Lessons learned at my first book festival

As noted in the previous month’s blog, “Marketing in mind,” this post will discuss three topics:   (1) how the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in April 2012 went, (2) other upcoming book fairs, and (3) Kirkus Marketing.


Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 2012

Our exhibit booth at the LA Times Festival of Books.

First, here is my conclusion based on the experience from attending this event in Los Angeles as a first-time exhibitor of a self-published book. If I knew better, I would have waited an entire year to sign up for it – until after other marketing activities will have taken effect. If we were looking strictly at the sales volume generated from this event, it created none – at least not right away.

Now, the lack of immediate sales is no fault of the Festival of Books itself but rather a reflection of my inexperience in the matter. Let me explain.

Because my book was just published a month prior, and no other massive marketing activities had started yet, I had no clue how many could be sold at this event. Also, if I were to sell physical books, I would have needed to obtain in advance a sales permit from the state of California and be prepared to accept credit-card payments. Given these two conditions, I chose to simply give out promotional materials and direct all potential sales to Amazon through my website.

My thought process in choosing to be an exhibitor so soon after the publication of the book, with no prior experience whatsoever, was as follows. The expected attendance at this event was 150,000. Therefore, I “conservatively” estimated 1% of them, or 1,500 people, might be interested and end up buying my book. For ease of math, rounding down the profit margin to $4.00/book, the revenue should easily reach $6,000 (= $4.00/book x 1,500 books). As noted in the previous blog, the total expense of attending this event was $4,100. That should leave us a net profit of $1,900 (= $6,000 – $4,100). Or so I thought. That projection turned out to be way too optimistic. We remain in the red. Yikes! I tell myself, “Time to analyze what went wrong, as well as what went right.”

I still believe that attending these events to get to know potential readers in person is very important. Before taking advantage of such possibilities for a maximum return, however, a few things needed to have happened first. Here is a list of the lessons that I learned:

Lesson 1: Awareness of the author first.

The hand-written title of my book attracted more people than my web address.

On the first day at the Festival of Books, most people kept walking when passing by our exhibit booth.  So, on the second and final day, David hand-wrote the title of my book (“To America – With Profound Gratitude”) above the web address that was formally printed on the banner.  That increased the traffic to our booth quite a bit more.  That gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling about the title I chose for my book.

Also, I learned that people needed to have known who I was through other means first and, preferably, over a long period of time. I was a complete unknown before this event. In contrast, can you imagine someone like J.K. Rowling appearing at a book festival? She doesn’t even need an exhibit booth! You get the picture.

Lesson 2: One can talk personally with only so many people.

A sample promotional bag combined with Kirkus Review in its entirety for my book.


I learned that I needed to be realistic in my assessment of how many people we (my husband and I) could personally engage in conversations and give out the souvenirs. We could easily have given out the promotional bags without talking to anyone. As we were ready to start giving them out, however, we decided at the last minute that it would mean more to most recipients if we talked with them first. So we did. We had 2,500 promotional bags with a depiction of my book cover and website address on them. Of those, between Saturday and Sunday, we ended up giving away just over 500. In other words, realistically, we could give away about 125 promotional materials per person per day. Of course, the logical way to increase the contacts and handouts is to have additional people working in your booth; for instance, relatives and friends, especially aspiring authors, who are willing to help for the experience they will gain (while keeping your costs low) or just because they love you.

For an additional cost of $113.17, we shipped four-fifths of the original supply, 100 pounds in weight, back to our home office via Federal Express.

We enjoyed meeting new people.

David and I did enjoy the conversations we had with all of the wonderful people we met at this event. We were glad to have chosen quality time with each individual over just giving away all of the bags randomly. Several of them were teachers or part of a group that they thought would benefit from the story told in my book of overcoming adversity. Again, these conversations have not resulted in any additional sales – yet.

Lesson 3: Sign up to speak in front of an audience!

I learned that, whenever given a chance – whether at a book festival or elsewhere – I should ALWAYS sign up to speak in front of an audience. This, of course, is easier said than done.

First, many of the book fairs have you submit your application and then they select the authors they want to “invite” to be a featured speaker.

Second, public speaking is not exactly my cup of tea – although I have no excuse to avoid it. Once upon a time when I was still working at Chrysler, I was given an opportunity to go through the Dale Carnegie program. It was to make me feel comfortable speaking in front of people. Through the training I learned that I should talk about a subject with which I am 100% familiar and, therefore, comfortable. So I tell myself, “No one knows the content of my book better than I do.” This is true. Even so, I’m still not totally comfortable with the idea of getting in front of people and speaking. I guess I need to get over it and “Just do it!”

Lesson 4: Pay attention to the details.

In terms of high-traffic location, theory and practice are two different things.

As novice participants, we reviewed all of the materials we received and learned that the location of our booth was centrally located relative to the placement of the other booths. Great! We should get lots of traffic. We were located around the perimeter of Alumni Park on the University of Southern California campus and right next to a booth for a local television station. Things were looking even better.

But the reality was that all of the booths in the park were facing inward with the back – that faced the walkway – closed off due to the fire marshal’s requirements. It was explained to us by the LA Times staff that this was a rule change from the previous year (when it was the first time at USC) due to some chaos the crowd created in the walkway. The new rule made the actual traffic to our booth rather light as most went along the walkways. And many of the people that did actually enter the park came for two main reasons: (1) to check the large map and schedule of events located in the center of the park or (2) to meet local media celebrities in the TV booth next door, including a little dog who apparently is dressed in different outfits for the audience to see daily on air. After seeing either of these, most people then headed for the quickest way out of the park. So bring a cute, dressed-up dog along for your booth.

To be fair (no pun intended), there were more experienced exhibitors that we talked to within the park who also were not aware of the orientation of the booths being turned away from the majority of the traffic. Other than asking questions of the organizers (on our list for future book fairs) in advance about the traffic flow, there is not much you can do about this type of detail once you arrive.

Also, after a while, David and I started taking turns walking around, away from the booth, to hand out some of our promotional materials, including checking out other booths and conversing with those manning them. This worked at least as well as staying in the booth and doubled our output. But, apparently, some fairs discourage or outright prohibit leaving the immediate area of your booth to interact with the attendees. So check with the organizers.

Lesson 5: Participate in local festivals.

I learned that if I were to have started out with local book festivals, I could have avoided the additional travel expenses and shipping costs for promotional materials. Most other book festivals, even as an exhibitor, are not anywhere as expensive as the one hosted by the Los Angeles Times. One of the attractions to doing the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, of course, was that it is one of the largest in the country. As noted earlier, from a pure statistical point of view, it seemed that the larger the crowd the better; but as we now know, it is not the size of the crowd for the entire event that matters – at least for those of us who are promoting our own books – but rather the number of people with whom we can personally have meaningful conversations. This leads us to the next topic – other upcoming book fairs.


Other Upcoming Book Fairs (and additional lessons learned from LA)

Based on the lessons learned at the LA Times Festival of Books, the best way to handle book fairs – at least for us – is to attend them (1) if we already have another reason to be in that town and (2) if we can drive to them. There are always exceptions to the rule, as you will see below.

One other thing that we learned in Los Angeles was that if we had (not a lot but) at least some paperbacks, we would have been able to sell them. This may sound like an obvious observation but, for the reasons noted earlier, we chose not to bring any. Several people did ask if they could buy one on the spot. We regretted not being able to meet their demand – again, due to our inexperience. Another benefit of selling the paperbacks ourselves is that our profit margin doubles. Because we do not yet have a full grasp of how many could be sold at each of these events, we will be experimenting with small quantities at first. Here is a list of upcoming book fairs that we reviewed:

Book Expo America, June 5, 6, & 7, New York, NY

I signed up to have my book displayed at this event in New York. The total cost, including shipping the two books that BEA requested for display, is less than $300. After the event, the books will be donated to a worthwhile charity. I’m excited about the possibility of someone being able to read my book, someone who might otherwise not get a chance to read it. The best part about BEA – in terms of cost containment – is that my book gets some exposure without my having to be there in person.

Printers’ Row Lit Fest, June 9 & 10, Chicago, IL

Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, June 15 & 16, Waukesha, WI

We have relatives in Wisconsin and we can drive to both of these and on the same trip. So we decided to sign up for them in Illinois and Wisconsin respectively. Since we signed up belatedly for both of them, as of this writing, we are still waiting to see if we made the cut for one or the other or both of them. If we are accepted, we will take copies of my book to sell there since there is no additional shipping involved because we are driving.

We are excited about seeing our relatives, first and foremost, and being able to possibly recoup some of the sunk cost during the same trip as well.

AJC Decatur Book Festival, September 1, 2, & 3, Decatur, GA

We are seriously considering this event in Georgia. Contrary to the rule that we set for ourselves, there is no other reason for us to be there except for this event. And this will be a much longer drive, too. So you’re wondering, “Why?” Here is the reason we’re bending our own rule to even consider going there. Every word in this event’s literature spoke to me – particularly after the very expensive experience at the LA Times Festival of Books. For example, it says “Rather than pay $450 for a booth and oversee it all weekend, you can spend just $175 for up to two titles ($50 for each additional title) by joining our Emerging Authors’ tent.” “There you can display your book(s) in a reserved, secure space where we handle your sales for you. You don’t have to worry about credit-card payments or maintain a cash box, you don’t have to guard your stock all weekend, and you don’t have to miss all of the wonderful speakers and events at the festival.” “We’ll even schedule a book signing and a brief speaking opportunity for you, if you wish.” The minute I read it, it was clear to me that whoever wrote this brochure for AJC Decatur Book Festival experienced the same things we just did in LA.

As an independent author, the deadline to sign up for this event is July 31, 2012. Thankfully, this timing gives us an opportunity to wait until after we see the results from the fairs in Illinois and Wisconsin before making our final decision.


This wraps up the topic on “other upcoming book fairs.” As we attend additional book festivals, whenever there are noteworthy lessons learned, I will share them with you.


Kirkus Marketing

Marketing activities can take various forms. So I was curious to see what Kirkus Marketing entailed – particularly because of the Kirkus Review that I received for my book.  Now I know – it is all about placing advertisement campaigns through Kirkus Reviews; nothing more and nothing less.  Because of the high concentration of avid readers that visit its website and read its magazines, I think this will be an effective tool when I can afford it.  The price ranges from $500 to $5,000.  If you are interested, you can get all the details yourself by clicking on Kirkus Marketing.

For now, until such time when the revenues from book sales at least break even through another marketing activity – namely, press release – I will hold off on using this service.


Coming up next month

In June, depending upon what I accomplish between now and then, I will cover some of the following marketing and sales topics: press release, the use of social media for marketing, Amazon Author Central, CreateSpace Marketing Central, and credit-card processing (for selling books at book fairs).

Until then, cheers!

p.s. I would welcome your comments!
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4 Responses to Lessons learned at my first book festival

  1. very good blog, Reiko – truthful, from the heart, and informative. It was a pleasure to meet you at the festival and best of luck with your marketing efforts!

  2. So many events…I wish I could attend them all!!

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