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Are Book Fairs and Trade Shows Worth Doing for Self Publishing?

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

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After getting questions from multiple authors about doing trade shows and book fairs, I figured I needed to address the topic more in depth. I’ve talked about using events to sell and promote your books before. But these recent questions I’ve received take the question to a whole new level, with consideration of large scale book fairs and shows.

For about a decade of my career, I was an exhibit sales account manager and then trade show marketing manager, and worked in sales for the convention and conference hotel business. As well, as a promotional products distributor and trade newspaper editor, a lot of my work was focused on shows and events for myself and my clients. With having many years in and around trade shows and fairs, I’ll share what I learned, including some dirty little secrets about the business, and how it all applies, or doesn’t, to self published authors’ book marketing.

The Go Big Problem

Self published authors often consider participating in smaller, more community or niche focused events to promote their books. That’s understandable, and can be effective.

But some authors with larger visions may get lured into thinking that going big for events will dramatically increase visibility for themselves and their books. But it’s the same situation as authors who feel they need to go wide with their distribution. Going big does not automatically mean getting big results.

The biggest problem is self published authors’ small budgets. Exhibiting in person at large trade shows or fairs is expensive. For example, the minimum exhibit cost for the Los Angeles Book Fair in 2022 is $1,250. That’s just for the bare booth space with a table, backdrape, electrical access, and having your booth listed in the exhibitor list. That does not include any travel costs, displays, signage, pre-show marketing, lead capture (I don’t know if they offer it, but it is a common offering at trade shows), parking, and so much more. Even if you’re local to the show venue, you will have additional costs that could balloon your total investment to thousands of dollars.

Considering that my survey research has found that 73% of self published authors make less than $1,000 in book income per year, it’s a losing proposition for most, even before the event opens.

Dirty Little Secrets About Big Trade Show Attendee Estimates

The lure for many author exhibitors is the numbers of attendees that trade shows promote. The attendee numbers are often a fiction. Pun intended for our discussion here.

When trade shows and fairs estimate attendees, they throw in all the exhibitor staff numbers in the count. While at very big shows, that might be a mere fraction of the total attendee numbers, what this tells you is that the promoted numbers may not be all visitors with buyer potential. Trade shows know that there can be a lot of networking activity between exhibitor staffers at the show, even though they are not technically visitors. That’s why they include these in their counts.

Something else that shows offer exhibitors is a supply of free passes to the show. Exhibitors can distribute these freely to all kinds of people that may, or may not, have buying potential. Remember, too, that exhibitors are distributing these passes in the the hopes that the recipients will attend the exhibitors’ booths, not your booth. These invited guests may make a beeline for the inviting exhibitor’s booth for some incentive prize or perk. They may never even get to your booth. Yet these attendees are included in the count, too.

For freebie events, lots of people may register, and never attend. While many events try to get a handle on how many people actually attend by scanning badges, those numbers may or may not be promoted for the next event. The pre-registration numbers may be the ones used in promotions. Make sure you know which estimate they are basing the number on.

Some shows, especially smaller local and community events, may not have sophisticated registration systems to sort out or qualify attendees. So every attendee is a “visitor,” overinflating the numbers of attendees.

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When I first started with the trade newspaper, I wasn’t sure how many copies of the paper to bring to our booth at a long-running local annual trade show. My publisher said not more than 100, even though the promoted attendee count was at about 1,200 if memory serves correctly. That’s less than 10 percent. After doing the show for a few years, I realized that even that was more than I probably needed. I could have probably brought 25-50 at most, and still had some to bring back home.

For really large shows where there may be tens to hundreds of thousands of attendees. Most of them will never go through the entire show floor. Some of them may target some special booths to visit, go there, and leave.

I even think that using my usual estimate of 1 percent of your author fan base as potential buyers is way high if using it to estimate how many visitors could stop by your booth. I wouldn’t suggest more than a fraction of that 1 percent of a show’s posted attendee numbers as potential booth visitors. Notice I said “visitors,” not “buyers.”

The only way you’ll really know is if you actually test out the event one year. But with the high cost involved, I’d suggest visiting the show first to do some reconnaissance work. Talk to exhibitors that are similar to you. Casually ask them how the show is going for them. Attend on one of the last days of the event. Everyone is usually upbeat on show opening day. But by day two or three, they’re tired. And if it’s been a disappointment, whether that was due to the show or their own poor marketing, they’re more than happy to share that with you.

You Won't Make a Lot of Book Sales at Big Shows and Fairs

“But I’ll make lots of sales that will cover my costs. Even if just a fraction of the attendees stop by my booth and buy, I’ll make my money back.” No you won’t.

Realize that lots of people go to shows and fairs to get free stuff, especially book fairs. In a pre-pandemic Publishers Weekly article on BookCon 2019, it reported that attendees were complaining of fewer free ARC (advance reader copy) drops and free swag from publishers. So, yeah, people are looking for freebies. If you’re only selling, not giving away, it might be a hard pass at your booth.

I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I got asked, “Is this free?”, as people visited my booth. One guy even walked behind me to swipe one of my books from my display stack at a networking show while I talked with another visitor. I wasn’t sure what to do. Embarrass him by telling him it was for sale? Let it pass, hoping others didn’t see and follow his lead? I opted for telling him, but I wish I wouldn’t have. What an embarrassing situation for both of us. So you’ll have to be concerned about all of that which could impact your sales.

You may also be prohibited from making direct sales. Working for a large computer show at the dawn of the internet age, I had a lot of small exhibitors who were selling books and training on internet technologies. We strictly prohibited exhibitors from delivering product on the show floor due to sales taxation issues and other local regulations. This was a large national show for big corporate vendors. Selling on the show floor would have junked up the overall image, too.

However, there are many shows and fairs that do allow sales on the floor to visitors. They may have a set of rules and disclaimers regarding sales practices and taxes. Be sure you know what the selling rules of the show floor are. It could prevent you from making those direct sales, expose you to sales tax liabilities, and make it more difficult to achieve an ROI from your exhibit.

Are Book Fairs and Trade Shows Worth Doing for Self Publishing?

The trade show industry is a cheerleader for using shows for sales lead generation. Theoretically, that’s true, and is relevant for larger operations with more complex selling situations and large dollar value sales. An exhibit that generates a lead for an eventual sale that makes tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, is very worth it. These are relationship sales that must start with connections, and culminate in a successful and professional sale. A trade show can be the spark for that relationship.

But a single, in-person print book sale might be a few bucks. Pocket change! Plus, you need to purchase books to have on hand which will be an investment on top of the huge bucks you’ll shell out for exhibiting.

Also, don’t ignore the fact that eBooks and audiobooks don’t fare well for in-person sales. The buyer has to intentionally purchase and download electronic formats after the show. They have to really, really want the book. I’ve found that event buyer prospects that say they’ll buy the electronic version rarely do. They forget.

Self published authors need to evaluate their show and fair exhibit investments against potential ROI. In most cases, it doesn’t work. Do the math.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne

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