Retailers – whether on-line ordering (Amazon), big box stores (Indigo, even Costco and Walmart), or indie bookstores (Novel Books, Kingston; Books on Main, Bath) – are still the principal distribution channels for books. Even so, the author (or his publisher if he has one) has to find ways to entice the potential buyer to the store. We’ve already talked about the primary tools in the author’s ‘getting-the-word-out’ kit: social media and newsletters; TikTok, or not. There are others which we’ll talk about in a future post: book reviews, book clubs, and meet the author lectures.
But there is one more distribution channel to talk about: Book Fairs
I suppose there once was a time – the Middle Ages, before there were actual stores – when almost all selling happened at the local market, usually Saturdays: ‘Are you going to Scarborough Fair?’ pops into one’s head (and for the rest of the day you won’t be able to get that worm out of your ear). In the Middle Ages hardly anyone was literate and books were scribed by scriveners, on vellum rolls; very expensive, and rare. Consequently, there was very little market for books, and probably no vendors at the local fair.
With the Gutenberg intervention, and the industrial revolution of merchandising, not to mention schools, books sales took off.
Most selling these days occur on-line or in stores. But fairs didn’t die, even though less prominent. We still have farmers’ markets, and annual agricultural fairs and exhibitions in small towns, like Perth, and Toronto. And there are the Christmas Craft Shows, and church bazaars, and dog shows.
(I talk about these Confirmation Dog Shows in my book, The Hallelujah Chorus, a memoir about the family champion poodles. Vendors of doggie paraphernalia follow ‘the show’ from town to town, set up a vendors’ alley and flog their goods, living out of trailers and moving on the next weekend to a show in yet another town fair grounds. In fact, when I wrote THC, and before that its prequel, The Maxim Chronicles, I had the idea that I should take my books and a knockdown awning and tag along with the tour. But I never quite saw myself in the role – spending my weekends driving around Ontario in a camper van, manning my display table squeezed between the Science Diet booth and the printed pug t-shirt stall, trying to sell books, even if they were about purebred poodles; it’s a whole other world. And besides, I was mildly concerned that some of the characters there would not take kindly to seeing themselves in my books. You can probably guess where Marlene stood on this idea.)
But I did have a go at church bazaars. And there are dozens and hundreds of church bazaars trying to move mostly used goods to the curious and the thrifty; and that includes books.
My own church, 1st Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa, runs the biggest bazaar in Ottawa (so they claim) every November, in time for Christmas shopping. They keep a supply of my books in the Hospitality Lounge ‘bookstore’ throughout the year but move the stock to the main hall during the bazaar. I’ve also donated a supply of my books to the Almonte United Church and now the Kanata United Church book fairs.
Notice the word ‘donated’. Quite so, one shouldn’t regard these charity fundraising events as retail outlets for your books. They’re money raisers for the church, not for you. They’re likely to sell books for 2 or 3 bucks, 3 for $5, not $20 or $30. What you remind yourself is that you just want your books to be read; and maybe, just maybe, the lucky buyers at bazaars will somehow add their voices to the word on the street about your book(s) which is the goal of every marketing maven from Holland to Hollywood. So you treat charity book fairs as marketing. The only cost of this marketing campaign is the cost of your books, not much more than a Facebook ad, maybe. The only challenge is, how many of your books should you donate? A couple of copies won’t cost you much, but won’t’ generate much buzz either; too many will cost you, and might not even generate the hoped for buzz. And in the end the quantity taken will depend on the church bazaar curator; they get alarmed when you pull into the parking lot with a loaded van. Don’t laugh; much of their stock comes from the libraries of the recently deceased.
The Kanata United Church Annual Book Fair in the end agreed to take 5 copies of The Treasure of Stella Bay, half a dozen copies of The Hallelujah Chorus, and 8 copies of The Maxim Chronicles. I’m not sure what price he will place; he may even bundle a few of TMC with THC.
With any luck, bazaar organizers might even allow you to set up a display and offer a chair for author signings. Marc at KUC enthusiastically responded in this fashion. I was flattered, I was pleased, I was chagrinned. The KUC Book Fair is May 3, 4, 5 and 6, but I will be in The Philippines. Nevermind, Marc said he would be pleased to keep an eye on my display and encourage buyers.
Still, how many books will they sell? This is the classic queuing problem every B.Comm. student ponders in Operations Research 299. It’s the same problem every baker ponders when trying to decide the right quantity of buns to bake. Too many means wasted inventory and costs, too few and you sell out of product and have unrealized revenue. And therein lies the big problem with book fairs.
If the KUC sells out on Friday (!) they’ll have missed sales on Saturday. I have more books in my closet, but if I’m in Pilipiñas I won’t be able to resupply them.
Book fairs may be the riskiest strategy of all – there are no fees to pay to the Church Bazaar but it’s another matter for book fairs. Now, not only do you have to guess the quantity of books you might be able to sell, and you have to sell at least enough to cover your exhibit charges.
There are book fairs all over the world – some are huge and slick productions; many more are pale imitations of that. The ‘largest book fair in the world’ [of its kind, i.e, a trade show of mostly publishers, based on the number of exhibiters] is in Frankfurt. (The largest book show by attendees is International Kolkata Book Fair with more than 2.5 million visitors!) The largest book fair in Canada is in Toronto, naturally, held annually on the Harbour Front over a weekend in September (except during the pandemic when it was virtual). It’s cleverly called ‘The Word on the Street’ and it claimed to be attended by 250,000 people.
Having just published The Halleujah Chorus in December of 2017, and the e-pub version by July of 2018, I was feeling mildly pleased with myself and a bit bullish about selling it. What about The Word on the Street? My literary agent at the time thought the same too. Since I was in a somewhat unstable state of mind, at the time I decided to I should take a stab at it (showing at T-W-O-t-S’)? Entry fees are on a scale, from substantial for big publishers down to moderate for indie authors. I thought to enter as an indie author at a cost of $350/day for a booth (and parking included) but by the time the summer student staff got around to figuring out how to process my application, all the spaces for indie authors were sold out; ‘but hey’, they said hopefully, ‘we still have space for indie publishers’. AFS Publishing, my self-ascribed publisher, qualified and so I entered at the still bargain price of $750/day, including parking! Travel expenses not included but that didn’t matter as I was staying tariff-free at my literary agent’s house in Markham. (Did I mention my literary agent is my daughter?) Taxi service from Markham to Harbour Front provided by granddaughter Madelyn. My total costs would be ~$1695.
So how many books did I need to sell to at least cover the costs of this fair?
Well, I had three books to sell (four if you count the book of another author I was representing but there was no revenue for me in that): two memoirs about the family poodles – sure to be hits – and my management effectiveness book – The Dynamics of Management – less likely to sell many copies at $45/. At an average margin of ~$9/ I needed to sell about 200 copies of my books to break even. If foot traffic numbered 250,000, and even only 10% passed by my booth, and of them 10% actually stopped by ago take a look at my books, surely 10% of them would buy a copy, or two. Great. That would be at least 250 books sold. I was bound to break even. Cautious optimism returned to my blinded eyes and so I only ordered 200 copies, each, of the dog books, and 50 copies of the management book.
I should have sued ‘The Word on the Street’. If they had 250,000 visitors over those two days they must have missed the turn to the indie authors and publishers section. The main venues were many moons away from our lonely location and only the most intrepid of strollers strolled by our booth. And I’m pretty sure most of them were just out for a walk, not actually shopping for books. Good thing the weather was perfect and we had a lovely view of the motor launches moored nearby, and my fellow vendors for the most part friendly, or we would have been mighty bored. As it turned out, instead of the anticipated 2500 potential customers we had perhaps 25. I sold two copies of the dog memoirs to a friend who came by to see how we were doing, one copy of The Dynamics of Management to an actual buyer, and traded one copy of The Halleluiah Chorus to another vendor in exchange for her cookbook.
Hmmm, I now have an inventory of about 392 dog books in my closet waiting patiently for homes in people’s libraries. Lesson, however disappointing, learned.
But did we learn it? We entered a couple of small book fairs in Ottawa, one was no charge and the other an entry fee of only $15. At least I already had adequate inventory. Foot traffic was once again slight, and most of those seemed more interested in poetry than poodles. But I made a few friends of fellow authors and exchanged a few books, even sold a few.
The covid hiatus certainly put a damper on book fairs but by the phoenix summer of 2022 I was ready to take another crack at it. And besides, I had three more titles to offer. It was a three-day festival at Lansdown Park; the organizer promised it would be a well-attended event. Like a mother who forgets the burdens of pregnancy and birthing, I took the plunge. Entry fee, for me, because I was a member of the Canadian Authors Association (and a sponsor of the event), only $195/day. (Ha, parking not included!). Surely I could sell 50 copies of my latest novel, The Treasure of Stella Bay, and maybe a few copies of my memoir, Travels With Myself, and a couple dozen or so of my dog books, and the management book. At an average margin of $9 I needed to sell about 75 books. I ordered 100 copies of The TSB and half a dozen of Travels With Myself.
I should have sued the shyster organizers of this Fair. There was precious little public promotion of this book fair and hardly even any signage. Over three days we might have seen a couple hundred visitors, but most of those were Glebites out for a walk, no wallets in sight. I sold three copies of The TSB, two copies of THC, a copy of Travels With Myself, and exchanged four copies of TSB to fellow authors for their opi. I won’t be back; most of the vendors I spoke with won’t be back either, and the CAA won’t be sponsoring them again.
My dear departed wife always worried it would come to this, a basement full of unsold books.
Never mind Marlene, I can always donate those books to Church bazaars.
Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada
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