Guest Post: A Pro At A Show: Into Conness
Please welcome back James Young to share some of his experiences as an author at a con. He’s been here before imparting solid knowledge, and you can find that post here. If you’re wondering about getting a booth, merchandising, or just plain curious about cons, this is the man to talk to. If you’re curious about his books, his Amazon author page is here.
Yes, I’m as mystified as you all are that Cedar and Sarah have let me back. I mean, it seems like just yesterday I was all…
Coooonnnnn! Cooooooonnnnnn! Cooooonnnnnn!
Now I’m all like… CoooOOOOOOOOONNNNN!!!
In my own geeky way, that’s me telling you almost everything I said last time still holds. Everything from networking (hi Thaddeus, Susanne, A.R. Crebs, and Tracy) to battery packs is generally the same. What this article is, basically, is the voice of a grizzled, tired veteran speaking to highlight what the neophyte got right and how you too can win “The Green Award” at a local, semi-local, um, within a days’ driving distance con.
First, like anyone claiming authority, let me display the skulls of my foes:
What you see here are the assembled bones of most of the cons I attended in 2015. There were gaming cons (Fear the Boot), there were professional cons (Conquest / LibertyCon), there were non-celebrity cons (Air Capital Comic Con), then there were what I will forthwith refer to as MegaCons (10,000+ people). Note that this does not include things like literary festivals, library get togethers, or signings. In other words, I’m not saying I spent a lot of weekends away from home this last year…but people have been mocking me saying I go to “all the cons.”
Was it worth it? Well, let me put it like this—unless you have Norman Reedus (Daryl from The Walking Dead), Tricia Helfer (Battlestar Galactica), or Bruce Campbell (Ash from The Evil Dead) on speed dial and ready to attend your next signing, there is no other way you’re getting 10-20,000 people all within close proximity of your book. Nor are you, unless you’re extremely lucky, going to be in a position where you can hand out 5-600 of your bookmarks over the course of 72 hours to interested people. Yes, the original outlay can be rather pricy in space and cash:
However, once you’ve gotten through trial and error (or ask someone who has done it before), the costs drop off significantly. A keen eye will also note the differences between, say, my first con display (top photo), the second one, and the most recent one I’ve done:
(Banners hurt too…but they’re like tractor beams)
(Wait…wait…are those GUNS in the background?)
Yes, other than noting that the last pic is from a firearms show rather than a con, a keen eye will notice that the book displays (bookstands to clear racks), backdrop banner (pop up alternatives here), attention grabbers, number of titles, and placement of titles all changed. Also note the prominent placement of prices, which is something a fellow vendor suggested on the FB page dedicated to Artist Alley. What is not quite as visible is the Munchkin Bait (stickers to attract kids, who then in turn bring parents) as well as the exercise mat behind the table to help reduce wear on the knees. Bottom line, in order to make cons work you’ll need to evolve, have products that ranges widely in price (don’t just take my word for it), and a plan for how to pitch it.
Now I will admit there are some different opinions on whether one can make money at a con. Indeed, a fellow author is pretty skeptical about the odds of actually making a profit. (I will submit I will not do any con I have to fly to unless someone else is footing the bill for the plane ticket and lodging.) Moreover, some people have had flat out bad cons. Finally, there are those cons/venues that will do outright unscrupulous things (the previously linked Dashcon with the “we have to raise $17,000”-gambit in addition to the various event centers / arenas that have been fined by the FCC for jamming signals in order to increase their profits on internet services).
Taken altogether, these factors can make it perilous to set out and try to make money at event. So, to further refine the advice I handed out last time, here are some questions to ask yourself as you’re researching a convention:
1.) What are the table prices and how do I pay for them? Well run and likely to be lucrative conventions usually have a methodology for paying online through a reputable service such as Paypal or a ticket site. This protects both the convention and the vendor from any shenanigans like, “Oh no, you paid that money to Billy Bob. He’s no longer with the con. Sorry you drove eight hours and booked a hotel…but we’ll cut you a special deal.” Also, table prices are usually commensurate to some combination of the number of people who are going to be present, their intensity (i.e., if you’re at the only anime convention for 400 miles, odds are the folks who show up are going to spend some coin), or the talent (see below).
2.) Who is going to be the main draw? This is critical, as a decent draw is the difference between a convention and a “nerdy Tupperware party (hat tip, Kertts Kazuka).” People are usually not coming to a con check out the cool vendors in Artist’s Alley—they’re coming to hug on Chris Evans. Look to see who the con is bringing to the party, then see how that relates to the size and fandoms represented. To wit, if it’s a Dr. Who convention but they’re inviting the Doctor’s fourth companion’s third cousin who had one speaking line in the entire season, that’s not going to bring a lot of folks. However, if they’re bring said fourth companion herself, or even a character who was popular back in the original iteration, said convention is likely going to have fans hanging from the rafters. More fans equals more targets, I mean prey, I mean…well, you get the drift.
3.) Will the con have volunteers and how do they pick them? Volunteers are the key to making a con run smoothly. If you read the “volunteers” section of the con page and find yourself going, “Wow, no one’s going to want to volunteer at that gig…” then guess what? No one is going to volunteer at that gig. Which means you’re going to be doing Thunderdome at your table space (those tape marks and signs don’t put themselves up) and the con runners are probably a bunch of a$$hats. Speaking of tables and spaces…
4.) What size are the tables, how are they oriented, and does the con publish this beforehand? Tables should be of uniform sizes in artist’s alley. This information should also be easily accessible a reasonable time beforehand (read: not the day of the con). Why? Because my 6′ display looks a bit different than my 8′ display, and nothing is more annoying than finding out the table is in a traffic choke point that will turn my customers into rocks in the rapids. In that same vein, if a site is telling me to bring my own tables, they better not be charging me any more than $40-$50 plus the spaces better be clearly defined. Otherwise, some village idiot with his 12’ table and 10’ “side table” is going to be miffed when he’s pinned in a corner by all the other vendors. (I’m not saying there’s con justice…but there’s con justice.) On the other hand, if it’s an 8’ table with two feet on either side and room to store plenty of merchandise? Well howdy darlin’, I’ll be happy to shell out $10-$20 more to stretch my wares.
5.) What is the convention’s marketing plan? Even with a good draw, people have to know the convention exists. A good way to check on this is to ask friends / fellow authors in the area. (Again—see Artist Alley International link above.) Some cons can get people to just show up because they’re that popular in the local area (e.g., Smallville in Hutchinson, KS). Others are famous based on the awards that will be given there (see Worldcon in its iterations). However, if you’re going to be expected to shell out $300+ to get a con table, then it’s probably a good idea to see if anyone has heard of that event that’s not a regular con goer. Which leads to the final question:
6.) What is the word of mouth of people who have been there before? After checking to see if “normal” (hey, most people who go to these things are fellow geeks, so I may be stretching that word to describe all of us) people have heard of something, see how the “pros” have done. Did someone else who sells books in your genre get their a$$ handed to them and lose $200 on their table? Knowing the person, can you explain that based on their product or technique? (It’s cold cold-blooded, but I’ve seen some vendors who got pounded spend the entire con with their face in their phone, never get up to greet potential customers, fail to compliment people on their costumes, etc.. Here’s a hint—if you never talk to anyone about your product, you’re never going to make any money). If this is a person you’ve seen sell Kryptonite to Superman cosplayers, they’re usually happier than John McClane with a machine gun, and you know they’ve got stronger Kung Fu than Pai Mei? Well then this is probably a convention that you want to stay away from. As for the venue–if you’ve heard that an event is going to have a lot of controversy and angst involved (why no, I don’t have a table at Worldcon even though it’s in the same convention center as KC Planet Comic Con and KC Comic Con…why do you ask?), best give it a miss. Finally, if you’re having trouble getting information back from the convention runners or they’re abrasive as sandpaper even when answering the questions, give the event a pass. Trust me, if you think they’re abrasive over e-mail, you’re likely going to want to murder them in person—and having resting murder face is not going to get you a lot of sales at a convention.
To be clear—I’m not saying anything I’ve said to this point will guarantee you make money. Sometimes you have the misfortune to be placed in the worst possible location of the con (it happens), you find out that your genre just does not resonate with the crowd (selling military sci-fi at a hippy convention comes to mind), or there is a major ice storm the weekend of your event that basically cuts off every major artery to the venue. However, I am telling you that if you have multiple titles, write science fiction / horror / urban fantasy / paranormal, and can fake extrovert for up to eight hours a day then cons are definitely a place to try and make some cash while spreading your “gospel.” Besides, where else are you going to get a picture with a Cylon while holding your book (courtesy Iron Brothers of Topeka)?
(Note: A partial list of conventions can be found here.)