By Debbie Burke
These days, book sales are down for many authors including myself. So I’ve been on the lookout for out-of-the-box ideas. Recently, an unexpected and unconventional opportunity came my way.
For years, we’ve vacationed in a Florida community of approximately 1500 homes. The development caters to snowbirds but is also a permanent residence for many locals as well. Over time, I’ve built a small but loyal following there among book clubs and readers I met at Zumba classes. I also recognize many people by sight from daily strolls around the complex.
During one Friday walk, I spotted a notice on a bulletin board advertising a Community Flea Market the next day.
I’ve attended art festivals and outdoor library events but never a flea market. Since there was no cost for a table, I figured why not?
Being away from home, my book inventory was small but I had plenty of business cards, handouts with book descriptions, and a mailing list sign-up sheet. Friends offered use of a folding table and chair.
I opted for KISS bookkeeping (Keep it simple stupid). Cash only, no coins, no credit cards, no checks. I printed a sign that read: ALL BOOKS $10.
The venue was one-acre open parking lot edged with Florida thatch palms, near a pond and a jasmine-covered gazebo.
Many vendors were flea market pros, equipped with pop-up shade canopies, display cases, racks for hanging clothes, professionally printed signs, beverage coolers, etc.
Others were obviously clearing out closets, cupboards, and garages: used clothes, small appliances that were missing parts, odd dishes and glassware, tchotchkes, old music cassettes, rusted tools—no extra charge for dust.
And…lots of tables with used books priced at 25 cents or five for a dollar.
How could I compete, selling new books even at the discounted price of $10?
I set up my table between a young couple who were professional jewelry vendors and a gentleman who was a closet cleaner.
The couple not only brought a tent, they had two fans. As the sun and temperature climbed, they graciously shared their shade with me.
The closet cleaner on the other side mentioned his nephew was also an author and gave me the man’s book for free. His items included a pair of brand-name shoes in new condition. I bought them for $2.
Through the morning, hundreds of shoppers turned out. People from Zumba class dragged their friends and neighbors to my table, saying, “You’ve got to read Debbie’s books!”
Word of mouth recommendations are wonderful!
The fourth book in my series, Dead Man’s Bluff, is set in Florida during Hurricane Irma. That caught the attention of locals and those copies sold out first.
Residents recognized me from daily walks and said, “I didn’t know you were an author.” Several bought books.
The new community social director, whom I hadn’t met before, stopped by and told me about a small book club. The following Monday, I met with them and sold two more books there.
A couple of years before, I’d met a Minnesota snowbird named Kim who looked exactly like my main character–a tall, slender redhead with a French braid. She became a fan and a friend.
That Saturday morning, I saw Kim/Tawny and she suggested taking pictures of us together holding books. The jewelry seller from the neighboring booth snapped shots with my phone.
Two unusual encounters happened—one head-shaking, one heartwarming.
First, the head-shaker. There’s a woman I know from Zumba class who dresses exquisitely, drives a Lexus, and lives in a nearby luxury subdivision. She stopped at the table and thumbed through my books with interest and enthusiasm. After she chose three of them, she set down a quarter and said, “I owe you a nickel.”
I told her the books were 10 dollars.
“Oh, I thought the sign said 10 cents.” She put down the books, picked up her quarter, and left.
I might have dismissed it as a mistake except for a prior encounter. The year before, I was selling a new release at cost to Zumba dance-mates. This same woman read the back cover and decided she wanted it for her upcoming weekend trip to New Orleans. “I’ll take it with me today [Friday] and give it back to you on Monday.”
Uh, no. That would make it a used book that I couldn’t sell as new.
She apparently thought I was a librarian, not an author struggling to make a living.
When I asked her for the money, her eyes went wide with disbelief. But she did pay.
Second, the heart-warmer. A woman I only knew by sight was strolling through the flea market and stopped at my table. During our chat, I learned she had been a flight attendant and now manages rental properties within the community.
She scanned the handout of my book descriptions and said, “Seven books is quite an accomplishment. But I’m not a reader.” However, she set a $10 bill on the table.
“Which book would you like?” I asked.
“I don’t want a book,” she replied. “I just want to encourage you because what you’re doing is hard.”
Her kindness brought a lump to my throat.
When the flea market was over, I’d sold ten books and collected names for my email list–not enough to make the USA Today list but a good morning’s work.
The following day, while I was taking a walk in my $2 shoes, a man hailed me and said he’d bought Dead Man’s Bluff on Kindle. He liked it but he thought there should be more sex.
Oh well, ya can’t please all the people all the time.
Over the next week, folks told me after seeing the books at the market, they’d ordered them online.
Encounters at the flea market led to an invitation to another much larger book club where I met more new people and sold more books. By the time I went home, only two books remained in my Florida inventory.
Sales reports showed a nice little spike that I attribute to contacts made at the flea market.
The moral of this story: don’t be afraid to seize unconventional opportunities. You never know where they might lead.
You might even walk away with a new pair of shoes, too.
Today, I have to be offline and will respond to comments later. In the mean time, here are a couple of discussion questions:
Have you ever tried an unusual venue to sell books? How did it work out for you?