Two things I learned during my mini-vacation: 1) although I haven't been a bookseller for years, it still felt great to talk to complete strangers about books and 2) quilters love good stories almost as much as fat quarters and fusible bias tape.
While I was at the show I handed out books written by me and various authors, most at random to about forty people I didn't know. I kept it very low-key and friendly, talked about the authors and asked the recipients that if they enjoyed the book to pass the word around to others who might like it. The response was almost 100% enthusiastic (one lady was quite suspicious; she assumed she'd have to order something if she accepted the book. And I still got her to take it.)
In return, I discovered what these folks are reading, like to read and want to see in the stores. I'd say the average age of the readers I chatted with was about fifty. Among the romance fans, Nicholas Sparks was the name most often mentioned when I asked them who they liked to read. Nicholas, you have to stop saying you don't write romances now. The readers would also like you to stop killing off so many of your darlings, please. Kathleen Woodiwiss, you are greatly missed.
Women's fiction, cozy mysteries, soft thrillers, mainstream historicals, self-help, evangelist titles and celebrity biographies were also favorites among the readers I talked to; vampire fiction/paranormal romance, urban fantasy and science fiction were not mentioned at all. Younger readers were more willing to try something new (moms with babies seemed the most receptive); older readers grilled me more on what the book was about even before they accepted the free copy. I was glad I had read all the books by the other authors I was handing out and could give them a quick synopsis, to say the least.
With each book I also gave out a laminated bookmark I made up with book info on one side and the respective author's backlist and blog URL printed on the back (here's the one I made up for The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square.) I know that most readers prefer these to fliers or any other type of promo; they can slip the bookmark in their pocket or purse. The most common question -- other than "Why are you giving these books away, honey?" -- was "Can I get his/her other books at the book store/library?"
Several of the recipients were vendors at the show, and one promised that if she liked the book I gave her that she would mention it in her e-mail newsletter, which she sends out to 28,000 customers. This really got me to thinking -- if you could give a free book to ten small business owners with the same size mailing list, and earn a mention in their newsletters to customers, that's exposure to over a quarter of a million people.
It's all about what appeal your story might have for the customers involved. For example, Jennifer Chiaverni, the author of the Elm Creek Quilts novels, would have obvious appeal to customers of a quilt fabric shop. So would Lizbie Brown's and Earline Fowler's mysteries, and Suzanne Ellison and Ginger Chamber's romances, most of which are all titled with the names of quilt patterns and/or feature quilts as an integral part of the story.
Not having time to read was the most frequent complaint I heard; one I countered by showing them that I carry a paperback book in my purse to read when I have a spare moment (currently Madhouse by Rob Thurman, and everyone admired the cool cover art) and mentioning the nonfic audio book I'm listening to this week in my car. I definitely made some converts among the moms with the latter suggestion by pointing out that everyone has to sit for at least twenty minutes in the school pickup line every weekday and it's nice to have something more interesting to listen to than endless radio commercials and Rush Limbaugh.
The PBW character card was a hit; everyone smiled or laughed when they saw it (two of the mothers with kids who collect Yu-Gi-Oh cards groaned.) All thought it was an interesting and eye-catching alternative to the hohum business card. One lady suggested handing out "decks of authors and their books" -- something you authors with long backlists or group bloggers might think about trying at your next reader con.
As to what the readers would like to read, longer books with bigger casts of characters (aka the "meaty read" as one lady put it), epic romances ala Kathleen Woodiwiss, sweeping American historical/dynasty series like the old John Jakes books were requested. There was a lot of nostalgia for the good old days of book buying, when the readers picked up a book not because of the hype, the cover art or the pun-y title, but because they followed a specific author, often for the entire length of his/her career. As one lady put it, "I'd read anything LaVyrle Spencer wrote, it just had to have her name on it."
It was good to get out there and talk books with people, especially outside the biz box. Authors, consider checking out some of the non-publishing trade shows, conferences and conventions happening in your local area, and see if any of them might be an opportunity to make some connections.