Most self-published authors will, at some point, find themselves in a position where they have to physically talk to a potential customer and sell them a copy of their book. This is pretty different for those who only publish e-books versus those who also publish print books, but the core skill is the same. You have to be able to describe your book in a compelling manner.
There are two main locations where you might find yourself directly trying to sell your book to consumers: Conferences and Book Signings. Obviously the latter only applies to people with physical books to sign, but the events are different enough that it’s worth discussing.
As a quick aside, yes, a lot of indie author sales come from e-books and the majority of those are “sold” via discussions online. Many of these skills are less applicable to internet discussion because they involve establishing a rapport with your potential customer. Still, learning how to describe your book can be valuable even for more distanced, online communications.
Let me share my anecdotal experience from my recent conference on October 1, 2021 as a example of how to sell your book in person.
I was seated between a 20 year veteran attendee of the conference who had been publishing for a few years and had connections with most conference coordinators (my table-mate) and a woman who was selling a YA portal fantasy with adult crossover that decorated her table with a bunch of pretty cool dragon miniatures. This positioning was great for me. People walking down the hall tended to stop at the dragon minis, discover that the book was YA with crossover potential, and about a third to half the time look around for other interesting things in the area. Or, they would stop at my table-mate’s book, chat with him about his publishing plans and how well he’d been doing at the conference, and then notice my book and ask about it. The pitches are what I want to evaluate, though.
The YA crossover author always opened the same way. “Do you like dragons?” At a science fiction/fantasy convention, that answer was about 90% yes. But then she moved on. “Great. My book is about a boy who must master the magic in his blood and learn to wield his magic sword.” I got that pitch wrong, especially because she had a decent stakes sentence in there and did mention dragons in it, but that’s close. It always led to a similar question. “So this is YA?” And just like that, she’s immediately trying to justify why it’s not only for teenagers. It didn’t help that her series was named “The Dragon’s Children” series or something similar, which hinted to a lot of people that her book starred children. To be clear, She did perfectly well at the conference, and I sat next to her for three days and walked away a bit interested in her book. When I have time to read (probably over the upcoming holidays) I’ll likely buy a copy. If you enjoy YA crossover or are interested in giving it a shot, she had several dedicated readers stop by, as well, and clearly writes a good book. Give it a shot here if it sounds like your thing: Red Dragon’s Keep.
My table-mate had a similar approach. People stopped to check out his table and–in the rare occasion that he didn’t already know them–he had a pitch pre-prepared. “This is the book I’m encouraging people to start with. It’s two master mage, shape-shifting dragons running an interdimensional hotel. It’s the ultimate cross-genre book. A little bit of everything.” Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear “this book has a little bit of everything,” I immediately ask myself what it’s really about. A disjointed book held together by common setting has to be really good to work. That pitch worked on some of the people walking by, and some of the people already knew about him and were looking to buy his book. But a lot of others immediately asked about his other books. Those were collections of short stories, some independent of his trilogy but some about the same dragons going on vacation (“Sometimes the dragons take a vacation, and find other, well-known tropes but react very differently from what we’d expect. Master mage dragons don’t view a zombie apocalypse the same way, you know!”). Again, as with the author on the other side, he had a fan base and after talking with him for several days the book does, actually, sound interesting. Here’s the link if you’re interested: A Day at Georgie and Armand’s Place. But his pitch, similar to the YA crossover pitch, tried to include everyone.
This is a great starting point for talking about your book. I quickly learned to have a short verbal pitch that I could rattle off, along with a hook that could connect with my audience. For me: “I have a political epic fantasy about a king trying to bring peace after a civil war when his countrymen think he’s a traitor while a reluctant thief is manipulated into stirring up rebellion. Some early readers said it’s Game of Thrones-ish, but I insist I’m nowhere near that dark!” Almost always I was able to start a conversation about what the reader looks for in a book, even if they didn’t know that’s what they were telling me. “So you’re not going to build up an amazing character for me to love just so you can kill them off?” Ah. This reader wants to connect with their characters and ride the entire story with them. My kind of reader. And from that I can discuss the elements of the book that I think they’ll enjoy. I had one possible buyer who hesitated over my description of the book as “political epic fantasy.” He said he wasn’t sure he could handle more politics after the events of the recent election. I agreed, telling him that was understandable, and made no effort to convince him to buy even though he was obviously interested. Why? Because he wasn’t in the right mindset to enjoy the book and selling the book to someone who was going to be frustrated by it wasn’t going to help either of us. The authors on either side of me probably would have tried to push the sale. I’m happy that he was drawn to the book despite being unsure about the politics. He’ll be a reader or he won’t, but he definitely won’t be someone who read the book when he was unsure and disliked it because he wasn’t ready for it.
I ended up outselling my table-mate at this conference. Admittedly, I only outsold him by two books, and we both had a good weekend, so I don’t think his strategy wasn’t working. It clearly was. But mine, improvised off the activity I saw around me, worked just as well. I think we were all surprised by that.
A signing is a different world from a conference. At a book signing, you’re trying to get a group of people gathered, talking about your book to draw in other potential readers. If you can get some personal friends to show up and get that started, all the better. This worked for me. A few people I knew from work and/or writing groups showed up early in the signing, which resulted in a couple other people in the store stopping by to check out the event. At the end, I left 7 copies out of 20 the store ordered on their shelves (hint, if you live in the Colorado Springs area, the Barnes and Noble on Briargate still has a few copies of my signed book in store). But the way I manages that was actually not about bringing my friends in, though that helped.
After my initial crowd died down, the store manager stopped by and talked to me about successful and unsuccessful signings she’d seen in the past. The best author she’s ever had, she told me, is a mystery author who drives up from a nearby town to do signings there. He stands in the doorway, greets everyone, asks what they read, and directs them to his table if he thinks he can get them to give his latest book a shot. I don’t recall the exact number, but she told me he sells tons of books for them every signing. I think it was 70 or 80 books a signing.
I admit that I didn’t have that confidence. I got up, I stood by the door, and I greeted customers. But I didn’t try to strike up a conversation with them. I just offered them a free bookmark and if they paused and looked interested, I tried to catch their attention. Most of the bookmarks I handed out didn’t get me any additional attention. How many of those customers would have paid attention, maybe even bought a book, if I’d been more engaging? Probably more than a couple. But it’s hard standing in a store that you are not affiliated with and trying to convince their customers to care about you. If you piss those customers off, the store might not invite you back. But if you don’t sell enough books, the store also won’t invite you back. So where’s the balance?
Having been through it and comparing to my conference experience, here’s my advice. First, find the simple pitch that you can say while offering a handout. For my book, I should have said “Would you like a bookmark for my political epic fantasy novel?” And I definitely should have approached a couple people and said “Hey, I notice you’re buying (George R.R. Martin/Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson). Would you like to hear about my new epic fantasy novel?” But the manager was right. Sitting behind the table does nothing but scare people away. I sometimes just walked away (in visual range but far enough that I wasn’t lurking by the table) and watched people stop to take a look. Sometimes those were the same people who had specifically avoided coming near the table when I was nearby or sitting there.
So, how do you talk about your book at a signing? By engaging with other content they want to read as authentically as possible. This has a lot of similarities with conference discussions, but it is not the same. In a book store signing, you have to convince potential readers to look at your table at all, because they’ll tend to avoid a place where a person is waiting to talk to them. At a conference, the readers stop by the table because they want to talk to the authors. Know where you’re selling, and know what the consumers there are looking for. That’s the key to getting people to give your book a shot.