How to Sell More Self-Published Books: Seize Handselling Opportunities

Author M C Beaton at a library event

Another happy customer: international bestseller M C Beaton handsells a book to my mum in the local library!

It’s all too easy, in this age of internet bookselling, to focus only on your online sales figures, allowing  allow handselling opportunities to pass you by. But if you look out for them, you’ll be surprised at how many of these there are.

What’s more, readers who buy from you in person may be more likely to:

  • tell their friends about their purchase
  • appreciate your book more because they’ve met you in person
  • be better ambassadors for you than readers who you’ve never met

Although handsold copies may be a tiny proportion of your total sales, they will help you build your success and your fan-base, so make the most of the opportunities to sell YOUR books!

What is Handselling, anyway?

By handselling, I mean books sold directly by the author to the purchaster at any face-to-face encounter e.g.

  • at a formal event such as a book launch or book signing
  • at a stall you’ve set up at your local literature festival or community fete
  • at just about anywhere you happen to be – on a bus, at a party, in the office, in a shop

If you think selling a book by hand sounds difficult, bear in mind the example of my dear late friend Lyn. She actually sold her house while at the hairdresser’s to a lady she’d never met before. Yes, not a book, but her HOUSE, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Simply by chatting to a stranger. She’d only gone in for a haircut, but she got chatting with the lady in the next chair, and the conversation turned to houses. Realising that this lady was looking for exactly the kind of house that she was trying to sell, Lyn sealed the deal. If she could handsell a house, can handselling books really be that difficult?

Finding Opportunities for Handselling Books

Handselling her books, with  a beautiful smile

Artemis Cooper, handselling her books (no extra charge for a friendly smile)

Formal events provide the most natural handselling opportunities. I’ve written before about the sales potential of a well-managed book talk:

There are many unstructured handselling opportunities, if you keep your eye open for them. Last November, when I was distributing posters for our PTA’s Christmas Fair, the proprietor of a nearby craft centre asked me what I did for a living, and I told her I was a writer. When I told her about my newly-launched handbook for authors, Sell Your Books!, I didn’t expect it to be of interest to someone in her line of business, but she revealed that she had an aunt who was writing a book. I suggested that my book would be the perfect Christmas present, especially if I signed it. Ker-ching! I fetched a copy from the car. (I also sold three copies at the PTA Christmas Fair itself.)

I  always carry at least two copies of my book in my car – one a well-thumbed display copy and the other, untouched by human hand, for selling at the cover price (and at a better margin than I earn online). I have been known to make a sale in a car park, feeling (unjustifiably!) like a dodgy trader in counterfeit watches.

Great Examples of Handsold Books

I thought I was good at opportunistic sales, but my efforts were put in the shade last week by reports from some authors I was chatting to on SilverWood Books’ excellent Facebook forum. Although this is a private forum, a benefit available only to authors who currently use the company’s assisted publishing services, I have their permission, and SilverWood’s, to share here their impressive examples of handselling.

Cover of The Assassin's Mark by David Ebsworth

Tempting the postmistress

Historical novelist David Ebsworth reports:

“Posting off my latest orders at the Post Office this morning, the nice lady behind the counter finally plucked up courage to ask me what sort of books I’m writing. Turns out she’s a historical fiction fanatic and she promptly bought my “carry around” copy of my latest novel, The Assassin’s Mark.”

When she’s finished that one, I bet he’ll sell her a copy of his previous novel, The Jacobite’s Apprentice.

Novelist Sandy Osborne is a well-known and recognised local figure due to the extensive local media coverage of her first novel, Girl Cop, launched in the local Waterstones in January. At that event, she broke the branch’s record for most books sold by an indie author, and continues to capitalise on her local following by carrying fliers wherever she goes.

“I hand people the flier and tell them with a big smile that I’ve got a copy of the book in the car if they’re interested!” she advises. “I’ve sold copies to my holiday rep and the beautician who does my eyebrow shape!”

Cover ofThe Adventures of Eric Seagull by Caz Greenham

Just what the pharmacist ordered

Caz Greenham is making great headway selling the first in her planned series of children’s books, set in the seaside resort of Brixham, Devon. Not content with securing pre-publication orders from Brixham’s hotels and tourist attractions, she is also building up a considerable following in her home town of Bristol. Offering free talks to nearby schools has provided her with obvious opportunities to handsell copies to children and parents. Less obviously, she has also sold three copies to the lady behind the counter in her local  bank!

Of course, it’s not always convenient to carry physical copies of the book around, particularly if yours is a heavy book, a large format, or only available as an e-book. In that case, carry a business card or bookmark bearing the book’s details.

Caz Greenham had this technique sussed very early on: “”I sold my first book, via Amazon, to the pharmacist at Asda. After introducing my book with chit-chat and a SilverWood bookmark, he flipped open his phone, went to the Amazon page, and hey ho – he ordered The Advenures of Eric Seagull for his little boy!”

The Etiquette of Handselling

Effective handselling really follows the same rules of etiquette as promoting your book via social media. It is NOT the done thing to shriek “Buy my book! It’s wonderful!” to everyone you meet, but to engage people in pleasant, natural conversation. If the opportunity then arises to drop your book into the discussion, do so. If the person you’re talking to makes buying signals, e.g.  asks what your book’s about or how much it costs, tell them what they want to know, without applying any pressure or showing £ or $ signs in your eyes.

Then, if you have a copy to hand, that’s the time to produce it. Allow them to hold it and to flick through it – it’s known in the trade as “puppy-dog selling“. As with puppies, once readers have picked up books, they start to bond with them and are much more likely to buy. (My salesman husband once persuaded me to adopt a kitten, against my better judgement, by passing it across for me to hold. Inevitably, the kitten came home with us.) Feel free to ask the enquirer, in a casual tone, whether they’d like to buy the copy now, and offer to sign it as an extra incentive. That could be the deal clincher that makes them buy now, rather than waiting till they’re next online or in a bookshop (where they may be distracted from your book by other matters and may forget all about their intention to purchase).

If you don’t have a copy of your book to hand, have other sales aids ready instead:

  • a bookmark with an attractive image of your book’s cover, with ISBN, price and blurb
  • your business card showing your author website and Amazon page
  • a postcard of the book’s front cover – likely to be put on the kitchen noticeboard or kept for correspondence

I’ve even been handed a promotional pen with the name and details of a book on it. This probably wasn’t a cost-effective tactic, probably costing as much as the author’s margin on the book, but hey, I’ve remembered the book’s title two years on! Giving me the branded pen was a testament not only to that author’s determination to sell his book, but also to the persuasiveness of online firms such as Vistaprint, from whom it’s very easy to order suitable promotional materials at reasonable cost. Beware, they can be addictive! Been there, got the t-shirt… literally!

If the discussion ends without a sale, don’t be downhearted – at least you’ve tried. The person you’ve been speaking to will probably still be impressed that they’ve met a real live author  and will probably tell their friends about your encounter. Even in these heady days of self-publishing, many people are in awe of anyone who’s written a book. This means your meeting will have raised your profile and got people talking about your book, making future sales more likely – and that’s still a great result!

Where’s the most unusual place in which you’ve handsold a copy of your book? Do tell!

If you found this post helpful, you might also like:

A Case Study of a Succssful Book Launch with Girl Cop author Sandy Osborne

How to Build A Great Relationship with your Local Bookshop

Why You Should Sell the Author As Well As the Book


18 thoughts on “How to Sell More Self-Published Books: Seize Handselling Opportunities

  1. Thank you for mentioning The Adventures of Eric Seagull, Debbie. I’ve had lots of fun selling ‘face to face’. I really can’t resist…I also sold a book to the lady at M&S Cribbs Causeway, Bristol after she had served me. The list is endless… I get an amazing buzz from selling my book myself… Can’t help myself! Fun all the way… It helps too if you’re rather cheeky… You know the old saying, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get!’ And today, I had even more fun with my new business cards… thanks to – Great Publishers! Two items always in my huge handbag: A supply of bookmarks & my new business cards! I never go anywhere without them = book sales! folks… My advice to anyone reading Debbie’s blog: Try it! Smile and be natural… Go, do a bit of selling yourself…
    Caz Greenham ~ Children’s author of The Adventures of Eric Seagull ‘Story-teller’

  2. As a poet and spoken word artist I do almost all my selling face to face. There is nothing so wonderful as watching the whites of an audience’s eyes as you pull them through the world you’ve created – and then having them come up to you for your book afterwards. I don’t have any particular selling tales, but one of my proudest moments was having my books stocked at Rough Trade in Brick Lane after performing a gig there

  3. As a former bookseller I know how effective hand selling can be. Which is why, as I don’t yet have paper copies of my three novels, I printed leaflets which I handed out at bus stops & tube stations locally here in North London. I also had some colourful postcards printed of each book cover to give away to anyone who show an interest. I think it works…great post!

    • I love bookmarks and postcards – and what fun to hand them out at bus stops and tube stations. (Echoes of “Poems on the Underground”, that other great initiative to liven up dreary journeys with literature.) I didn’t know you were formerly a bookseller, Helena – I’d love to interview you about that for my blog some time, if you’d be willing?

  4. A great post, Debbie.

    I love ‘hand selling’! Following the launch of my new picture book, Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep, I have recently completed four rounds of signings at Waterstones in south-west London where all three of my books sold very well! (Around 100 sold all told!) It’s lovely to meet the parents and children and see how inspired they are when I talk about the books – or to see older siblings picking up and reading one of my stories to their young brother/sisterI

    I also did a fun reading of Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep at the local nursery school yesterday and sold 14 more copies there. And now have three more author visits planned with local schools for both the younger and older children.

    There’s nothing quite like handing over the book and signing it personally for your reader!

    My next plan is to wander around Isabella Plantation – the magical garden within Richmond Park that inspired my children’s mystery adventure – The Secret Lake ( – and hand out bookmarks to the families there! I once left a signed copy there as part of the Guardian Book Swap! Actually, if anyone wants to see just how amazing Isabella plantation is see the latest post on my twitter feed! @kareninglis


    • Ooh, I LOVE the Isabella Plantation – and what a magical thing it would be to find a signed copy of your book there! Must download “The Secret Lake”, I didn’t realise the IP had sparked it, so it will have extra meaning for me now. I really enjoyed your book about the football-loving alien, “Eeek!”, big kid that I am (even though football leaves me cold!) So pleased Ferdinand Fox is doing so well for you too.

  5. There was a really helpful article in the Jan/Feb issue of Poets & Writers magazine about a DIY author tour. The author had written a non-fiction book about the restoration of his historic home (think Money Pit), and in handselling his physical book, he found a much greater degree of success with library events and partnered events with other associations (like historical preservation societies) than with bookstore readings/signings. I write fiction, but I’m trying to model his approach with a multimedia presentation called “Language, Music & Spirit in India and Ireland: Themes that Inspired a Suspense Novel” that I’m booking at libraries this summer. I’ve got the first two coming up in a few weeks, so no data yet, but I’ve got fingers crossed!

    • That’s really interesting, Kathryn -good luck with your tour! I reckon there are many books for which handselling is actually better suited than online sales, e.g. the village history book that I mention in “Sell Your Books!” – with such a small target area, geographically, it’s still selling well years after its release, without ever being put up for sale online anywhere! Gotta love libraries – some of the best author events I’ve been to have been in the humble local public library! 🙂

    • Thanks, Helena! This would work especially well for your book because it’s so easy to carry around in your pocket – and your genre is a real talking point in itself. Oh, the joys of flash fiction! 🙂

      • Debbie your continuing support and enthusiasm for my book and flash fiction as a genre means a lot – thank you! I’m nearly half-way on the next collection …

  6. I was at a book fair, at a booth selling many authors’ books, when the author of the book I was glancing at came over and said, “I hear it’s really good.” That made me smile, so I bought the book. And he was absolutely right.

  7. At my doctor’s! Even more impressive as my book is in English and, as I live in France, my doctor is French. But she mentioned her daughter speaks English and likes to read in English, so the deed was done.

  8. Pingback: Selling My Books: Caz Greenham, Children’s Author | Off The Shelf Book Promotions

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