When I was a teenager, I ran into a relatively well-known Edmonton author at the Fringe Festival. I recognized him immediately, because his picture was always in the Edmonton Journal newspaper. I was completely unknown to him, but for whatever reason I was compelled to duck and hide, my face burning with embarrassment. It was like I thought he could see right through me, see I wanted to be a writer too, and would laugh at me.
Teenage emotions aren’t always rational, are they? I don’t know why I was afraid a “real” writer wouldn’t take an aspiring writer seriously. But at the time, I was.
Have I grown out of this? Well, as I’ve gotten older I’ve also gotten much braver about going to writing events, and actually talking to the other writers that attend. I’ve gotten braver about asking questions when events are open to audience questions. And to be sure, some of my questions have been shot down by writers as “dumb” questions. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt less and less bad that I’m eager to learn. I’m more excited to share writing experiences with fellow writers. And I’m no longer so afraid other will judge me about my goal of becoming a highly competent and engaging writer.
Anyway, all of this is just to say that I displayed my work at the Capital City Press Book Festival this past weekend, and it was an amazing experience. Facing other local writers was not as terrifying as I’d imagined long, long ago. This was the first time ever I’ve presented myself as a writer to the public in person (ie: not online, or by submitting to events that I wasn’t able to attend in person). It was eye-opening to study what kinds of pitches or descriptions of my work worked on the public that browsed my table, and which were less effective. It was eye-opening to see the tactics of my fellow local authors who were also at the festival. And it was incredibly helpful to meet these other authors and publishers and commiserate about the difficulty of getting noticed in a crowded marketplace.
I’d say first of all I was grateful the product I was displaying was highly visual, with my printed words capably illustrated by Paulina Van Vliet. In a crowded space, it’s hard to demonstrate your work with printed words alone. Now, there’s other ways of capturing the public’s interest with visuals – having a captivating cover on your book, for example. Or lining up multiple copies of your book so the repeated visual of your cover is hard to miss. Or, as my neighbouring author did, bring additional visuals that illustrate your printed work (his work was based on a real-life event, so it was easier to illustrate with photographs in this way). But overall, this event increased my appreciation of the power of visuals for drawing interest.
Still, it was a challenge for all of the local authors there to stir up interest in a public that was mainly interested in browsing our work. For me, I found the most success with customers who had a personal connection either to the subject of my work (Edmonton), or to supporting me as a writer in general. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to appeal to others based on their personal connection, especially at first. Authors tend to be successful in general because their work connects with others’ experience. And if you correctly define the communities your work appeals most to, you can focus your efforts on displaying your work to those people. However, it is tricky if you hope your work will have broad appeal. If you find yourself selling exclusively to friends and family, it can be tricky to figure out how to expand beyond that. Events like book festivals might be a useful way to gauge the appeal of your work to the general public, and it did teach me a lot about what piqued interest in people.
So those were two observations I gained from doing a public event: how to use visuals to help sell, and how to use these events to test the broader appeal of your work. It also really brought home the benefit of having some of my work in print—the work I displayed was the first actual physical printing of my writing I’ve made.
And lastly, a benefit of these events is just the people in the writing community you meet. I was so excited to see and meet so many local authors and publishers. I’ll mention a few that stick out in my memory, even though I am afraid there may be some great local authors that I fail to mention.
Michael Hingston of Hingston & Olsen Publishing, who was displaying the new “Ghost Box” short story collection. Now, I must admit I can’t handle reading scary stories (even though I don’t believe in ghosts!), so I can’t vouch for the stories—but the quality of the design impressed me. After printing my work with my sister, who is a designer, I learned a lot about the challenges in production of physical items. This short story collection came in a beautifully proportioned box that clicked shut with a magnetic closing, and the individual stories were stapled with brass staples that coordinated with the design of the booklet covers. The attention to detail in the design impressed me. Personally, I still love print very, very much, and I’m excited to see new ways of presenting print items.
Katherine Koller, who was displaying Art Lessons— a book I recognized as a result of my job working in the library (there were several books there I recognized from my work, and it’s a bit of a thrill to see the “real” people behind the familiar covers). This is a book about growing up as a creative child—something I agree is a useful topic to explore, because I’m sure my parents could’ve used a bit of advice! They were probably surprised to discover they had a writer and an artist on their hands.
Matt Bowes, general manager of NeWest Press, who talked up one of the press’s upcoming fantasy novels to me—a novel set in Edmonton, where all of the crazy development ideas people have dreamed up over the years were actually built. You know, like a gondola over the river valley, or the freezeway ice-skating lane going right through downtown. This sounds like an exciting premise for a novel, especially a fantasy novel. I’ll have to keep my eyes open for when this is released.
My neighbouring author, Don Levers, who wrote a fictional novel based on a real heist. I love quirky stories from history, so this was a great author to have on one side of me.
And on my other side was my fellow author that I shared my table with, Gerda Vandenhaak, who was displaying her personal memoir growing up in Word War 2, immigrating to Canada, and other struggles in her life and with her Christian faith. We share similar Dutch backgrounds, and both think deeply about the impact of our faith in our lives, so this was an inspiring author to sit beside for the day.
Like I said, there were many more intriguing local authors present – check out #CCPFest on Twitter to see more of them.
All in all, I had a great time. I guess I’m growing up, because I never once had the urge to duck, hide my face, and run!