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Author As Seller, How are you doing?

Going to Conference, a book expo, or a book signing? Angela L Ackerman's post on her observations of authors and readers at a Writing Conference are helpful. Her comments helped give me another way of thinking about potential buyers and my role as the author in selling. Most authors that I know are not sales people. We are much more comfortable alone in front of a computer writing our stories than trying to sell those stories. Although Angela is giving her thoughts on hands on selling, I wonder if her comments also apply to sitting at dinner at a conference or waiting for a speaker to begin as we interface with those around us. Am I so eager to tell my story that I forget to listen to others?

Hand-Selling Your Book: How Savvy Are You?

Posted: 02 Sep 2013 On The Bookshelf Muse by Angela Ackerman

Earlier in August, I attended a 3-day conference for writers and readers called When Words Collide. This unique event had lectures on writing technique, publishing options and content that focused on the business of writing.
I attended sessions on everything from Quantum Theory (great for plot lines that deal with parallel worlds!) to Building Author Websites, to Understanding Patterns of Recognition in Readers, to The Role of Violence in Literature. All this for $55 dollars. AMAZING VALUE. If you live near Calgary Alberta or would like to visit, do check out next year's conference!

One of the neat things about this conference is that they had a large bookstore for local indie booksellers, Canadian publishers, and indie authors. Anyone who presents workshops or sits on panels at the conference is invited to have their book available, so of course I took advantage of this. (SIDE NOTE: meeting fans of The Emotion Thesaurus was SO awesome!)

I took a few shifts at a table to help sell books, as did many other authors. Because I like to watch people (er, not in a El Creepo way or anything) I made some observations on those working the various bookstore tables and how their behavior affected those browsing for books. The good and bad selling strategies I observed split equally between self-published and traditionally published authors.

Body Language:

DESPERATE-FOR-THE-SALE: types leaned forward on their chair or hovered near their books like a jack-in-the-box ready to spring. They watched shoppers and kept a bead on anyone moving toward their table.
SMART SELLERS: appeared relaxed and non-threatening, or busied themselves tidying the table (re-stacking all the books, straightening business cards and fanning out bookmarks). They glanced up occasionally but avoided continual eye contact.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO: When I wandered the room as a buyer, I found I either felt like a piece of meat or a window shopper, depending on the body language of the people behind the table.

First Interaction:

DESPERATE-FOR-THE-SALE: once a customer started browsing the table, the seller asked a direct question that would hopefully lead to a personal sale. This might be anything from, "So, do you read Fantasy/Romance/Memoir/X genre?" and if they answered correctly, the seller would nudge attention toward their book. In one case I heard someone say, "You need this book." If they answered a different genre than the author's book, a follow up question might be, "Well, have you ever tried X genre?"

SMART SELLERS: asked an indirect question after a few moments of browsing. This ranged from "So, are you enjoying the conference?" or "Are you a reader, or a writer?" which led to some conversation about the WWC event and then to either questions about what the buyer read or what they wrote.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO: I observed that if the seller was too direct, the buyer would move on to another table, or they would stay and avoid that author's book (sometimes checking out the person's name tag and seeing if it matched a book!) People were there to browse so if the person behind the table let them do so for a minute before speaking to them, this seemed to encourage them to hang around a bit longer.


DESPERATE-FOR-THE-SALE: if the browser stayed, this type of seller wasted little time to insert a mention of their book into the conversation. This could be anything from, "Yes, editing is hard isn't it? I think I did seven revisions for my last book before my publisher was happy with it." which would sometimes get a polite nod if the author was being too obvious, and other times spur more conversation: "Oh, so you're published?" or, "You have a book--is it here?" which could lead to a sale. Sometimes the seller would try to make a comparison: "The book you're writing sounds a bit like my book, Radical Racers: An Uncharted Journey--" *points* "--which is also about a teenager who struggles with his parents." Again, depending on how obvious the author was, this might reek of trying too hard or encourage another look. 

SMART SELLERS: followed up on the initial indirect question. This might be, "So what was your favorite panel so far?" or "What book are you reading right now?" which lead to some conversation about the WWC event and start a discussion about books, allowing the seller to learn about the reader's tastes.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE TWO: Often if the seller was pushy or obvious about trying to draw attention to their book, the potential reader would leave as politely as possible or make a comment that shut out further pitching. "I usually only read Steampunk," or "Well, I better go so I can make the next panel." If the person behind the table seemed more interested in conversing in general, they stuck around to talk and look.

Author-As-Seller Styles:

There seemed to be a few styles of selling. The first was ME FOCUSED, where the seller was generally only interested in talking to potential readers to make them aware of their book. If they discussed the reader's interests, they would bring the conversation around to what they had on the table as soon as possible. Me focused types were on a mission, and often stopped engaging when it was clear the person would not be buying their book. They rarely if ever suggested other books on the table to the reader because many hadn't bothered to read the back jacket blurbs.

SAVVY SELLERS would engage browsers in conversation, and work on a relationship, trying to encourage light back and forth. They asked questions that didn't make the other person uncomfortable. If someone picked up a book that wasn't theirs, they sometimes commented on it, talking about the cover or plot if they knew it. They also put buyers at ease, asking about their writing or reading habits, discussed books they'd read in common and would gently draw attention to their book if an opportunity presented itself (for example, if the person picked it up they might say, "That one's mine. Do you read a lot of fantasy?" Or they might say, "Are you a bookmark collector like me? Would like one of mine?" subtly drawing attention that their book is on display. If the buyer was also a writer or they shared some personal ground, the seller might ask, "Do you blog/have a website/are you on twitter?" and if so, they would ask for a business card to connect with them online. This often led to a card exchange. Savvy sellers made connection regardless of whether they made a sale and became memorable in the browser's mind.

DON'T WANT TO DO THIS BUT I HAVE TO types avoided eye contact, texted and checked their phones constantly, And talked to their table mates so they wouldn't have to strike up conversations with buyers. They only talked to customers when they handled money after a buyer had made their choice. The don't want to do this types missed a big opportunity to interact with readers, draw attention to their books and make a positive impression. 

UNCOMFORTABLE WITH HAND-SELLING authors knew the books on the table and would engage browsers in conversation. They would make recommendations based on the reader's interests, but not bring up their own book. This appeared to build trust and a relationship, which sometimes led to the browser to ask a bit about the seller, or cause them to check out their name tag to see if it matched anything on the table. They would often then pick up the book and ask about it, and while the author would respond and engage, the reader had to do the asking to get to that point. This could come across as humility to browsers or suggest to them the author was not confident in their own book. Sometimes sales would happen, sometimes not, but if the potential buyer moved on without knowing the person they enjoyed talking to even had a book, it was a wasted opportunity. 

So...which was I? If I'm honest, I tried for savvy but leaned a bit toward the uncomfortable hand-seller in the sense that I didn't point out my book or mention it unless people made the connection it was mine or actually had it in their hands. Instead I tried hard to make people feel comfortable by asking what they wrote, and what they were enjoying about the conference. I definitely swapped business cards, and if people struggled with certain areas of writing where my blog could help, I mentioned it. If I knew other good sources of information that fit their needs or books that ran along their interest, I mentioned those as well. I didn't obsessively watch people, I paid attention to the people who clearly wanted to browse in peace, and I only checked my email if the traffic had dropped off to nothing.

I know that I need to become more comfortable being an advocate of my book, but I struggle with how to do that and not feel pushy. So tell me, what techniques do you employ to hand sell your books? If you are the buyer, what turns you off, and what causes you to give a new book a try?

Angela Ackerman is a writer living in Calgary, Alberta with a passion for helping writers succeed. Along with Becca Puglisi she is the author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writers Guide To Character Expression. Her blog is full of good information for writers: The Bookshelf Muse.

Leave a comment in answer to one of Angela's question for a giveaway of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writers Guide To Character Expression in ebook format.


Caroline said...

Great advice, especially since my debut novel is up for preorder now. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and I certainly appreciate all the advice I can get! Thanks, Angela!

Q: do you offer candy and other things (free) to interested visitors at your table?

Maggie Brendan said...

Oh, my, I've had nearly everyone of things happen at my book signing. :) Some walk past and pretend that you've smiled at them when they entered the bookstore. I naturally enjoy talking to readers and authors but sometimes it's hard to engage some people, no matter what my effort. Book signings can be hard work or fun. But I've driven to the other side of town and it takes a huge chunk of my time to do book signings and had it not go well. I do believe that less and less are doing them or unless you can guarantee the store owner of some size of a showing. More successful ones are done along with other authors. Those are a blast! Great post!

Gail Sattler said...

This is quite an eye-opener, I would like to turn from nervous to savvy at the selling table. :)

A J Hawke said...

Maggie, When I originally read this post it was almost moments of deju vue. I also have experienced much of it. What worries me is whether I have been so intent on selling my book that I failed to listen to the potential buyer.
I also wonder about the benefit of a book signing, especially with so many readers going to downloads and ordering online.

A J Hawke said...

Good question, Caroline. I've never offered candy but I have offered a drawing for a book, just not the book I'm promoting. People do tend to stop and seem a little more open to dialogue.

I'm with you Gail, I too want to be more savvy and other conscious.

Danica said...

Great advice!! I have been wondering how to do this since my first book will be out soon(ish).

I really hate all the things you listed as being characteristic of being a pushy seller. I'll give a new book a try if I really like the person who wrote it, or if someone whose reading tastes I trust recommend it.

Angela Ackerman said...

Hi Caroline--congrats on your debut!

I wasn't in change of my table so there was no candy, but many other tables did and I absolutely would do this too. Some people had candy in a bowl next to business cards while others had Hershey kisses taped on a business card. if it were me, I would do the former, because attaching the card might make people opt to not take the candy. Having cards nearby is subtle, IMO.

Maggie, you hit on something I think that often is attractive to buyers--a group signing. If there are more than one person at the table and more than one book, people seem to feel more willing to approach, and the "atmosphere" seems a bit more lively when more people are working the table. I think group events are smart!

Gail, so glad this helps. I struggle with representing my book, because I'm so worried about being pushy. I do find though that when I just talk about books or the event in general and be genuine, my book comes up naturally without me having to feel like I'm thrusting it in their face or something, you know? I imagine the more I do it, the more savvy I'll become. :)

AJ, my MIL said something once...not her quote, but one I loved anyway: she asked, are you listening, or waiting to speak? I try to really think about this when I interact with people and i let it guide me. I don't always succeed, but I am trying!

With the going online comment, certainly some will, but it's still a book sold. But I think hand-selling leads to impulse purchases as well, especially when the seller tries to build a relationship.

The other thing it does, whether they buy from you or buy online, is make an impression on them. So if they like your book, and they liked meeting you in person, they are probably more likely to recommend your book to others. Make sense?

Thanks so much for giving my post another opportunity to be seen, and for the giveaway. This is such a hard area for all of us to do. Sure some are natural sellers, but most of us aren't, yet we need to learn the best way to interact with people to give our books the best chance to be read.

Thanks everyone for the comments!

Angela Ackerman said...

Danica I agree--there is nothing more of a turn off than a pushy seller. There were a few people at the conference who wrote similar things to what I wrote, but they were so pushy I didn't buy their books. then there were three new people I'd never met before who were so nice and genuine, I wanted to find out more about what they wrote, so i bought their books even though it's not what I usually read. Connecting with people does sell books! :)

Crystal Collier said...

I may be unique in this regard, but I never buy things face to face. I research and purchase later. SO, as a buyer, the most effective way to get me to purchase your book is to exchange information, have a pleasant conversation, and sell YOU. As a seller, I tend to be the savvy seller who makes recommendations based on people's interests.

Great post!

Jayne said...

Fascinating to see your take on sellers from the other side of the table, Angela. I tend to avoid the desperate ones myself, but have lasting good impressions of the more person-oriented merchants and may end up buying their book because of the personal connection they've made.

Anonymous said...

A warm smile goes a long way in telling people they're welcomed and they matter to you in a nice way. I'd love to win a copy of your book and read your take on selling.

Angela Ackerman said...

And that's fine Crystal! Clearly the relationship is the important thing. The other thing too I was thinking about is how with everyone having smart phones and such is how often I saw people buy digital copies. In fact I did this after serving on a panel with another author. I really liked her and liked her story about her publishing path, her story was interesting and she was knowledgeable, so I looked up her book at amazon and bought it on the spot. Being personable makes all the difference. :)

Jayne, it was eye opening to see this from both sides of the table. The busiest tables were the ones where people were really friendly and welcoming. I think maybe some authors put too much pressure on themselves that they have to "nail the sale" instead of just being themselves.

@Numbers, yes definitely a smile goes a long way. An d you never know who you will meet and the connections you'll form. :)

Kathleen Maher said...

I might try a new book if the author and I had something in common without that awkward self-promotion laid on too thick. If it was set in my home state, for example, or about my favorite time period. I like your model of striking up indirect questions with the browser. that is where a seller might pick up cues and make that invaluable connection. Great post.

A J Hawke said...

Kathleen, 'that awkward self-promotion' can be a real turn off, but I think it is usually more a symptom of not knowing how to promote one's books, rather than intentional. Unfortunately, I must have missed that class in Author Preparedness School and it is one reason I appreciated Angela's article on the topic.

Angela Ackerman said...


As you say, when an author is awkward or uncomfortable when talking about their book, this can be a turn off, leading the potential reader to wonder if it's poorly written. This is why in our attempts to not be pushy, we can't go too far the other way either. Somehow we have to find comfortable middle ground where we show confidence in our work, yet don't plug it at any opportunity.

A J, I missed that class too, lol. Helping authors become more confident and help them be advocates for their book without being overbearing would make a great class!

Elaine Marie Cooper said...

These are excellent observations of interactions. Someone else mentioned a warm smile—that can go a long way to invite conversation. My best sales occur when I bring book marks that have all the info about my book or books, including where they can purchase it elsewhere, like Amazon. Lots of folks like e-readers, but many still want to hold a paperback. I use my book marks as an ice breaker—I hand them out to passers-by for free and then let them initiate conversation. I try to read body language, facial expression, etc., to prompt any further interaction. But I always smile to let them know I appreciate them, whether or not they purchase.

Angela Ackerman said...

Elaine, you sound like a real pro! Yes the smile is super important. I agree to that while people are reading via ereaders more, we all still love the weight of it in our hands. If you watch people at a book table, most touch the books, even if they don't buy. the weight of a book is likely tied to memory and all the great reads in the past.

Eliza Tilton said...

wow. Great observations!

I went to BEA, as a reader, and while waiting on line to get a signed book, I started a conversation with the girl next to me. We talked about books we liked, video games, the expo, but I never brought up my book...thanks to my super outgoing sis-in-law, SHE brought up me and my book. The girl looked a little shocked because we'd been talking about my genre, fantasy, and not once did I mention my book!

You definitely need to have a balance and WISDOM. I'm still trying to figure it out.

A J Hawke said...

You have the answer, balance and Wisdom. I would also throw in common sense, which isn't so common sometimes.

Angela Ackerman said...

Eliza, that is awesome. And it reminded me how my son does this to me, haha. Whenever the topic of me being a writer comes up, I'm all like "Yeah so I write this and this and this type stuff" and he'll take over, talking about my book and what people say who read it. I start blushing sometimes and want to say "I swear, I do not tell him to say this stuff!" lol.


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I love the wind in my face, the open sky before me, the romance and flavor of the West, but, most of all, our loving and living God, who created it all. I love how He works out His plans in the realm of human events, which is His Story. I have been blessed with a gift: a compulsion to write Historical and present-day novels set in the American West that demonstrate His power to transform ordinary people into true heroes and heroines. I am just a scribe really. I find the joy of participating in the creation of inspirational fiction indescribable. May our Lord Jesus Christ receive all of the credit and be glorified.

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