For whom the jingle bells ring: testing the craft show market

Our Christmas craft show season begins with the first whiff of Thanksgiving turkey (October in Canada, eh?), but seasoned pros spend the entire year stockpiling inventory, planning displays, and banking vacation time from their ‘real’ jobs to enter the frenzied lottery that is the craft fair market.

Can booksellers tap this market? As a new author (first adult novel out a year ago, second just released), I am still learning to swim in the choppy waters of self-marketing, and took the plunge to find out. My test venue was an urban show of nearly 400 vendors that drew about 20,000 people.

The short answer is, I spent three days selling all of four books. Here are my numbers:

Cost of table: $410.00

Cost of travel: $37×3=$111

Cost of meals: $20×3=$60

Cost of supplies/decor: $50

Total Cost: $631.00

(prices do not include GST/HST as our company receives a rebate against tax owed)

Revenue from sales: $86.00

Revenue from sharing table/expenses: $250.00

Total Revenue: $336.00

Net: – $295.00

I lost money even though I found a fellow author to share the table: an author, by the way, who has been writing children’s books for years and sold 40 copies across her five available titles, more than paying her expenses. As ,umm, disappointing as it was watching her titles move while mine stared plaintively at folks who picked them up, admired them, then set them back down, that was a lesson in itself. In addition to my table mate’s voice of experience, here is what I gained in ‘qualitative revenue’:

– industry contacts: in my case, two other publishers who were in attendance. One in particular had a wealth of knowledge on new technology and sales trends.

– sales experts: trade show veterans offering advice on best shows, booth arrangement, crowd control

– market research: watching what people buy, what people are attracted to, how traffic flows. At this show, hot items were food, baby clothes, wooden decor, flowers, and more food. Most shoppers had young children or were shopping for young children. Very few were shopping for themselves; fewer still were avid readers.

– exposure: I know, writers can die from this if there is no money attached, but as a new author, there is no substitute for the hours of physical presence needed to build book, name, and brand recognition. For every book sold, I gave out dozens of business cards, practiced my pitch, and smiled, chatted or nodded to hundreds of more who passed by.

Comparison costs:

To reach this audience via print media: $400-$1,000.00

Broadcast ad: $2000.00 plus production

Market research: $10,000.00

Signings are free, but typically don’t draw crowds in the thousands, even if you’re an established author.

I’ll admit, my pride was stinging more than my back was aching as I lugged out nearly as many books as I had carted in. That sting was eased with the knowledge that I was also bringing home real-life experience on what does and can work for selling my books, and what does not: in other words, my expenses were not lost revenue but tuition for a real-life course in marketing and promotion.

Will I do it again? When my anguished pride completely heals and the cash flow recovers, I’ll weigh my ability to pay with my chances of improving the odds, and decide from there. At least when I do next year’s marketing plan, I will have much more information to work with. And if anguish is the writer’s fuel, I’ve got a full tank and then some 🙂