Books by Melissa Bowersock

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Selling by Not Selling

We just had our 4th annual Tucson Festival of Books here in Southern Arizona. From its infancy, this festival has been massive; the very first year we ranked sixth in attendance (50,000) in book festivals across the country. By last year we had jumped to fourth (100,000 people), and this year we will probably go higher. But what really intrigues me is the fact that for numbers of authors in attendance, we are first. Over 400 authors show up at this two-day event, every single one of them hawking their wares.
So how the heck do you make your book stand out from all of this entrepreneurial noise?

I’ve appeared at every book festival from the start. The first year, I sold one book. The second and third years were better, but not by much. This year I almost ran out of books.

How did that happen?

Before I go into that, I have to say that so much of this is pure luck. With over 100,000 people browsing several acres of book vendors, both independent and large book-sellers, having the right person walk by my booth, see my book, and choose it to take home with them is just so much serendipity. You just can’t manufacture that, no matter what you do.

But you can improve your chances.

So back to the beginning. That first year, I sat in my chair, laid my books out on the table and waited. And waited. People walked by, glanced over, walked on. I chatted with my tent-mate. A few people stopped by to look. Time went by very S-L-O-W-L-Y. I felt like a leaf caught in an eddy behind rocks in a stream; I just marked time in my separate little area while the stream flowed by in front of me. When I finally sold that one book, I was pretty ecstatic, at least for a few minutes. It was the high point of the day.

I realized something had to change. I didn’t want any more excruciatingly boring experiences like that ever again.

For the second year I made bookmarks to give away. When people at the festival were being bombarded by efforts to SELL, SELL, SELL to them, I wanted to engage them easily, informally, on a friendly, non-aggressive basis. Most people were happy for the freebie; some declined, and that was fine. But at least the offer of the free bookmark slowed people down a bit, gave them a reason to stop and chat. I had succeeded in slowing that stream that was rushing past and now some of the water was swirling into my little eddy behind the rocks.

I also found that standing, not sitting, increased my odds of engaging with people. I was open, receptive, welcoming, on the same eye level with them―equals. People seemed much more willing to make eye contact, to follow up my “Good morning!” with smiles and comments of their own, rather than seeming to stand like errant children at the feet of the Published Author.

While all this was going on, I couldn’t help but notice my table-mate. Another author had set up next to me, selling his book on how to handle divorce. He also stood, as I did, but whenever someone stopped for more than a micro-second, he was out from behind the table, almost button-holing them, telling them all about his book, sometimes very obviously way more than they wanted to know. I continued my low-key, friendly interaction and sold my first book of the day. Some minutes later the divorce-author made a comment about no sales and I told him I’d sold a book. “What?” he almost shouted. “You sold a book?” He seemed almost insulted. I’m not sure if he thought my fiction ranked a low second to his non-fiction or if he thought my methods were too unfocused to produce results, but he was obviously not happy.

The third year was very similar; I handed out bookmarks, I stood and chatted at eye level with folks. This time my table-mate was a young woman who had written a book about her own life experience. She made a pile of about 6 books on the table in front of her, sat with her arms crossed and almost refused to look up. While I was engaged in almost continuous conversation with the ebb and flow of people, selling a book here or there, she had almost no one even look her way. Being a true introvert who has learned to be an extrovert, I could identify with her obvious discomfort but I sincerely hoped she would take a look around and learn from the experience.

Since that third year, I have been doing a lot of reading about book promotion. There are a ton of author forums online and some great blogs out there. One author who is writing particularly illuminating and pertinent information about promotion is Kristen Lamb. I’ve found that she is able to distill down and encapsulate very powerful information in just a few paragraphs. She kept mentioning her book, We Are Not Alone, and I finally realized I needed more than just the weekly blog and downloaded the Kindle version. It’s an absolute treasure trove of information. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I’ve gained enough insight to tweak my process and take it to the next level. What was particularly gratifying was finding out that my free bookmark idea was a very good one. Kristen explains about the differences between putting up the neon sign that says, “Look at me! Buy my book!” (a la my divorce-author friend) and the non-threatening, non-expectant offer of something to the customer without a catch. I knew my bookmarks were working well, I just didn’t understand why.

Something else Kristen talks about are the social networks, tweeting or Facebooking in a quick but interesting way, again offering something (information, entertainment, education) to the customer without the flashing, “Buy my book!” sign. At the three previous book festivals, I had displayed all my novels (numbering 9 now), with posters that included reviews and pricing information. It was a lot of books and a lot of information, too much to read by most people walking by. For the 2012 festival, I decided to concentrate on just one book, my latest, the non-fiction biography of my aunt who was an Army nurse and Japanese prisoner-of-war in the Philippines during World War II. I had my novels there but did not display them on the table. I figured if anyone wanted to talk fiction or remembered me from previous festivals and wanted to look, I could whip them out, but I kept my display simple with the one book and a poster that said, in very large letters, “Could YOU survive a prisoner-of-war camp?” I figured the question was brief enough to be read and understood quickly, yet provocative enough to make people think and perhaps want to know more. Turns out I was right. I had several people stop and say just that, “That’s quite a question, isn’t it?” and then proceed to tell me stories of loved ones or friends who had endured similar experiences. The question, along with the free bookmarks, was a great way to engage people, to start the discussion, to share and exchange. And, it turns out, to sell books.

Who knew? The best way to sell books is by not selling. Interestingly enough, I had been very excited about the 2012 festival, about handing out bookmarks and meeting and talking to people. When I thought about it beforehand, I wondered why I was so excited when the previous festivals had been less than lucrative. Financially the festival had been almost worthless, but I was looking forward to it with energy and excitement. Instead of a dreaded selling event, it had become the opportunity for me to connect with people, to chat with my fellow readers, to appreciate good books regardless of who wrote them. By not concentrating on selling, I was taking the expectations off of myself and therefore off of the people who stopped by. By freeing myself and them from the burden of that heavy neon “Buy!” sign, we were now able to simply enjoy the conversation and the beautiful day. The fact that I was selling a book every 15-20 minutes was gloriously irrelevant and serendipitously amazing.

And the best part of it all? I had a fabulous, fun time!


  1. What a wonderful post. I found you via the comments on Kristen Lamb's latest blog entry. "Selling by not selling" is a fabulous (easy to remember) context.

    Have a great day. :-)

  2. Thanks, Ellen. It really is the best of both worlds and it's fun! I hate being sold to and I hate selling, but meeting folks, trading stories, connecting on a very human level? The best!

  3. I have definitely found that I'm much more likely to purchase a book if I engage with the author first, especially if s/he aren't trying to sell me. I start to like him/her and then I see a book for sale. Even if the book isn't in my usual genre, I'll usually give it a try. The beauty of a community mindset over a sales mindset.

    1. Absolutely right; approaching the customer as a person and not a number in a column, the way I would want to be approached. I've learned so much of what NOT to do by watching my fellow authors. At this latest book festival, I wasn't keeping close tabs, but I did not see any other author in my tent sell a book. And I didn't see any of them having as much fun as I was having!