Literary Busking: A Side Hustle Doubles as Marketing

Literary Busking

Recently I was exposed to a new (to me) phenomenon. Literary busking. If you’ve never heard the term, busking is when someone performs in public, hoping that passerby will voluntarily contribute money. When you see a musician out on the street with his case open at his feet and dollar bills and change inside, that’s a busker. (Enterprising buskers may also sell CD’s or other “finished” work.) It’s a way to make money, but it’s also a way to get your name out there in front of people. Busking is common among musicians, artists, dancers, and other creatives.

I met my first literary busker this weekend. We had a major arts and music festival pass through town. To accommodate the buskers that show up, the festival designated special “busking tents.” If you had a talent to hawk, you could take over an empty tent and perform until either you ran out of material, or someone else queued for the spot.

Most of the tents were filled by the usual musicians singing and playing instruments for money. There was also an artist, painting quick, small scenes by request. A few tents down, however, I ran into a tent where a woman was perched on a stool, reading her own short stories. I was surprised at the crowd she’d attracted. There were a fair number of families sitting on the throw rugs she’d provided, listening to her fantasy tales. Her stories were about the level of the later Harry Potter books, so YA fantasy.

I listened for a while and watched. Most people who listened for any length of time dropped a couple of dollars into her tip jar. When she took breaks between stories, she took questions about her work and sold a few copies of her books. She also had some swag and easy games for the kids so they could win a bookmark or sticker.

I didn’t get a chance to speak to her, as I didn’t want to interrupt, but I got the sense that literary busking might be a viable side hustle. I doubt she’s raking in big bucks, but she made a at least some money that day, for very little investment. The use of the tent was free, so all she invested was her time and the money spent on the banner advertising her name, the books she sold, and the freebies. She probably had all of that already for book signings or other events.

The biggest benefit that I could see was that she was marketing herself in a fun way. Offline, no less! The people who paid attention to her came away knowing her name and her work. They got a taste of her stories, so if they enjoyed themselves they’ll be more likely to look up her work on Amazon someday. That’s a win, no matter how much money she made. The money is a bonus.

I looked into busking when I got home. I’m likely not brave enough to give it a try, but I did put together a quick and dirty list of considerations for anyone else who might like to try it. As always, nothing here is legal advice, or necessarily pertinent to your jurisdiction or personal circumstances. And as with anything done in public, be certain to obey all local laws and safety restrictions.

Here’s the list:

Keep it legal.

Find out what the rules are in your city/town. Some places allow busking only in certain areas, others not at all. Some require a permit. Places that restrict busking may relax those rules during large festivals. Or not. Some have different rules if you intend to also sell merchandise. Know the rules and make sure you comply. The fines for non-compliance will quickly eat any profit you make. Also, jail is something you should strive to avoid.

Keep it short.

Stick to pieces that people can “finish” in a short timeframe. Short stories are great because people can sit down and listen to one (or more) from start to finish in the time it takes to eat lunch or while waiting for a bus. Poetry, too. Novels can lead to frustrated listeners because they can’t “finish” the piece before they have to move on. While you might think of this as a way to hook them into buying your book, they probably won’t.

An ability to improvise makes you interesting.

While it’s fine to read finished work, improvisation is entertaining and a great way to bring your audience into the process. Ask for people to give you a starting point like an occasion or a word, and then compose a story or poem for them. Or have them draw words out of a hat and you compose a story using those words. (Magnetic Poetry kits are great for this kind of thing.) Bonus if you can type it out as you go along and give them the finished copy. You have to be quick and think well on your feet for this to work, but it can be a great way to add some interactivity to your gig.

Have a sign, flyers, and/or business cards.

You’re doing this to get your name out there, so make sure people know who you are. You can set up a small sign or banner with your name and website (if signage is legal in your jurisdiction), or have flyers or business cards available. Showcase any work you have for sale (and offer to sign it!), or services you provide. And make sure you include contact information!

You can go a step further and offer some swag in return for contributions. A bookmark, postcard, or a sticker, perhaps? There are lost of inexpensive options out there that can serve as a simple, “Thank you, remember me,” gift. Or, as the woman I saw did, offer some games for kids and give away small prizes.

Be personable.

Don’t hide behind your words. If listeners want to engage in conversation or take a selfie, be an eager participant. Answer questions about your work, or just make chit chat. “Engagement” is the buzzword in publishing these days, so engage with your audience.

Also, dress nicely. You don’t have to get formal, but do make an effort. Nice casual clothes, brushed hair, basic hygiene, etc. If you look like a scruffy bum, people will avoid you, particularly if you’re busking near office buildings or schools.

Tailor your readings to your location and audience.

If you’re busking near a school in the middle of the day, stick to family friendly fare. You can perhaps get a bit grittier if you’re performing near a bar in the evening. If you’re near office buildings, your material can be for adults, but avoid anything really raunchy, gross, or disturbing. Know your likely audience and choose accordingly to avoid offending people.

Stay safe.

Pick your spots well. Choose well-traveled, well-lit areas. If possible, keep a wall at your back so you can see who’s around you. Keep whatever you’re collecting money in close at hand and in view. Bonus if you can convince a friend to come along and keep an eye on your tip jar. Your safety is more important than money, so if you’re ever uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to pack up and move on, or call the police. If you do get robbed, don’t give chase or engage. The money’s not worth it if the robber is armed, crazy, desperate, or all of the above.

Try to make it comfortable.

Your listeners will appreciate a place to sit down. If you can set up near a planter or fountain that offers a place for people to perch, great. Consider places with grass and shade nearby, and maybe lay down a few blankets. If your budget stretches to it, consider buying a couple of folding chairs or stools like tailgaters and campers use. Set them out around your area as seating. And don’t forget some seating for yourself!

Be respectful of others.

If you’ve had your spot for a while and someone else wants it, move along. Similarly, don’t crowd into someone else’s space. Don’t block entrances, crosswalks, or other through-fares. Clean up any trash in your area before you leave. Don’t annoy the people who have to be around you like shopkeepers. Maybe buy a drink or snack from a neighboring mini-mart or restaurant to engender a little goodwill.

Busking likely isn’t going to net you big money, but it might be a viable side gig, if your jurisdiction allows it. Bonus if you’re a good performer with good stories to tell. Quality stuff is important. No one’s going to listen to crap. If nothing else, it can serve as a fun new marketing tool in your arsenal. It’s a way to get out and meet people without the hassle of a full blown signing at a bookstore. Bonus: You might attract people who rarely set foot in bookstores, but who will sit and listen to a story over lunch.

(Photo by pxoxo)

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