How to build a successful book sales strategy around events and festivals

By   Hannah Bickerton 7 min read

Whitefox author Liz Amos wrote her novel All the Truths Between Us over a seven-year period spanning three jobs, two pregnancies and a pandemic. It was longlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2022. The book was published in 2023 and here she shares with us how she has crafted a successful sales strategy around events and festivals to grow her readership and her main takeaways.

As self-published authors, we’re free to promote our own books at our own pace. But the autonomy also raises gruelling questions about how to connect with potential readers. After writing a novel in solitude, the thought of marketing it to the world at large can be overwhelming.

One sales option that I’ve found fulfilling is being an exhibitor at cultural events.

It’s an approach I stumbled into, but – having sold forty-eight copies of All the Truths Between Us across two different festivals in October – the benefits are worth shouting about.

Here are my top tips for making the most of markets and festivals.

 

1. Find your fit

The events I attended were both linked to celebrating Black History Month.

As a Black British author of Jamaican heritage, my book’s characters share the same ethnicities as the family and friends I grew up with. That said, race is just one strand of a story that centres on the rich complexity of faith and creativity that I longed to see in a novel. By writing with this emphasis, I wanted to celebrate Black people living full lives – rather than constricting them to issues directly related to their skin colour.

Black History Month was a timely opportunity to connect with people for whom this goal might be particularly relevant.

But I’m also similarly drawn to the idea of exhibiting at faith festivals, art markets . . . any event where people who could identify with Ben and/or Harriet might be congregating.

Think about the themes in your book or what makes your characters unique. Is there a gathering that caters to this audience?

 Remember, even when there are commonalities between the events you attend, each space will have a different feel.

At the Black Businesses, Art and Music Festival (BBAM Fest) in Southampton, exhibitors and artists came from a variety of fields. Consequently, lots of attendees I spoke to didn’t describe themselves as regular readers but were nevertheless delighted to find an author nestled alongside the food trucks, clothes stalls and other product vendors.

On the other hand, the well-established Black British Book Festival (hosted this year by the Southbank Centre in London) has become a magnet for booklovers. People came to enthusiastically look for new purchases, but were also more mindful about limiting themselves – for the sake of their backs and bank balances.

At each event, my priority was to meet people where they were at. If they seemed nervous about reading, we talked about whether they’d find my writing style accessible. If they had lots of books on their TBR list, I encouraged them to read the blurb, walk away and only come back if they found themselves still thinking about the plot later in the day.

Even when you’ve found your particular platform, it helps to pay attention to the nuances of the event and adapt accordingly.

Liz Amos exhibitor event 2
Liz Amos exhibitor event
2. Know your objective(s)

Depending on the festival, there might be fees associated with having an exhibitor’s stall. Even if the stall is free, there will inevitably be printing and travel costs, so it’s worth thinking about the overall value of the experience.

I personally found a maximum of twenty-five books for a six-hour event to be about the right stock level. At both events, it was great to sell steadily throughout the day and be able to create momentum around the last few copies towards the close. It would’ve been unfortunate to run out of stock too early – especially as exhibitors are often required to stay for the full event to maintain the buzz of a marketplace.

But, beyond sales, having the chance to personally share something I’ve crafted and love was an absolute joy. It was also hugely informative.

Being able to talk directly with potential readers is a great opportunity to form a better understanding of who your book speaks to.

In the early stages of book marketing, I had assumed that – because my main characters are aged seventeen and twenty – I needed to focus my attention on new adults.

But, seeing the book sell in person, it was clear that buyers were from ages sixteen to sixty-plus, across different ethnicities and gender identities. I’ve since begun to call myself an author of book club fiction – because the big human questions at the heart of my novel can resonate with anyone who loves stories that linger and plots that beg to be discussed.

 

3. Show some personality

One problem we can have when it comes to marketing our books is that we’re relatively private people. Unlike poets or creative non-fiction writers, we novelists don’t tend to make ourselves the subject of our work – at least not intentionally! So, emerging from the shadows and into the spotlight can be a daunting transition.

But, in my experience, people love meeting authors.

Remember, the conversation can be two-way: it doesn’t have to be all about you and your book.

I had such interesting chats with people about their own projects, their reading loves and pet hates, their family dynamics and personal goals. Some led to sales and others didn’t. But having the freedom to take time over that person-to-person interaction is a genuine perk of being self-published. Many fiction readers are also aspiring authors; hearing your journey could be the catalyst they need to dust off their manuscript, and that’s a wonderful privilege.

I also thought intentionally about ways to start conversations and included relevant prompts around my stall – from books that shaped my research, to reader review quotes, original artwork and religious icons. I chose objects that brought Ben and Harriet to life from the outset and things that make sense of the journey I’ve been on as an author, all with the aim of helping potential readers form more accurate expectations of the book.

Liz Amos Black British Book Festival
4. Don’t forget the details

You’ve poured yourself into creating your book. You’ve secured a place at an event where your book is likely to resonate. Don’t fall at the last hurdle: make sure your stall stands out for the right reasons and you can complete each sale smoothly.

Take care of the practicalities.

There are relatively affordable card readers available, and the upfront cost should be paid off in book sales if you plan to do multiple events. It’s worth also bringing a float, just in case you need to give change for cash payments.

Canva is a great platform for designing any posters, postcards or business cards for free. If you have the budget, I recommend professional printing to make sure the colours, image resolution and paper quality are all up to scratch. And a tip I learnt the hard way: try to use ‘evergreen’ language so that you can reuse your designs.

Clarify with the organisers what they will provide for you on the day. Do you need to bring your own table cover? How many chairs are provided? Are there power sockets for your phone and card reader?

Make sure you’re clear on the size of your stall too. I opted for 3ft rather than 6ft because I like things cosy – but if you want a big banner and lots of stock, a small stall could end up feeling cluttered.

You never know what adjustments you might want to make to your stall presentation in the moment, so bring along tape and scissors – and pens for book signing (check they work!).

Finally, be sure to look after yourself.

 You are your book’s ambassador; you need to be at your best for each interaction throughout the day. You’re unlikely to get a lunch break, so bring food you can nibble in quiet moments (without getting your hands dirty). Stay hydrated and keep painkillers with you. Bring a helper or be prepared to make friends with neighbouring stallholders so that you can have bathroom breaks. Wear clothes that you feel good in – and remember that standing up makes you seem approachable, so make sure your shoes are comfortable. It sounds basic, but it’s the small things that will stop you from flagging.

5. Go for it!

Book marketing pushes most of us outside of our comfort zones, but I would highly recommend the exhibitor experience.

Attending the festivals was tiring but exhilarating, and the chance to build relationships was as rewarding as the sales.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.