a Pro at a Con

What follows is a guest post from the ever-enthusiastic and energetic James Young. I haven’t done an event of this size as an author, but I have done this sort of thing as an entertainer, and I concur with him on most if not all points – especially being able to accept credit cards, and prepping your load out well beforehand. 

Coooonnnnn!   Cooooooonnnnnn!   Cooooonnnnnn!

(With Apologies to Captain Kirk, the Genesis Scientists, and Ricardo Montalbans Chest)

Is everyone else about ready to take a break from Sad Puppies?  I know I am.  Call me when we WorldCon’s going to put in a cage and spring for Tina Turner to come give that speech.  Until then, I’m here to talk about something near and dear to every author’s heart: The Green Award.  Specifically, as the title suggests, Cedar asked me to do a guest blog to talk about my experiences at the Kansas City Planet Comic Con (13-15 March).  In an attempt to be the most helpful, I’ll divvy this up into preparation and execution.

The first thing a person should do in order to prepare for any event is do some research.  For instance, if you look through previous news clippings, you’ll find that KC Planet Comic Con regularly has 20-30,000 people.  On the other hand, another event my fellow vendors only referred to as “Disaster Con,” promised all of them “over 5,000 attendees” but apparently had less than 200.  Needless to say, no vendor recouped their $150 booth fee, and that’s the kind of thing that gets around.  (I’ll simply say that there are three or four possible culprits for 2014 you can find using Google.)  In addition to making sure you don’t get hosed on vendor fees, finding out things like whether there’s an “artist alley” or “dealer’s room,” the type of tables the con uses, what it’s previous rules have been, etc., etc. should definitely factor into your decision making on what to bring.  For instance, if the Con has some arcane set of rules that makes its relatively low entry fee suddenly balloon to $400 in order for your booth to be in compliance, odds are this may not be the event for you.  Also not helpful is if the Con has all the vendors “in exile” clear across the venue from the celebrity attractions.

The most important thing that should come from this research is having a general idea of how much the Con is going to run you.  This is the point where it’s time to do a cost benefit analysis of how much you expect to make and whether this makes the trip worth it.  First off, there is the problem of where you’re going to sleep.  Unless the Con is in your hometown (i.e., less than 20 minutes away) or you can rely on the kindness of your friends, this is going to add $75 a day to your con fees.  In addition, it’s not the entry fee that will eat you alive, but any of the additional add-ons like power and internet that the venue will charge you for.  In the case of the former, I’ll tell you that there is no, and I do mean no, reason to buy the Con’s electricity.  As I was shown by an old hand (thanks Thaddeus), you can buy various types of battery packs that will allow you to charge your tablet or phone for the 8-12 hours you are at the Con.  As for why you do not need to purchase internet, it seems cell reception seems to have improved at large venues ever since the FCC told folks they will be fined for jamming wireless signals.  While doing sales transaction will eat your data, given what most cons seem to charge for Wifi (it was three figures at KC Comic Con—and this is not abnormal), you will still come out ahead even if you bust your phone’s data plan.  If possible, ask folks who have been there before how their phone reception worked, or do a “site reconnaissance” to see if you have a signal at the venue in question.

Let me be perfectly clear in case the last paragraph befuddled you—it is important, if not critical, to have some sort of data device at the con.  Why?  Because it does not matter how much cash you have if your customer is drooling over you book but just blew their entire budget on that replica Colonial Warrior helmet from the original Battlestar Galactica.  Without getting into details, almost 25% of my sales were by credit card, and the majority of them were folks who were broke at the end of the day.  Yes, be sure to carry enough cash that you can make change (probably $200 in $1, $5, and $10 bills will do it), but also scratch folks’ impulse buying itch by  getting a Square or similar reader on your phone or tablet.  Most of the big reader companies will not only send you a reader for free (although you’ll probably need a headphone extension if your device has an “Otterbox” or similar hard case), but they’ll even help you set up an inventory tracker so that you don’t have to keep a running count of your books or end up selling your last copy.

The last part of prep I will talk about is load out, or “Why I will never pack so much crap again.”  While I was fond of my display (see below), going forward I intend to put together a display like Susanne’s (behind Anita C. Young on the right) that will allow me to go vertical, swap out banners as needed, and also is much lighter weight than the two framed pictures and their easels.   Also, rather than using bungee cords, I will use table skirt clips and heavy duty Velcro (again, thanks Thaddeus!) to affix my banner.  Last but not least, I will remember to pack the convertible hand truck and pack everything the week before rather than trying to do so at the last minute.


con setup

Once at the Con, execution was rather simple.  The best weapon for sales will be the so-called “elevator speech,” i.e. a 10-20 second blurb in which you lay out the premise of your work.  When putting this together, remember that it is likely 99% of the people that you will talk to have no idea who you are.  So, best have one of two things to break the ice:

A. The catchy fact about your book that makes it special: “I kill off Adolf Hitler in November 1940 rather than May 1945.  Everyone thinks that’s a good thing, right up until the point London’s on fire and the British are knocked out of the war…”


B. Be able to relate your book to one or more franchises that people have heard of: “Imagine if Robotech and Battlestar Galactica had a one night stand, and the love child was raised by Halo and George R.R. Martin…” or “What if you had Aliens take place on a starliner full of people?”

If your customer is laughing or nodding enthusiastically at the end of your elevator speech you’re already halfway home—and it’s then that you take the opportunity to explain why your book is different yet wonderful in its own way. Another ice breaker is being conversant in multiple universes, especially the major ones like DC, Marvel, Dr. Who, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc..  You don’t have to be a master at character identification, but taking the time to recognize someone’s character that’s 75% there just may get you a fan.

In addition to being able to make a pitch or recognize cosplay, having items (e.g., bookmarks, business cards, etc.) that you can hand out when someone makes eye contact or seems even remotely interested is good for sales.  I probably handed out 3-400 items at the Con and still have an uptick (especially with regards to hard copy) in my sales than I did beforehand.  While sales after or away from the Con are hard to track, they still count.  Moreover, look at it like having a “vector” for disseminating your work: I now know that my bookmarks are going to Nebraska, Arizona, and New Mexico for starters.  Maybe they’ll only be in those states briefly before going to a landfill…or maybe they’ll get lost somewhere and picked up by another curious person who likes the pictures.  At the very least, I didn’t pay to have them shipped to their next location.

The biggest thing I found out by going to a Con, however, is that it’s probably the best networking opportunity you will ever have.  While I had previously met Robert J. Collins (sci-fi) at a local library event, I cannot see how I could have met Susanne Lambdin (zombie fiction), A.R. Crebs (military/fantasy sci-fi), Thaddeus Nowak (fantasy), or Doug Chatman (Christian fiction) given our geographical distances.  Between talking about display tips, finding out about other cons within driving distance, and comparing notes on publishers, the knowledge I gained from these other authors would have made the booth fee worth it in and of itself.  As Anita put it, it was like spending three days “amongst your people,” i.e. folks you don’t have to explain why you’re writing, the pain and joy of pushing your “baby” out into the wild, or having to deal with customers.  Even without the sales, this would have made the time and booth fee worthwhile.

34 thoughts on “a Pro at a Con

  1. The con i went to the other weekend, i ran into several people who worked at some of the same places i did, at different times.

    1. You want to meet him? Step into an elevator wearing your con badge with author ribbon loud and proud. When the potential reader squints at your chest and says “An author, huh? What do you write?” Then, sir, we shall see the enthusiastic, energetic man emerge.

  2. Speaking of Kansas City, would any of the Mad Geniuses be interested in coming to World Con 2016? I’d really love to meet y’all, and you’d be in my hometown …

      1. Yes. My favorite Doctor will be there!

        Yeah, I’m weird. Of course, last time we met, the con photo involved me sitting on his lap, which does make an impression. 🙂

          1. Me sitting on his lap was his idea!

            And then when he signed the inside lining of the costume on my plush cat, he kissed it and said I could sleep with him every night now.

            Yes, Colin Baker is a dirty old man.

    1. For authors on a panel: watch the following video’s first three minutes and thirty seconds carefully. Not because of the panel’s content! Watch Dan Wells handle the crowd, moving them to the center, and wisecracking in order to warm up the audience. Then, watch and compare the introductions. There’s some very, very valuable advice there on how to do it right.

      You’re going to be asked two things fairly often. “Who are you?” and “What do you write?” These are not idle questions – even when posed that way! These are gold-plated opportunities to get a reader interested in your books, to remember your name or one of your titles.

      (As for why to move your audience tot he center, two reasons. The obvious one is so latecomers have somewhere to sit without crowding over folks. The subtle one is that having people do something you suggested makes them pay more attention to you, and a more densely packed crowd reacts more strongly off each other, and gives a lot more emotional energy. It’s very, very hard to make a scattered crowd care, while laughter is contagious in a dense crowd. A panel is a performance; use performance art tricks of audience management to your benefit.)

    2. Im in Leavenworth, but working in Saudi at the moment. Ill be back for WorldCon and am contemplating putting together a range day for Class III firearms if anyone is interested. I hope Ill get to shake yalls hand!

        1. Speaking of testing, testing one two… what an audio engineer (or a good performer) is doing when they do that is checking how the sound is gated, and how sensitive the mic is to both sounds that require extra breath (t, b, & p) and sounds that contain an “excess of high frequencies” (s & t).

          If a performer, (like you! The author on a panel!) they’re also testing the mic angle. I don’t care if the mic has a shiny round head screen; all mics have directional pickup, and if you figure out how to get the best angle for you to hold it and get your voice to carry – but not overload the mic with the plosives and sibilants – you will be far, far ahead of the game for looking and sounding professional. You’ll also not have to worry about whether or not the audience can hear you!

          1. I’ve never been able to figure that out. As far as I can tell, all mics are either, “So loud I can only hear myself and the feedback, and people are cringing,” or “I can’t tell if the audience can hear me or not, but the mic is barely making tiny mic noises.”

          2. amazes me the number of con panels i’ve seen where they could have benefited from having a compressor on the mic.

  3. You know what they’re going to say about the opening of the piece.
    “That’s racist.”

    Despite the desired pronunciation being clear from the context.

  4. I’m going to be killed for this.

    But seeing the “title”, I keep wondering about “an Anti at a Con”. [Very Big Grin While Flying Away Very Fast]

      1. Hate explaining jokes (even bad ones).

        “Pro” equals “For” with “Anti” equals “Against”.

  5. Small bit of advice, particularly before attending a con you haven’t been to before, research the social climate. A con will always have a web presence and usually a good bit of history of past cons and some discussion of current issues. Basically saying, know your market. The elevator speech that sells like hotcakes at Libertycon might very well stir up a lynch mob at Wiscon.
    Same holds true for any con attendee. Have a reasonable idea of what you’re letting yourself in for.
    Side note: a respectable Baen presence is a reliable indicator of a welcoming non judgmental con. Buttheads we shall always have with us, and in general the fen are not the most socially adept, but good folk with a common interest will usually prevail and overcome minor differences.

  6. I think I’m going to LibertyCon and bringing lots of guns. James Cochrane is coordinating the shoot-out at the range.
    But TOMORROW, I’m given to understand, someone has a new story out, and I know someone else who wrote a review of it!
    But TODAY, I also wrote a review of Tom Kratman’s “The Amazon’s Right Breast.” You know what? Writing one review each for two short features is a LOT more work than writing one review for a book. If that applies to short stories as well as to reviews, I don’t see how short stories ever get written. But I’m glad they do!

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