attention: a life-like mannequin (think a sexy Laura Croft), modeled after one of the main characters in my one of my best-selling books; two-by-three foot posters of three of my best book covers; hundreds of monogramed tote bags, bookmarks, and wrist bracelets for the kids and their parents; T-shirts, with our monograms, for both me and my wife (who agreed to come along on this odyssey); and all the booth accouterments (signs, table clothes, pens, tape, etc.) that a successful booth would need. My friend/booth-partner, did the same, including plunking down a vast sum for a Hollywood-FX made alien. And then there was all the book inventory we needed to carry.

Our booth set-up on Day Two

Calculating and recalculating (using my China-math formulas), for some odd reason, I ordered 405 copies of my six books. Yeah, 405 copies (My booth-partner ordered almost 500). What could I say, we were both a little over-exuberant.

The day after
It’s now the day after, and as I sit back in my writing chair, my body still aching from the two twelve-hour days, I’m left examining my sales results versus my time and money invested. Here’s what I’ve come to realize about this book fair and probably fairs in general…

Picks and shovels!

No, I’m not suffering from delirium. If you’ll recall, the great California Gold Rush brought many people from around the US, and other countries, to California to see if they could scratch out some gold and make their fortune. The word was that, “There be gold in them hills!” We all know the results of this story: few if any really found their fortune by mining gold. However, some folks made tubs of money. Who? Those who sold the pick and shovels to the miners.

Now let’s apply this to our book fair.

Yes, we probably had one hundred thousand plus people walk by our booth, but few stopped by to buy. Oh many gawked at my booth-mate’s cool-looking alien, and my Laura-Croft-like mannequin, who stoically stared back at each person. Don’t get me wrong, there were many potential readers who talked to us, touched our books, listened to us squawk on endlessly about each book’s narrative, and our “Book fair sales prices” being offered “today only.” And yes, more than a few bought our books, although still far less that I had hoped. But what struck me were two booths I witnessed from outside of our own booth.

A small booth, maybe half the size of our nine-foot-by-nine-foot booth, was selling lemonade to the hot fair-goers (it was sunny and almost 90 degrees out). From 9AM until the booth’s owner ran out of lemonade at 4PM, ten to fifty people were always waiting to plunk down $3 for something that cost him maybe $0.20 each to make (including the plastic cup, which also advertised “Lemonade”). That cash register noise rang in my head each time I looked up for another gasp of air, before I repeated the same thing over to another prospective reader…

Cha-Ching.

A second instance that really hit home for me was the Author Solutions tent. It was only thirty steps from us, on the way to the bathroom—which I only used twice the whole weekend. I’ll spare you the grizzly details of this disgusting organization who rips off authors with all their services, and is owned by traditional publishers (David Gaughran does a wonderful job here detailing their scams). They somehow connived at least twenty indie authors to pay them four grand (actually $3999) each to get a one-hour book signing at their booth, where they would give seventy-five copies of their book to anyone who will stand in line and wait to get the pour shlub of an author to sign their new book for them. That’s four grand TIMES twenty authors, or eighty thousand smackers!

Cha-Ching.

That’s when it hit me: the only people who really make a profit at book fairs, when you count their time and monetary investment are those who sell the “picks and shovels:” the products and services designed for us authors (to appear at book fairs) and for our potential readers (to attend book fairs). It’s definitely not the sellers of the actual books who will make a profit.

How’d we Really Do? (Updated on 3/21/17)
I’m not saying that we didn’t sell our books. By most standards, we did… decent. I sold 120 copies of my books and audio CD’s. My author friend sold a little more than I did. And as he emoted after Day Two (we  had changed our configuration to make it easier to sell an entire series), “We could have sold more had we done this in Day One.” This is certainly true. However, we wouldn’t have sold double our totals. And in fact, when you calculate the amount we each spent in our booth and our book/CD inventories, and subtract out unused inventory (which now takes up space in my office), not to mention the gray matter I’m using trying to figure out how to unload these, I still lost money. Even if I sold every book and CD I had on hand for the average net price I had received–that’s 548 sales–I might have broken even, at best.

Other Buzz
Of course one uncalculated variable some would argue goes like this: “Think of all the buzz you’ve created for your books and the accompanying sales which occurred after words.” There is some truth to this. But when I look at my online physical & digital book sales, there was an increase, albeit slight. Assuming this was all attributable to the book fair, we could add maybe 10 or 20 copies to our overall totals (I’m being overly enthusiastic here). Still, it’s not a difference maker.

There’s also the factor of what these new readers (who bought our books) will do to future sales: buying our subsequent books, telling others about their new favorite author (we can only hope, right?), etc. But really how much can we expect from this? Unless we are lucky enough to snag a few new “super fans,” this won’t add much to our totals.

The Value of My Time
Here’s where this whole concept of selling at book fairs, becomes a house of cards (or paper-thin books), crashing down on itself. My time is worth a lot! Even if I sold 1000 books, which is pure fantasy–I don’t write fantasy, when you factor in the value of my time alone (not even counting my wife’s time, and she makes more than I do), it’s still not worth it!

I spent untold hours, planning for the Tucson Book Festival, and two very long days setting up, hawking books, and tearing down our booth (again, so did my wife). And even if I sold 1000 books (remember, I only sold 120), I would be better off doing the one thing which is actually profitable in the self-publishing business… WRITE MY NEXT BOOK!

Sit down and calculate what you made on one of your books and then divide it by your hours to create that book. I did, and found out that I make much more writing than when I invest my time into any other self-publishing activities, especially selling books at book fairs.

Summary
Am I saying to all authors, “Never rent a booth at a book fair?” No! But what I am saying is, if you think you’ll go to a book fair and sell enough books to pay for your monetary investment, and much more precious, your time investment, you’re fooling yourself. Now, if you want the experience to meeting prospective readers, autograph books for them, be a part of a vibrant community of readers, and maybe sell a few books too, then go for it. But if you’re looking at your writing as a business (along with it being a passion), you’re much better off investing your precious time into writing your next book. That’s my plan.

Now, if I could only figure out what to do with a sexy mannequin and a couple hundred copies of my books?

Twenty Percent Activities

Are you an author entrepreneur (someone who writes and tries to make a living off of their writing)? As an authorpreneur, you have to be very careful time management. In this way, you’re no different than any self-employed individual. However, there is one aspect which is unique to our time-consuming activities, and it’s vital that you understand it.

Over my short career as a writer and self-publisher (with six published books to my name) all the while, balancing the management of another couple of unrelated businesses, I have learned that all your author activities can be categories as one of the two following types:

A 20% Activity, or an 80% Activity.

In other words, you should be spending 80% of your time on one type of activity and the other 20% on the other type of activities. To be successful, you must determine whether an activity is one of those which belongs in the 20% basket or 80% basket.

So how do you determine this?

There are all sorts of formulas suggested by others to apply to and categorize each activity. But they complicate what should be a pretty simple process. I constructed this graph to make it simple:

How’s that for simple?

“Well,” you say, “what about ___(Fill-in-the-blank)___? Surely that’s not a 20% activity, is it?” The answer is, “yes!” Everything which doesn’t involve, writing/editing/and publishing your next book is a 20% activity. This includes: conversing with your cover artist, promoting the launch of your new book, even corresponding with your readers (either directly or via social media).

In other words, all activities except writing your next book, are less important (overall) than writing your next book.

Why is this so important?
It’s so important to identify and be aware of which is which, because it is so easy to reverse these two numbers: spending 80% of your time on non-writing activities. In fact, writing this article is a 20% activity, and it chips away at my limited time to write & publish my next book.

The most crucial point is that, writing your next book is your highest earning activity. You could literally hire others to take care of all of your 20% activities for you (some successful authors do), but you cannot hire out the writing of your next book, unless of course your name is James Peterson.

How much are you worth?
I sat down and punched the numbers–I’m a bit of a numbers nerd, and I found out that my Writing Wage is between $50 to over $100 per hour, depending on the success of the book I’m writing. Can you say you’d earn anything similar for any of your 20% activities? You see, other than promotional activities, I’m guessing none of your 20% activities actually earn you any money. But writing your next book will.

How to calculate your Writing Wage?
First I calculated my total number of hours to write my last couple of books (based on my very low average of 500 words per hour). That is the total amount of time to create my first draft, to re-write a second time, then to re-write again after sending to my betas and my editor, then the final re-write after the proofreader, and finally compiling to book form for upload. I took this number and divided it into what each book should be worth in one year’s time in royalties. I estimated $10,000 on the low side and $20,000 on the high side (after costs of editing, covers, etc.). This gave me my “writing wage.” What’s yours? Go ahead and calculate it.

To review, the next time you start into an author activity, as yourself, the following questions:
1. Is this a 80% activity?
2. Will I earn the equivalent of my Writing Wage (as much as $100 per hour) to do this activity?

If your answer to both of these is “No!” then don’t do it. Instead, shouldn’t you focus on your 80% activity instead?

I think I’ll take my own advice and get writing!

Why most authors live in the land of obscurity

I was recently asked by another author who read my books how I went about publishing. Really, what I believe he wanted to ask me is, “How did you sell all those books?” In fact, I believe most authors would argue, that selling books is the hardest part of making it as a writer–I hear this point made by authors in forums all the time. On this point, I would disagree!

Let me explain.

To me, writing a great book is the hardest part of being a writer. You can learn the skill of creating sentences, but it takes natural God-given talent to craft a story that grabs a reader’s attention, affects him to his/her core enough to want to read more of your writing, and more so, motivates him to tell the world about you and your writing.

Marketing on the other hand is a skill that can be learned, and yes it takes some effort. Let’s compare it to being a brain surgeon or an accountant. They werem’t just born that way; they had to learn their skills over many years and become expert in them. Of course, they had to have some talent (i.e. brains, proclivity towards higher level thinking/learning, passion for that field, etc.), but 99% of the reason these professionals achieve success in their vocations was due to their investing the time to learn the skills of their profession—and some perhaps even excelled to the point that they created or perfected skills that no one else had yet crafted before them.

The skill set of selling novels is thankfully not as difficult to learn, but it’s just as necessary to achieve success as an author.

There is one word for an author (Indie or traditionally published) who doesn’t understand and chooses to not embrace marketing: obscurity!

I have met and corresponded with many writers who are obscure, even though they have far more talent than I will ever hope to have. Almost all of them live in this world of obscurity–as if it were some warm place to live, that you pridefully chose, “Hello, I’m a writer. Come visit me in my land of obscurity.”  I say that they chose to be obscure because they are apathetic to marketing part of their vocations. There are exceptions to this of course; we read about these folks all the time: Hugh Howey, AG Riddle, and others. But for the average writer, if you expect your books to be found by readers among the 3 million+ on Amazon, and you don’t have a following, you have to get good at marketing.

One more point that is really important to understand. You do not have to be a great writer to be a successful author. But, you do have to learn the skills of being a good enough writer and a good marketer. I know other authors who write okay books, but sell the heck out of them. Why? Because they learned the skill of writing good enough–people still have to like their books–and they learned how to market their work to a specific audience which clamors for their books.

So are you an author who knows this world of obscurity well, and you don’t want to live there anymore? If you are, it’s time for you to learn a thing or two about how to market your work. “No way,” you say because you’re holding onto the hope that you will be found and published by a big 5 publisher and then you don’t have to worry about this marketing crap: “My publisher will handle that and I can focus on the art of writing,” you say? Well, I have news for you, unless your name is Andy Weir and you write the next break out hit (there was a little marketing there too), you better plan to move into that world of obscurity full time, because it ain’t goin to happin!

Most publishers, even vanity presses want known commodities. They are like Hollywood who typically only bankrolls the big names and franchises that already have an enormous following. Think Fast and Furious, Part 100 (only a slight exaggeration). The modus operandi of most publishers today appears to be approaching self-published authors who already sell well, have a following of avid readers and have a platform where they market their work. So, if you want to be published, unless you have a friend of a friend in the big 5, you better get started learning that dreaded activity known as marketing. Seriously, find out what other authors are doing which has brought them book-selling success.

So, before you launch your next book, learn a little bit about marketing. As Hugh Howey has said, “You can market your books at any time, just keep on writing.” (that’s a paraphrase). However, unless you are Hugh, you better plan staying obscure until you understand marketing better. Here are a few resources to help you get better at marketing:

Once you have the marketing down, you can focus on mostly writing. That’s because you will have crafted a plan for marketing from that point forward. Just follow your marketing plan–making slight modifications along the way, and your books will sell. In fact, once you fee comfortable with marketing, it and other writing activities should never be more than 20% of your author activities (80% should always be writing). Another author friend of mine, now spends 95% of his time writing and only 5% on marketing and his work is always an Amazon best-seller. It’s not an accident folks.

Come back here to these pages as I plan to unpack how I’ve marketed my books—both of them best-sellers. In addition, you might try following me on Google+ (https://www.google.com/+Mlbanner).

Best wishes on your writing (and marketing). Hope to see you on the best seller lists.

Cheers!

Author.MLBanner.com Launched

If you are a writer or you want to write, I believe this site might be helpful to you. I plan to  open up and show you what I’ve learned in the very short time I have been writing.

Who am I? Well, my first and only book so far, Stone Age, became an Amazon Best Seller in both its genres, Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian fiction, only five weeks after it was published, selling over 9000 copies in three months.

I wanted to share some of that success, including my thoughts on what I did right and wrong, as well as document what I’m doing now with my current title and future titles. This includes my work on the second book of this series, which I hope to publish in less than two months.

So, come along for the ride. Hopefully, we’ll learn something together.