One Author’s Experience with the Printer’s Row Festival

Every June, Chicago hosts a wonderful event that supports the literary world. Located downtown at the crossroads of Dearborn and Polk, Printer’s Row consists of a line of tents in the streets and smaller tables on each side. The tents feature booksellers, writing groups, and some local publishing houses, while the side tables are often authors selling their work. The two-day event sees 150,000 customers wandering around if the weather is good.

A great place for authors to sell books, right?

Eh, not so much.

I’ve participated in Printer’s Row in 2013 by myself and again this year, sharing a table with five other people in shifts across the two days. The price per table is $350, which is hard to recoup. Working with partners made the event cheaper for each of us, which helped. Yet I still didn’t show a profit during either time.

The 2015 Tale

Earning a profit of $350 in book sales is practically impossible for any new and relatively unknown author.

Sharing a table at Printer's Row

Sharing a table at Printer’s Row

I knew that going into the 2013 event but I talked to a lot of great people, handed out stacks of marketing material and saw a small jump in my online sales because of the interactions. I also learned about new writers’ groups and eventually joined two of them. Finally, like any bibliophile, I purchased some new and used tomes for my own amusement.

This year, I shared the table with two other people on each day of the show. Because a sixth author pulled out at the last minute, I had the opportunity to attend both days. The five of us banded together under the title, Great Lakes Authors, and arrived on Saturday morning eager to get started. By Sunday afternoon, I sat behind the table, feeling wet and depressed.

Why was 2015 a disaster?

1. Many people assumed Great Lakes Authors was a publishing house. I didn’t think folks would make that leap but they did. At times, people blocked the table in order to pitch their manuscript or ask, “How do I get my book published?” To be fair, I’ve gotten that question at several book signings and it amazes me that people simply don’t buy a Writer’s Digest Guide or do some research online. We politely answered as best we could but those folks were not customers. They also interfered with other sales.

Lesson learned: Be careful of the name you choose. Make sure it doesn’t give the wrong impression. In addition, discourage wannabe writers from hanging around to discuss the publishing world.

2. My partner’s books were not of the same genre as my work. So when a small group of older women investigated my friend’s Escape from Assisted Living book (a fun book), they hung around, chatting and ignoring all the other offerings. They also blocked the table from other potential customers. I’m not angry about this. My friend did well, selling the 15 she brought, and I’m happy for her. It is a great book that obviously garners a lot of interest. However, it was a factor in fewer sales for my thrillers and the other person’s psychological horror novel.

Lesson learned: If possible, only share a table with those in the same or similar genres.

3. Adult men (my target audience) don’t impulse shop, at least not at the same rate as women. Males are also less interested in gathering autographed copies. In addition, I heard more men say, “I read e-books” than women. In answer to that, I gave them some of my handouts and hoped they would check the book out on Amazon.

Lesson learned: Think about your book’s audience. Would they show up at an event like this? Some yes, but that knowledge will temper your expectations. Also remember that the changing world of publishing is affecting how people buy books. This makes book signings less effective as a marketing tool.

4. Everyone who rented a table competed for customers against the “tent people.” If the tent folks were part of an organization, offering seats to their authors for book signings, then fine. They are doing the same pitch and selling that I’m doing.

However, many of the tents were often used booksellers marking their merchandise down to $3 to $5. Anyone opposite one of these bookstores had a hard time competing for the customers’ attention.

Lesson learned: Avoid the costly book signing events. The competition is hard and you probably won’t recoup your entrance fee. Alternatively, split the costs with someone if possible.

5. The weather turned sour on Sunday. The promoters don’t care if our books get wet, that was our responsibility. We kept plastic paint sheets available, which helped. However, the bigger issue was the early rain kept people at home. The main shower stopped about 10 a.m., but the great flow of customers failed to show up for the rest of the day. No doubt, they looked out the window and made other plans.

Lesson learned: Sometimes things just go sour. Roll with the punches and move on.

Next year, I’m attending Printer’s Row as a customer. My experience as a vender wasn’t the greatest but it is still a wonderful, fun event. I made great contacts with folks, found out about existing writer support groups, and discovered some treasures. So if you are in the Chicago area next year in early June, consider checking it out. Supporting local literary groups goes a long way for creating success for all authors.

As always, happy writing!

What Are You Afraid Of?

People fear a lot of things. I’m not talking the “eeck, it is a spider!” kind of fear. I’m referring to the soul-killing, do-anything-to-avoid-an-action kind of phobia that can stand in the way of our success. Writers, entertainers, and artists are particularly susceptible because so much of our work includes our hearts and souls laid out for others’ approval or rejection. I always think of Anna Nalick’s song in terms of my writing.

2 am and I’m still awake, writing a song
If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me,
Threatening the life it belongs to
And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you’ll use them, however you want to

So what fear keeps you from using your true voice and putting your words out in exactly the way you think they should be? Here are a few phobias that keep some writers from doing their best.

1. Fear of rejection by the industry people

Finding an agent or publishers seems like a herculean task at times. Reality check: You will be rejected. You may blow it off at first with a “oh well, everyone is rejected some. No one ever gets selected their first time out.” However, at some point, it will hurt and you will doubt your ability, your writing, and quite possibly some of your life choices. Take to heart in the fact that we all go through that. Listen to some of the established writers and you hear about how much they toiled and doubted. Yet they still persevered. My personal favorite is the story about how Dr. Seuss received hundreds of “not us” letters because editors thought children would not like poetry.

Beating the odds is part of the game. Don’t let your fear stop you from trying.

When this fear grips my heart, I react in two different ways. First, after a slew of rejections, I look at the writing and try to get help analyzing it, usually at conferences. The publishers may see something horrible that I need to fix, but that is part of the process of learning to write stories well. Second, I mope for a day (24-hour limit on self-pity) and then get out the next query.

In addition, the publishing world is changing. If you feel like your work is the best it can be, consider self-publishing as an alternative. However, be prepared for the massive amount of marketing it will take to get your book in front of the readers.

2. Fear of rejection by readers

Is your writing really good enough? Hopefully you discover that before it is out in front of the masses. I think this fear is more common in the self-published world. In traditional publications, someone (editors or agents) have filtered the dross from the gold and so you know your writing is decent enough. Yes, we still worry about bad reviews but they are a part of life. In self-publishing, no one has filtered your work. Your material may be fabulous or it may have glaring, plot-killing errors that none of your pre-print readers mentioned. The readers gladly point them out in numerous potentially negative reviews.

So in the vernacular, “grow some balls” and just write anyway.

I answer this fear by saying that you’re in an industry that requires you to have a dragon-tough hide and a certain amount of self-confidence. Write the best you can. Edit for the finest polish and get on with it. Positive experiences help conquer this fear and the only way to do that is to keep working. Misgivings about your talent kill creativity so stop doubting yourself.

3. Fear of failing to finish your work

Chances are, you will have some short story or a novel that you started and are struggling to finish. Maybe it’s writer’s block in general or you might simply not know how to end it. Because you can’t finish one piece, all your other work comes to a screaming halt as well.

So don’t finish it. It’s not homework and the story police aren’t going to show up at your door.

If you’re stuck, go on to something else for a while and come back to the first story or novel. Back up a few pages or even a chapter because you probably went in a direction your character or your muse didn’t like. However, the point here is that if you fail to continue because you are afraid you won’t finish the material, then maybe you are in the wrong field. Authors complete their stories eventually, if nothing else, to see how it ends.

4. Fear of what your mother would say?

Have you ever heard people say, “I love Steven King’s (or other author’s) writing, but I really wonder about the man’s life. He must be pretty weird…” It also is sometimes stated as “what do your parents think about you writing this stuff?” Some readers fail to distinguish between the author’s work and their lives. Yes, the two touch and sometimes overlap, but writing about vampires doesn’t mean you want to drink blood.

This particular fear may affect those, like me, who deal in ominous images or more sexual plot lines. When I first started, I held back on the imagery or the depth of darkness that I wanted to explore in my fiction. My parents are some of my most avid fans, reading most of my work. So I worried about what they would think if I wrote something about sexual perversion, murderous intent, or simply pure evil.

You must conquer this phobia on your own. To help you get over it, memorize these lines.

Everyone has darkness inside them. Writers simply put it on the page.

Fully understand and accept this concept. Even the nicest person on the planet has some thoughts they would never share. The next time you hear something like the statements above, reply with these phrases to make others understand that what you write isn’t what you are.

Killing Fear

Trepidation is in all of us as a defense mechanism, but you are stronger than it is. Overcome your fright and write the topics you want in your own voice. Ignore the whisperings of doubt and put everything in you on the page. Then your work will leap from good to awesome.

Do you have other fears that keep you from producing quality work? If so, leave a comment below to let me know and I’ll be glad to discuss it.

Voodoo Exhibit statues

Voodoo Lwa, but not evil spirits. Still, they could give me nighmares.

Voodoo Iwa

Some of the more fearful exhibits at the Voodou Exhibit at the Field Museum of Chicago