There have been quite a few mentions of the many ways that a dedicated author can reach readers in this series. It’s a big part of any author’s life that is serious about their work, and that’s why it gets mentioned so much. That’s not all that gets mentioned a lot, though.
I also make no bones about the fact that this is me just getting started being that dedicated and serious author. I refer to myself as an amateur far more often than I call myself a professional when I talk about my writing. As someone who is familiar with becoming skilled at difficult things, I am totally comfortable with the fact that I have a lot to learn before I call myself a professional author. As I learn, I make it a point to share it here. Most of those learnings are things I read somewhere or hear on podcasts or experience firsthand, and I try to shine the most positive light on whatever aspect of authoring I am addressing.
Well, I’m hardly a guy who pretends that there is no dark side to life. I address it sometimes here, and more often in my books; and I even try to shine that positive light on the negativity when I can. Sometimes we can’t leave things too open to interpretation, however, lest the message be lost. Nowhere is that more important than in a blog series designed specifically to help authors. As much as I am here to help dedicated authors find their own voice and their own precious readers, I am also here to warn that same author of potential pitfalls on the path to pursuing your dream.
More than once, I have gone off about how awesome book festivals are. This was the first year we did more than one book festival, but that’s not all. I started listening to those podcasts I’ve mentioned, and reading blogs by other authors, and trying to keep up on news in the publishing world. I was a little disappointed to hear that the overall impression of book festivals was not the pretty picture that my posts were painting, and I hoped that my experiences would continue to be positive despite the bad news I kept hearing.
Then we attended the same annual festival this year that had been the source of some of those positive experiences last year. I won’t tell you what festival it was, but I will share some of the lessons that I learned from the experience. I will definitely tell you what podcast warned me about this very thing, since they are another great source of information for the author looking to reach readers. I like to give public acknowledgement to people I admire, which is a nice flip side to avoiding calling out anyone specific when I am cautioning someone against general negativity.
The Sell More Books Show is a weekly podcast that I never miss. It’s not the only one, even in that category. I also listen to The Publishing Profits Podcast; and I love that one so much that I put Tom Corson-Knowles in ‘Zombie Zero: The First Zombie’ and ‘Zombie Zero: The Last Zombie’. It’s ‘The Sell More Books Show’ that had been warning me about book festivals a lot, though; and I had already taken their advice to heart more than once. When festivals were asking several hundred dollars for the opportunity to exhibit, we went to check them out more often than we coughed up the cash. We were glad we did, and spent more than one productive day at home being grateful for our due diligence. Then this festival came back around, and we remembered how great it had been last year. There was no thought that maybe the tone or the thrust of the event had changed in that time, as we communicated with event coordinators.
When they told us that speaking at the event would get my books into the local big chain bookstore, I agreed to give a talk. I remembered the way things had been set up last year: the speaking stages were small, raised platforms with a podium and a microphone. There were twenty or more chairs in each speaking area, with a canopy covering the whole affair. It was pretty well done, considering the size the event was last year. I figured the set-up would be as good or better, as the festival was much bigger this year.
I figured wrong.
But we’ll get to that.
We registered as ‘Sudden Insight Publishing’, so we could carry all of the books in our library. The cost of a booth was a bit higher, but it gave us the room we need to properly exhibit these days. We had eleven titles to display, along with art prints and teeshirts, and a table dedicated to other indie authors. It would have been a tight squeeze to be in the line of tables that they set up for authors, but we were assured we would be located close to that section. It looked like everything was lining up to make this event even better than last year, and we got to work preparing for it. My publishing partner also agreed to give a talk, although she didn’t have any books that she was wanting to get into the bookstore. We figured that this would be so good for us, we should do as much good as we could in return.
Preparing a twenty to thirty minute talk is serious business, if you take it seriously. Dawn and I both did just that, and spent quite a bit of time crafting our presentations for the event. I kept asking if we had been assigned a booth number yet, and kept getting told ‘no’. It would have been nice to have, since I wanted to include the information in my presentation, but no big deal. When I practiced, I said “to be determined” every time I reached that spot. Then I would go on with gusto, right into the section that talked about how great the festival was and how helpful the staff had been and all kinds of gooey stuff praising the event and the bookstore that was sponsoring it.
Then Dawn got an email. Still no booth number, but we wanted to tell you that the local big chain bookstore won’t be carrying your books after all. Oh, we didn’t tell you that was a likely outcome, or even a possibility? Well, you probably wouldn’t have agreed to do the talk then!
I’m weird like that. When I enter into an agreement, I expect the other party to hold up their end. Otherwise, I don’t see the point of holding up my end. That’s what an agreement is, after all.
Well, Dawn and I had a chat about it, and decided it was best for me to follow through even if they weren’t going to. We have talked about giving presentations in the future, and this seemed like a good place to try it out and see if we liked it. Even with that bit of tarnish on things, we kept looking forward to the festival. And I kept practicing my talk, smiling a little less every time I said “to be determined”.
Then the weekend of the festival arrived. We packed our gear the night before, which now officially fills our vehicle completely with the back seats taken out. We got an early start, and arrived with an hour to set up. Dawn and I were in high spirits, and talking about what a great day for a book festival it was, when we finally got that booth number. A volunteer escorted us to the spot, and we looked around.
“Are we in the Kid’s Zone?” Dawn asked.
It was explained to us that the Kid’s Zone was behind us, the area with all the jump houses and generators. In front of us was the ‘children’s books’ section. Beyond that were more booths. Beyond that was the area with all the author tables. The volunteer left us to set up, and ponder our fate for the day. Since we were at the opposite end of the grounds that we had been led to expect to be situated in, I went and moved the car to a closer lot. I started unloading, and Dawn started setting up.
“Hey,” I said. “Do you smell gas? Like, really strong?”
I had to repeat the question, louder. There was a generator nearby, and she couldn’t hear me the first time. Dawn looked at me like I had asked her if the sky was blue, and nodded.
I looked around again, and saw a collection of gas cans sitting by the generator that was about a dozen feet away. The first stinging warning came in my temples, and I waved Dawn away from the boxes and totes and tables.
“I can’t sit here and smell gas for the next several hours,” I said. “It’s already starting to give me a migraine.”
Dawn looked a little terrified at that. I try hard to be her superman, but part of that job is avoiding my kryptonite. There are all kinds of things I have to pay attention to if I a don’t want to have a migraine; if I get one, it puts me down. As someone who was diagnosed with them as a baby, I can honestly say that it is second nature for me to live my life around avoiding the painful mess that is a migraine headache. Anyone who has had them knows, and anyone that hasn’t can’t possibly have it properly described. I knew a mother who had them, and she said the pain was worse than childbirth. I can’t speak to that, but I can say it’s the worst physical pain I have ever felt.
Don’t feel bad for me; my diet and health are both pretty good, and it’s largely due to me structuring my intake and activities around not getting headaches. It has been a blessing in disguise, as I put more and more years on this side of my last full-blown migraine. I just wanted you to have an idea, as much as you can, of what I was facing here. Throbbing in the head, stabbing in the eyes, pain all around, and vomiting that feels like something I really need is trying to leave my body. Enough said.
So I went up to the help booth. Looking around as I did, I realized that a radio station was setting up across the aisle from us. The vendor was setting up speakers on stands, and pointing them right out into the walkway. Directly into our booth. I also realized that there was a solar system booth, and an insurance booth, right nearby. In fact, there were only a couple of people selling books in our section. They were children’s books, which seemed somewhat appropriate considering our surroundings, but there were only a couple. The rest were what Jim Kukral and Bryan Cohen had referred to as ‘whoever had the money to pay for a booth’ in those warnings on ‘The Sell More Books Show’.
I told the woman at the help booth that there were gas cans out in the open, and a loud generator right behind our booth. She said she would send someone over to help us. Time ticked by as we waited, and after ten minutes I went up to the help booth again. The same woman told me that someone was headed toward my booth right now. I went back, saw no one, and returned to the help booth once more. I let her know that our set-up was on pause until these issues were resolved, as we were honestly hoping to be moved somewhere closer to where we had been told our booth would be. She went back to the booth with me, and told me that they were getting rid of the gas cans and moving the generator. She told me to let her know if there were any more problems, and I pointed to the speakers that were pointed directly at our booth.
“Those speakers are going to make it hard to talk to people, if they’re going to play music through them,” I said, pointing out what seemed like a problem that had been engineered to happen. She looked at the speakers, looked at me like I was really getting annoying, and walked away. We went back to setting up, now that we were clear that help was not to be forthcoming. While we were setting up, a fellow with ‘City Council’ on his teeshirt stopped by and asked who we had pissed off, to get the worst spot in the festival. I told him I didn’t know, but that we had definitely gotten the message. If we stayed the whole day, which looked doubtful, we would not be back next year.
While they got rid of the gas cans and moved the generator about fifteen or twenty feet, the same group began to set up a drum kit directly behind our booth. Just as the country music started to waft across the aisle and directly into our booth, someone decided it was time they showed everyone nearby that they had no idea how to play drums. Rather than discourage the horrible sounds, someone piped up in the relative quiet that followed the inept and annoying sounds.
“No, really hit it!” he called out. “Hit it harder! Hard as you can!”
What followed was enough to make the guy across the aisle with the country music flinch, and for the first time in my life I wished for the ability to hear county music being played. There was nothing but off-beat pounding and cymbal crashes, coincidentally right in time with the pounding and stabbing in my head.
Just kidding; it was no coincidence.
I went back up to the help booth, and asked if they knew there was a drum kit directly behind our booth and that the people who set it up were encouraging little kids with no talent or ability on drums to ‘hit them as hard as they could’. The same woman who had ‘helped’ me before threw up her hands.
“Well, I guess we’ll just have to move you!” she snapped.
I replied that we had been asking for that from the beginning, and that it would indeed be nice to feel like we were at a book festival rather than a carnival. Another volunteer showed me an alternate spot, over in the book part of the book festival. There was clearly more traffic over here, which was good for the authors that had been properly placed there. It was not so good for moving a booth full of stuff, nor was the fact that Dawn’s talk was coming up.
Someone was supposed to be coming to get her, and take her to the stage she would be speaking at, a few minutes before her talk. A few minutes before came, then the time for the talk came; then they both passed. She went to the stage she was scheduled at, and someone else was speaking. She went to the help desk, and asked why no one had come to get her. Whoever she spoke to replied that they weren’t doing that. When Dawn told her that a number of the emails she had gotten had said they would be doing exactly that, the coordinator was surprised.
She went back to the stage, and the person talking wrapped up their talk. Dawn gave her presentation, and came back to tell me what had gone down. I asked her to walk around, and get a feel for how moving our set-up might go. The drums were still pounding, along with my head; and I wasn’t sure if I could make it through tear-down and set-up and tear-down again. She came back with a map, and we looked it over.
It may as well have been a map of an entirely different event. One section showed two tents; it had three. The section we were in was not even on the map, although you couldn’t have found it if it was. There were no booth numbers to reference on the map, and the only thing it seemed to show clearly was that even the map showed an awkward-looking layout. When we accounted for all the things that were wrong or omitted, the map did more harm than good. I decided it was time for me to look around.
When I came back, I was even more frustrated than Dawn had been.
“Did you have a stage?” I asked.
No, no stage.
“Did you have a podium?” I pressed.
Dawn explained that she had given her talk under a canopy, with a bunch of chairs and tables haphazardly arranged in front of a microphone stand. They called it a stage, for some reason; I guess it was the same mind that thought that book festivals should resemble carnivals that defined that measly set-up as a stage. Webster’s disagrees, as do I. The humble set-up from last year had been stripped down, and presenters were not even being given a slightly raised platform to speak on. If you had notes, as many professional speakers do, you’d be holding them in your hand. Like Dawn had done.
We could see the book festival from where we were, and some foot traffic. As one would expect from the way it was arranged and mapped, only a few people were walking by. Most of them had kids, and were headed to the jump houses and the drum kit. Have I mentioned that I don’t write children’s books? More specifically, have I mentioned that my most recent books are apocalyptic horror novels that feature flesh-eating zombies? Surely, I must have said something.
We could have moved, taking the busiest two hour stretch of any book festival and relocating our booth. It would have surely taken my migraine from level three to level five, and there’s no coming back from that; but we strongly considered it. I had one more look at the alternate spot they had offered us, one more look at the “stage” that I was supposed to speak at, and saw how clearly painful the experience promised to be. The only thing more painful was staying where we were, with the drums still audibly dominating that corner of the world.
I don’t typically give up easily, once I decide to do something. It’s generally not the best option; but sometimes it is. I asked Dawn to go to the help booth, and tell them we were leaving. I wouldn’t be giving my talk, and I honestly didn’t feel bad about it. The thing they had offered to entice me into giving the talk was as fictional as the stage I was supposed to give it on; why shouldn’t my talk be fictional too? My biggest concern was that one of my readers would be hoping to chat with me, or see the presentation. The best I could do to assuage that concern was offer to make it up to any newsletter subscriber that had come out for the event, which I did the following Friday.
Dawn came back, and I was pretty well into breaking down already. She told me that they had assured her that there was no drum kit. When she explained in a number of different ways that there was indeed a drum kit, one volunteer finally piped up and remarked that they had received a number of noise complaints from our section. Dawn told them that we were leaving, and that I would not be giving my talk.
Now they were concerned.
They offered to make the drums stop, and fretted that they didn’t have anyone to take my place on their nonexistent stage. Dawn pointed out that we had warned them of this when we had seen our placement, and no one had been concerned then. Her final farewell was probably a lot more kind than mine would have been, which was a big part of why she was the one to tell them. She knew that if they gave me any guff I would have been happy to start a sentence with “Listen, you…” and end it with a bunch of words that rarely make it onto my blog.
I won’t say there’s no way we won’t exhibit at that festival again. I mean, they might apologize and refund our money and offer us a booth for free next year. They might send us an accurate map well in advance, like other festivals have done. But why would they? Plenty of businesses are happy to set up a booth at a book festival, and plenty of book festivals are really more focused on selling those spaces than they are in being an actual champion of books, authors and readers. There’s also the social standing that comes with being associated with such an event, and it grows as the event does. I mention this chiefly because I was invited to a dinner at the home of one of the women organizing the event the night before, which would have been three hours of driving to ruin our early morning; I can’t help but wonder if our location would have been different if I had shown up, and licked the boots being offered.
All kinds of things can become more important to people running book festivals than running a book festival.
Of course, they aren’t all like that; but plenty of them are, which is why we attended way more of them this year than we exhibited at. Most of them won’t be on our list of things to do next year, as experience proves what the professionals have been warning me about all along. There is good news, of course, that comes from all of this.
First of all, I have both good and bad experiences with book festivals. That gives me the ability to write about the whole range of experience here. I can also compile the lessons into the book that this blog will become, and that helps all of us. The best thing to come of this is definitely the courage it has given me to start checking out some other options. Some are what you might expect, and I’ll tell you more about those experiences as I have them. Other secrets might only be in the book, like the idea I’ve already had surprising success with.
The lesson here might seem obvious to more experienced authors, but I think even they would agree that there is a lesson here. I hope they would also agree that we need to be as cautious about event dollars as we are with our advertising dollars; even if you have exhibited at an event in previous years, don’t expect the experience to get better as the event gets bigger. Don’t expect that it won’t, either; but definitely watch for signs of change: exhibiting prices going up, locations being changed, location assignments and maps of the event not showing up well in advance…in short, if something smells fishy, it might just be because something is fishy.
By the way, as a Pisces I have always hated that saying. It just worked too well not to use it here. Congratulations if you made it to the end of this post; I swear I will not run so long again.
I mean, I don’t ‘swear’ swear…
You never know…
It could be a ‘stage’ kind of situation, one of these days…
I’ll let you know, when redefining words suits me better.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,