Today I’m going to share my experience of attending Conventions as an Author and book seller. It can be daunting, taking your self-published work out into the real world to try and encourage people to buy you books but it’s an important step in cultivating a following and ‘Building your brand’, especially in the modern climate of publishing. Luckily I have a partner who’s well-versed in attending conventions as a trader, they helped me and now I’m going to try and help you.
First step, find a convention. This is basically a web-search step, you can look for literary Con’s or Conventions that cover your chosen Genre. Luckily Sci-Fi and Fantasy shows are numerous but there are Horror cons and a myriad of events covering other areas. You’ll want to consider travel costs and logistics when you do this, how easy will it be to get you and your title to the convention itself.
Step two, why are you attending? I tend to categorize the events I go to into two groups, those where I want to sell books and those where I want to network and meet people in the industry. This effects what kind of booking I place. If I’m selling I want a traders stall, if I’m networking all I’ll need is an attendance ticket but I’ll volunteer for the Program, that is panels about fiction, genres, writing and self-publishing. I try to ‘stay in my own wheel-house’ when it comes to sitting on panels.
Step three, once you’ve booked an event, a larger Con run by groups like Showmasters or Go-Geek or a smaller, independently run event you’ll want to think about ‘presentation’ if you’re selling/signing your books. Some venues provide tables and chairs for stalls, some don’t, it’s good to be sure if you need to bring your own table. You might want to knock-up a promo-banner to try and catch passing eyes (it’s really not that difficult, there are guides online for getting that done and getting them printed costs around £30) and it can really help your sales on the day. Likewise business cards are easy and cheap to source and print, some people might want to look you up online, do a little reading about your book before they buy it. A table-cloth is a good bet, especially if you’ve only got one title so far provided tables tend to have seen a lot of use and having a cloth allows you to cover the area underneath the table so you can keep stock and sundries under there in safety and without making your stall look untidy. The organizers might require you to have Public Liability Insurance (especially the smaller ones) but that’s only £56 for a years cover and easily obtained in any case.
That really leads into set-up. The Convention will send you guidelines covering what’s expected. The larger shows will have a span of time the evening before for setup but, being an independent author/trader you should be able to use the hour before the doors open to the public for your setup. If you’re travelling a ways you might want to spend out for an extra night in a hotel. Travelling up on the morning of the Convention makes for a long day but it’s something to weigh event by event. Pay attention to guidelines about parking, you might be able to park in the loading area but likely you won’t so it’s another logistical consideration and you want to save yourself as much stress and hassle as you can on the day/weekend. Remember to bring a float to make change and a note-book to record your sales and expenses (as you attend more shows you might also want to invest in a card-reader, some attendee’s don’t bring cash or they do but blow through it quickly). Another thing that helps is a printed sign of book prices, stick it in a cheap clip frame and put it on your stand. Unlike the merchandise stands you don’t have a wealth of interesting shiny things to draw people in so letting them know how much your book is straight up increases the likelihood of reeling them in (that and an engaging cover/title). The last thing I have on my stand is a little, thematically appropriate talking-point. A small statuette of a clock-work dragon holds some of my business cards, it’s my mascot and does, on occasion, attract customers who might otherwise sail on by.
We’re done with steps, we’ve ‘stepped out’ for now. Always consider bringing a friend to an event. If you’re booked as a seller you’ll probably get two wristbands/lanyards/ however the convention identifies traders anyway or, at least, a discount on a second attendance ticket. The days are long, having someone with you to help carry, go for coffee or just watch your stall while you stretch your legs or take a comfort break is invaluable, plus they get to enjoy the Con when they’re not directly assisting you in some way, win-win. Other traders will watch your stall if you can’t bring a friend, it’s a very friendly atmosphere between stallholders and it’s good to support one another. Also bring snacks and drinks, some venues will have reasonably priced refreshments but, after spending out on your stall, stock, travel and accommodation you might find that the venue kiosks are making the most of the ‘Captive Audience’.
Okay, so. You’ve arrived, you’ve setup and people are walking through. What do you do now? Well, I’d like to say you sell and sign until you run out of stock but that’s not really the way it goes. As an unknown quantity you’re going to have to work and that means engaging with people and *that* means looking like you can be engaged. One of the saddest things I see at events is stalls getting passed over because the trader is eyes-down on their phone or reading a book, yes the days are long (I’ll keep saying that because they are) and it can be a drag at times but you’re there promoting your product and, in the case of us authors, we embody the product. Most sales I get come from a brief, but enthusiastic pitch about my story. The customer sees the promo images, comes over, reads the blurb and let’s me pitch the book to them. Some do just walk up, read, buy but by far the majority buy because I’ve imparted some of my enthusiasm for my story. If they see me sitting, scrolling through my phone they’ll just walk on by.
So what’s the payout for all this work and prep? Well, an author I met at a show last year imparted this to me;
“A new book, by an unknown, independent author is expected to sell eighty units in it’s entire lifetime.”
Eighty units, that’s eighty copies in it’s lifetime. Now I’ve said, and I’ll continue to say that, as a writer, if your story makes one person happy, you’re a success but, you have to sell books to *find* that one person (hopefully it’ll be many more). After all the promotion work I did over social media in the run-up to releasing Black Knight, the ThunderClap that reached 33,000 people on Facebook? I had 56 pre-orders. If I then rested on my laurels and only scored another 24 sales I’d likely be really disheartened. But, by working social media and, more importantly, getting out there, I’m 12 months and six or so events in and I have 240+ sales and, for a first-time, unknown, self-published author That’s Not Bad.
But, sales aside, you get to meet some of the most wonderful, crazy and warm-hearted people at these events, you come away with stories and anecdotes and new friends who, if you keep on going, you’ll see at other Conventions. The community of traders and attendee’s is a wonderful thing to be a part of and, if you persevere and succeed, you might find yourself back here one day, on the other side of an autograph table. It’s certainly something to aim for.