Being an author is sort of a strange thing. As a writer, I spend a lot of time by myself, submerged in worlds only I live in. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, when I call myself an introvert. I’m not good with large groups of strangers and, more often than not, I feel like a failure as a human when I’m unable to do what “normal” people seem to do in those situations.
So what happens when it comes time for events when success is riding on coming across as human? Basically, you fake it.
Because I’ve started going to more in-person events, I’ve had to push myself beyond my little bubble of comfort. I didn’t want people thinking I was standoffish or stuck-up if I was in a place trying to sell books and meet new people. If you want to do well at such events and not leave kicking yourself for missed opportunities, you have to find workarounds for the areas you’re weak. Earlier this year, I knew UtopYA and Balticon were on the horizon, and I knew I needed help, so I did some reading. I listened to what people like me had to say in the way of advice.
I’m in no way an expert with this stuff, but I think I’ve done pretty well in terms of self-improvement here. That said, I’d like to pass on some tips to anyone else who might be struggling.
Tip #1: You have to push yourself.
It’s not easy, I know. I’ve always said, though, if you want a thing bad enough, you find a way to make it happen. Try focusing on your goals if you find your courage faltering. If you don’t have goals, make some. Maybe you just want to connect with one new reader. Maybe you have a question or two for an author you’ve admired online and are meeting for the first time. I don’t advise jumping in with unrealistic goals like “I’m going to talk 50 people into buying my book!” right out the gate, but you can be your own judge of what’s doable for you.
For me, my goal at UtopYA was to get 10-20 new people signed up for my mailing list. Knowing my limitations human-wise, I incentivized it. Three of us held a joint giveaway, offering anyone who purchased books from us or signed up for our mailing lists a raffle ticket entry for a Kindle Fire. Bonus: that gave me extra talking points when someone stopped at my table. Which brings me to…
Tip #2: Have some things you can say to EVERYONE.
I mentioned the giveaway, but I was prepared in other ways as well. I cobbled together some quick pitches for my books, short enough that I could talk about all eight titles with me at UtopYA in under 15 seconds. That’s right. Eight books. Fifteen seconds. When people are wandering a room filled with other people with their own awesome books to sell, you can’t waste the opportunity when you grab someone’s attention. There are plenty of places those people could’ve stopped, so I wanted to make their time worth it. Mine went something like this:
“My Bittersweet Summer is a contemporary YA romance with themes of bullying and moving past traumatic events. My Flipped Fairy Tales are gender-flipped retellings of classic stories (I would toss in bare bones info like “Snow White is a prince. Jack and the Beanstalk is Jacqueline and the Beanstalk, etc.). This is my steampunk adventure. These are my sexy superheroes, for 17 and up. And this one is similar to the TV show Revenge meets the darker characters of Gone Girl.”
Because two of my titles, Evolution: SAGE and Shadows on Snow, were finalists for UtopYA awards, I was also able to add those in as talking points at the end. Sometimes the people I spoke to would ask for more info about a particular title, or ask about the covers, so that would give me even more to talk about as well. The point is, condense your information. Give them something interesting to ask about or an idea to explore more. Authors love their books, so show them you’re excited about your work.
Tip #3: Make yourself stand out a little.
If you’re signing in a sea of tables, put a dash of personality into your display. If you’re terrible at engaging folks (like me), having even a small item out with you might catch someone’s eye and make them stop. Example: I love superhero and nerdy things, so, I advertise that. I have a standup, life-sized version of Tom Hiddleston as Loki that I set up by my table when I have room. People will stop and take selfies with him, or have a laugh about it, which gives me my in to talk to them. NOW, that doesn’t mean I immediately start in with my sales pitch, because gross. Hiddles and superheroes are the topic at hand, so that’s what I address. But, that person is now stopped, and the chances are good that they’ll look at what else is at my table, which is when the conversation turns to other things. I also had a Groot POP! figure in my display, and he got almost as many comments as Hiddles. So when I say it doesn’t have to be huge to catch attention, that’s what I mean. You don’t need a life-sized supervillain standing beside you. Sometimes, a 3.5-inch alien does just fine.
Tip #4: You are part of your display.
The two days I was signing at UtopYA, I was in full steampunk regalia. This kind of served two purposes. One, it was a point of engagement for people who walked by, so that goes back to Tip #3. But, two, those costumes served as a barrier of sorts for me. When you put on a costume, you become a slightly different person. For an introvert, that can be a key to successfully being a good fake human. There’s a sense of safety in it, if that makes sense. It’s like how anonymous commenters on the internet feel safe being gross and horrible. That bit of anonymity can bolster your courage. Like a comfort bubble.
I’m not saying go out and get yourself a Batsuit or anything. This “costume” can be as elaborate as my steampunk getups or as simple as a pair of fake glasses (I know an author that wears them for exactly that purpose). For introverts, separating their everyday self from the person they are when it’s time to be “on” can be what determines success or failure in their minds.
Another example: 95% of my wardrobe consists of geeky t-shirts, so I also tried to pick ones to wear that would invite the most people with similar interests, or prompt people to ask me about them. Even wearing them around in my normal life, strangers who are fans of whatever fandom is represented on my shirt will come up and talk to me. They’re like neon signs directing fellow nerds to you. So many of us spent so many years being the only one of our kind, when we see another like us, we get excited.
Basically, when you’re at that table, let your geek flag fly. If folks can identify with you, or find you interesting, they’re more likely to give your books more thought.
Tip #5: Stand up. Look up.
This was a new one for me. I read a blog post about why some sellers at art/craft fairs fail, and this one tip stuck out to me more than anything else. When you’re behind that table, stand up so you’re at eye-level with the people who walk by. It’s an indication that you’re open to social interaction and interested in folks. I did this at UtopYA. It worked.
The looking up part was a little more difficult, believe it or not. People are tethered to their phones these days, and social media is a 24/7 thing. But when you’re in an environment like a signing, keep your face out of Facebook as much as you can. If someone walks by and you’re buried in a status update, you will miss them. They won’t stop because most people won’t want to bother you. Show them you are open to and encouraging the bothering. Standing up and engaging the world with eye contact are the biggest social cues you can give to others that you are human and want to human with other humans. I know it’s easy to default to hiding behind that phone, but avoid it if you can. I struck a deal with my table partner, Mindy Hayes, and told her that if she caught me hiding, she needed to poke me out of it, and I would return that favor. That was also helpful.
Tip #6: Help people around you.
I know it seems a little backwards to start talking up someone else’s product when you’re trying to sell your own, but this actually works. I mentioned that I was sharing a table with Mindy Hayes, and there were times when I was there, but she wasn’t (humans require bio breaks, you know). In times like those, occasionally someone would stop to look at her stuff, so I stepped in to tell them about her work. I was familiar with her books before the signing, so that helped, but I also listened as Mindy spoke with people who came by, so I knew what information she was trying to get across. Pay attention to your table mate, and don’t let them miss out on reader interactions. After those readers looked at Mindy’s stuff, a lot of times they’d look at mine next. There’s room for everyone at the party, so don’t be a jerk. People will remember who they talked to and their impressions of them. You don’t want someone walking away from your table feeling ignored. Showing them that you’re interested in people outside of yourself will foster positive feelings, even if they don’t buy your book right then and there. Also: authors are readers, too, and talking about a book that’s not yours will help reinforce that, really, you’re not a separate species from the readers you’re trying to reach.
Tip #7: Smile.
This is my last tip, and seems the most obvious, but, if you’re like me, this isn’t your default expression. I’ve had years to perfect my RBF, so having to unlearn that for a public event was TOUGH. Put a sticky note where only you can see it if you need to, but you must remember to smile. Say hello if someone passes. Yes, even (*gasp*) strangers. Fake it ’til you make it. It’s hard. Your face will hurt at the end of the day. But I promise it’ll be worth it. So smile.
In the end, I met a lot of new people at UtopYA (and Balticon) this year, and I’m counting it as a success. Maybe I didn’t sell out of books, but I sold more than I would’ve without the above things working for me. I added a bunch of new readers to my mailing list, I got tons of compliments on my covers, display, and costumes, and saw lots of interest on the ebook versions. It was absolutely exhausting, and I was wiped after two days, but it was SO very worth it.
As always, if you have any advice for how to fake-human beyond these tips, do add them in the comments. If you’ve got a trick I haven’t learned yet, I’d love to add it to my repertoire of humaning! Good luck, and with enough practice, maybe someday it’ll become second nature to all of us non-humans. ;)