How to Sell a Literary Magazine at the AWP Bookfair

If I could change one thing about the AWP bookfair, I would ask the people at the tables and booths to try harder to take my money. This blog post offers some tips on how to do that: to sell more magazines and books at the bookfair.

I realise that attempting to sell a product is not a very elevated human interaction. But it is a human interaction. It would be preferable to sit down with the editors of each lit mag, perhaps on a hotel’s roof in a warm North African city, drinking wine under the stars and sharing life stories. But that level of interaction is not possible in a bookfair. The ceiling lights are harsh. My shoulder is hurting from my overloaded laptop bag. I’m nervous about my publishing history. At least 10% of the other attendees (over one thousand people) have the sort of well-thought-out hair that marks them as a very successful writer.

In that sort of atmosphere, I’m longing for any easy way to start a human conversation. And yet, in all the bookfairs I’ve attended, many of the magazine and book publishers don’t seem eager to grab my custom. There are exceptions. But I can remember many times I’ve attempted to talk to people who didn’t seem that excited to talk to me. Sometimes they just seem shy or tired. Sometimes they act as though their lit mag is so remarkable it’s simply my duty to buy four issues. Sometimes they appear to think that having put the magazine together, their work is done, and that selling it is something to be left to God’s will.

Perhaps, however, you are about to be on a table at the bookfair, but aren’t sure how to sell. For you, I offer five suggestions to help you shift your entire stock. Because when I’m on a table, I really try to sell. I try to talk to everyone I can.

Use some or all of these tips to get more people interested in your magazine.

1. Try to catch people’s eye as they meander past. “Meander” is the key word: anyone who avoids looking left or right, or is pacing at speed, you should let go on. But most people are tired and unsure what to do in this huge space. You should reach out to them. I find it best, on making eye contact, to say “Hi.” Then I ask a simple question, like, “Do you know Story Quarterly?” or “Have you ever been to New Orleans?”

2. Tell a story about your magazine that makes it useful to the person you’re talking to. When I was selling Story Quarterly, I stressed its pedigree, its reputation among literary magazines, its exclusivity. I would suggest that any serious fiction writer had to know about Story Quarterly.

The goal is to give the person a plausible reason to benefit from buying a copy. Once they ask the price, you should pause, seem to consider the question carefully, and then explain you can offer them a special deal. People seem to enjoy the silliness of it all.

3. Let uninterested people go quickly. If someone seems bored, or says, “I’m a visual artist, sorry,” there’s no point in trying to “sell” to them. Firstly, it’s not very nice, and additionally it makes you look desperate for their interest, when the whole idea of tip number two is creating the air that you have something useful for them.

Plus, people are going to circle around the bookfair several times. Plus, writers are so starved for human interaction in the book fair, they even love it when you tell them to move on. “You’re a painter? Sorry. Our magazine can’t help you.”

4. Have multiple things to promote. Not everyone will buy a copy, especially before the final day of the book fair. But if you can hand out fliers, get their name for a mailing list, invite them to a reading or book signing, you’re still doing the good work of promoting the magazine. This work should definitely include recommending other tables, other publications and panels. Few people find the bookfair easy to take in: part of your job, as a good literary citizen, is to help them figure it out. I like to recommend all the nearby tables to passersby, as well, whether or not they end up purchasing something from me.

5. If the person says, “I’ll come back later,” say, “All right, but last year, we sold out. I had to wrestle people just to keep the last copy in my hands. So come back early.”

The good thing is that if you do this, when it’s your turn to walk around the bookfair, dozens of people will recognise you, and will be relaxed about introducing their literary magazine in turn. Selling isn’t the best way to connect with other human beings, but it does offer a way to connect to them, and in a space like the bookfair, it’s a good place to start.

Party, Reading, Reception at AWP Seattle

Hello everyone,

Are you going to the AWP Conference this year, or perhaps live in the Seattle region? Or both? If so, come to this reading and reception, on Friday the 28th of February, at the Pine Box.

I will be reading some of my work, alongside some much more famous people, and the bar will be open (i.e. free) for a brief period after the reading (until the money runs out). You can meet other writers, talk to editors, have a good time. It should be one of the best parties of the conference.


Excited about AWP

Hello everyone. The big annual AWP conference is coming, and this year it’s coming to Chicago. “AWP” means “Association of Writing Programs,” and AWP is a big get-together of writers, teachers, and literary magazines over a three-day exhausamazingthon. Yes, you are allowed to use that word in Scrabble. At the end of February I’m flying to sunny, balmy Chicago, along with my friend Matt Blasi, to run the Story Quarterly table in the bookfair. If you are going, say hi. If you wanted to go but can’t, I’m really sorry (tickets sold out a few days ago, abruptly and unexpectedly).

The conference has three main draws:

1. The many panels, where four or five writers team up to give a short lecture on a particular topic. Click the link to see really how many there are. I’m especially looking forward to seeing Cathy Day speak about the teaching of novel writing, on Thursday lunch.

2. The bookfair. Here, writing programmes, literary magazines, independent publishers, strange book-related businesses spread their wares. You wander the aisles chatting to vendors about their goods, buy a suitcase’s worth of discounted magazines, or spot your hero sitting at her publisher’s table, eating a slice of cake. I saw Mary Gaitskell eating a slice of cake last year, and I ran up and gushed. She was kind.

3. Readings. Both in and outside the conference, established and not so established writers give readings and interviews. Last year I saw Gary Shteyngart and Amy Hempel give a joint reading, and the year before went to a bookshop reading by the amazing Robin Black.

Three tips for remaining sane:

1. Bring snacks. The conference’s food is so expensive even Romney would protest.

2. Take a weekend-long break from ambition and self-pity. AWP sold 9,500 tickets this year. That means that after you eliminate agents and publishers (say, 100 tickets), high school field trips (say, 1,000), magazine editors and employees (1,ooo), and crazy Margaret Atwood stalkers (c. 500), that still leaves 7,100 people milling nearby who want to be writers. Is there really room for seven thousand more Hemingways? A little voice will whisper, “It’s you or them. Kill them all.” Ignore this voice, smile, and sip a little more of your five dollar mineral water.

3. Take breaks. Get fresh air regularly, leave panels as soon as questions begin (the answers are rarely worth the twenty-minutes of downtime you gain before the next hour’s panels start), and see something of the city that isn’t AWP. Chicago sounds excellent for that. I am looking to explore a little wildly.

The beginnings of a drinking game (I will add more rules as they come to me. Suggest more in the comments, and I will add them.) Carry a flask of something strong, and drink when:

1. You ask a literary magazine, “What kind of stories would you say you are looking for?” and they reply, dully, vacantly, “We like all kinds of stories.”

2. You ask a tiny independent press, who makes beautiful tiny books, “So, how do you promote these books? How do you market them?” and they merely blink a few times in response, wide-eyed and silent, like the final flaps of a dying butterfly’s wings.

3. You spot someone respected and important in the booth for a writing programme you have always been interested in, yet cannot speak to him because a young man is hogging him, droning on in a vacuous urge to impress, or in a failed attempt to obscure the essential vacuum within. “Yeah, I just love a community, and, like, since I stopped my undergrad, it’s just been so hard to write, so I’m really glad I could tell you about my earlier teacher, who always told me…”

Drink. Three for now. More to come.

Best wishes.