Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert and advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.
A post came up in the Facebook group I host for authors asking for input on selling books at events, expos, etc. That is a completely different selling scenario from Amazon or retail bookstores. Coming from a background in trade shows and having been an exhibitor/presenter myself at many events (for books and other products), here are some insights I’ve discovered.
PR Value Versus Sales Value
When you exhibit your books or other wares at an event or expo, there are two buckets of value you’ll receive from your participation: PR (public relations) value and sales value. Where exhibitors, not just authors, typically get disappointed is when they expect more sales value.
Events, expos, and trade shows vary widely in their ability to deliver buyers and sales prospects. While all events provide some level of PR value, some are set up to make actual sales right at the event. Others are primarily lead generation events, where exhibitors make connections and then the sale is made at a later time. The selling onsite type of events are often geared for low dollar value and consumer level purchases. Lead generation type events are more suited for high dollar value and B2B (business to business) sales.
As an author expecting to make and deliver sales at events and shows, it is vitally important that you determine if actual sales are allowed. When I sold exhibit space at big computer tech shows, I had a battle with exhibitors who were publishers and wanted to sell their books to attendees. I understood their desire to sell to this ideal audience. But they wanted to deliver goods to attendees right there at the show. We allowed them to collect sales orders, but delivery had to be done afterwards (although I’m sure that wasn’t always observed in spite of our constant reminders).
You also need to understand the sales taxation situation. With the 2018 Supreme Court decision (South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc.) that allows states to collect sales taxes for all sales shipped to or delivered people and businesses in their state, you could find yourself responsible for reporting, collecting, and paying sales taxes to any state in which you exhibit and make actual sales. It’s a complicated situation! (I speak from experience.) And don’t forget that these sales are also subject to income tax. Consult your CPA or tax adviser on how to comply with sales and income tax laws.
How to Find Events, Expos, and Trade Shows
I shouldn’t have to tell you that the Internet is your best friend in doing research on possible events, expos, and trade shows. What I’ve discovered, too, is that events of all sorts pop up frequently on social media.
But I’m going to throw this out there. If you’re active in communities of your ideal readers, you probably are already aware of key events. If you're not, you need to start getting informed and involved!
Event Organizers Often Don’t Know Their Attendees
There is nothing more frustrating for exhibitors than plunking down hundreds or thousands of dollars to exhibit at some event or expo, and then the audience isn’t as advertised or expected.
What I’ve discovered in years of participating in trade shows and networking is that event organizers often don’t have a good handle on who their attendees actually are. For example, I’ve attended many events that promote they attract “small business people.” That is so broad and could include everyone from home-based multilevel sales representatives (Mary Kay, Amway, etc.) up to manufacturers who hire 500 employees.
You may have to probe the event organizer to get a more accurate picture of who will actually be attending. Sometimes they can’t or won’t share this information. In that case, you might be best off attending the event yourself to see who goes, both as attendees and exhibitors. That could save you from spending lots of money on an event that won’t produce the buyers you need.
One other secret is that attendee counts can be inflated. Event organizers often count all warm bodies attending as “attendees,” even if a significant portion (sometimes very significant portion!) of them are exhibitors. Yes, there’s networking value (which is a PR value) in connecting with other publishing or author exhibitors like yourself. But you really want to know how many potential sales value attendees are expected. As with attendee profile, event organizers may not have a good handle on that either.
Also, not all sales value attendees will stop by your booth. When I was in the trade newspaper business and hosted a booth at our region’s primary industry show, I would anticipate that only about 10 percent or less of the expected attendees would pick up a free copy of the paper, especially since many received the publication in the mail. However, even if they didn’t, I wouldn’t figure more than that.
One mistake rookie exhibitors make is that they feel if they won’t have enough giveaways or product, and end up bringing way too much which is a hassle and could increase costs. Over time, you’ll discover how much to bring for each type of show.
Not Here, Not Now
One of the authors in my Facebook group noted how even though some events where she exhibited drew the kind of people she wanted, they were attending the event to see and buy other things. So not too many book sales occurred. My personal experience is similar. What’s the disconnect? I think this situation is caused by expectations on both sides of the exhibit table.
As exhibitors, we expect that people who are our ideal customers should be interested in our wares, be it books or related products. And they might be... just not while at a show.
Event or expo attendees usually attend with the intent to check out or purchase a particular product or service. They’re focused on that. If what you offer isn’t that, you and your offerings may be mentally filed away for another day, maybe even ignored totally.
Attendees can also be on the hunt for free promotional giveaways, not stuff they have to buy. You'll often find them asking, “Is this free?” If what's on your table isn’t, they're not interested.
Doing Your Homework
Specifically for authors who are hoping to make actual sales at events or expos, watch to see how many exhibitors are actually making sales during your investigative visit. If it appears no one is actually selling books or products similar to yours onsite, it might not be a good venue.
During your visit, it doesn’t hurt to casually ask exhibitors how the show is going for them. Don’t share that you’re thinking of exhibiting since some people clam up if they think they might be talking with a competitor.
What I’ve found is that if the event is a dud, exhibitors tell everyone and anyone who asks. As someone who used to sell exhibit space for a living, I know this is true. The pain of a big wasted investment is usually pretty close to the emotional surface.
Another tip for your visit would be to go on the last day or last hours of the event. Sometimes the opening is swarmed with attendees. Then by the end, the attendees are down to a trickle. You’ll get more accurate feedback to your “How was the show?” exhibitor query.
Approaching Visitors at Expos
I had a great question come up on one of my YouTube videos about selling books at events and expos. The author was wondering how to approach visitors and make more sales. If it’s any consolation, this isn’t just a question for authors. Lots of business owners and salespeople have the problem, too.
Since I worked in the trade show industry for a number of years, and have exhibited at many shows for my business, here are some of the things I’ve learned and observed.
Don’t Create a Barrier Between You and the Visitors
When I wander around a trade show, I can tell the newbies and less skilled exhibitors just by where their exhibit table is placed. They usually put it at the front of the booth, as if it’s a garage sale or flea market, or the checkout line at the grocery store.
Put your table at the back of your exhibit and stand out in front of it so that you’re available to talk one-to-one with visitors. That’s scary for many authors who are introverts. But if you’re writing and self publishing books to make sales, you have to be a salesperson.
Don’t Ask Yes or No Questions
If I tell an author to get from behind the booth, the next question will probably be along the lines of, “What should I say?” Questions are the best way to get the conversation going. But they have to be the right kind of questions.
Think of a question that doesn’t have a yes or no answer. Don’t ask if they’ve heard of your book, if they’d like to know more about your book, etc. Those are easy questions for a visitor to answer with a flippant “No” or “No, thanks.” You want to get “yes,” qualifying, and information-gathering answers. But don’t make the question so thought-provoking that the visitor will be scared to answer.
Here's an example of scripting that could work.
For fiction, you could ask if the visitor is a fan of whatever genre you write. If no, again, it’s thanking them for sharing and politely send them on their way. If yes, don’t wale into why your book should be the next one they read (although that’s what you really want). Ask them about who their favorite author in the genre is. You might want to ask them what they like best about that author’s work. If you’ve read that fave author’s work, you could share how you feel about it. Why would you do this? Well, you want engagement and interaction, not just a transaction. As well, you want to gather some market intel about people like in your market. Then after a brief interaction, you could tell them that you have a book that they might want to add to their reading list. You can ask if they’re interested in buying now. And if not (and that’s okay), have some printed material to give them with the title, where to buy it later, and where to find you online. Or ask them to opt in to join your email list.
- One word of caution. While you want to engage these folks, you don’t want them to monopolize your entire time at the show! Keep it friendly, focused, and brief.
All of this requires a lot of scripting and practice so that it’s comfortable when you’re on site at the show. This is a skill that you need to develop and, incidentally, one that you might appreciate in many areas of your life.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2019 Heidi Thorne
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 06, 2020:
Peggy, I always get a kick out of Bill Holland's commentary and articles. Always makes my day. And your support and comments make my day, too. Have a wonderful day!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 05, 2020:
This is excellent advice for exhibitors of every kind, whether selling books or other items. I got a kick out of Bill Holland's comment. You do have the expertise to be a front person representing others at exhibits.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on July 17, 2019:
Hi Angel! Yay for you selling 67 copies. Yep, Chicago has a lot of great author peeps. Thanks for stopping by and have a wonderful day!
Angel Guzman from Joliet, Illinois on July 16, 2019:
I had a book published in 2006 but with no help from publisher and me being 20 not really knowing what to do only sold 67 copies. I've entertained self publishing... good tips Heidi. Cool we both from Chicago area :)
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 28, 2019:
Flourish, you're not alone! :) People go to events and expos to get freebies. In fact, I just saw a post-show feedback report from a book expo (no less!) where visitors were bummed at getting less freebies.
I agree, who would ever want to deal with sales taxes if it's not part of your regular business? Even when my business was heavy into retail for another profit center, the meager sales of books and such at events was just a sales tax hassle for both me and my bookkeeper. Now I just say, "It's on Amazon."
Thanks for chiming in! Happy Weekend!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 28, 2019:
Thanks, Linda, for your kind words and for reading! Have a lovely weekend!
FlourishAnyway from USA on June 28, 2019:
I can’t imagine any small business person selling a couple of books here and there wanting to mess with reporting sales tax collections to all the individual states but to be compliant yikes! I can’t recall ever buying a book from an expo. But freebies, that’s a different story.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 27, 2019:
This is informative and thought provoking, Heidi. You often discuss topics that I haven't thought of before but that are important and useful. I always appreciate the information that you share.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 27, 2019:
Bill, if the lottery is involved, I'll be working for you in no time! *snickering* Thanks for taking time from your farmers market and other pursuits to pop in and comment. Happy weekend to you (and Bev, and Maggie, and Tobias), too!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on June 27, 2019:
Thanks, Liz, for reading and your kind comments! I'm so glad I had the real world experience. Now I just want to share it with others. Cheers!
Liz Westwood from UK on June 27, 2019:
Drawing on your own experiences and background you have put together a really helpful article for anyone considering trying to sell their books at events and expos.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 27, 2019:
I have a plan: I'm going to win the lottery and then I'm going to hire you to market my books. I'll make you an offer you can't refuse. :) Have a great weekend, Heidi!