Setting out your stall

Some people think it takes a special sort of person to make a success of buying or selling. It is true, some people have the knack. It’s like the lad who came round, he was selling plots in the local cemetery. So we got rid of him by telling him that we’d already got one. He just smiled politely and said, “Well I hope you’ll be very happy there.”
But the main thing that marks out somebody who is going to get the sales is their attitude.
To quote an exchange from a truly fine work of literature;

Horfin laughed. “Take no notice of Chi Tah. He will buy or sell anything.”
Chi Tah bowed. “Indeed I keep my grandmother freshly washed and presentable against the possibility of impulse buyers.”

But on a serious note, any author can sell their books to people at a show if they stick to various guidelines.
The first one is to have something to sell. E-books are fine. One of their advantages is that you can fit thousands on your e-reader. Unfortunately this very advantage means they lack presence when you’re trying to put together a display on a stall.
I’ve seen people sell e-books at a show. They carry them on a phone or laptop. Somebody hands them the cash and they just email the e-book to the client. Cut out Amazon and other middlemen. But frankly you still want real books to draw people.

The second thing to remember is about space and presence. Let us assume you have a table. The age of miracles is with us and the organisers have even provided you with a chair! You sit on the chair behind the table. You spread your books out on the table in a pleasing manner. You’re ready to sell.
But the table is also a barrier. Somehow you have to project yourself across that barrier and reach out to the aisle or space in front where the people are.
Otherwise the customers are going to have to reach across the barrier to make contact with you. If you’re sitting on your own, huddled round a book or typing busily on a laptop, and generally not making eye contact, you’ve made it hard work for them and they’ll just move on.

So, some guidelines.
Firstly, it’s easier if you’re with somebody else. Share your table with another author. If you cannot find another author, take a friend or share with someone who has craftwork to sell. You’ll find the time doesn’t drag. You’ll have somebody to chat to and someone to watch the stock and keep selling when you nip to the loo.
Secondly, make eye contact with the people who go past. Nod pleasantly to them, say hello. It’s good to get into conversation, complement their dog, their cosplay costume. Draw others into that conversation. You’ve subtly slowed the traffic in the aisle, people are eddying about and some of them might well look at your books.
One technique that is very good is to have a bowl of sweets. Something like mint imperials (although I know one stall that was launching a SF story, and they had ‘Flying Saucers’ which were fun, appropriate, and cheap. )

Sherbet flying saucers sweets

Sherbet flying saucers sweets

The sweets give you a reason to reach out into the aisle and command the ground on the other side of your table. It gives you a whole range of opening gambits.
“You’re looking footsore, fancy a sweet?”
“Free sweets, the only downside is that some clown will try to sell you a book while you eat it.”
“Excuse me madam, is it alright if your child has one of these?”

What you’re doing is overcoming the obstacle to selling that is your table. You’re reaching past it and refusing to be trapped by it. Don’t be trapped by the chair either. At a busy show I found that I spent hours at a time on my feet. Standing up brings you nearer to the table and projects your presence across it.
It’s an interesting but contrary example. When I was selling at Costa, we actually spent the entire time sitting down. It was an instinctive thing, perhaps because it was a coffee shop, and I felt that somehow I could reach out to people better by looking chilled, relaxed and seated.

Selling in costa
Thirdly, be realistic. How many of these books do you expect to sell? Here I’m assuming that like me, you’re an ‘unknown.’ You might be the next J.K.Rowling, but you’ve not yet been discovered. To put a few very average numbers on it, my experience is that even at a convention where there’s a crowd of people there to buy appropriate stuff; you’re going to do well if you sell two books an hour. Three books an hour is amazing. At an event like a more general show, or Costa or similar; where people didn’t really come looking for books, then if you sell one book an hour you’ve done alright. At the very least, this gives you a budget to work on.
It also gives another advantage to working with two or three other people. Yes you sell a book an hour, but so do they. It creates a positive and up-beat mood because there are people in front of the table and they’re buying and that can breed success. Also, more prosaically, it’s more people to share the costs with.

So I wish you the best of luck, the sort you make yourself.



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23 thoughts on “Setting out your stall

  1. The Story Reading Ape October 24, 2015 at 6:22 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Great advice from Author Jim Webster 👍😃

    • jwebster2 October 24, 2015 at 7:08 pm Reply

      The only sort I ever give (he says with becoming modesty.)
      Is this the point in the conversation where I mention I’ve got a bridge to sell? 😉

  2. Let's CUT the Crap! October 25, 2015 at 12:52 pm Reply

    Down to earth advice. Thank you. 🙂

    • jwebster2 October 25, 2015 at 1:28 pm Reply

      Well it’s just what I’ve learned by doing, selling books or on stands at agricultural and trade shows. I’m not saying anybody can do it, but I’d go so far as to say that most can 🙂

      • Let's CUT the Crap! October 27, 2015 at 12:44 am

        I agree, at least it does sound doable. 🙂

      • jwebster2 October 27, 2015 at 6:59 am

        I think it boils down to
        1) The table is a platform for you to launch yourself from, not a wall protecting the people in the aisle from you
        2) It’ easier if there are two of you
        3) Have fun

      • Let's CUT the Crap! October 27, 2015 at 1:21 pm

        Thanks again. 🙂

      • jwebster2 October 27, 2015 at 1:35 pm


  3. M T McGuire October 25, 2015 at 11:14 pm Reply

    Some excellent points there. I don’t often get an exit pass but I do get to do the Bury St Edmunds Christmas Fayre. I have two friends, one selling home made jams and biscuits and one selling home made bunting. The three of us get stalls in a row so we can chat and do the banter together. It’s amazing how many people that draws in. Last year, by chatting to the folks trying the jams and enthusing about them, I got several folks to a) buy jam and b) they came and had a look at my cards and books – didn’t have so much of a punt at the bunting because I was on one end – the jams were in the middle!

    Second one food, yes oh yes. Christmas Fayre so I buy chocolate brussels sprouts from M&S. They are awesome for breaking the ice although I have to remind folks to peel off the foil or they tend to eat them as is. 😉 I would go for something wrapped though – its more hygienic.

    Well done, I’m glad it went well. Great tip about ebooks too. I have never tried to sell an ebook, I will think about doing that now. I can easily e-mail them to people. Definitely worth it that one.



    • jwebster2 October 26, 2015 at 7:00 am Reply

      I think you’ve hit on an important point, you’ve go to go into it knowing that it’ll be FUN!

      • M T McGuire October 26, 2015 at 12:18 pm

        Absolutely, if you don’t enjoy yourself no-one else will. That’s especially important for someone, such as myself, who is trying to flog Comedy. If they speak to me and it’s fun they’re more likely to assume the books will be too!

      • jwebster2 October 26, 2015 at 1:01 pm

        People forget that reading is supposed to about fun and entertainment 🙂 If I want dour misery I can always watch the news

      • M T McGuire October 27, 2015 at 4:47 pm

        Or read one of the long list for the Man Booker… phnark.

      • jwebster2 October 27, 2015 at 5:19 pm

        They probably couldn’t pay me enough!

      • M T McGuire October 27, 2015 at 5:30 pm

        Mwah hahaargh! Me neither. Like you, if I want to be depressed I take a look at world affairs. I read to escape the world, not to rub my face in it!

      • jwebster2 October 27, 2015 at 5:37 pm

        This is a serious point really. I’ve sat on a train with one of your books, looked up and thought, “Good grief, Euston already?” Because the time and the miles have just disappeared. Oh and for everybody else, MTM’s book is available as a free download so get it 😉

      • M T McGuire October 28, 2015 at 9:23 am

        Ah bless you Mr Webster. I’m glad you got lost in it. 🙂 it’s a lovely thing to hear.

      • jwebster2 October 28, 2015 at 10:08 am

        They are four really good books, a good story with great characters 🙂

      • M T McGuire October 28, 2015 at 10:13 am

        Glowing. You know I’ve read all yours and recommend them everywhere too. 🙂

      • jwebster2 October 28, 2015 at 10:30 am


  4. Martin Williams October 27, 2015 at 3:29 pm Reply

    I haven’t been a salesman for thirty years (when I left my shop to return to uni…). At least, I haven’t sold physical objects since then. One bit of the advice struck me, though, and more detail would be good. You say “complement their dog”. Would it be good to dress as a bone?

    • jwebster2 October 27, 2015 at 4:41 pm Reply

      When it comes to dressing as a bone, it probably depends on what sort of books you’re selling 🙂
      But actually the advice, ‘compliment their dog’ is excellent. When out walking about, I’ll say hello to somebody as I pass, and then say what a bonny dog they’ve got. People blossom at that and become chatty.
      Problem is that at Sci-fi conventions any dogs are probably guide dogs, and few of them read

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