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.

2 thoughts on “How to Sell a Literary Magazine at the AWP Bookfair

  1. There’s something wonderful about someone trying to fix up any part of the AWP. Good Luck Daniel. It’s just a very neurotic scene – unless you are getting to meet up with old pals in which case if you’re smart you head out to a bar “off-campus.” Hope the readings are good ones.

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