Hand-Selling Your Book: How Savvy Are You?

Each year, I attend 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. Sessions run 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 do check out this conference!

One of the neat things about this conference is that they have 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 always take advantage of this. (SIDE NOTE: meeting fans of The Emotion Thesaurus is always SO awesome!)

At the last one, 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?

Thesaurus Book TrioIf 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?

Image 2: Geralt @ Pixabay




Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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C. A. Wilke
6 years ago

Nice article. I recently attended Phoenix Comicon and helped a friend man his vendor booth. As a thanks, he let me put my fresh-off-the-presses book on the table and pitch it. I will say, I have found that most authors are too afraid to talk to people at all. It’s a bit tough just starting that conversation in the first place.

For me, though, I think I stayed somewhat in the savvy seller category, though may have strayed into the desperate sometimes.

Thanks for sharing!

Fiona McLaren
7 years ago

I got a lot from this, Angela. I come by the blog often, but lurk a lot (I wish I could say it was for a good reason, but it’s simply because I enjoy the blog and like to procastinate!). Really insightful. Glad to see the blog going so well.

Fiona (aka 350spider)

7 years ago

Love the advice in this post! I’m bookmarking it for the future.

Alison Strachan
7 years ago

Great post. I’m definitely the awkward type of seller. In my opinion if a potential reader took my business card I would call that successful. They might connect with you online as well and convert other readers there. 🙂 Great observations!

Carrie Butler
7 years ago

Very interesting! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

Martha Ramirez
7 years ago

Wow this an excellent breakdown! Thank you for sharing! Will def keep this in mind when I go to a conference!

Karen Clayton
7 years ago

Thanks for the post. My 13 year old son and I co-suthored and self published a book this summer. We haven’t started the hand selling yet, but we will have to keep this in mind when we do.

Angela Ackerman
7 years ago

I know what you mean, Scott. We need to find that balance between being our book’s advocate yet not being pushy about it.

scott meek
7 years ago

Yeah, I’m not the “hey, look at my book” type. I’d be the reluctant one, the “hey, sorry, but I wrote a book and wish you would read it but I really don’t want to ask you to look at it” guy.

Becca Puglisi
7 years ago

I LOVE this post. I love that you’ve written down an eye-witness account of different kinds of sellers and buyers. I know that selling books at a table can be pretty boring, with lots of down time when you’re not physically talking to anyone. You used what could have been wasted minutes to learn how to be more successful. Thanks for sharing!

Lori Schafer
7 years ago

As a buyer, I’m totally turned off by the Desperate-for-the-Sale type. That’s the kind of behavior that will make me wander very quickly away, simply because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings; I feel bad if someone shows me their work and I’m not interested in it. I’d rather avoid the confrontation all together. With a more subtle approach, at least I feel as if I can back away gracefully if I want to, and who knows? While I’m making up my mind I might just buy something.

Misha Gericke
7 years ago

Excellent advice!

I actually don’t know what I’d be, since I hadn’t sold any books, let alone hand-selling.

Fingers crossed that I’ll be savvy one day!

Stina Lindenblatt
7 years ago

This is similar to my drug rep days. I used to be more like the first examples and hated it. I would have rather had a conversation than play drug rep when doing hospital displays. And judging from how physicians avoiding the hospital display table, the feeling was obviously mutual. lol

Great post, Angela.

7 years ago

Great post! I love your observations and am taking notes.

7 years ago

The first type sounds like a car dealer – the one’s that chase us away by being to aggressive.

Michelle Gregory
7 years ago

glad to know i’m not the only author who feels awkward about hand-selling my book.

Angela Ackerman
7 years ago

Glad this helps! I wish i could have spent time at more tables to observe how authors and booksellers went about selling. Some were very good and really made the browsers feel welcome. I think if people had the attitude that they were there to meet people and connect first and foremost, they put buyers at ease. The ones who were only there to sell copies and showed it…those were the ones that could come off as aggressive. That said, I am sure some of these folks did sell more books…I just don’t know if people felt pressured into it.

As a buyer, I appreciated it most when the people at the table knew about some of the books and authors that were on the table with them. I could ask questions or they proactively would tell me, “The author of this book was on a panel this morning on X and it was so informative,” or “I’ve read this author and she’s great,” etc. I just felt like they were more interested in helping me find a good book that fit my tastes rather than selling me a particular book.

Rosemary Gemmell
7 years ago

Love this post – thank you. Hopefully will get the chance to put the good points into practice one day!

7 years ago

You are so right about the sellers who made contact with potential buyers regardless of making a sale. Those are the sellers I remember after I leave the table. Those are the ones I will go back to if I have a question or comment, and that means I might buy their book on my trip back without any *obvious* sell tactics.

I’ve worked in retail. Yes, you can sometimes push people into buying, but you don’t make friends that way. As a writer, I want to be friends with people who might buy my book.:)

7 years ago

Self-promotion can be incredibly difficult. I haven’t done it for any books, but I have manned information tables at fairs for places I’ve worked and you see the same sort of behaviors. It’s a tricky balance–people like to be noticed, but they don’t want to feel pressured. The subtle, non-approach approach really seems to be the best.

Michelle Gregory
7 years ago

great stuff. i always wonder if i’m too pushy or not engaged enough. thanks.

Donna K. Weaver
7 years ago

Love this post. Great observations. This is so hard for me. I hate pushy and I don’t want to be pushy.

“Savvy sellers made connection regardless of whether they made a sale and became memorable in the browser’s mind.”

I love this statement because this is the thing that can make it fun. The world is full of wonderful people. Even if they don’t buy your book.

7 years ago

Great post, Angela. We love to attend markets (farmers, crafts, whatever) and sometimes help my parents sell at it. Your observations are spot on. As a not-yet-published author, I haven’t had to sell a book yet, but certainly there are other opportunities to practice. Not wasting those opportunities will help me to prepare for that long-term goal. As always, I learn so much from you. Thanks!

Loree Huebner
7 years ago

This is so interesting.

Great “people watching” for authors!

Natalie Aguirre
7 years ago

I don’t have any books to try this with, but I’ll keep it in mind if I do. Great observations.

Anne Gallagher
7 years ago

I wish I knew. I have a hand-selling event coming up in October and I’m just scared to death I’m going to blow it. (Hoping for 100 books — controlled environment, people are expecting me to sell, but still, can I be absolutely positive I sell all 100?)