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READ LIKE A WRITER, a teaching blog


Merit authors (clockwise l-r) Amy Helmes, Kim Askew, and Christine Kohler meet their editor (front center) Jacquelyn Mitchard at the Tucson Festival of Books.

This was my first book festival. Ever. But even if you’ve been to many book festivals, I hope you won’t stop reading here. Other writers could gain from you adding tips, or maybe something in my experience will shed new light on your perspective. That’s what I love about most writers, we are open to learning from each other.

1. Most book festivals are by invitation only. Read the application instructions because some are only open to residents or native from that state. Some require ARCs or books and press kits of news clips and reviews. Many require that you have had a book release within the year of the festival invitation.

I applied to four book festivals this year, I was turned down for the San Antonio Book Festival, where I lived for 18 years. Even though the themes are culture, water, and military, the rejection letter said my book NO SURRENDER SOLDIER did not fit in any of the themes. I did get accepted to the Tucson Festival of Books. However, I was not offered a speaking position, and instead invited to bring my own books and sell them for two hours at a table with nine other children’s lit authors. My Merit Press editor, Jacquelyn Mitchard, would speak at two events. This helped tipped the scales in my decision to attend because I wanted to meet her in person.

2. You can’t count the cost. If you are counting on selling enough books to pay for your trip to the festival, unless it is within 50 miles of your house, chances are it won’t happen. Figure if you sold 20 books at $15 each and made $300, that would not pay for airfare or gas, and hotels, and food. My husband took off work and we made it a road trip for Spring Break. The only financial advantage is taking my expenses off as tax deductions.

What you cannot measure is the valuable contacts you make both in readers and professional connections. I met my editor, two fellow Merit Press authors, other authors I’ve known for a decade either on-line or previous workshops. I talked to National Park Rangers about who to contact about getting my books into Pacific WWII memorial gift shops, such as at Pearl Harbor. I talked to two authors/scholars of Native Americans during the Civil War about my MG novel on this topic. I talked to school administrators. You never know where one contact will lead to. That goes for growing loyal readers, too. I handed out hundreds of bookmarks and pitched my book to countless of bibliophiles. The Tucson Festival of Books is the fourth largest in the U.S. with about 120,000 book lovers attending.

3. Plan ahead. Study the schedule. Make meal dates and get phone numbers. My husband and I arrived three nights prior to the festival, which is not an affordable luxury if flying. But I wanted to have lunch with authors Janni Simner and Jennifer Stewart, two authors I’ve known on-line but never met in person.

4. Network beforehand and create a slogan or theme, if possible. My slogan was “Follow me to Tucson Festival of Books” and I used photos with only captions. Sometimes I added the tagline: Ask about NO SURRENDER SOLDIER. I post on Facebook (fb), twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. I do not post things like this in Groups if it can’t be justified as news that would be helpful to other writers. This approach seemed fairly successful. For example, before I left home I posted a picture of eight debut authors’ bookmarks from the Class of 2k14 with the caption: Bookmarks I’m taking to TFOB. On my fb fan/book page the bookmark post got 655 views. Look at my fb book page to see how I recorded the trip in photos.

5. Take a compact digital camera. Our family doesn’t own smart phones. I didn’t want to take my 35mm digital camera to the festival because we had to bring our own books, plus water bottles, bookmarks, postcards (which I didn’t hand out), hats, backpack. (Speakers didn’t have to bring books; the University of Arizona bookstore handled ordering and sales for speakers.) I finally used my iPod because it fit into my tiny shoulder strap purse.

I took pictures of dinner dates and author-friends at their signings. Although, this can be tricky because you don’t want to get in the way of their work and fans. I was only able to visit with a few authors because, as one woman on fb aptly said, “If you are in the parade, you don’t get to see the parade.” It’s not just about being photographed with other authors, though. We dined with a University of Texas at El Paso student from India who is dear to us. I posted our pictures just because I wanted to. (Ayan will be graduating and returning to India by next year and we may never see our friend again.) I’m telling you this background so you understand that my taking and posting the picture was not to profit from it. Yet, as soon as I posted the picture I gained nine new UTEP followers on my fb book page and sales on Amazon increased in one day. So it was a reminder that readers like to connect with you as an author, too.

6. The children’s lit community is a small one, so be polite. I have been in the writing and publishing business for a long time, and my philosophy is, “Be gracious.” This applies to honoring requests to “Like” fb fan/book pages, attending author signings, and answering questions of novice writers. It’s not all about me. It’s not all about sales. I’m no diva, no matter how many times libraries or my editor tells me I’m a rock star or that author Beth Fehlbaum sent me a tiara. They were just being gracious. And I appreciated their graciousness.

So why the lecture mixed in with tips on making the most of a book festival? Well, I encountered another first—my table-neighbor was a Stall Hog. Not in terms of space, she stayed on her corner okay. But Miss Piggy, who was not a friendly neighbor, jumped into conversations if people stopped to talk to me. She steered them to her books. She even corrected me and finished my sentence one time after a writer asked me a question. The Stall Hog was so concerned about sales that she monopolized anyone who came remotely near me. I realized if she’s self-published that she not only had to cover her expenses from Canada, but pay publishing expenses. But this was still no excuse. The woman to my left, stuck in the worst location, was a self-published writer-illustrator of picture books and she was friendly before we started, never rude, and certainly not a Stall Hog. What convinced me Miss Piggy was truly rude and not just desperate occurred when some people asked me about my editor and publisher. (No, Merit Press doesn’t publish picture books.) The minute the Stall Hog heard that Jacquelyn Michard is my editor then she wanted to be pal-sy-walsy. Too late. Our time in the tent was up. And it ran through my head, “Children’s lit is a small community. Be gracious.”

7. “Blessed is the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” This is my beatitude for this Year of the Book, not just for book festivals. Good luck. Hope to see you at a book event this year. Try to have fun along the way. But most of all, be flexible. And always be gracious.

Any tips you’d like to add for getting the most out of a book festival?

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