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As promised last week, I’m bringing you an account of my experience at my first ever book fair. A few years ago, I’d read an email from someone in a group I belonged to that book fairs were not all they were touted to be, and that authors, particularly self-published authors, would be better off targeting book clubs as a way to market their books. Fast forward to a few months ago, where one of my favorite bloggers wrote that exhibiting at book fairs could be pricey, but depending on the show, it could be a worthwhile venture.

After my experience at the National Black Book Festival (NBBF) in Houston, Texas last weekend, I think the words depending on the show were the keywords, as far as I’m concerned. Before I received the invitation to participate, I’d never heard of the NBBF. But with my busy schedule, there are many things in the industry I’ve never heard of, so I didn’t factor that in before making my decision. I was sold on the organizers’ website and their boast of having had over 25, 000 attendees the previous year. And so, I forked out my money for the table. Then came the airfare, ordering of my books and finally the hotel and food bills. I can spare you a whole lot of details by saying that for me, and, I daresay, the majority of authors, the show was a financial disaster. However, I learned some lessons on getting the most out of a book fair which I’m happy to share with you:

Know the show:. If it’s not the BEA or some other famous entity, find out as much as you can about it before jumping in. When I circulated the floor speaking to other authors (there was plenty of time to do that!) I discovered that none of them had exhibited at that show before. Warning bells rang loud and clear. Now, I’m not blaming the organizers totally for the failure of the show, because I think I, and maybe other authors, could have done a better job preparing for the show. Which brings me to my next point.

Plan ahead Before you even order your books, you should begin to think of ways of reaching your audience. A well-organized book festival can be an excellent way of reaching readers who will be interested in your book. The organizers of the NBBF included writers of every genre in order to attract a large reading public. In planning ahead, it will be wise to contact book clubs and other readers of your genre in the city where the fair is being held. Send them a nice letter, ask them to visit your blog so they can know something about you before they come to the fair and to RSVP. Prepare for a book fair as you would for a book signing. Don’t depend on the event to bring you traffic.

Plan your table. If you can, visit a few author events and see how they set up their display. Copy what you like, then when you go home set up a few displays and get feedback from your family. Take pictures of the ones that earned you the most compliments, then choose one for the big day. In planning your display, you should also think of your book’s message. Many authors at the fair had beautiful, expensive-looking posters with a picture of themselves and their book cover. One author had a full-length picture of himself, but none that I saw said anything about the book itself. Maybe you can incorporate a little blurb on your poster of what the book is about.

Be unique. There were over a hundred authors at the NBBF, all lined up in long rows of tables side by side. In such a setting it’s easy to be invisible. One young lady blew in, dressed in a stunning bridal outfit. I believe she was the most popular author for the entire show. Think appearance, message, impact. Can you have something in your display that will attract people from a distance? Lights? Muscic (not too distracting)? Video? Items from your book? Food? You may be able to think of others.

Making contact Have your pitch ready. This should be as good and as polished as if you were at a pitch conference. There are hundreds, hopefully thousands, of readers wanting to get to as many authors as they can and very little time to do so. Make sure your pitch is succint and effective. Then you want to pitch without being pushy. I saw one young man putting his book up in people’s faces. Not a good approach. On the other hand, you don’t want to sit behind your table and expect people to buy from you. A better way is to stand behind or in front of your table, smile and say, “May I tell you something about my book?” Everyone I approached in that way stopped and listened to what I had to say. Some bought, some didn’t. However, they all did one thing.

Make them remember you They all signed my mailing list. I now have a nice number of people I can communicate with about my book and other activities. I can let them know about giveaways, special offers and the like. Another way I got them to remember me is through my business cards (have a plentiful supply), bookmarks with my book title and website information, magnetized calendars and book excerpts. If you have these laminated, your reader is more likely to keep it or pass it on to someone else, instead of throwing it away. Some authors also offered printed pens, pencils, erasers etc.

So there you have it. Exhibiting at a book fair can be a wonderful experience, not just in terms of book sales, but in the valuable contacts you can make with the public and with other authors. For me, it was not productive financially, but I learned a lot, which will better equip me for my next venture. If you have any pointers for getting the most out of a book fair, or if this article has helped you, please leave a comment below.

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