Winterfair in Hartford, Connecticut
The 2022 holiday season was the first year that I made a serious effort to market my books directly to readers at live events. When State v. Claus was published in the fall of 2020, we were still in the throes of the pandemic, and so live events weren’t an option. The following year, when My Brother, Romeo came out, I wasn’t certain how to market it since it’s a novella and only available as an ebook, but I figured there was no point in a live event when people couldn’t buy a signed copy of the book.
I did two live events in 2021. One was a multi-author event held by my local bookstore at the town’s annual arts fair. All I had to do was show up, read, answer a few questions, and sign books after presentation. The bookstore did the rest, including the actual selling of the books and the marketing of the event.
The other event was at a local Christmas tree farm that wanted to create more of a draw for customers. I set up a small table in their greenhouse next to Mrs. Claus and hung out for a few hours, chatting with whoever paused for a candy cane.
Neither event resulted in many sales, but they proved a good way to get my feet wet. More importantly, they impressed on me the importance of handselling a book, i.e., talking to a potential customer about it. This impression was confirmed when I volunteered at the bookstore’s Independent Bookstore Day in April. When a young woman asked me for a recommendation, I inquired about what she liked. She wanted fiction, and she liked romance and fantasy. I really did try to come up with another title, but finally I said, “Maybe you’d be interested in my book.” I told her about it; with great excitement, she not only bought it, but recommended it to a friend who was there—who also bought a copy. Both women were delighted to have met the author and gotten signed books, and I was thrilled to have met such enthusiastic readers.
Since my new book won’t be out until fall of 2023, I decided to make 2022 the year I figured out a bit more about going out and selling books firsthand. In September, I signed up for the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Book Festival, which took place on October 1. Unlike most of the other events I would later participate in, this one was exclusively a book sale. The obvious advantage was that the people who came in were already primed to buy books. It was also an education in how to set up a book table: some of the displays were simple, while others were elaborate, with huge blowups of book covers on easels and multi-level shelving. I also met other authors, including one who subsequently invited me to participate in a panel about indie publishing at another event.
A month later, I participated in Local and Independent Author Day at a local library. The advantages were that I met more authors, saw more displays, and took part in the panel about indie publishing. The disadvantage was that it was a library: people go to libraries to borrow, not buy. I sold only one book that day, and from what I could tell, my experience was fairly typical.
In between these two events, I scoured the internet to try to find holiday markets in my area. I knew they existed, but searches like “holiday markets Connecticut” turned up nothing useful. In the end, I happened upon a couple of events that advertised on Facebook. In both cases, I was technically past the vendor sign-up date, but in both cases, I contacted the organizer directly to inquire about whether they might have room for me—and in both cases, the answer was ultimately “yes.”
This is an important point. One of the events was a recurring holiday market in Hartford. People could sign up for one, all, or some of the events taking place on Friday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons each weekend from Thanksgiving through Christmas. I first learned about it the Monday after the vendor sign-up deadline. I promptly emailed the coordinator and told her this, asking if it was possible for me to participate. She responded by inquiring as to the dates I had in mind; I asked what my choices might be. As it turned out, vendors signed up, dropped out, and moved around throughout the month, with the ultimate result being that I was there for five days—all because I asked.
Me with Santa Dave of #thesantaconnection at Winterfair in Hartford
The other event was a one-night community event in a neighboring town. Because Tuxedo Cat Press is a small vendor and I don’t have a tent or similar equipment, I asked the organizer if it would be possible for me to be in the antique barn. She said she’d have to see, because vendor space in there is very limited. I kept in touch with her over the next couple of weeks. In the end, it came down to a message I received from her the day before the event: one of the vendors who was supposed to be in the barn had gotten a stomach bug, and was I still interested? Absolutely! Not only was it great fun, but it turned out to be one of my best days of the season in terms of book sales.
Another plus to this event was that I met a vendor who subsequently introduced me to a friend of hers who has a store in downtown Hartford. Her friend loves to promote local businesses and already had an author event scheduled for a December Saturday. As a result, I ended up spending a Sunday afternoon in her store, chatting with customers and selling books. In the same way, at another event, I met a woman who was selling candles–and who just happened to have wrapped up a successful holiday event in another town the prior weekend. We exchanged contact information, and she’s now on my list of people to touch base with in a few months when I begin planning for the 2023 holiday season.
Tuxedo Cat Press at Morneault’s Stackpole Moore & Tryon in Hartford, Connecticut
One other event I did was a holiday market out in the far corner of the state. Unlike the other holiday events where I was the only bookseller, this one had set up an “authors corner” where six authors had tables. Of the other five, I knew two. I’d met one, author Andrea Pettite, at the library event, and the other, author Kiersten Schiffer, at the CAPA book fair in October.
While I sold a few books at this event, the more important part was how it underscored the importance of writers supporting other writers. First, Kiersten had found out about the market when I posted about it in a writers group on Facebook; I, in turn, had found out about it when someone else did likewise. Second, this market was at a church that was also simultaneously doing a breakfast-with-Santa fundraising event. A few minutes before our event officially opened, Andrea told me that when she’d gone downstairs for coffee, she told Santa that there was an author upstairs who’d written a book about him and she asked him to come up for a photo. Sure enough, he did, and she posted it on Instagram. When I thanked her for her kindness, she said, “If we don’t promote each other, who will?”
The final “event” wasn’t even one, but it reminded me of the need to be prepared. At a client’s holiday party, as we all chatted about what we’d been up to, I mentioned that I’d been doing holiday market events to sell books. The office manager exclaimed, “I didn’t know you wrote a book!” (which is a sign of how inadequate my marketing had been). Before the evening was over, several attendees decided to form a book club, and they chose my book as their first selection. The office manager collected a list of names, and she and I went to my car in the pouring rain, where I signed and sold eight books for their new book club. Sheer dumb luck: if I hadn’t already loaded the car for the next day’s event, I wouldn’t have had the inventory or the cash box at the ready, and I might have missed out on the sale.
- Handselling is key, especially if you’re an unknown author. If your local bookstore is willing to tell customers how fabulous your book is, that’s great. Otherwise, it’s up to you.
- Be polite, professional, and resourceful. Just because you missed the sign-up date doesn’t mean you don’t have a chance. Go ahead and ask. The worst they can say is “no”—in which case, ask how you get on the mailing list for next year’s event.
- Contacts are vital to finding avenues to sell books. Chat with other vendors at events, follow them on social media, and be generous with your own tips about where/when events are taking place. As Andrea Pettite said, “If we don’t promote each other, who will?”
- Flexibility and patience are critical. Most events are run by a small group of people who have day jobs and are either volunteering their time or being paid a pittance to manage a thousand disparate details. Follow up when you need to, but remember that you’re not the only person who wants their attention. Work with them, and you’ll make everybody’s lives a little easier.
- Always be prepared. You never know when an opportunity may open up, whether it’s an unexpected sale or a last-minute opening at an event.
You’re probably wondering how all this turned out, i.e., whether I sold a lot of books. I’m delighted to say that my participating in two book fairs and six holiday markets (plus the client’s party) resulted in direct live sales of 77 books in the fourth quarter of 2022. (By “direct live sales,” I mean people buying directly from Tuxedo Cat Press at a live event rather than online or through other vendors.) That may not sound like a lot for some people, but it is for me. For a start, it’s more books than I’ve ever sold in a single quarter, no matter the vendor. More importantly, it’s 77 more books than I’d have sold if I’d stayed at home putting up Christmas decorations, and I’m thrilled with the result.
In addition to the obvious financial benefit, doing the live events meant I had the opportunity to chat with readers and gift-givers which, as it turns out, is great fun. Maybe it’s just the nature of people who like books, but everyone I met was delightful. Even those who didn’t end up buying a book at the time were friendly, and they happily picked up bookmarks, business cards, postcards, and sweets. Also, these interactions can bear later fruit: it may be a coincidence, but this morning, I received a notification that I’d sold a book through Barnes and Noble—my first in two years.
Obviously, if your books don’t have a seasonal theme, you’re not limited to holiday markets. In that case, you’ll need to give some serious thought to how much time you want to spend at fairs and other live events. Only you can decide whether the cost—including time and effort—is worth the benefit. For me, it was.
Holidays on Main 2022, Wethersfield, Connecticut