Selling Books from Town to Town: On the Road with the Itinerant Book Show

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Itinerant Book Show

By Deborah Emin

If you had told me two years ago that people outside of New York City would be interested in hearing stories about how the publishing industry is changing and developing, I would have laughed at you. As I drive across the country from my office at Sullivan Street Press in New York and stop at places like the Ground Level Coffee House in Toledo, OH and Michelle’s Cafe in Clarion, PA; the Ben Franklin Store in Oberlin and Ginsberg’s Jewelers in Ceder Rapids, IA; I can attest to the fact that indeed there is an interest in publishing, in books and in the life of the mind.

I call it “The Itinerant Book Show,” and as I travel, I do more than just talk. I read from and sell the works of self-published authors, small presses and under-served authors right from the trunk of my car.

And had you told me that so many writers would want to be represented by a traveling sales person like me, I would have been dismissive then too. But as we have discovered with our “Itinerant Book Show,” there is a growing need and set of opportunities for this type of grouping of small presses and self-published authors and a third party to come together to sell their books.

Deborah Seated

As of right now, we’re representing 18 authors and over 30 titles.

At the start of this venture, it was purely an experiment. There were enough problems just finding venues, selecting books and figuring out what to charge that the other obstacles we would encounter did not present themselves right away.

But with each trip, I had plenty of time to think it all through. Driving over 1,000 miles in each direction gave me the opportunity to both prepare my talks and then evaluate how things went. The first two times I gave the shows, in April and June of 2009, there was some interest, minimal though it was.

Yet the authors whose books I had chosen to take with me were always enthusiastic because at least people were seeing their books. Someone was going into communities where the bookstores didn’t carry them; people were hearing about their books and being read to from them. Some publicity is better than none.

In November, 2009 the tide turned. During the Christmas shopping season it was easier to interest people in buying books. The message about the changing nature of publishing and the democratization that was about to happen due to the changes in the industry also caught people’s attention.

What we were ignoring, though, was our growing evidence that the readers who responded the most enthusiastically to our work were other writers.

We had envisioned building a 50-state national sales force of what we were calling Bookies. I blogged about this job opportunity, wrote to community leaders and got nowhere. We had convinced ourselves that unemployed English majors would jump at this chance to be out on the road talking about books, selling books and meeting lots of new people with whom they might be able to start up some other new business ventures. It was what I was doing. It seemed such a simple plan.

The world kept changing so quickly that we never had a moment to find the right voice to get that message out.

Here are our results so far:

As of this writing, we have presented 11 shows. We have two more scheduled for June, and then we will get back on the road again with the Itinerant Book Show in the fall.

So far, our sales have been modest: we have sold just over $750 worth of books, meaning this is not yet a cost-effective way to sell. But we have these books on consignment and the arrangement now is that we keep 40% of the sales. Factoring in that we offer 10% discount off the retail price, our final take is 30%. We pay all the costs of transportation and storage of the books. We also are responsible for an accurate inventory of the titles.

College towns are the best towns we have found to go to. But now, as we try new methods of expanding the shows, we are reaching out to authors we meet in social networking situations. We try to get their books into our shows and into their communities. If we can use their home base to get a foot in the door, we can spread our message better and have the key players involved and eager to help.

We are suspending the one-night stand approach to this business. What is needed is spending more time in each town in order to become more involved. So, we go on the road with the Itinerant Book Show specifically to the communities we are already involved with.

As evidence that we are on the right track are the blog postings that are cropping up by publicists and writers. They, too, are saying that more small presses and writers of books in the same genre need to be promoting together in order to be more cost effective. Yet, they miss the other main point. If reading and writing are to survive as a reliable source of storytelling, then we need readers and writers to see how they are intimately connected and work to maintain that connection.

It’s a throw-back to an earlier era, of the door-to-door salesman. It’s the anti-Amazon. And you know what? It’s worth it. We know our customers and authors appreciate what we do, we know it from the smiles on their faces. You can’t ask for a better connection to the love of the book and the literary life than that.

VISIT: Sullivan Street Press online

CONTACT: Deborah Emin about becoming a Bookie

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.