When You Work the Fair – You Work

Ol’ Chumbucket and the Jolly Rogers.

That’s how you sell them, one book at a time. One reader at a time. Over and over. You do whatever it takes.

We were at the Louisiana Renaissance Festival last Saturday. The festival has theme weekends, and last weekend was pirates. I had made arrangements with the guy who runs Pigasus Books, a roving Ren Faire book merchant, to sign books.

I was the guest of Master James of York, the owner of Pigasus and a right charming gent. He had set up a table outside his tent and had a chair for me. It looked disreputable, but he told me it was actually very comfortable. I wouldn’t know. I never sat down.

That’s rule No. 1, of course. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – The bookstore or venue will usually provide a table and chair. Never sit down in the chair. If you sit down, you disappear. It’s too easy for the crowd flowing past to ignore you, to refuse to make eye contact, to willfully not see you, even when you’re dressed in full pirate gear. (And at a Renaissance festival, pirate gear tends to blend right in.)

No, you’ve gotta make them see you. You’ve got to engage them, draw them in. Especially at an event that isn’t specifically about books. If you’re working at a bookstore or book fair, people expect to buy books. At a Renaissance festival, books are one of the last things on their minds. So you have to get their attention.

Hardly a soul walked by that didn’t, at the very least, get a hearty “Ahoy!” from me. I talked to almost anyone. If they gave an embarrassed smile and muttered, “Hello!” they got a rejoinder that it was pirate weekend and only “Ahoy!” would do. One woman gave me a “Howdy,” and I chased after her until she mended her ways.

And sometimes that was it. More times than most. But if they slowed, paused, or looked inclined to interact with the pirate, I’d start pitching “a pirate adventure, written for pirates, BY a pirate!”

You never knew what might work. If they wanted to talk, you talked with them. One family was the Jolly Rogers – their last name was Rogers, and by god they were jolly! I explained about International Talk Like a Pirate Day, how I came to write the novel, listened to them talk about the books they liked, and eventually made the sale. Nice people, I hope to see them again.

Then there was the husband and wife from Lafayette who listened, and whose ears perked up when I mentioned writing the first draft while living in the Caribbean. What was that like? Turns out they were feeling very bad about the election and were contemplating moving back overseas. They had been thinking Europe (they’d spent a couple of years in the Czech Republic) but wanted to know what the Caribbean was like. We talked about island life for about ten minutes, maybe more. Then, a little bit to my surprise, they bought a copy of “Chrissie.”

Sometimes you can tell in the first 30 seconds whether you’re going to make a sale, but you never give up. One family had a couple of smaller kids. We chatted, and I talked with the kids, but you could feel it wasn’t happening. Then the wife suddenly looked at Tori and asked, “Were you guys on TV?” I sighed inwardly. She was talking about our “Wife Swap” experience, in which we played the “pirate family” on the ABC “reality” show. (I put “reality” in quotes for a reason.) So we chatted about that for a minute or two, and they ended up buying a copy of “A Li’l Pirate’s ABSeas.”

You do what it takes.

And everyone who bought a book went away with the postcard with book info, my website and my email address, and I asked each one to please write to me and let me know what they thought of the book. I always do that, and I mean it. I really want to know.

By the end of the day, we had moved some paper. And Master James of York took the rest of the stock I”d brought in. So at the end of the day we had had a lot of fun, and made a little money.

Well, we made a little money unless you count the fact that while Tori and I were selling, our kids Max and Kate were out wandering the festival, with my credit card in their pocket. SO it was more of a wash, really.

But a fun wash.

Houma, Sweet Houma

The tricky part about being an author at a book festival is remembering that you’re there to sell books, not buy them.

At Books on the Bayou in Houma, Louisiana, Saturday, there were some really interesting looking books, some that sounded like good reads. It was all I could do to keep from picking up several of them, took a lot of self-control, discipline. Not qualities that come naturally to pirates.

John and Tori – or Ol' Chumbucket and Mad Sally – at the Books on the Bayou event at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library in Houma.
John and Tori – or Ol’ Chumbucket and Mad Sally – at the Books on the Bayou event at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library in Houma.

When we did the event two weeks ago we had a small setup at the back of the room. The other two authors at that event had much fancier spreads, and we knew we’d have to step up our game. Tori took it on with her usual passion, and Saturday we had far and away the most eye catching, fanciest display. The small chest we had picked up a year ago at a yard sale specifically for displaying books. Tori added a burlap table cover and netting. She painted our easel and we had a poster made of the cover photo. And she added all the little stuff, the beads and the old-looking doubloons. Even the sign-up sheet got the treatment. Instead of a yellow legal pad, she found a leather-bound journal that fit the theme and seemed to make people eager to give us their names and email addresses.

So we sold some books and went home with fewer books than we came with. That’s the ideal.

But we didn’t sell as may as the priest.

Sitting right next to us was an older gentleman, Father Todd, selling a book of daily devotionals, stories for each day of the year with a message. And everyone walking through the lobby of the (very, very nice) Terrebonne Parish Public Library knew him, stopped by to chat with him and – usually – forked over the $25 for his book. How do you not buy your parish priest’s book, especially when he’s sitting right there looking at you and telling you how to use it?

One book we did end up getting was “Before the Saltwater Came” by Wendy Wilson Billiot. It’s an illustrated children’s book on saltwater intrusion – yeah, sounds like something the kids are clamoring for, right? But it’s a terrific way of introducing an important subect – care of the environment – to young learners. It tells the story of an otter whose life is changed by the effects of human development in the freshwater marshes and asks its young readers “What will YOU do?” Good book.

Houma is about an hour southwest of New Orleans, in the heart of the bayou – Cajun country. They are colorful people, those Cajuns. During a lull in the proceedings Darryl DiMaggio, one of the local authors, whose book “Swamp Eagles” was a compilation of stories from his years as a seaplane pilot in the bayous, turned to us and said, “I haven’t had this much fun since the hogs ate my little brother.”


We had a good time and sold some books in Houma, met a lot of interesting people – a former sniper selling his adventure novels, a retired teacher who now has a slew of funny kids books out, and the irrepressible DiMaggio. We learned a few things from everyone. And I saw a book title that tickled an idea in my mind. I emailed my pirate partner, Cap’n Slappy, about it, and he’s gun ho, and already at work on the concept. More information on this, I hope, to come.

We finished the day with a late lunch at Big Mike’s BBQ Smokehouse, where they have great ribs! So all in all, a terrific outing. And we sold some books!

(And a big thank you to Captain John Swallow, for alerting me to this event, and the Terrebonne Public Library for making it happen!)