The first convention-al wisdom talked about the pitfalls with doing too many conventions and wasting your resources. This blog was originally posted on Michelle Hauck, but I’m reposting it for the Business of Indie Publishing series.
Before I started this whole author-thing, you wouldn’t have caught me dead at a comic book convention. But as a self-published author, the best way to get my book in the hands of new readers was to go where the readers were. And as a science fiction/fantasy writer, that meant going to every comic book convention I could find.
So far, I’ve hit over 40 shows across 17 states, everywhere from Miami to Grand Rapids, Mi to Spokane and everywhere in-between. While at first, I used to pick up on any ol’ show that would take me, now I’ve become more choosy about where I spend my time and resources. I’ve been able to make a profit (or at the very least, break even) at most every show I’ve attended in the past year or so. And even better, I find that I get follow-on sales to my online store.
I will mention that this post is geared towards comicons, but the lessons can be applied to any convention. Also, since I do own my books, book covers, and book copyrights, I have free use of my images. If your publisher owns yours, check with them on limitations.
Find an Event
First and foremost, find one! Believe me when I say that most every single city across the great US (and abroad, too) has some kind of comic book convention. The trick is to select one big enough to make your costs, or make sure you’re going into it knowing that you’ll lose money. And don’t do six money-losers in a row like some idiot author who shall not be named.
There’s pros and cons for going big and the same for going small. Big Cons with Big Celebrities bring Big Numbers of people. But you usually don’t get the kind of one-on-one attention that turns passers-by into superfans. Also, they usually cost more, so if the event is a bust then you may lose money.
Small cons are inherently riskier, even when you’ve only paid $50 for a table. I went to one three day convention where the only books I sold were to other vendors and the convention chair’s mom. You want to do a little research before you put your money down. If you can’t name any of the celebrity guests, don’t pay more than $50.
9 times out of 10 all conventions need is your hard earned cash to get a table. Some cons do a little screening of their participants, so be aware if that’s the case. The only one I’ve ever been rejected for was DragonCon, which is a BIG CON. Besides, it never hurts to ask!
Get Yer Swag On
Once you’ve got a con and a date, it’s time to focus on your booth. You’ll be pulling people into your booth with your pearly whites and charm and charisma (right?), but you need to make sure your booth set up looks professional.
Trad pubbed kids–talk to your publisher. They might even have stuff that they can send you to use and then you don’t have to make your own. They can also send you books.
For me, I have three eight foot banners that I hang behind my booth. Sometimes I use all three, sometimes just the Razia one and the Empath one. I used to have the individual stands, but recently splurged on a large photographer’s light stand. It works a lot better and is a lot less to carry.
For my Double Life banner, I use quotes from reviewers whereas Empath simply was the dragon. Both banners pique interest from different sets of folks. I got all three from Vistaprint and they cost around $75 to print, including the holder (I made them myself).
Don’t forget a tablecloth, either. If you want to splurge on a printed table cover, you can, but for my money, the banners give you more bang for the buck.
How Many Books?
As far as how many books I bring to an event, it really depends. The most books I’ve ever sold was 183, and that was when I was selling my second book for $5 more. You want to buy enough that you won’t sell out (or if you do, you won’t sell out at, say 1pm on a Sunday *cough*), but you don’t want to waste all of your potential profit on books that won’t sell.
My own optimistic rule is to bring enough of my first book and standalone to break even (to include books themselves, flight, hotel, food, etc). If you write in multiple genres, you could also take a gander at the guests to see who’s coming. If it’s a Star Wars-heavy or Dr. Who show, I’ll bring more of my space pirates. More anime-focused? That’s where Lexie and Empath shine. The more shows you do, the more you’ll be able to predict your numbers.
Keep in mind, however, that most people will be apt to buy the first book (the ones who buy the whole series are unicorns who appear every so often). So you’ll want to stock up on the first book, and depending on your budget, be a little more skimpy on the rest of the series.
When a person comes up to my booth while I’m talking with someone else and reads the back of the book, I’ve yet to see them stay. There’s simply too much activity going on at a convention for a person to comprehend what a space pirate bounty hunter is. So in order to sell the book, I sell the book. As in I look at them in the eye and convince them why they should give me their $15.
I start by saying hello to every single human (and non-human) that walks by. Sometimes they look like I’m going to murder them, sometimes they ignore me completely. But sometimes, they return the hello. And sometimes I say hello enough times that they’ll just stop and say, “Okay, you’ve said hello to me every single time I’ve walked by. Tell me about this book.” (true story)
Then I ask, “Are you looking for a new book today?” Sometimes, a “No, thanks.” But sometimes, that light goes off in their eyes and they come rushing over. I mention “book” because a lot of people are so overwhelmed that they don’t know what they’re looking for. They’ll look right at the book and not realize it’s a book.
Then I say, “I have two flavors: space pirates or anxiety dragons. Pick your poison.” Quick and easy topic synopsis so I can gauge which is going to land.
Then the schpiel, which I have memorized before the con even begins (but after saying it 10,000 times, I would have it memorized anyway):
“Double Life is about a young woman leading a, you guessed it, a Double Life. Subtle title, no? (pause for laugh or eyeroll). In one life, she’s Lyssa Peate, planet discovering scientist, and in the other, she’s Razia–space pirate bounty hunter (the more interesting one is second to land the blow). Unfortunately, neither life is going very well (pause for laugh). As the bounty hunter, she’s one of the least (emphasize) wanted people in the universe and as the scientist, she just got a new intern who is definitely (emphasize) spying on her. Then that intern is mistaken for her hostage by the universal police (pause for effect).” Blah blah, more about the other books, release dates, etc.
Then I dive into Empath:
“Empath is about another young lady going through a real tough time. She’s stuck in breakup hell until she hears a mysterious voice promising an easy escape from her problems. Transported to a new world, she now has the power to feel what others are feeling. Just one small (emphasize) problem: there’s a dragon in the mountain that eats people like that, and oh by the way, she may be hearing it in her head, tempting her deeper into her own darkness (pause and add “dun dun dun!”)”
When I finish a day of a convention, I am physically and vocally drained from doing this bit on repeat. But I know with utmost certainty that when I do the song and dance, I make sales. And I see other authors who sit behind their booth and say nothing, and they don’t make the sales that I do.
You are at the convention to sell books, but not everyone you talk to is going to buy a book. So you want to make sure that you have some kind of something for them to take away.
I’ve tried a lot of different things over the years. People do like bookmarks, but my own anecdotal evidence suggest that they aren’t really worth the cost. The better option is to use business cards. Currently, I’ve got a stack of dual-sided business cards. One side has the book the person has asked about, and the other has my face, links to social media, and, most importantly, a place for me to write my booth number (as people forget)
The other thing that I always do is make sure I have a sign up available for my newsletter. Since I have an old iPad with a keyboard, I keep that out with an app link to my mailing list. I may never speak to that person again, but if I have their email address, I can send them an automation drip campaign with more information about my other books. Consider your newsletter mailing list to be akin to your Facebook Page likes or your Twitter followers. It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s another tool in your marketing arsenal.
Care and Feeding
Don’t forget to bring a plethora of pens to sign. Also, it’s really important to bring food and something caffeinated. Smoothies are a good option since someone always walks up to the table when you take a huge bite of a peanut butter cracker. Some venues are more persnickety than others about what you can bring inside, so it might be good to leave all your food and drink at the booth when you load in.
Working a convention is exhausting, but they also provide the biggest opportunity for making money and meeting new fans. I can’t tell you how it fills my heart with joy when a fifteen year old girl runs up to your table and says, “OMG It’s you! You’re my favorite author!”