Santa Dave of #thesantaconnection at Winterfair, Hartford, Connecticut
Before I did my first book event last year, I Googled “what do I need for a book event?” and found a very helpful list. This year, as I participated in quite a few holiday markets and book events, I discovered that the very helpful list was incomplete.
For purposes of this post, I’m assuming that you don’t want to spend a fortune and that you’re going to be singularly responsible for transporting everything to and from the event. (If you have buckets of money to devote to your event and/or a spouse or significant other who’s willing to haul your stuff around, good for you.)
Based on my experience, here’s what you need for a simple event or holiday market, in no particular order:
1. Enough books. Emphasis on “enough.” In your early events, you’ll have no idea what constitutes enough, and you may end up hauling three boxes of books with you, only to sell five books. While this can be depressing, imagine the reverse: you only bring one box of books, and two hours into the event, a customer comes to you and says, “Can I get a dozen signed books? I’m going to a family party after this, and I want to take them with me as gifts.” You will want to be prepared for this (admittedly remote) possibility, because the alternative is watching a substantial sale walk away.
2. Good pens. You don’t want pens that skip or smear or soak through the page when you sign a book. At the moment, I’m fond of the Sharpie S-Gel, but even that needs a few moments to dry before you close the book, so be prepared.
3. A fully-equipped cash box. By “fully-equipped,” I mean that you have enough change for reasonable eventualities. This year, I priced my paperback at $19.00 including tax (more on that below), and so I needed an ample supply of $1 bills because nearly everyone who paid cash handed me a $20.
4. A price sheet to display. This can be as simple as something you print at home (preferably including your book cover) and stick in one of those acrylic stand-up frames. The point is that it should be on display next to your book so people don’t have to wonder what the price is. Note that the price should be an even figure—no coins involved. (This is different from the standard rule, which is to price your book at an amount ending in .99, and then you add the tax.) Here in Connecticut (and, I suspect, all other states), you’ll have to collect state tax, and if you charge your regular price, it’s going to mean dealing with pennies and nickels and dimes all day. Nobody wants to do this—not the customer, and certainly not you. So do the math—your regular price plus state tax—and then trim back your share until it comes to an even dollar amount. In my case, the book is normally $17.99, plus Connecticut state tax of 6.35% ($1.14), which comes out to $19.13. I’d rather reduce my take by 13 cents than spend time fumbling with coins.
5. Square or other method for accepting cards. The nice thing about accepting cards is that so many people want to use them. The not-so-nice thing is the fee that comes with a card payment, usually something like 3%. Still, if you don’t have the card option, you’re going to lose a lot of sales, so bite the bullet and pay the 3% to Square or whoever you like. You’ll come out ahead.
6. A power bank. Last fall, I witnessed a moment that seared itself into my brain. I was at an outdoor fine arts show where artists sell their work. At one tent, the artist was nearly in tears, because her phone battery was dead. In the few minutes I was at her tent, she lost two sales because people wanted to pay by card and she couldn’t process the sales. And so, before my first book event, I bought and charged up a power bank which I carry to all events. (I’m also obsessive about fully charging my phone ahead of time.)
7. Painter’s tape. Author Andrea Pettite turned me on to this when we did the Norfolk Holiday Market. My table was in front of an unused fireplace, and Andrea suggested that I hang the Tuxedo Cat Press banner from the mantle instead of its usual spot on the front of my table. She produced a roll of blue painter’s tape which is easily removed and does not cause any harm at all to the surfaces in question. Completely brilliant, and the display looked fantastic.
Norfolk Holiday Market, Norfolk, Connecticut
8. Collapsible wagon. I originally purchased mine for Tanglewood picnics, but it now hauls all my book event paraphernalia with ease. You can find them online for less than $100, and they’re worth their weight in gold. Mine is the perfect size for two boxes of books in the bottom, a box and a bin of event gear on top of the book boxes, and space on the sides for a fold-up table and other goodies. A couple of bungee cords will help to secure your load if there are curbs between your vehicle and the front door of your venue.
9. Swag. I learned this one long ago at a legal conference: people will slow down if you’re offering free stuff. This year, I offered candy canes and chocolate kisses, together with bookmarks, postcards for my ebook, and business cards for both my author website and TCP’s website. The bookmarks were especially hot items; in fact, I had to reorder during the season. Even if they just took a candy cane, passersby did stop long enough to see my book, and who knows? Maybe they’ll remember it. If not, they got a sweet treat, and they’re more likely to think of TCP fondly.
10. Décor. Your décor doesn’t have to be expensive. As you see in these photos, mine consisted of a tablecloth, magnet hooks for the battery-powered lights from Home Depot, gold bottle-brush trees from a local craft store, and frames and stands from that same store. I printed out my book covers, put them in the frames, and stood them up. (People with more financial resources make huge images of their covers and rest them on easels.) My vinyl banner came from Vistaprint during one of its sales; I secured the four sides with dowels from Home Depot, and I tied it to the table with yarn that matched the tablecloth and was thus essentially invisible. The entire setup took forty-five minutes, with the longest part being getting the magnet hooks in place.
11. Refills. You never know what’s going to move—books, bookmarks, candy, business cards. Whatever people are grabbing, you need to be ready to replenish it.
12. Table and chair. Most events will provide these, but be ready to bring your own if necessary. Always ask the organizer: (a) if the table and chair will be provided, and (b) if the table is provided, how big it is. Most times, the table will be 6 feet long, which should give you ample room for everything. My folding table is only 4 feet long. I bought it because at my first event, I borrowed a 4-foot folding table and it worked. The upside to a smaller table is that it fits in the above-mentioned wagon; the downside is that there’s not as much room for your display. So, it’s good to know.
13. Precut wrapping paper. For the past two years, TCP has offered free giftwrap during the holiday season for books purchased directly from us. For holiday markets and book events, cut the paper to size in advance. Then, if someone wants to have their book giftwrapped, you can pull out the properly-sized paper and wrap in a jiffy. (Be sure to have plenty of ribbon and tape in your bin, as well as two pairs of scissors for when you misplace one.) It’s a variation on what the former chief appellate clerk told me long ago: “Make it as easy as possible for people to say yes.”
14. Bags. At holiday markets, people will often already have shopping bags, but there’s no harm in offering one. When you put their book in the bag, you can also slip in the bookmark, a postcard with your novella information, and whatever other tidbits you like. The bags don’t have to be fancy—mine came from Staples—although if you’re the kind who likes to decorate bags, don’t let me stop you. That said, my personal opinion is that it’s not worth spending money on bags decorated with your book cover, but again, it’s your call.
15. An email signup sheet. Again, it doesn’t have to be fancy. A signup sheet on a clipboard with a pen (attached, since pens tend to walk away) is all you need. If you can, try to look at the name and email address before the person leaves, just in case you need to have them spell something you can’t quite read.
16. Comfortable clothing. You’re likely to be standing at your table for a lot of the time. The last thing you want is to be suppressing your cringe because your feet are killing you.
17. Masks. Seriously. Wear one. If you have tons of money, get masks that look like your book cover art, and sell them alongside the books while wearing one as a display. If not, wear a simple disposable mask. It doesn’t matter. Just wear the mask so you don’t end up spending the holidays at home with your meds instead of being with your family.
18. Beverages and snacks. Maybe there will be a snack bar nearby, and maybe there won’t. Pack a water bottle and a sandwich, just in case. If you’re outdoors and it’s cold (or you’re near an open doorway), bring a hot beverage.
19. Trash bag and paper towels. Things spill. You’ll have stuff you need to get rid of. Wipe everything and stick the paper towel in the plastic trash bag. On your way out, find a garbage can. Otherwise, toss it when you get home.
I’ve left the most important item for last:
20. A pitch for your book. People will come up to your table and ask, “What’s your book about?” Be ready to tell them, and leave them with a question that can only be answered by reading the book.
My pitch for State v. Claus begins thusly: “It’s about a Hartford attorney who’s appointed to represent a gentleman who’s been charged with breaking and entering. His defense is that he was delivering gifts, because he’s the son of Santa Claus.” (I mention Hartford because these are Connecticut-based events.) If they seem even remotely interested (as in, they aren’t walking away), I launch into the next bit designed to show the complexity of the book, i.e., the main characters’ burgeoning romantic relationship (which is forbidden since she’s his attorney), her law partners being displeased about the time she’s spending on his case, his efforts to convince her he’s telling the truth, his mother (“not the stereotypical Mrs. Claus!”) having her own issues about what’s going on in Connecticut, his trial, political fallout, all of which requires the lawyer to make a decision: “Is this guy a liar? Is he a lunatic? Or is he who he says he is?”
At which point I stop and let them wonder.
The entire pitch only takes about 45 seconds. Some people said, “Thanks,” and walked away. On the other hand, several people responded, “You sold me,” or “Okay, I have to read this.” So while you’re figuring out your décor and loading up your box of books, take some time to figure out how you’re going to answer the most important question, “What is your book about?”
Holidays on Main 2022, Wethersfield, Connecticut
Lots of great advice for the budding author. Can also be used for other types of people doing shows.
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True, but all I know are books. People at the markets who had other types of products (candles, soap, jewelry, clothing) had more elaborate displays. At least books are comparatively easy!
Thanks for sharing this. I have a ‘product’ business and I can use many of these suggestions in preparing for events. I have my first one planned for April and this will help me at least to present my product well.
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Glad it’s useful! Depending on your product, you may need more elaborate displays. People at the holiday markets who had small items (candles, soap, jams, etc.) often had displays with two or three levels so they could set out more product in the same footprint. The ones with scarves and jewelry needed specific types of display stands. It’s all about what you’re selling. I recommend trying to go to a few shows to see how people with products like yours are setting up their displays. Good luck!
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