Thanks so much to Judith Barrow for this detailed account of how to organise a book fair. Judith is currently organising the Narberth Book Fair which is being held on Saturday 22nd September 9:30am to 4pm at the Queen’s Hall, Narberth.
Over the last seven years of organising a book fair I’ve made many mistakes but, thankfully, learned from them. That’s not to say things don’t go wrong, or that something that seemed a great idea at the planning stage, turns into a disaster or, at the least ‘something to be avoided next time’.
So let’s start with the obvious; find someone like-minded to help you with the organising of the whole affair. More importantly, someone who you know well enough to recognise you’ll be able to work together without egos getting in the way. (And, yes, I’m speaking from experience; enough said!)
For the first two years I was on my own, didn’t sleep for weeks before and, on the day was too exhausted to enjoy any of it. Luckily, friends and fellow authors, Thorne Moore and Alex Martin, volunteered. (Well, I’m sure they did!). Anyway they came on board and, although we’ve lost Alex to the delights of France, Thorne is still with me and we work well as a team; each of us have our strengths. And a sense of humour. Believe me, if you’re determined to hold a book fair, you’ll need one.
So, to the practicalities:
You’ll definitely need a constitution for the official book fair bank account and if you’ll be looking for grants, sponsorship etc.
Get started early; you’ll need plenty of planning time. Work out the best time of year for your area by looking around, seeing what else is on at certain times. Is there any event happening on the date you’d like that might help or hinder footfall to your book fair? Is there a festival you could link up with? Or a similar event to yours which would take away your potential public? If the latter, don’t be inflexible, change your date.
Book your venue. You want somewhere that people will pass and enter easily. (Check for disability access and facilities). And check that there is somewhere outside of the building that you can hang a banner advertising the book fair on the day – or, at the least, somewhere that you can stand A boards outside without causing any obstruction.
If you intend to ask your authors to give talks, hold creative writing workshops, hold panels on various aspects of writing or genres, or invite publishers to put on an appearance for talks or editor sessions (always a good move and the authors will thank you!), make sure there are enough rooms. Most importantly, make sure the actual room/hall you’ll be holding the book fair in is large enough. You’ll need a fairly spacious area because you’ll be inviting lots of authors to participate… won’t you!?
Also check for the number of tables and chairs the venue has. And make sure you can get your hands on more tables if necessary. You don’t want to have more authors than tables
Find out if the venue has public liability insurance. If not you have two choices, stump up for it yourself (in which case you could be paying out a fortune) or ask the individual authors to take out their own – much the better option and a lot of writers have their own insurance anyway. We’re lucky; our venue has its own cover.
Lists, lists and more lists! Try to include as much detail as possible and when things need to be started or completed by. You won’t always hit the targets but you’ll know when they go whizzing by (a bit like that deadline you’ve set for yourself with your WIP). Know which of you is responsible for each task. But don’t forget to ask for or offer help from one another… you are a team working to one goal.
Set up your website. If you’re lucky you’ll find a whizz-kid happy to do it for you for free. (I found Thorne!! – smiley face.) If not, factor in the cost. Don’t forget you’ll need a domain name.
Set up a Facebook page.
Start to send out invitations to authors as soon as possible, giving clear details of when and where the book fair is taking place and the cost of hiring the tables. (We ask if they will need a full or a half share of a table; it depends on the number of published books each author has). It’s a system that’s worked well for us. Try to vary the genres, try for a good balance of men and women writers, certainly include children’s; writers (they bring their parents… potential adult readers!) Be clear what’s expected of the authors. By this I mean the simple things: a table cloth that fits the size of the tables (which you will be providing along with a couple of chairs- some authors bring along partners/friends to keep them company or to watch the table if they need to leave it for a few minutes). Where was I? Oh yes: tablecloth, books, of course, plenty of change. Suggest display stands, any flyers, leaflets, banners or posters, book price list, bookmarks and business cards. (It’s surprising how many authors don’t think of these things). Some authors, on the other hand, bring small free gifts or a bowl of sweets/chocolates as a tempter for potential readers to stop at their tables.
I’ve said above that the authors are paying for the tables to showcase their books but that’s not strictly true. Any money we get in, after paying for the hire of the hall and rooms, goes on publicity and advertising the event. That’s the A5 advance “make a date” flyers. A4 posters, leaflets to go into libraries, supermarkets, shops, doctors and dentist surgeries and any public place we can think of (always asking permission, naturally). We also pay to place advertisements in local newspapers. If we do that we usually get a column or two of a free mention or even a photograph with details of the fair. Any money left over goes towards the authors’ very popular “goody bags” that we give to them. These contain a table sign, a badge, a pen (with the Narberth Book Fair logo on – a handy reminder over the next few months – and publicity if they get “lost”), sweets, a bottle of water (it’s thirsty work selling books), a couple of blank price signs, one or two bags (to put sold books into) and a couple of safety pins (to pin table cloths up). The idea is to provide the little necessaries that any of the authors have forgotten. To cut a long story short, we use all the money raised to the benefit of both the book fair and the authors. Only fair, I think! Excuse the pun.
Search out sponsors, if you need them, around this time. Bribe them by saying they’ll be mentioned on all promotional material – including online mentions.
It’s nice around now to find a charity (hopefully a local one) to support. This could be where the sponsors come in as well; some shops etc. may offer something for a raffle. We’ve also often asked the authors to offer one of their books as a prize and then reimbursed them the wholesale price. Most of them will donate because they lose nothing and maybe gained a few more readers.
Design posters and leaflets. Search out the cheapest but most professional printers. (You’re aiming for classy but economical!)
Around three months before the date of your book fair have A5 “Make a Date” flyers printed and put them into all the above places (libraries, supermarkets, shops, doctors and dentist surgeries etc.) Start to casually and occasionally mentioning the event on any social media you’re connected to. Direct the public to your website because, by now, you should have at least some of the authors confirmed and fully paid up. Encourage your authors to do the same. (They’ll be as keen as you to get a good footfall on the day)
We also ask the authors for bios and images of their latest books: short bios for our Facebook page, longer bios for the website. We give each author a separate page here where they can write anything that’s applicable to their work and gives all their links on social media and their Amazon/ Kobo/Barnes and Noble pages etc.
Ramp up online publicity as the weeks go by.
Have regular meetings with your co-organiser(s) over the months. Make them fun as well as official; meet for coffee/ lunch, whatever floats your boat!)
Draw up a map of the room where the book fair will take place with all the tables arranged and authors names on them (invaluable: for one, this makes sure they will all fit and, two, that the potential readers have a definite route around the room, so all authors will be passed/seen). We put the children’s authors together to make an attractive area that draws in the children (and parents!! Remember these are the potential readers of the adult books). We also try to group together the authors of same/similar genres.
Keep track of all the authors; there are almost always some who drop out at the last week or so, so make sure you have a few eager stand –by authors. You’ll find your waiting list grows every year as your book fair becomes more popular and gains more footfall. You’ll need a policy here for returning authors’ money if they don’t attend. We work on the basis of how much notice they give us and genuine reasons. Obviously if it’s the day before or on the day they lose the fee (unless we’re able to fill the space) because, by then we will probably have emptied the coffers on all the publicity.
It’s a good idea to have a page on the website that only the authors can see. This will keep them in the loop by giving out information that’s relevant just to them, give them chance to ask any questions, show them where their tables are situated in the hall.
Keep in touch with the management of the venue to make sure all is as you originally agreed. If they hold other events make sure to share them on social media; it pays off, they will reciprocate.
Around two weeks before start to distribute the leaflets, put up posters, place adverts and interviews in local newspapers. You will already have contacted your local Arts/Books Council and local County magazine months ago to make sure your event will be a featured at the right time – won’t you? Is there anywhere else you can think to advertise?
If you’re allowed, put up your banner outside the venue to make sure passers-by can see that your book fair is really going to happen
If you’ve filled all the spaces, this is the time to make sure all monies are in. You never know what last minute expenses will need to be paid.
The week before have a meeting to check, as much as possible, that all is ready and in place.
We always set up as much as possible the evening before the book fair: tables (labelled with the names of the authors), chairs and goody bags. Remember, some authors will have banners and so will need to be against the walls of the room, some will need to be near socket outlets if they have table lamps or laptops. Set up the raffle table if you’re having one and any posters, entry forms and explanation leaflets of the children’s competition, if you’re having one.
Set up your own table, you’ll have more than enough to do tomorrow.
And so to the day… Panic!! No, I didn’t mean that; but there will be an underlying unease that something has been missed/ has gone wrong/ been left out/forgotten. If anything has, now is the time to sort it out. And you will. Or you will if you can. If not, and it’s not a great disaster, forget it.
Some authors may have arrived the evening before and set up their tables but be sure to arrive a good hour before the time stated for the authors arrival on the day… some will be there early.
Be available to help/advise/chivvy along latecomers.
Open the doors to let in the hordes. Well we like being positive.
At the end of the day – put all the tables and chairs back to the storage places if required, clean up all rubbish, gather up any lost property (you’ll be surprised at the things that get left behind). In other words, leave the venue as you found it.
Breathe. Sit back on your laurels for … at least an hour. (only kidding!!) Arrange to meet your fellow organisers as soon as possible to recap, check receipts and monetary records and to highlight any issues that arose, adding ideas to make the book fair even better.
Check with the venue management that all was well after the event. After all you’ll need them again next year… won’t you?.
Judith Barrow has lived in Pembrokeshire for nearly forty years. She is the author of five novels, and has published poetry and short fiction, winning several poetry competitions, as well as writing three children’s books and a play performed at the Dylan Thomas Centre. Judith grew up in the Pennines, has degrees in literature and creative writing and makes regular appearances at literary festivals.
Read more about Judith’s books, workshops, and events as well as her blog devoted to conversations about writing and publishing at https://judithbarrowblog.com or on twitter: twitter.com/barrow_judith