Nonreaders Raise Nonreaders and Other Lessons Learned Selling Books at Small-Town Fests
In 2012, drunk off whiskey and nachos, I made the insane decision to start up a small press with my girlfriend. We called the company Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing because Modest Mouse’s “Perpetual Motion Machine” happened to be playing at the time, although later on we would come up with some bullshit about our company continuing against all odds and being impossible to stop. Here’s the mission statement currently on our website:
We admire underdogs, and what’s a bigger underdog than the perpetual motion machine? It is defined as “a machine that can continue to do work indefinitely without drawing energy from some external source; impossible under the law of conservation of energy.” Impossible, according to all the odds. But at the PMMP office, we like to say screw the odds. Our goal is to continue producing kickass fiction until the sun comes crashing down upon us all.
Yeah, it might be a little corny, and our press’ name might be a little too long, and its initials can easily be mistaken for “PIMP” instead of “PMMP”, but somehow it still feels perfect. Well, it’s too late to change it now, so it’s perfect enough, okay?
Since our first title launched in early 2013 (Cruel, Eli Wilde), we have published over thirty books in various genres, although most can be labeled as horror. In that time, we have sold books at conventions with more than ten thousand people in attendance (Comic Con) and small fests with less than twenty-five people showing up. We have done events where we sold over a thousand dollars’ worth of books, and we have done events where we didn’t sell a single item. They’re all a gamble.
Out of all events, we happen to frequent small town fests and local craft fairs the most, since the entry fee is usually dirt cheap and they’re relatively close to our house. Events like CiboloFest, which is located maybe five minutes away from us, and features live music, a carnival, a petting zoo, car shows, BBQ, and a single table selling horror fiction. Almost every small town throws an annual fest similar to CiboloFest, an event that’s just “name of town + fest”, although it’s doubtful they all include a small press as one of their vendors. But who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe in every small town in America, there is a publisher just like Perpetual Motion Machine, slowly rotting away from the inside, a doppelganger Max Booth III begging local wildlife to pick his bones clean before it’s too late.
This year, in the month of October alone, we sold books at some kinda fest every single weekend. Octobers are especially hectic for us, since San Antonio likes to throw random horror-themed fairs every week throughout the month. Usually we’re the only people selling books at these; other vendor tables will typically have paintings or T-shirts or jewelry or spooky snacks. At these kinds of events, everybody always seems surprised when they notice our table. Most people don’t expect to encounter books unless they’re walking into a closed-down Barnes & Noble, and even then they’re assuming the only books they’ll find will be stuffed into some barrel fire for extra fuel. Sometimes they’re pleasantly surprised, and eat up our material immediately, but more often than not they’re simply baffled as to why anyone would waste their time on such silly things.
All my years working these small-time fests, I’ve learned quite a bit about readers and nonreaders alike. I’ve talked to thousands of people about what they like to read or why they don’t read. If you’re a writer considering securing a couple vendor tables to promote your titles, I might have some advice for you, a warning of what to expect. And if you’re a reader curious about that weirdo standing behind the book table, take a gander below, see what’s probably going through their head.
Some general tips for surviving an entire day slinging literature:
Invest in a square reader. As someone who is selling merchandise, this should be one of your first purchases. It shouldn’t surprise you that most people don’t carry cash these days. You absolutely must have a square reader at your vendor table, otherwise you’re just asking for failure. Personally, I bring two with me, one that still swipes non-chips, and a more current version made specifically for cards with chips. I connect them with an iPad, but you can also use your smartphone or pretty much any other kind of tablet. With a square reader, you can immediately shut down anyone who tries to escape your table with the “Oh, I didn’t bring any cash” excuse. I also recommend purchasing a portable USB battery. Don’t assume your vendor table will be located close to an outlet. It never is, even if the event organizer promises you one will be nearby; they are all filthy liars.
Bring change. Although most people will pay by card, you will still encounter plenty of cash-carrying customers, so don’t neglect having change handy. Ones and fives should do the trick. Also, don’t be one of those monsters who price their merchandise at something like $15.95. Pick a solid number. Nobody has time to screw around with coins like some kinda psychotic vending machine operator.
Pack healthy snacks. You don’t want to suddenly start shaking with hunger five hours into a convention and be forced to spend $20+ on some meat-on-a-stick heart attack. Invest in a cooler of some type and pack plenty of fruits, cheese, crackers, etc. I like to buy the pre-packaged cheese/cracker/turkey containers, but the choice is up to you. Also, bottled water is a must. I also recommend not going overboard with coffee beforehand, because that shit catches up to you, and I mean that in the most literal sense.
Hygiene is more important than you think. Pack a stick of deodorant at the very least. You will sweat. You will smell. Bring an extra set of clothes just in case, especially underwear. It might sound weird, but just trust me. Conventions can get very gross in very unpredictable ways. You also can’t go wrong with a toothbrush and some toothpaste. And baby wipes. Never go anywhere without baby wipes. That applies to anywhere, not just a vendor event. Baby wipes have saved my life more times than I can count, and I have two whole hands' worth of fingers.
Leave your chair at home. This idea seems to be controversial with other vendors, but hear me out. If you remain standing the entire time, there’s a greater chance some rando will approach you and start asking you about the items you have for sale. Too often vendors will sit behind their table, nearly hidden by their own merchandise, and focus on their cell phones instead of the potential customers passing their tables. I’ve witnessed people ask vendors questions about their products only to be completely ignored. At book-themed conventions, you’ll also find a lot of writers sitting behind their tables with a laptop or—lord forbid—a fucking typewriter out in front of them, typing away on some dumb story. They think the writer-at-work shtick will draw more people in, but in reality you just look like a rude piece of shit and nobody’s gonna want anything to do with you. So yeah, I say leave the chair at home. If you don’t have the option to sit, then you’ll be forced to stand. The more you stand, the more likely people will talk to you. The more people who talk to you, the more books you’re going to sell (theoretically).
Be present. Standing is just the first step. You also have to be alert, you have to be ready to talk even if you’re the most antisocial sonofabitch out there. If you notice someone skimming the covers on your table, ask them what they like to read. Have a film and book comparison prepared for every title you’re selling. Before the event, write up a list of one-sentence descriptions for all of your books and memorize it. At these events, elevator pitches are live-or-die. You have to make these people give a shit. Don’t dismiss anybody, especially the younger crowd. If you’re a creator dedicated to the horror genre, kids are going to keep you alive. Because...
Children Are Hungry For Horror
In my experience, nothing seems to make a kid more excited than some fucked-up monster on a book cover. I’m talking kids of all ages. The little ones, like six and below, might steal a glance at one of our covers and grin, then continue walking with their parents. But the ones between preadolescence and late teens? They can’t get enough of this kind of shit. Maybe it’s because they’ve never seen anything like this in book form, their library at home or school is too tame, but when they notice what we’re selling the excitement that flashes across their faces is better than anything I’ve ever witnessed.
Out of all age groups, I’ve had more conversations about the horror genre with early teens than anyone else. Typically the conversation starts with something like It: Chapter One, then I’m able to progress our discussion more toward literature. It’s funny. So many of us found ourselves hooked on horror lit after watching some Stephen King film adaptation and discovering its source material, and now it looks like that’s exactly what’s happening again. Kids fucking love talking about Stranger Things, too. Bring up that show and they’ll never leave you alone. Plus, as any parent of a child knows, there is some weird stuff currently on YouTube that kids are obsessed over, including Five Nights at Freddy’s, which (*checks notes*) seems to be about giant teddy bears ripping people’s faces off???
We are currently raising a whole new generation of horror fanatics, and it’s never been a more exciting time to be a lover of the genre. But, with that said…
Nonreaders Raise Nonreaders
I will now proceed to give an account of a situation that happens far, far more often than it should.
A family slowly passes our vendor table. Their child, usually a tween, notices our display and smiles. They run over to our books and start talking about how cool they all look. However, before they really have a chance to check anything out, their parents will notice what they’re doing and laugh, then say something like, “What are you doing looking at those books for? What are you, some kind of nerd who does nerd things? C’mon, let’s go.” They will then leave the table, usually dragging their disappointed child away from us, and go check out some booth selling knockoff Walking Dead T-shirts.
Without failure, whenever a parent ridicules their children for showing an interest in reading, I start shaking with rage. It’s difficult for me to comprehend this kind of mindset, this thought process some parents go through that makes them actively discourage their children from picking up a book. I don’t think nonreaders are bad people by any stretch, but I do think nonreaders who prohibit their offspring from reading are a fucking disgrace. They’d rather just continue sucking the teat of whatever new reality show’s lactating from their television set. It’s hard not to imagine Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman’s characters from Matilda during moments like these.
When you sell books at local events, it’s important to prepare yourself. The majority of those you encounter will not give a single shit about what you’re selling. Some of them will avoid eye contact and move on to the next vendor table, but others will approach your table and openly mock the act of reading. Or, somehow worse, they’ll speak of a desire to start reading again if only they weren’t soooo busy with their totally worthwhile lives—implying you, the person behind the table, has completely wasted your life. Which, to be fair, might not be entirely inaccurate. Professional writers often hear this same comment about writing. “Oh, I have this great idea for a novel that I’d love to write, and I just know it’d be an instant bestseller, but I’m just so darn busy bingeing an entire season of television in one day on Netflix!”
The simple and depressing truth is, most random people do not care about books. Sometimes it’s easy to convince myself otherwise since I tend to surround myself online by other readers, but outside of social media it’s much rarer to locate someone who’s read more than three books in a single year, and often three is being generous. Hell, one is probably being generous.
Also, because we primarily sell horror, we experience another wave of folks who cannot wrap their heads around the genre, especially during events not taking place in October. We’ll get a lot of, “Oh, celebrating Halloween a little early, huh?” We also see plenty of people casting disapproving glares our way. The town we live in consists mostly of old white Republicans, and they do not like our getup one bit. But that’s okay. It was frustrating at first, but we’ve come to terms with this reality, because the fact remains that for every ten people we encounter who hate what we do, we also meet someone who loves us, someone who digs the genre just as much as we do and, until now, has been searching for something to fill a hole in their heart. Fellow horror fanatics always find us one way or another, no matter what alley or parking lot we set up shop in; people who get dragged to these things by their friends or relatives, expecting to be bored the entire day only to stumble across titles like Craig Wallwork’s Gory Hole or Jessica McHugh’s The Train Derails in Boston.
We have been doing this a long time, and we don’t aim to stop any time soon. Someone recently asked me why we bother attending these small events, why we don’t stay home and do literally anything else. Well, as I’ve already mentioned, not every fest is a bust. Sometimes we do very well, but yes, other times we’ve ended up wasting a lot of money and energy with little or nothing to show for it. But with that said: everything feels worth it the moment we convert some teenager from believing books are dumb into thinking reading can be fun. Selling a book to a kid and getting them excited about literature for the first time in their life? It’s why we do any of this. It has to be. Otherwise, why bother?
Reading is infectious, and it’s our job to spread the disease.
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