Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


Are book festivals fair to authors?

books copySince being locked in place, I’ve been thinking about book festivals I’ve participated in and realize that, while these events are great for focusing on the many book genres available, I also have concluded that I probably won’t attend one again. A couple of years ago, I signed up for the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, a relatively new venue. Its first session was in 2015, and it claims to be an international event that draws people from all over the world: “More than 50,000 diverse people of all ages, from urban to suburban Bay Area communities and beyond.

Excited that the gathering would give me an opportunity to market my books (at that time, I’d published two novels—Curva Peligrosa and Fling!—as well as All This, a poetry collection), I discovered I could share a booth with another writer, a woman I didn’t know. We were supposed to “man” our booths from 10 AM to 6 PM on both Saturday and Sunday. The stalls were 10’ by 20’ x 8’. The organizers told us we each would have an 8’ bare table with two folding chairs. These accouterments were placed on concrete that sloped from the center of the street towards the curb where a stream of water gushed past.

We tried to arrange our tables in a “v” as directed, but it was impossible to do in such a small space. Since the street was sloped towards the sidewalk, our books toppled over. So the second table ended up at the back of the booth and was useless. The two of us ended up sharing the one 8’ slab.

But I tried to stay positive, assuming that those attending the festival would be literary and might even be interested in buying books. Rationalizing, I thought the $175 fee I paid would be well spent. I didn’t expect to make all of the money back through book sales, but I felt the exposure might be worthwhile.

It wasn’t. It also didn’t help that the organizers were giving away hundreds of free books nearby!

The booth I shared was on Addison Street’s “Literary Lane.” I soon discovered that Addison was a thoroughfare for those who were attending the Farmer’s Market. Consequently, many that passed by actually weren’t interested in books, unless something unusual caught their eye. And even those who were readers seemed reluctant to stop and peruse, afraid, it appeared, of being roped into making unwanted purchases. So my stack of postcards that give my novel’s synopsis, my business cards, and my pen giveaways were largely ignored. Occasionally, I enticed someone to our table by offering a free pen, but the person quickly fled with his/her gift.

I should have learned my lesson after attending a conference earlier that summer in Calgary during my book launch of Fling!. At least I wasn’t outside and dealing with wind and fog. But my books did share tables with hundreds of others, mainly genre fiction. It was a complete bust, and I should have realized that the Berkeley event would not be any better.

The problem with festivals/conferences/whatever is that each writer’s work is in competition with hundreds of others. When I took a walk down Berkeley’s Literary Lane, I found that the booths blurred together, and I had no desire to stop at any of them. Oddly, the only person who attracted sales was my booth mate. She was selling tee shirts with catchy slogans across the chest, her poems printed on the backs of the shirts.

I didn’t stay until 6 PM. I left at 4:30. Nor did I return on the Sunday. It was pointless, a complete waste of my time and money.

Unless you are a major literary figure or have a particular shtick, you will not do well at these events. However, if you can find your way onto a panel or do a presentation, then you might have a better chance of being recognized and make some sales. But don’t count on it.



6 thoughts on “Are book festivals fair to authors?

      1. I’m Canadian. I suppose I was an international attendee with big dreams and zero results, other than a big hotel bill. I had dragged my husband along. So rather than staying the course, we laughed at our naivety and went out and had a “once bitten…. ” celebratory dinner.

  1. I don’t go to those events and for the same reasons. I did sell my batik t-shirts at street fairs when I was young. I had to stand with the others and watch the chocolate chip cookie guy make all the sales. Go figure!
    : ) Seriously, though, thanks for affirming my suspicions!

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