The Blog

What I Learned From Selling Books Out of the Back of My Car

We were standing shivering, looking at a big stack of books in the boot of my car. It was a cold and cloudy day at a car boot sale in a field in Oxfordshire. Most people who wandered past us looked about as happy as if they'd just been to a funeral. Moreover, there was some sort of sorcery in the air: my daughters and I seemed to be suddenly invisible. For as people approached our car, they either looked right through us or looked away.

We took a fold-away table out of the car and tried to arrange the books attractively on it. But after 30 minutes, we'd sold a grand total of: ZERO.

My daughters, Chiara (aged 8) and Tierni ( aged 9) had started out enthusiastically, but were beginning to look a bit crestfallen. "No one wants to buy them Mummy. We should go home," they whispered. "This is embarrassing. Really embarrassing!"

They'd written and illustrated their books for fun in their holidays and had asked me if I would publish them. "I want to be an author like you, Mummy," Tierni had said. "Me too," echoed Chiara. "Why not?" I'd thought. I help adults to write and publish books every day, but it'd never occurred to me to help my own children do the same thing. So it seemed like a bit of fun. I had optimistically booked a pitch at a local car boot sale shortly after the books were published, thinking that it would boost the kids' self-esteem and confidence to sell some of their books to families there.

Except now we were at the frontline, as it were. It was time to sell the darned things. And reality was proving a little different to my expectations.

I wondered, momentarily, if my kids had more of a handle on this than I did. Maybe it was a mistake after all. Maybe we should pack up our stack of books and go home.

Then, I looked at their disappointed little faces.

If you're a parent, you'll know that feeling of your child's pain being your pain. You'll also no there's no bigger incentive to spur you on to accomplish things you'd never normally consider.

There was no way I was going to admit defeat and drive home. We had to turn this around somehow or other.

So instead of standing quietly behind our table of books, passively waiting for sales to just happen, we started to take a more pro-active approach. You've most likely seen those traders hawking strawberries and clementines from their market stalls? Well, I decided to take a leaf out of their book and start calling out to passersby.

This seemed to be an instant antidote to our invisibility. People started looking at us curiously, even if it was just because they were thinking: "Who is that insanely loud woman and what does she want?"

A lady, with an Australian accent, was the first to come over to our car. We watched with baited breath while she started leafing through Tierni's book, "The Queen of the Dogs".

"You did all this yourself? Without any help?" she asked, shaking her head in disbelief.

My daughter beamed broadly. "I did," she nodded.

"Then, I'd better get your autograph in case you get famous later on," the woman said, hooking out her purse.

She handed over a bank note and Tierni gave her the change; a big smile on her face like sunlight piercing through a cloud. The tip of her tongue poked out on her lip as she wrote her name with a flourish. Her first ever autograph.

It was our first customer. But she'd also given us a couple of powerful ideas to try out.

Instead of thinking about selling books, we started to invite people to take a look inside them at the illustrations. We weren't expecting money or even sales. We were inviting people to be inspired and entertained.

Once there was no pressure or expectation to buy, people started coming and looking in droves. And the more people surrounded our car, the more that other people followed them out of curiosity!

We chatted about incidental things: where they were from; what they'd bought at other stalls; their families. Then, effortlessly, without encouragement, they bought the books for their own children and grandchildren. They bought the books not just because they liked the illustrations or the stories, but mainly because they felt inspired and uplifted. "It might encourage our children to write their own books too," they said. It was their emotional experience of the books, and the relevance to their own lives, that hooked them in.

Often, the adults were torn between "The Cat with No Name" (Chiara's book) and "The Queen of the Dogs" (Tierni's book). There was a bit of a competition going on between my daughters to see who which books would sell more: the "cat" book or the "dog" book. Seeing a potential quarrel looming, this helped me to get creative. So we started offering a "special deal" of a 2-book bundle at a discounted price.

After this, the girls' books really started flying off the table.

An hour or so later, we'd sold over 100 books and the girls had signed most of them. They were tired, but happy, and wandered off to spend some of their hard-earned coins on Mr Whippy ice creams with chocolate flakes.

When they came back, there was another treat in store. A local businessman who was passing was so impressed with their initiative, that he'd given them a donation to write their next books. "I used to wash my dad's car for my pocket money," he said.

"That was back in the old days," Chiara grinned cheekily. "We're authors, so we sell our books!"