Writer's Life - Live Show Guide

Hey everyone!  Let's talk about no creative's favorite subject: selling.  I have heard from countless fellow authors how much they dislike having to deal with this side of things.  Me too.  Honestly, we just want to write!  And it doesn't help that a lot of authors are introverts.  This makes the idea of live events downright terrifying for some.  Live events pose the extra problem of requiring face-to-face human interaction instantly.  I'm generally an extrovert, and these events used to scare me so bad I actually trembled while sitting at my table, so I can't imagine what it's like for someone who isn't as outgoing as me.  I've done quite a few over the last year, however, and I've picked up some tricks that I think are a big help.

The Table

~Make It Welcoming – Your space should look nice no matter what. Find an aesthetic that goes with your books and arrange your table around that. Even if you’ve got books in totally different genres, you can have a non-genre-specific look by matching colors and display accessories so everything goes together. And if you have a lot of products on your table like I do, make sure nothing is crammed too closely together. You want people to be able to take everything in. This could mean moving something even just a few inches over. If something isn’t getting any attention, perhaps it needs to be in a better place. Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works best.

~Get Creative With Your Setup – Your table is a blank canvas. I highly recommend dressing it up with fabrics. Pro-tip: Joann, a popular fabric and craft store chain, always has coupons in their app. I never buy anything from there without using one. Michael’s, another popular craft store chain, always has sales and coupons on, and they sell fake flowers and baskets and all kinds of things that can really jazz up your display. And don’t just stick to one plane. I use boxes on my table to create tiered displays, which gives me vertical real estate to play with. Plus, the boxes can be used for packing at the end of the day. Again, just be sure they look nice. Covering them in fabric is a quick and easy way to achieve this. If you’re not terribly good at arranging things, ask for help. Segments of my permanent setup came from my older sister, who is brilliant with arrangements. You can see what I mean here on her blog.

~Practice Beforehand – Every show is going to be different. Some venues don’t provide tables; some don’t even provide a building! My friend Erin of Vintage Sparkle really saved my bacon one day by lending me her tent for an outdoor event, so make sure you know what you’re getting into and prepare in advance. Maybe you’ve got a whole booth to play with, and maybe you’ve only got half a table. Whatever your circumstances, practice your setup beforehand, every time. You may find you don’t have enough space for all your products and have to sacrifice something. Knowing that ahead of time will make setup easier, and you may not have to pack as much as you thought.  See the photos below for my whole tent, half table, and single table setups.

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~Create an Easy Path – This is also known as the path of least resistance. This can take a lot of different forms, but in general it means short, snappy hooks. Develop a description for your books that takes no more than ten seconds to pitch. Some people say you should also have a five second pitch, which is basically just a few buzzwords, but I haven’t found this to be a successful technique for my personal style, so I don’t have that. I do, however, stand a little card with an alternate description near my books so people who may not be interested in actually talking to me will receive a pitch as well. And if your books are appropriate for children or teens, I find having some kind of age-appropriateness note displayed helpful as well.

~Prepare for the Physical Challenges – Moving boxes, heat, cold, and what shoes you choose to wear are all things you have to face when doing a live show. Definitely bring water because talking a lot will parch you. Besides that, only you can decide what’s best for you. As for me, I’ve put together a collection of show clothes for both hot and cold weather. And I will never wear heels to a live event again unless I absolutely cannot help it.

~Bookmarks – I have had a gagillion times more success with bookmarks than business cards. I still carry the cards with me just in case, but I don’t bother putting them on the table. People love bookmarks and always need more, so I always include at least one when I sell a book. If someone is getting ready to pass on my books, I try to slip an offer of a free bookmark into the conversation if I can (I don’t push people too hard; more on that later). And I always have my bookmarks prominently displayed on the table with a Free Bookmarks sign alongside. I get mine from Vistaprint when they have a sale on, but there are lots of places to get them printed.


~Find Your Niche – I want to address a major issue here right off the bat. As much as I enjoy doing live events, selling can really suck. It’s hard work. Honestly, everything about live events is hard work. There’s heavy physical labor involved because books are heavy! The emotional component has its own section below due to how challenging it is. And you have to always be on, smiling and pleasant no matter how you feel. Here’s the thing, though, there’s no one right way to sell. Different people will find success with different techniques. Because conversation comes to me pretty naturally, I just chat with people. While they’re at my table, they usually end up taking at look at my things. That, or I completely geek out over some fandom item of clothing they’re wearing. That second one has happened a lot. For me, selling is a byproduct of the connections I make. Meanwhile, other people find both comfort and success in repetition. I’ve met folks who lead with a well-crafted, honed sales pitch and don’t deviate very far from it, and that works for them. Try, observe, adjust, test, and adapt. You have to find what works for you. The process of selling becomes infinitely easier when you’re comfortable in it.

~Say Hello – I know this is really hard for some people, to be the person to initiate interactions with total strangers. I know I can’t understand just how sick it makes some people feel because that is not the particular brand of anxiety I struggle with. Far from it. All I can tell you is that it’s worked for me. When people pass my table, I try to exude friendliness by saying hello to as many of them as possible. Nothing more, just hello, occasionally accompanied by a little wave. The reason I include this right on the heels of saying you have to find what works for you is because you’ll have more success if you can get people to look in your direction. And saying hello is generally better received than waving your arms and shouting, “NOTICE ME!” Getting people’s attention is the first step, but if you happen upon something else that works, then by all means, go for it.

~Read People – This is probably the most important skill you need to develop to be a good salesperson for your books.  Heck, it's a good skill for dealing with people in general.  Some people do not want to be sold to.  They just want to look at your book in silence and think about it without you yakking in their ear.  You can always open with a hello and ask how they're doing.  Listen to how they respond.  Clipped tones and curt replies probably mean they're not in the mood to chat it up.  Like I said above, I try not to come at people from a selling angle right off the bat.  I greet them, ask how they're doing and/or pay a sincere compliment. If it feels like someone is receptive to continued interaction, I might ask them what they like to read.  Or maybe they ask me if I’m the author, which creates an opening for me to talk about my books. From these short interactions, you can usually get a bit of a feel for a person's mood and personality.  It takes practice, but being friendly and kind always creates a good foundation.

~Don't Come On Too Strong – This kind of goes with reading people, but it's important enough to get a section all by itself.  I'm sure we've all been in that situation where you're trying to browse a store and the salesperson just will not leave you alone.  I'm looking at you, Teavana folks.  Seriously, if you press too hard, you're going to turn people off and possibly even make yourself look desperate.  When that happens, the focus is no longer on how interesting your books sound and entirely on how pushy you are.  You want to leave everyone who comes by your table with fond memories even if they didn't buy anything.  Who knows, maybe they'll come back by or look you up online later.

~Don't Get Discouraged – I already said above that live events are hard work. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. As for the emotional, whew! Besides the social anxiety and fear of failure and all those oh-so-lovely things that come with putting yourself and your creations out there, live events can be a long day of disappointments. I find way more sales success with face-to-face interactions, and yet there are still lots of people who don’t want to talk to me, don’t want to hear about my books once they’re at the table, don’t want to buy my books once they’ve heard about them, and that’s hard. I’ve done events where I only sold two books in an eight-hour span. Hear me: this is completely normal. Maybe that puts you off of doing live events altogether, but I want you to know up front. Live events can be really slow and boring and discouraging, and, yes, you need to remain on throughout it. Keep saying hello to people. Keep being friendly. Keep pushing through the creeping, clawing disappointment.


~Don't Go It Alone – I cannot stress this enough.  I have done bits and pieces of shows all by myself, and even just deciding on a good moment to run off to use the loo is stressful.  Do not do this to yourself if at all possible.  Choose a trusted friend or family member and ask them to assist you at the table.  The hubs is my usual partner, but he hasn't always been available.  In cases like this, start offering to pay people in dinner or coffee (like I did with by big sister in October at the Baltimore Festival of Books) or barter nights of babysitting. Whatever.  Just be sure they understand what's required of them.  I missed out on signing someone's book one weekend because I was at lunch, so I prefer not to leave my table at all now.  That being the case, we either bring food with us or whoever I'm with is expected to go get me some.  There's also a bit of heavy lifting involved with my setup, so I'm not likely to ask someone who can't handle that.

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~Dress for Success – This isn’t what you think it’s going to be. When I say dress for success, I mean wear clothing that makes you feel comfortable and empowered, whatever that might be. Because I have a steampunk series, I dress in steampunk cosplay, which I find super fun. What people don’t see, however, are my socks. I always wear socks that encourage me. Sometimes I wear Slytherin socks to remind me of my ambition. Other times, I wear these babies (pictured) to remind myself of how awesome I am. In case you can’t read that, they say, “Thou Art the Bomb.” Power socks! I used to wear really cute heels to shows, but they are absolute hell on my toes. I don’t want to be thinking about how badly my feet hurt when I should be focused on connecting with people, so I just wear flat-heeled boots nowadays.

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Bracelet from my friend Christine of Tennessee Hippie

Click to see more of her awesome stuff

~“Did You Self-Publish?” – I get this question at every show. I don’t know what people mean by it, if they look down on self-publishing or if it’s mere curiosity. Yes, there’s a stigma to self-publishing. Some people think that means you weren’t good enough to get traditionally published or whatever. Some people see self-published books as badly edited and not well put together. And that’s true of some but not all. This is your opportunity to own this conversation. Be proud of your indie author status! It’s not an easy road; you worked hard to get where you are! Go you! When someone asks this question don’t make excuses, offer explanations or qualifiers, or be embarrassed. Answer them proudly, “Yes, I did.”

~Other Items? – This one is entirely up to you. In addition to my books, I sell necklaces, mugs, tote bags, and most recently handmade scarves. I do this because I like the items and enjoy creating them.

~Newsletter Signups – Do you have a newsletter? If so, live events are a great place to get people to sign up for them. As a thank-you for signing up, I offer people the chance to be entered into a giveaway. Sometimes the giveaway happens after the show is over, and other times, if my show space is big enough, I do it right there. I have a prize wheel people can spin to win an item or even a discount on books. “But, Dana,” you might say, “don’t prizes cost money? That’s awfully expensive just for email signups.” Look, I am not the right person to examine or try to explain how much an email is worth or how important it is to have a newsletter. All I can say is that having a direct line to a reader’s inbox to announce your new book seems better than hoping they follow you on social media and then praying they see your post about said new book because algorithms are the absolute worst, but that’s another blog post.


~Sharing is Caring – There might be times where you share a table with others. This has the potential to become ugly if people are only concerned about selling their book and nothing else. You can’t control how other people act, but you can (and should) choose not to be that person. My personal favorite is when I share a table with lots of different kinds of authors. I just did a show where I was the only YA and fantasy/steampunk author. The other folks at the table, all of whom were lovely and from Author’s Circle-Middle TN, ran the gamut from thriller, philosophy and politics, humor, and inspirational. When someone came up to our table, we asked what kind of books they liked. Then we would direct them to the appropriate spot at the table based on their preferences. We helped one another, and it was wonderful. Even if the folks you’re sharing with write in the same genre, though, you can still help one another out. I did the Atlanta Steampunk Convention last month and table-shared with Geoffrey Mandragora. His books are more espionage and thriller than mine, so when someone came along, we found out what they liked and pointed them in the right direction. Everyone is telling stories in different ways, so there doesn’t need to be competition.

~Experience is the Best Teacher – Doing live shows, talking to strangers, and selling is all scary. As mentioned before, it can be discouraging sitting there all day, and it’s tiring! I zonked out at 9pm not too long ago after doing Dickens of a Christmas, but the more you do the better you’ll get at it. You’ll find what works for you and you’ll get more comfortable with the process. You just have to stick with it.

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Speaking of live shows, I have an announcement.  You may have seen this in my recent interview with The Paperback Piano, but for those that didn't...I'M GONNA BE AT BOOKCON!  Come find me at booth #1140, June 2nd thru 3rd, 2018 at the Javits Center in New York City.  I'm so excited!!!

I hope this guide is helpful for you all. I know it was long, so congrats if you made it this far. Here’s a picture of a pirate goat doing yoga with me for your effort. Do you have other live show tips? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading!