The Economics of a Book Fair from an Author's Perspective

A couple of days ago, I spent the better part of the morning and afternoon at the Buckeye Book Fair in Wooster, Ohio. I did a lot of smiling and hand shaking, and spent a lot of time tweeting about the way old people tend to nod condescendingly when you tell them that you write epic fantasy.

See, I have a love-hate relationship with book fairs. I spend most of my professional life chained to my office chair, hammering away at the keyboard, so when there's a book fair or I'm invited for a signing or some such thing, I tend not to stop and wonder if it's really worth my time. I get excited and go and pitch my book to strangers and, quicker than I care to admit, my patience for telling middle-aged men that no, it's not a historical novel about the Civil War tends to wear thin.

By the time the book fair is over, I'm tired and I don't sell that many books so I tell myself there's no way I'm coming back next year. Then next year rolls around and I remember the tasty free lunch and the way it felt when I did successfully pitch my book, so I sign up to do it again.

On the way home from Wooster this year I began to think about the economics of the book fair. Forgetting the positive or negative emotional impact, I wanted to take a look at whether this was actually paying for itself for me, the author.

First, a couple thoughts.

  • I don't think Adult SFF is a best-selling genre at these book fairs. I've noticed that the big sellers tend to be inspirational, local non-fiction, mystery, and sports. Even better if the books hit more than one category. YA also sells fantastic, but that's it's own beast. So if you write one of those (or even if you write SFF) your experience may vary WILDLY.
  • Book fairs will likely be different depending on where they're located. This one is out in farm country Ohio, so local non-fiction and sports are the headliners. I did quite a bit better at Books by the Banks in downtown Cincinnati last year.
  • I don't have solid numbers on attendance at this book fair, but I'd guess a couple thousand readers and (I was told) around 85 authors of all genres.

Next, the numbers:

This year, I sold eighteen books. Fourteen of those were Promise of Blood in trade paperback and four of those were Crimson Campaign in hardcover. I make 7.5% of the cover price of trade paperbacks and 10% for hardcovers. Let's ignore the fact that these are royalties against an advance, which I've already been paid and will not earn out for a while. Our math will be percent times cover price times units sold.

  • .075 x 16 x 14 = $16.80
  • .1 x 26 x 4 = $10.40
  • Total royalties: $27.80

The event itself was six and a half hours, and we were asked to be there a half hour early. The drive from my house was an hour and a half each way. That's ten hours of my time. It was a 78 mile drive each way, at an assumed 25MPG, at an assumed $3/gallon of gas for a cost of $18.72 in gas money (which is tax deductible).

I made $9.08 in profit over ten hours. $.91 an hour. So, uh, not looking so good for the use of our time is it?

Let's take this a bit further. I'm going to share a few anecdotes:

  • I had three people come up and tell me they had my books on ebook and loved my work and didn't know I was here and would look for me next year for a copy of Autumn Republic.
  • I had one guy come up who bought Promise of Blood as a gift for his son when he attended last year. He said that he was going to buy Crimson Campaign this year but noticed just that morning that his son had already bought and read it on his own. We chatted and I told him he could pre-order Autumn Republic and he picked up a signed book plate.
  • I had two people who bought the book this year that remembered seeing me last year, being interested, but not having the money.
  • Of the half dozen or so people who came by that had already read my books, every one of them mentioned how they had been telling their family and friends about me. Several had hooked at least one other person on the series.

What I'm getting from all this is that these book fairs, beyond the cold sale of eighteen copies, have a ripple effect that is utterly impossible to predict. Adult SFF, perhaps even beyond other genres, depends on word of mouth to create a successful novel.

I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that those eighteen sales could very well, over the next year, result in another forty or more sales. In fact, let's say that's the case. Assuming an average royalty of $1.75 a book times 40 books, I'll add another $70 to our $9.08 for a profit of $79.08 or $7.91/hr in royalties.

Ew. That's still not looking that great.

Okay. So book fairs are, financially speaking, not that awesome of a time investment. At least not for me. I could have made a lot more money staying at home and working on the next powder mage novella. The only thing I can do is file that financial report away in my brain next to all my other experiences and impressions from the book fair and look at them all in one big lump to decide whether it was actually worth my time.

Overall, I sold to new fans and connected with current ones and deepened my impression on the reading community, which can't really be quantified.

The final question is whether I should go back next year and I'll be honest: I have no idea. It'll probably depend on what kind of mood I'm in when registration opens up because I'm an author, damn it, and I'm fickle as hell.

A last anecdote: it was around 12PM, less than half way through the day, and I was already tired and grumpy. Then a girl shows up and begins to absolutely bubble about my books. She adored Promise of Blood, I'm up there with GRRM in her mind, she's part way through Crimson Campaign. She's wore a cool Adran uniform-esque jacket just to meet me and she wants a picture.

It made the whole trip worth it.