Friday, October 10, 2014

Things I learned from the Baltimore Book Festival... by Guest Author M.L. Doyle

Things I learned from the Baltimore Book Festival
by guest author M. L. Doyle

My writer friends and I have had multiple conversations about book festivals. The bottom line question is, are they worth it? We toss around questions like, can you sell enough books to cover the cost? Is it worth it to invest in banners, posters, cards and other give-aways? Does participation result in readers who look for you later and buy books online?

This is what I learned from participating in the Baltimore Book Festival.

Will I sell enough books to cover the cost?

Most likely, no. The BBF is an expensive one. Even if you share out the cost of your booth with other authors, you’ve got to sell a bunch of books to break even on just the fees for participation. Add the cost of parking ($20 a day depending on where you park) and other expenses (the food trucks sell lemonade at $7 a glass), not to mention whatever you might spend on signage or displays, and you’d have to sell quite a few books to break even. Judging from my sales and the sales of the other authors I knew who participated, none of us broke even.

How many books would I sell at the BBF?

Unfortunately, not many, if any at all. The weekend of the festival this year offered absolutely perfect weather. The new location, at the Baltimore Inner Harbor, meant there were tens of thousands of local visitors as well as thousands of tourists. The event was packed with people. Of those tens of thousands (I heard upward of 50k) who reportedly attended the festival, most are there to browse, listen to author talks and spend an afternoon enjoying the weather, than are there to buy books. There’s a large section devoted to kids and I suppose many parents saw it as a place to keep the little ones entertained for a while. Most people will glance at your wares and keep walking. Far fewer will stop to talk and even fewer will actually pick up a book to page through it. Finally, a minuscule percentage will actually buy something.

I’m not sure if the sales ratios are higher for authors who are featured in an author talk or panel. I don’t know anyone who participated in that way and I don’t even know how one gets invited to do such a thing. I would hope, if you’re one of those lucky ones, that you’d sell far more, but it’s hard to say.

Why do it?

That’s the big question. If you’re likely to end up in the hole financially, why participate at all? Each year, hundreds of booths are manned by indie book store owners, indie published authors, graphic novel artists, book club groups and writer’s groups. There were booths devoted to selling newspaper subscriptions, massage and wellness vendors and one guy selling beautifully crafted, handmade leather journals.  The author readings and panel tents are filled with speakers and panelists, all of which are competitors for your customer’s attention. The crowds are large and it feels as if the potential for customers is right there for the taking. All of that said, I think participation is a personal question and one that goes well beyond anything financial.

I was frankly surprised by how many books I sold and each sale felt particularly special. I spoke to every single person who bought one, I remember their faces and I signed their purchases. That they bought my books out of the thousands on offer, made each sale memorable. Meeting these strangers who would later sit down and read my work is something that can’t be described. I also sold books written by other authors with whom I shared the booth. It felt good to honestly recommend the work of a friend and see the purchase, knowing I helped an author friend and knowing the reader would be rewarded with a great story.

I have seen a couple of new reviews of my books on Amazon but I’m not sure if they were a result of books sold at the festival. And while I handed out a few cards, I didn’t see any spike in sales to indicate that those contacts resulted in sales after the festival.

Would you do it again?

Maybe. It was an exhausting weekend, but it was still a lot of fun. On Saturday of the three-day festival, I thought myself very clever for finding a metered parking spot and saving myself a ton of parking fees. Later, when I discovered the parking ticket on my windshield, I didn’t feel so clever. Evidently, I’d allowed the meter to run out. Boom. $38 to the city of Baltimore.

Also, my feet were killing me. We had chairs but we learned quickly that standing out front and talking to people was the best way to get them to stop and look. We also lured people to our tables by offering a drawing for a stack of books…one from each author. We had hundreds of entries for the drawing. I had the pleasure of delivering the prize to a lucky winner who, turned out to live only a few blocks from me. Small world.

I invested in a four-foot standing banner that I know helped seal at least a couple of sales. The banner (from Vista print) looked professional and very clearly attracted attention. It wasn’t cheap, but I will be using it three times this year alone and if it results in the kind of sales I saw at BBF, it should pay for itself.

The hours of booth watching gave me lots of time to talk to author friends, discuss marketing ideas, to talk about strategies, plans and expectations. Were those discussions enough to justify the money I paid to participate as well as what I invested in signage and the like? Probably not. That said, if asked to participate again, I might. I’m not sure. What I know for sure is that I would never do BBF alone. I would only do it as part of a group and I would know that the best way to sell books is to be there. If you’re absent, you’re unlikely to sell much of anything.

Are all book festivals the same?

Nope, not at all. Last year I participated in the Twin Cities Book Festival in my hometown, and sold enough books to cover the cost and a little extra. I am participating in the same festival again this year, Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Minnesota State Fair Grounds. The festival is an excuse to come home to visit family and it’s much cheaper to have a table at the TCBF than at BBF. In comparison however, the TCBF has 3-5k visitors a year. The BBF has that 50k advantage.

That said, the browse/buy ratio for the two festivals is about the same. People want to hear authors speak, check out what is on offer and, occasionally, buy books. Last year, I priced mine right and it resulted in me going home with far fewer books that I had when I arrived. Always a good thing!

All of that said, I would never consider a book festival a place to make money. Since it’s not about making money, I’m not quite sure what it is about. Connecting with readers? Connecting with other authors? The answer to those things is probably up to the individual.

Where else can an Indie author connect with readers?

Believe it or not, I’m told non-book festivals are better places for authors to sell books. I’m participating in the Fort Meade Officer’s Spouses Club Holiday Bazaar this year, November 15-16, at the Fort Meade Pavilion, Fort Meade, MD. I’m sharing a booth with a couple of other authors. Autographed books make great holiday gifts…at least that’s what we’re counting on. I’ll post an AAR (After Action Review for you non-military types) and let you know how it goes.