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


Girl Cop’s Case Study of a Successful Book Launch Event

Cover of Girl Cop, chicklit novel by Sandy Osborne, police officerIt’s been my privilege to be in at the birth of Girl Cop, Sandy Osborne’s terrific chick-lit novel. This feel-good tale of romance in the police force is given an extra dimension by its setting – the beautiful World Heritage City of Bath.

Sandy is a local police officer turned writer. I first met her last autumn, just before her debut novel was published. After enjoying an advance review copy of the book, I set up her author website to coincide with her pre-Christmas publication date. For the official launch, we had to wait a little longer – till mid-January at the prestigious Waterstones in Bath.

Despite having a demanding day job, a young family and the usual pressures of Christmas upon her, Sandy worked her regulation socks off to prepare for her big day. Was it worth all the hard work and sleepless nights? In the words of a slightly astonished senior bookseller at Waterstones, it was “the best attended local author book launch in my 25 years of selling books in Bath!” Very impressive – and that’s before I’ve mentioned that she sold over 100 books that night!

Girl Cop and Burmese Days on same shelf at Waterstones, Bath

Osborne & Orwell – police novelists reporting for duty!

Two weeks later, Sandy Osborne’s books are still flying off the shelves. Much to the author’s amusement, Girl Cop is now displayed in Bath Waterstones on the same shelf as the works of the most-discussed writer of the moment: George Orwell, in whose honour Penguin Books has just launched the national Orwell Day (21st January). By chance, George Orwell was also once a policeman, serving in the Burmese colonial force. This  experience inspired his own debut novel, Burmese Days. I’m sure that, like Orwell (one of my personal writing heroes, by the way), Sandy Osborne will have many more writing successes to celebrate.

Just about down from Cloud Nine now, Sandy has kindly agreed to share her experience in a guest post here, to help other writers engineer a great book launch event. So now, over to Sandy…

Sandy Osborne, author of Girl Cop

Sandy Osborne

OK – I had brazenly walked into Waterstones and asked if I could have a book signing for my soon-to-be released, self-funded rom com Girl Cop – The Life and Loves of an Officer on the Beat. It was mid November and I got a cool response from the events manager.

“We don’t do book signings any more,” she told me (too many weirdos apparently), “but we might be able to do a book launch.”

Well, I was a bit cool at that. A signing would have meant I would have an audience who didn’t already know about the book – a launch would be invited guests who did already know about it. But this was Waterstones in Bath and I wasn’t about to turn down any kind of publicity there. I said I was thinking about a date in January. January was fine: the run-up to Christmas was apparently too busy to consider and she immediately warmed to me.

January was fine with me as this would give me time to build up my marketing strategy. I wasn’t quite sure what that marketing strategy was going to be, but at least I had time to do it!

I then had the dilemma of whether to start selling the books before the launch or waiting to release it on the night. I made the right decision to release it before, as it made some good sales as Christmas presents. It made a particularly popular Secret Santa gift, being in the right price range too.

Waterstones were happy to lay on  soft drinks and nibbles, but I had to provide the wine. Well, my girlfriends wouldn’t go if there wasn’t any wine on offer! So I started shopping around and found an offer in Asda on some decent Australian. I held my breath and forked out for three boxes each of red and white wine. Gulp!

Then I turned my attention to my display. The cover of Girl Cop is shades of blue (of course), so I bought a large piece of navy blue crushed velvet material to use as a tablecloth. It looked stunning against the books. I fished out my old Dr Marten boots (the ones mentioned in the blurb on my fliers!) and buffed them up before putting them in the middle of the display surrounded by my books, fliers and bookmarks. Nice.

OK. Glasses hire. Free from Waitrose. More soft drinks and nibbles as a back-up to those Waterstones were providing. I was hoping for a good turnout!

Helium balloons would look nice, I thought, and they’d help create party atmosphere. I phoned around for quotes and when I told suppliers that I was donating to charities from the sales of Girl Cop, I got a special rate. I asked one of my charities for their balloons, which by my good fortune were navy, then I added sky blue and pearlescent white. Perfect.

This was starting to remind me of organising my wedding! Except I didn’t hassle the local press to attend that! The press gave me some coverage beforehand and although they couldn’t attend on the night, they  suggested sending a piece and a photo to them afterwards, which I have done.

Bath Waterstones winidow display for the launch of Sandy Osborne's Girl Cop

In the window of Bath Waterstones

A trip to Digiprint produced 20 copies of the cover to line the staircase to the first floor where the launch was taking place, some A3 posters, and launch invite fliers for an A-board outside the store on the night. Done.

The week before the launch I went to find the event manager again.

“Is there any chance I can have a window display please?”

No chance. Apparently Waterstones window displays are prescribed nationally.

“That’s a shame, because I have a life-sized cut-out of me in my police uniform.”

“‘Oh well,  in that case we might be able to do something.” came the reply.

I spent Saturday morning dressing my window in Waterstones Bath, no less!

I was worried my guests would arrive, buy a book, help themselves to a glass of wine and then be twiddling their thumbs, so I created three display boards. The first was all about my charity links with a mixture of materials that I had requested from the charities or had put together myself. Secondly, I compiled a storyboard about my publishing journey – how I  got started in the writing world and my ideas for the book. Finally, I did another about my career, from PE teacher, to policewoman, to writer, complete with hockey stick and truncheon!

I sent out invites via post, text, email and with my Christmas cards, and I followed them up in the week before the launch. I didn’t ask for RSVPs. I recruited four friends to meet and greet and run the bar.

As the day dawned I felt giddy with excitement and nerves. I had prepared a speech and ordered a bouquet of flowers for the mum of my late colleague whose collar number I had used as my love interest.

The glasses needed picking up, as did the balloons. I needed to get all my display boards in and all my props. With the assistance of my helpers, donation bowls and email collection lists were in place, and I managed to change into my black trousers and white shirt just  as the first guests started to arrive. This was it – it was really happening!

Well, the people just kept coming!

“The most well-attended local author launch in my 25 years as a book seller in Bath,” said the senior bookseller from Waterstones!

I had invited everyone I knew!

Whilst I was sat at the signing table, my son kept coming up to me and saying “Mum, this is immense! People are queuing for you to sign their books all the way down the stairs!”

I couldn’t believe it either. After bleating on for years to all my friends that I was writing a book, they all turned out to help me celebrate its eventual release!

Over 150 people turned out for me on a cold January evening and I sold over 100 books.

And they laughed in all the right places during my speech! Amazing.

Thanks, Sandy, for sharing your valuable experience. (Your speech, by the way, was masterful – plenty of laughs but not a dry eye in the house!)

And of course this is just the beginning for Sandy, who is now taking bookings for other author events, kicking off with a talk to the Ladies’ Lunch Club at the prestigious Bath Priory Hotel on Thursday 28th February. For more information about Sandy’s book, do take a look at her website: And of course, like any author, Sandy will be very grateful for any reviews! (11 x 5* reviews on Amazon so far, and counting…)


The Challenge of Chick-Lit

(New post of book promotion advice for authors in the chick-lit genre, helping self-published or independently published women writers and novelists)

Cover of Can't Live Without by Joanne PhillipsIf you are a chick-lit writer, there are blessings and there are curses, from the book promotion point of view.

First, the blessings. Chick-lit is hugely popular. There are literally millions of women who read this genre, often voraciously, so there’s no shortage of potential readers. Plenty of these will be happy to read it in any format: hardback, paperback or e-book. Lots of women keep an e-reader in their handbag or have a Kindle app on their smartphone, reading to while away the wait at the doctor’s, the school gate or the hairdressers.

The curse of the chick-lit writer is that you are not alone. You are a minnow in a vast ocean of competition. Chick-lit novels by your rivals are everywhere, not only in a prime place in your friendly neighbourhood bookshop. A very select few populate the cut-price bookshelves of the supermarket; they’re given away free as cover-mounted gifts on magazines; they’re crammed into charity shops and remaindered bookshops. How’s a girl meant to sell her book around here? The chick-lit novelist has to work very hard – and smart – to secure even the smallest share of this massive market.

Get it right, and you’re on to a winner, because women who have enjoyed your book will almost certainly tell their friends, whether face to face over a coffee shop cappuccino or on Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads or whatever else is their favourite social network of the moment.

Where to Begin?

For a self-funding, self-published author, it would be prohibitively expensive to try to target the whole of this nationwide market – and that’s without a thought for the rest of the vast English-speaking, chick-lit reading world. So where should you begin?

First, stand back – and breathe. Try to distance yourself enough from your book to deconstruct your carefully crafted novel into separate strands. Then take each of these strands as a starting point to identify a small  and specific sector of the total market. Exploit each strand in turn for all its worth, before moving on to the next one. In time, those segments will add up to a greater whole, and word of mouth will carry news of your book further afield than you might imagine.

I’ll demonstrate just what I mean by dissecting one particular novel in this crowded genre: Can’t Live Without, the debut novel of Joanne Phillips. I’ll extract three separate strands below and bullet point the promotional ideas that they trigger.


Caldecotte Lake, Milton Keynes

Caldecotte Lake, Milton Keynes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The novel is set in Milton Keynes, and the author writes lyrically of some local landmarks that play key parts in the plot. Now, I think it’s quite unusual for an author (or indeed anyone) to declare such affection for this new(ish) town that so often serves as the butt of comedians’ jokes. (I come from another one of these myself – Sidcup – and I know how much I appreciate it when someone praises the suburb of my birth!) I reckon this theme would go down well with the local radio station, the local papers and with any official organisation that exists to promote the area as a place to work or live. So, task list:

  • approach the radio to offer a reading of the salient parts and an interview about how and why the author came to write about the place (especially as she doesn’t live there now)
  • write a press release or news story about it and send to the local papers with the offer to provide a signed copy for a readers’ competition, maybe on the theme of whoever can write the best ode to MK
  • research the local council, any local trade organisation, chamber of commerce, town website, etc and explore any similar opportunities there
  • see if you’re allowed to post a link on the town’s Facebook fanpage – yes, it exists and it has 22,000+ likes, so a post on there will appear on 22,000+ people’s timelines!
  • approach the local Lions or Ladies’ Circle or similar and offer to do a talk and a reading at their next meeting, signing copies for sale at the end
  • find out whether there are any local tourist attractions such as museums that include souvenir shops and offer to provide copies for sale in the book section – the Milton Keynes Museum (yes, there is one!), Bletchley Park, etc.

Achieving any of these tasks will in itself  create another news opportunity, after the event, to be presented to the local media – so that’s a double whammy, then!


English: An image of a top estate agent in Roy...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The heroine works in an estate agency and there are lots of scenes to do with housing.  It’s a more fun read than I’ve made it sound there, sorry! One of the key men runs a very successful agency and is far from being the flash stereotype in shiny suit and company car, speaking fluent euphemism. This portrait of the industry would be refreshing to anyone employed in it and I think they’d like to hear about it. Second task list:

  • research dedicated estate agents trade press and websites and approach them with a story about how the book celebrates it as a profession
  • if the author has ever worked in an estate agency herself, there could be an interesting press interview  there

House Fire

A residential smoke detector is the most famil...

A residential smoke detector is the most familiar piece of nuclear technology for some people (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story opens with a house fire, gutting the heroine’s house but not physically harming anyone. Even so, this is an issue to be handled extremely sensitively to guard against upsetting anyone who has lost loved ones this way. The heroine then has to rebuild her life, starting off with the list alluded to in the title of the things she Can’t Live Without. I would avoid tackling the more serious issues involved here because it is a light-hearted novel, not an epic tragedy. But even so, I am sure that it could be presented in a way that would intrigue and engage people. Task list number 3:

  • Take a look at the various websites that include a discussion forum for women, such as Mumsnet or Netmums. A discussion thread on the theme of “What could you not live without?” is just the sort of question that they post on their Facebook pages and Twitter to draw people in. (The author has thoughtfully provided a blank list at the end of the book for the reader to create their own list!) This kind of  website usually has a books section, so approach its editor to see if you could build up a feature including a profile of your book and maybe an interview. If you’re feeling really brave, go straight to the top and pitch it to BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour producer! Or try to get it trending on Twitter against a relevant hashtag such as #ICannotLiveWithout or #ThingsToSaveInAHousefire
  • Approach insurance companies who have experience in helping people recover from household fires – and who, of course, are eager to sell household insurance (which this book’s heroine neglects to have). Maybe you could offer to produce a survey, easily done via your established readers with a little help from MailChimp or SurveyMonkey. (Why do these services both have primate themes, by the way?!) It’s the sort of material that would be a gift to them, PR-wise. Survey stories are  meat and drink to news reporters, easy fuel for witty headlines and jaunty stories. “In a house-fire, 95% of women aged 20-40 would rather save old letters from ex-boyfriends than their wedding photographs”, maybe?
  • Create a themed gimmick for an online give-away competition on Twitter e.g. free smoke alarm with the 1,000th copy sold!

Over To You

Cover of chick lit novel Girl Cop by Sandy OsborneThis is by no means an exhaustive list of the many facets of Can’t Live Without, and any decent chick-lit novel will offer up similar opportunities upon careful dissection. If your book is in this genre, I hope this case study will provide a useful template for you to follow. Treat the marketing challenge as a game of Cluedo. Think laterally.  Is your book a case of Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Revolver or Professor Plum in the Conservatory with the Lead Piping?

Once you start thinking along these lines, you’ll find it hard to stop. Supposing I tell you that a little later this year, the novelist Sandy Osborne will be making her debut with a chick-lit novel called Girl Cop, inspired by her own experiences as a police officer in Bath, where the novel also happens to be set? I think you’re getting ahead of me already…

Joanne Phillips’ debut novel, Can’t Live Without, is now available on Amazon, where it is collecting an ever-growing number of 5-star reviews. You can read her fascinating account of her journey from aspiring writer to published novelist on her website here.

Equally promising is Girl Cop by Sandy Osborne, to be published towards the end of 2012 by SilverWood Books. I’ll post a link to where you can buy this book as soon as it has been published!