Selling at Street Fairs
by Barbara Renner
Ah, summer . . . swimming, camping, traveling, watching baseball, and, if you live in northern Minnesota . . . street fairs. Every small town celebrates summer with some sort of outdoor festival. Can you blame them? When people have been home bound by snow and subzero weather for five months, summertime brings them outside, shedding beanies, gloves, and parkas – out into the streets, rain or shine.
“Looney Daze” is celebrated in a town known for the world’s largest Loon, a statue located on Long Lake near Vergas, Minn. The weeklong festival includes a wiener dog race, a parade, a loon calling contest, a looney loon egg hunt, a classic car show, a beard contest, and, of course, a street fair. The highlights of “Turtle Fest” in Perham, Minn., are the International Turtle Races. The festivities also include a parade, a carnival, a hog roast, trolley rides, and a music & arts festival. Then there are Potato Days, Paul Bunyan Days, Muskie Days, Cormorant Daze, Crazy Days – and the list goes on. I don’t know if I’m “loony” or I just like to tempt the rain gods, but I signed up to sell my picture books at seven outdoor street fair/art festivals in Minnesota this summer.
I’ve already shared in prior posts some of my trials and tribulations selling my picture books so far this summer.
Setting Up: I bought a canopy on sale for less than $100 from Menards, a Midwest “Home Depot,” to protect me from the sun, rain, and wind. Sand bags tied to the poles are a must, so I can avoid becoming Mary Poppins when the wind blows – and the wind really blew at my first event. I discovered at the second event the canopy is not totally waterproof, but I was able to position my books to avoid occasional drips. Minnesotans shop in the rain, so people continued to wander the festival, umbrellas hoisted overhead. I also bought a wagon for $50 at Costco. It takes me three trips from car to booth to set up: (1) canopy, (2) 6-foot folding table, and (3) my books and display items. I always introduce myself to the neighboring vendors so I can learn about new marketing strategies, other festivals, and business contacts. Purchasing some of their wares satisfies my shopping fix.
Display: My display includes a tablecloth, a 2’ x 3’ foam sign, easel, book stands, and decorative boxes for a multi-level table exhibit. I make notes about other vendors’ creative displays for their merchandise. I may invest in a fitted black table covering to hide the things I stash under the table. I also plan on trading my foam sign for a retractable sign, so it’s easier to pack into the car and haul to my booth. Other necessities include business cards, bookmarks with images of my books, credit card sign, price sign, credit card processing cube, signing pens, coin purse with nickels, singles and five-dollar bills, and merchandise bags. I purchased 100 canvas bags imprinted with my logo and website. They hold four of my 8.5” x 8.5” picture books. I use those if a customer buys two or more books. To keep costs down going forward, I’m going to use handled paper bags with a logoed sticker on them. Nice-to-have items include masking tape (to hold the sign on the easel), bungee cords or rope (to tie the sandbags to the canopy legs), comfy chair (even though I prefer to stand), notebook (to write spellings of names and jot down interesting information), and a trash bag (which I usually forget to bring with me).
Give Away: I have raffle tickets for people to complete with their name, email address, and phone number for a chance to win a stuffed loon. Yes, it costs me money to mail the loon, but I collect a lot of email addresses for just a little money. I also give away stickers and coloring pages to children. If a teacher approaches my table, I whip out my classroom presentation flyer. Last year, I received a call from a teacher at a Red Lake Nation School. She had saved my flyer for two years, one that advertised a guest author fee of $100, and wanted me to come read my books at her parent-teacher night. (That’s a story that deserves its own post.) In addition, since I’m working on a new picture book, I had postcards printed with a completed illustration, along with my contact information.
Engaging Potential Customers: Not being much of a hard-sell marketer, I had to figure out a way to attract potential customers to approach my table. I ask open-ended questions, which encourages them to begin a conversation, rather than simply answer “yes” or “no.” My questions are “What are the ages of the children in your life?” and “What lake do you live on?” Grandparents love to talk about their grandchildren. I asked a middle-aged person about great-nephews and great-nieces at the last street fair and sold two books! One man my age walked by with images of classic Mustangs on his shirt. (I love to read t-shirts.) I commented, “I owned one of those when I was a teenager.” He came to my table, and even though he didn’t buy any books, we had a nice chat.
Selling Prices: All my books retail at $11.95, except one which sells for $14.95. I used to sell them at $10 each, thinking I would make more sales. I’ve changed my strategy. My sign states that all books are $12.95, but they’re $11 apiece with a purchase of two or more.
Entry Fees: Most of the street fairs I’ve entered cost less than $100, ranging from $40 to $85. One I am considering for next year is $170. It’s a two-day event and 35 miles from my home, but the attendance is great. I consider the fee as a marketing cost that goes on my profit and loss statement (another blog post!).
Websites for Fairs and Festivals: I’ve met vendors whose fulltime job is traveling from festival to festival around the country. I’m not that ambitious, and I don’t want to buy a van. I try to stay within 50 miles of my Minnesota home. Here are three very helpful websites for finding fairs and festivals:
https://www.craftmasternews.com/ (annual subscription is $48.95)
https://www.myfairsandfestivals.com/ (free 30-day trial; $29.97 for 6 months)
https://festivalnet.com/ (tiered annual membership rates ranging from $49-$89)
Here are my “takeaways” so far this summer:
- The first summer fest I participated in focused on families with lots of activities for children. This was not a good place to sell picture books. Parents were more interested in having their children play in the bouncy house, at the sand game, and down the water slides.
- My best bet is to be a vendor at an arts and crafts fair where a variety of crafts are for sale. Usually I am the only picture book author.
- The biggest surprise was how many books I sold at a street fair in a tiny town where Main Street is only two blocks long. My table was set up in front of the bookstore, and I was one of seven authors displaying there. Visitors who wandered up and down the street were vacationing at lake resorts in the area and were ready to buy, with cash.
Three street fairs down and four to go. I usually sell lots of my Lonnie the Loon books at the “Looney Daze” street fair coming up in August.
Please share your trials and tribulations if you’ve had a booth at street fairs.
Barbara Renner and her husband have lived in Phoenix for more than 40 years. As “Sun Birds,” they fly away to Minnesota to escape the summer heat – and to fish. While in Minnesota, Barbara became fascinated with its state bird, the Common Loon, and was prompted to write four picture books about Lonnie the Loon, because everyone should know about loons. However, books about loons don’t sell very well in the desert, so she is writing a new series of picture books about Quincy the Quail. Barbara visits elementary schools as a guest author to read her books and share interesting facts about loons and quails. She’s working on other children’s books and a special book about her yellow lab, Larry: Larry’s Words of Wisdom. Learn more about Barbara at RennerWrites.com, as well as on Twitter, Facebook, and GoodReads.