When I posted on my experience at RavenCon a comment was left suggesting that I write more on the subject of Cons and in particular provide tips for authors attending them. I didn’t see the comment for some time and have since been caught up with other projects that prevented me from posting anything. Now that I have a breather, I thought I would address this.
First, let me explain that I am not an expert in Cons. There are those who work these events religiously attending the same Cons for decades. The author, Tee Morris, who I had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions, used to do the “convention circuit” going “on the road” like a rock star living out of a suitcase. I never went to a convention of any kind until I published The Crown Conspiracy just this past October. Since then I have attended only four cons: MarsCon, RavenCon, Balticon and CarolinasCon, conventions located from Baltimore to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Let me begin by explaining what a ”Con” is. Cons, or Fan Conventions, are a gathering of people with a specific interest. There are cons for comics, for railroad building, or even a specific person—I hear Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, has her own con now: TwiCon. My daughter attends anime conventions for example, while the cons I listed above—the cons I attended—are Speculative Fiction cons. Speculative Fiction being anything to do with, Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy—the real geeky stuff. These cons attract the folks who thought high school extra-curricular activities should include Dungeons and Dragons. The people who exited Star Wars, walked around the theater and got back in line again. They are the much lampooned Star Trek fans who Josh Whedon, paid tribute to in his Buffy the Vampire Slayer series with his characters—The Trio. They also possess an above average intelligence, an interest and respect for arcane knowledge, and a curiosity and tolerance for new ideas. For a writer of fantasy, they are also my fan base.
Cons are held in a hotel and usually take over the place. Conference rooms and large halls are commandeered and private rooms are opened to the attendees for specific uses or just parties. Cons usually span a three-day weekend and visitors pay anywhere from $30 to $60 dollars depending on the con. Attendees, who often dress in flamboyant costumes, can go to various lectures given by authors or artists, sit in on panels where a group of professionals discuss a topic, listen to authors perform readings from their works, join in elaborate table top games, or visit the Dealer’s Room where a vast array of unusual merchandise is sold. There are also movies screenings, concerts, costume contests, and a host of other events that go on into the night.
As an author, I don’t get to indulge in any of this. I spend all my time in the Dealer’s Room. I pay in advance for a table and arrive early to set up before the con starts. One of the first things I learned was to travel light. At my first con, I just threw the kitchen sink in my trunk and assembled what I needed when I arrived. After that, I saw the virtue of planning and worked at getting everything I was bringing into as few boxes as possible.
Now some people, Tee Morris to name one, prefer to go the minimalist approach. He brings only his books and a pen. But Tee has a very out-going personality and for him accoutrements would only get in the way of his hand gestures. My experience with business tradeshows led me to bring a few basic advertisements to catch the eye of the hundreds of people walking by. I bring a nice dark tablecloth, as you never know if the con will provide any, and a bare, rickety folding table doesn’t present well. It also provides a hiding place under the table for personal stuff, like a sweater, a drink, extra books, and your coat. I also bring bookstands. These are clear plastic holders that merely stand my book up so people can see the cover better. I make posters, which I spray mount on form-core and stand up on the table or hang in front, (depending on how much room I have.) The posters help catch the eye of people even across the room. You should always bring tape and scissors—for some reason you always need those, or someone else does. If you did forget something talk to your neighbors, the other vendors are very friendly and helpful, like soldiers in the same foxhole.
I also bring bookmarks, which I hand out. For shy authors this is a great conversation starter and this is the real trick and the difference between a successful con and a not so successful one. All too often authors sit behind their tables waiting for people to come up and talk to them. They do this at bookstore signings too (which tends to irritate the bookstore managers who just ordered twenty of your books and expect you to move them out the door.) Some will even have laptops out, or be reading a book. This is no way to make sales. When I used to attend tradeshows for my advertising agency, rule number one was “never sit down.” Sitting makes you passive. Standing you are engaging, and approachable. If you look like you don’t want to talk about your books, people will avoid “bothering” you. That said, remain behind the table, standing out front is just too aggressive.
Still you have to do more than just stand. You have to engage the masses. This is hard for most writers. We are a solitary lot. We write so we don’t have to interact with people. We lock ourselves up in rooms and wander off into made-up worlds to avoid just this kind of thing. If we wanted to shake hands and laugh at bad jokes we’d be politicians. The reality of being a published author means that you have to spend a lot of your time pretending to be an unknown celebrity. Still, introverted shut-ins like us, have no clue how to engage a stranger. The idea of stopping someone we’ve never met and saying, “Say fella! Guess what? This is your lucky day! I’m the world’s best author. I wrote the world’s best book and if you don’t want to give me your hard-earned money in return for the privilege of reading it, then you’re an idiot!” Okay, so no one says that, but no matter how you go about it, it feels like you’re saying that.
The best solution I found is the bookmarks. As someone walks by, you just hold one out and say, “Care for a bookmark?” or “Would you like a free bookmark?” People like free things and ninety percent of the time, they will accept. Sixty percent of the time they will say, “thank you.” Thirty percent of the time, they will pause and read it. And twenty percent of the time they will look up at you and say, “Bookmark eh? So are you the author? What’s your book about?”
This is the moment you’ve waited for, the Con equivalent to being the understudy and learning the star had a plate of bad fish. Heart rate increases and you realize you have no idea what your book is about. The guy in front of you is holding three heavy plastic bags, a lightsaber and a Big Gulp with a twisty straw and he’s not going to wait all day. But how can you explain the full breadth of your story before the Seven Eleven slurping Jedi gets bored? This is why you need to have a pitch. A pitch comes in the long and short form. The short form is just a few sentences that sums up your book. The long form is a paragraph or two. Both are targeted at conveying the most interesting aspect of your story to the general audience. Don’t waste time with character’s names or backgrounds, or the nature of the elaborate world. Just hit them with the nutshell.
In my case:
“It’s a medieval fantasy adventure about two thieves caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are hired to steal a sword and when they try, they stumble on the body of the king and realize they’ve been set up to take the fall for his murder. After that they have to find a way to escape and then discover who the real killer is before the killer finds them.”
The Jedi might nod politely at this point, hand back the bookmark and walk away saying, “I’m really more a Sci-Fi guy.” Or he might betray a little smile which he will try and poker-face away by quickly taking a long pull on his Big Gulp’s straw. This is an invitation to say more and I might then go on about how it is a fast, fun romp (plagiarizing reviews of my book,) how it is part of a series—all of which have already been written. At a con, this conjures a set of raised eyebrows as it sets at ease the ghost of Robert Jordan. I usually follow this with the quip, “So even if I get hit by a truck on my way home, my wife will be able to publish the rest of the series.” I don’t mention that if I really was hit by a truck that I doubt Robin would be prioritizing the publishing of my remaining books at the top of her list of things to do—at least I hope not. I focus on how my book is different, how the names are pronounceable, how you don’t feel you need to take a course in the history of the world, and how there’s no youth prophesied to save the world from a dark lord.
Then there is a pause.
The Jedi sets his gianormous plastic cup on the table, tucks his lightsaber in his armpit and actually picks up a book and thumbs through it. Now if my wife is there—and she attends all the cons with me—she prattles on about reviews and how much she loved the books. Her enthusiasm is usually contagious, but I don’t feel comfortable raving about myself, so I just wait trying to look cool, as if all my hopes and dreams did not rest on the actions of this one lone Jedi. Use the force, damn it! Search your feelings—you know the book will be good!
Another tradeshow trick is to place a bowl of candy out on the table to entice people over, like the proverbial stranger in a car. “Come here Hanzel, have a Tootsie Roll.” The moment they reach out you slam the oven door closed with a… “Say! Do you read fantasy? No? Do you know anyone who reads fantasy because a signed book by the author makes a great—don’t know anyone either, eh? Well…could you use a good doorstop?”
You can also auction off a book. I sometimes put out a jar for people to enter their email address and then after the con I randomly pick one, contact them, and mail whichever book they want. This not only brings them over to talk to you, but has the added benefit of providing you with a list of addresses which you can then use if you want to say, announce your next book release. NEVER SELL OR GIVE THESE ADDRESSES AWAY. People provide them under the trust that only you will use them for the contest and the occasional announcement about your books. People don’t like to get spammed.
Since you will likely be alone at your table, and since you don’t want to leave your table unattended, and since the Dealer Room is usually open from 10am to 5 or 6pm, you might want to pack a lunch or at least bottled water and some kind of snack to keep your blood sugar up. Chocolate chip cookies work great. There is a courtesy room that provides coffee and some food, but that still requires leaving your table and if you’re going to leave, you’ll likely benefit from leaving the hotel entirely just to get away for a little while.
At the end of the night, an odd thing happens that no one outside of the Dealer Room vendors know about. Once the Dealer Room door close tight, all the vendors perform a strange ritual where they put their tables to sleep. They each bring an extra sheet or blanket to cover their wares and drape them with the care of a mother tucking their child into bed. Even though the Dealer Room is locked up, they feel that out-of-sight-out-of-mind is a technique that works trusting that should a would-be-thief go to the trouble and risk of breaking through the massive steel enforced doors, they would be dumbfounded by the sheets. Since I only have books, and wouldn’t be terribly upset if they were stolen, hoping only that the thief would see to it that the copies got into reader’s hands, I don’t bother with the nightly shrouds of mystery.
This brings up an important subject. Dealer Rooms have been stolen from so don’t leave valuables in the Dealer Room, and above all don’t leave your cash box there! This of course suggests you should have a cash box, or bag—some container of small bills that you will want to have on hand in order to make change. To help this, price your books at an even number. If your book retails for $11.95, sell it at a discount of $10.00, not only is it an incentive, but it’s a whole lot easier to make change. Just make sure you put a little sign out with the price tag. And if it is a discount, announce that. People like getting deals.
What should you wear? Unless you are planning on dressing up like a character in your book, (and I’ve never seen an author do that,) just dress casually, but neat. Usually, jeans or khakis and a T-shirt or polo shirt is fine. No one wears a suit. And wear the most comfortable shoes you own. No one will see your feet behind the table anyway. Don’t smoke or drink before the con, people are often turned off by the scent of smoke or alcohol and by all means, shower—if not for your fans then for the other vendors trapped with you for eight hours.
You aren’t there for the fun. You’re there to sell books, and maybe make money so don’t feel you need to stay at the hotel where the con is. You can often find cheaper rooms down the street and the less money you have to pay out, the fewer books you have to sell before you’re in the black. After all, you have to pay for the table, a room, meals, the book stands, the posters, the bookmarks and your transportation there and back, all before you even break even. Depending on how much money you make off the sale of a book, cons can often be a losing venture, so you’ll want to keep your expenditures as low as possible. Usually the first thing I do is calculate how many books I need to sell to make back the cost of going and that becomes my minimum goal.
In such a target rich environment, with three days to work with, I expected to sell over a hundred books at my first con. After all, I have often sold twenty books at a random Barnes and Noble in only four hours. So I was very disappointed when after the first day I had only sold ten books. On average, I sell about thirty books a con—about ten a day. This has been consistent across all the cons I’ve attended. At first, I thought I was a failure, but later discovered that I was doing surprisingly well. Most authors that I’ve met often sell only five books after three days behind the table. This might sound futile, but it has a seeding factor. A few books sold in the fertile fan base, can reap unexpected dividends. You can also establish connections to other authors, publishers, agents, and publicists.
Still, it would be nice to bump into someone at a con dressed in a hooded cloak with a white dagger in his belt holding a Big Gulp cup and two plastic bags of trinkets and have them grin and ask, “Guess who I am?”
I’m certain I will shrug genuinely stumped.
“Royce Melborn,” he’ll say.
After recovering from the shock I will mention, “Royce never wears his dagger on the outside of his cloak.”
In response, I assume the Royce-clad role-player will roll his eyes, shake his head and remark. “Geez, what a geek.”