A writer’s guide to tabling at literary festivals

Avoid gimmicks (and build community) through conversation and book sales.

Tabling
Tabling at literary festivals. Photo by Rihardzz/Shutterstock, illustrations by Jaron Cote

Most of us have attended a literary festival, whether it’s a dozen authors selling their books in a community center or a hundred at an event like the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. I’ve seen writers attract readers using giant bowls of candy, with fortune cookies that reflect their book’s theme, with costumes and props. Once I saw a poet pace the aisles wearing a sandwich board that read, “Ask me about my poetry!”

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When Oregon novelist and poet Jessica Mehta sells her books at literary events, she invites visitors to immerse themselves in her writing through virtual reality. Spectators stop by her table to strap on a headset and experience her poems as three-dimensional creations glimpsed through a window as crows fly by, squawking.

A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, Mehta is particularly interested the marriage of poetry with virtual reality to help people embody the voices and stories of indigenous women. The technology offers a tool with which to engage potential readers. Bonus: It draws people to Mehta’s display and sparks both discussion and book sales.

“A lot of authors, myself included, are introverts,” she explains. “We’re not necessarily taught how to sell and connect with people. Having a tool – a natural conversation-starter – gets people to your table.”

There’s a fine art to selling books at a table during festivals and fairs. You’ve got to be engaging but not too pushy. You’ve got to have an eye-catching display but nothing too gimmicky. If you’re able to shed your introvert tendencies and assume an extrovert’s exuberance in public, you’ll find yourself enjoying fascinating exchanges with readers and authors around you as you autograph books and – quite likely – field invitations to appear at additional literary events.

Make the table work for you

Felice Cohen is the author of the memoir What Papa Told Me and the nonfiction book 90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (…or More). She’s spoken all over the country about her memoir, which recounts the experiences of her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor. “But it’s my second book, 90 Lessons, that has me selling my books at Tiny House Festivals [for devotees of the tiny house phenomenon] around the country,” she says.

Table placement is key, Cohen explains. Always, she requests a spot near an event’s entrance or exit. “If you go to a Broadway show, you can’t leave until you walk through the store,” she says. “You want to catch people as they’re coming in or leaving.”

Her display includes bookmarks with five tips for getting organized, plus magnets and stickers printed with her website and logo – “Make America Tiny Again.” A vinyl banner across the table shows an image of Cohen in a loft bed featured in a YouTube video of her 90-square-foot studio apartment in New York City. “People come over to chat with me and ask what it’s like to live in such a small space,” she says. “Conversation usually leads to them buying one, if not both, of my books.”

Author Joy Jones agrees with Cohen about the importance of engaging with attendees at book festivals. The author of Private Lessons: A Book of Meditations for Teachers, she places a sign on her table that reads “Who is your favorite teacher?” When people see it, they pause to chat with her.

“That leads them to flip through the book, and I suggest that they thank that teacher from childhood or college with a copy,” Jones says, “or maybe their child’s teacher could use it as encouragement. Even if they don’t buy the book, I hear some entertaining stories.”

Jones cautions authors against becoming part of the furniture, sitting with arms folded and staring at a phone. “Conversation converts to cash,” she says.

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Lee French and Jeffrey Cook are the authors of Working the Table: An Indie Author’s Guide to Conventions. Veterans of comic-cons and fairs, they believe clear signage to indicate genre and/or author-brand is essential. They printed a tagline, “curious fantasy and science fiction for eclectic minds,” on a 6-foot retractable banner that stretches behind their table, with another banner to drape over the tablecloth.

They eschew bowls of candy and raffle tickets, noting that books are the single most important thing at a table. It’s fast and simple to create a book stand out of a wire coat hanger (the internet provides dozens of DIY articles).

“Stack your books artfully when you can, and put a book where a potential customer can reach it easily,” French says. “A friendly, approachable smile is an underrated piece of equipment every handselling author should work on.”

Work the table

Authors who table at events agree that a positive, outgoing attitude is key to selling books. Stand, not sit, if you’re able. Make eye contact. Much as it may tempt you, your phone should be tucked away.

“You need to be cheery, be ready to talk, be energetic, be smiling, be happy,” Cohen says. “I tell myself that I’m not at home, and I’m not working. I’m outside, talking with people. It’s only for a day or two, and it’s fun.”

Fun. That’s what Cook and French want to convey when they table at a convention with their signature hats. Cook’s is a stunning steampunk bowler, based on elements of two characters from his Dawn of Steam novels. French made her own hat decorated with a blue dragon to reflect her series of dragon-related novels.

“The hats are a major identifier for us,” Cook says. “They help us stand out and are a fun way of establishing our identity within the con room.”

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Having a signature hat or other piece of clothing is one more way to connect with readers in conversation and ward off potential terror at having to interact with strangers over a four- or eight-hour time period.

Jones urges authors to embrace their stage fright when tabling at an event. “That nervous feeling is not something to shun but to embrace,” she says. “That’s the energy that’s going to help you engage with people.”

She suggests that writers chat with hosts and authors at surrounding tables before an event. “Be two-pronged in your approach,” she says. “Make friends with potential customers, and network with authors and staff so that they will help you sell books.”

Work other authors’ tables

“It’s very hard to have a customer-centric approach when you only know your own books,” Cook says. “Get to know the other authors during set-up. Ask about their books. If you’ve read them, be prepared to refer customers. It’s amazing how often a sale will be helped along by someone who is not the author saying, ‘I’ve read that book. It’s really good!’”

Both he and his co-author, French, suggest that authors perfect a short elevator pitch for their own books – think 20-50 words, deliverable in under a minute. This allows other authors the time and space to deliver their own quick pitches as well. A pitch should be clear in terms of a story’s genre and content, and writers should avoid describing a book as “all things to all people.”

“Be honest about your book’s content,” Cook says. “If someone else has a story closer to what the customer is asking for, direct them to it. If your book has a romantic subplot, but it’s a subplot and not a focus, direct romance readers to the books where romance is the point.”

“Authors are all in this together, and when everyone is having a good time, customers pick up on that and are drawn in by the positive atmosphere.”

French notes that the authors standing next to you at an event aren’t your competition. “Netflix and Candy Crush are your competition,” she says. “Authors are all in this together, and when everyone is having a good time, customers pick up on that and are drawn in by the positive atmosphere.”

They’re also drawn in by something just a little bit different at an author’s table – intriguing signage, a bookmark with useful tips, or, in Mehta’s case, a virtual reality headset. (When she brings her VR technology, she sees a book sale increase of 500%.)

“When you’re tabling,” she says, “have something easy to spot that’s intriguing – something nobody else will have.”

What’s your book’s topic and theme? What tagline can you create to brand it and yourself? How can you create an attractive presentation that entices potential customers to engage with you in exciting conversation, and how can you get to know the authors around you to help sell their titles as well?

Answer these questions, and you’ll discover a purpose and passion that exceeds your anxiety about standing behind a table for hours in the public eye. Study the displays that intrigue you at literary festivals, and don’t forget to stop to talk with authors…and buy books.

 

Melissa Hart is the author of the middle-grade novel Avenging the Owl (Sky Pony, 2016) and Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019).