So, you want to go to a convention. Maybe you’ve attended conventions before, but now you want to go professionally — to make contacts, sell books, or to be a celebrity. Depending on the convention you attend, a booth/table could set you back a lot of money, so how do you make sure your con is successful?
We’ve spoken with several members of the Writing Bloc community who have attended conventions and compiled their tips for planning and executing a successful convention.
Know your objective
Before you book a table at your local convention, pack a stack of books in the boot of your car and drive out to become famous, you need to know why you’re doing it. Conventions are great, but as a trader that are exhausting and can be expensive affairs. Additionally, there are many difference conventions to choose from, ranging in size and purpose. So, avoid disappointment and decide what you want to do…
A perfectly valid reason for attending a convention is to network with other professionals. You may be looking for an agent, a publisher, a concept artist, or other writers to collaborate with. If this is your purpose, you’ll likely choose different events than if you’re trying to sell as many copies of your book as possible. Rick Heinz, author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, has had success with this at the conventions he’s attended:
“I’ve often found other artists to work with, or even other people looking for writers. Working behind the table has opened up more than a few doors. So on an industry level, it’s worked out very well.”
Direct sales and marketing lists
Another purpose to attending a convention may be to sell your books and get people signed up to your marketing platform (mailing list, social media followers, etc). Our contributors noted it’s possible to move a decent number of books at a convention, with Rick Heinz confirming he averages 50-60 copies over a typical three-day event. However, profitability can vary a lot depending on the convention and your publishing model. Here, self-published authors have an advantage, as they often get their copies cheaper than traditionally published authors.
“It’s a little rough on the math to sell your book at a con if you have to go through a publisher. Look around any convention, and you’ll find that the only people in artist alley that are authors are self-published. It’s almost impossible to recover the costs of a convention between travel, hotel, and table cost as an author. So, don’t go if that’s what you are looking for. Most of the published authors are part of the publishers exhibitor booth doing book signings, and perhaps someday, that can be a realistic dream. For now, it’s not, and so you’ll have to swallow some convention costs for a while.”
Pick your convention
Once you know your objective, you can pick your event. There are many types of conventions, and they vary in scale, from small local gatherings to massive international affairs. Some events to consider:
- Librarian conventions (e.g. American Library Association, the Public Library Association).
- Popular culture conventions.
- Anime conventions.
- Gaming conventions.
- Genre conventions.
- Comic book conventions.
- Literary / Publishing conventions (e.g. London Book Fair).
What should you take into account when deciding on events to attend?
- Your objective. If you’re targeting readers, you need an event your target audience attends. If you are targeting professional networking, the events you need will be different (such as author or literary conventions).
- Cost & availability. Don’t think you need a table at one of the big conventions. Bigger events mean more people, but more competition and a greater cost. Also, some bigger conventions require you to book a long way in advance and use a lottery system. It’s probably a good idea to start small, perfect your technique / system, then work up.
- Competition. Think outside the box and find events with your target audience but where you’re going to stand out. For instance, some fantasy authors have had great success at Renaissance Fairs.
“I chose MDC3 Con because it is a writer’s conference focused on genre fiction (Creatures, Crimes & Creativity). It is also a smaller con so you are able to mingle, meet and form relationships with other conference goers.”
In contrast, Cari Dubiel started with the American Library Association and Public Library Association conferences where she networked and learned the ropes:
“Since I am both a writer and a librarian, this was an ideal way for me to get started learning about the convention experience. I’ve met so many interesting people and discovered some amazing books, and I’ve learned about the promotion experience from the writer’s side.”
In his guest post, Christopher Huang provides some insight into just how different mystery / crime writer conventions can be.
Teaming up with other authors to run a combined table can be a great way to maximize engagement and minimize costs.
Draw them in
You’ve decided on an objective and you’ve booked an event, now you need to plan your table. How do you attract the right people to your booth?
Your display needs to catch the eye and reflect the book(s) you’re selling (genre, style, etc). It also needs to be appropriate for the event. Research the convention before you go (you should have done this when selecting the convention anyway) and get a feel for the attendees and the traders. Rick Heinz had this to say about the money he spent on his displays:
“I’ve invested a solid amount of money commissioning artwork, banners, floor stands, and even scenes from the novel. Paying for top-talent art was an investment, and well worth the pay off. Most people come up because of the pictures.”
When designing your table, you have many options available and they range in price. You can spend a lot of money on banners and other materials, but if you’re a little crafty, you can still make a great-looking table for a fraction of the cost. It’s all up to you. Some things to consider:
- If you’re targeting sales and at a pop-culture event, you probably want to make a bold display.
- Movement can draw the eye. If you can, a promo video or rotating slide deck can encourage people to stop and check it out.
- Merchandising. If all you have on your table is a few copies of the same book, people may keep moving. Consider what other merchandising you can have: concept artwork, bookmarks, coffee cups. Get creative.
- Depth. Brian Fitzpatrick tells us he’s found it’s important to make your table three-dimensional (stack books, etc).
- Universally, we’ve found bowls of sweets do not help with sales or engagement (though they are popular). As Rochelle Campbell told me, “It only attracted pre-teen boys! They kept coming back and taking handfuls of candy each pass!”
- Don’t forget you! Especially if you’re at a pop-culture event. Consider joining in the cosplay — especially if you can dress up as one of your characters.
Hot Tip: offer package deals! If you have concept art for sale, offer a discount to people who buy a print and your book. This can make a huge difference to your total sales at the end of the day.
You’ve found the perfect event, you’ve constructed a beautiful display for your table that lures potential customers like a classy bug-zapper. Now how do you get them to buy your stuff?
Don’t sit behind the table.
Conventions are tiring for everyone, including traders. There’s a huge temptation to sit behind your table and relax. Maybe you think you can pop out of your chair when someone wanders over? Wrong. My experience showed this didn’t work — people just didn’t stop and engage. And that experience has been echoed by many others. Stay standing as much as possible and get out from behind your table. Mingle and participate in the convention, just do so within range of your table so you can talk to people who show an interest. Which brings us to…
If you’ve set up your table and display well, people will stop to check it out. The next step is simple — strike up a conversation. It can be as simple as asking them how they’re enjoying the convention, or about their cosplay outfit (if they’re in cosplay, otherwise that would be awkward), or what their favorite panel was. The key is to break the ice and find common ground. There may be lots of clues to help here: what’s on their T-shirt? What on your table caught their eye? Did you see them stop at any other tables before yours? Are they carrying swag they’ve bought from the convention?
Hot Tip: don’t rush to the sale. Build rapport and show genuine interest before turning towards your book. Get to know these people and don’t force your products or your work into everything. Let it be about them and turn the conversation to your table when it feels natural.
Don’t be afraid to sell (just don’t be a jerk about it)
This is tightly linked with my previous tip. While you don’t want to rush, and you don’t want to come off as fake, once the person gives you an opportunity to talk about your book, you need to have a pitch. Here’s what Rick Heinz tells us about his approach:
“Well, first off, I’m a giant geek whose been at conventions my entire adult life. So the strategy for engagement is pretty easy: Find something you are passionate about and engage in that. Standing behind a table, talking about games or other things with people, and then having a polished book pitch is my thing. I’ve got a pretty solid book pitch I can deliver in less than 15 seconds that hooks most people in.”
That pitch is important. You need to be able to sell your story. Don’t just list facts or attributes, you want to make it entertaining and engaging — just like the story itself. Let your passion come through and be prepared to have fun with it. After all, that’s what it’s all about.
Hot Tip: Hand them a copy of your book — get them to hold it. Physically touching your book helps create a sense of ownership, making them more likely to buy it.
A word of caution — don’t feel you have to snatch everyone who passes by. Just like you don’t want to be hidden behind your table, sitting down and playing with your phone, you don’t want to appear desperate or creepy. Stay relaxed and keep busy: tidy the table, restock books, whatever you can think of. Just don’t stand at the table staring at anybody who looks like they’re going to walk your way or they may change direction.
Goodreads is a massive social platform for readers and authors. As an author, if you’re not on there you should be. When at a convention, many of the people you speak to will be on the network and have the Goodreads app on their phone. Why is this useful? The app has a scanner that uses the phone’s camera to identify a book from its bar code or cover, allowing people to add the book to their shelves. Why not have something on your table encouraging people to add your book to their “To Read” pile, including your book’s bar code and simple instructions for using the app to do it?
Give-aways can be popular and are a great way to encourage engagement. However, don’t give away anything without getting at least something in return. Give people entries in return for buying a product, or signing up to your mailing list.
The success of this will vary by event, but doing signing sessions can work well if you can muster a small crowd (which in turn will generate more organic interest).
This was mentioned earlier, but just because you’re there to sell books doesn’t mean you can’t sell other stuff too (or give it away).
Free bookmarks are a common tactic for authors and can be popular, though the consensus is they rarely translate to much in the way of sales (and can be expensive). Think about what else you can do to diversify the offerings on your table — concept artwork, coffee cups, pins, tote bags. Get creative.
Mailing list sign-up sheet.
Most authors will tell you their number one marketing tool remains their mailing list. Every author should have one, which means you should have a way for people to sign up at the convention. These days, commercial tools like MailChimp offer great digital sign up apps for tablets and phones, but don’t forget to have a physical backup (in case the app fails, battery goes flat, or you need to leave the table unattended).
Hot Tip: seed your physical sign-up sheet with names so it doesn’t look too sad when you put it out.
Don’t ignore the other traders. Introduce yourself to your neighbors and find out about them. Recommend them where appropriate. This can help if they start to do the same, but it also helps you meet other creatives who you may want to work with. Plus, it’s all part of the convention experience.
Track your outcomes
Try to find ways to track how successful your various tactics are. It isn’t always possible to quantify, but it’s worth trying so you can improve with each event you attend. For example, any time you provide people with a link, use a link you can track. There are free services like bit.ly or rebrand.ly where you can configure short URLs to use that provide reports on how many people have used them.
Working a convention isn’t all roses. You’re on your feet working for days, so pace yourself and plan ways to take a break. Here’s a final word from Rick Heinz:
“Stay positive and put in the hard work. The weekend is going to be draining. Go to bed early, resist the urge to drink till 2 am, and plan ahead to show up on time. This is a job you will work for 12 hours a day on the weekend. Plan ahead and get your cons booked a year out. This isn’t a gig for people who just want to do stuff on the fly.”
Richard Heinz is as an electrician with a deep interest in politics, symbology, and― not to mention — countless caffeine-driven hours spent playing Diablo. The Seventh Age: Dawn is Rick’s first book, as well as book one in the sprawling urban fantasy epic, The Seventh Age Series. When he isn’t navigating the labyrinthine corridors of his own imagination, Rick works as a project manager in Chicago.
Rochelle Campbell has a BA in Written Communications with an emphasis on Digital Media and began her career as a journalist and PR specialist. Her writing career spans over 20 years, and straddles both nonfiction and fiction. She is an active member of the Horror Writers Association, yet has had two stories published in literary magazines.
As an indie author, she has published “The Magic Seeds,” an illustrated urban fairy tale for middle-grade readers (co-authored with her son), “Leaping Out on Faith,” a book of contemporary women’s fiction short stories which was followed by the completion of a full-length paranormal horror novel “Fury From Hell” in 2015. With nonfiction as the marrow of her writing life, in March 2015, she published a personal finance title for teens and young adults called, “Making Dollars & Sense Work.”
Cari Dubiel is the author of How to Remember, forthcoming from Inkshares/Quill. The novel was the winner of the Hugh Holton award from the Mystery Writers of America – Midwest Chapter in 2017. Cari’s previous works include All the Lonely People, a book of short stories, and several other short stories found in anthologies and online magazines. Cari is also a librarian, and she served as the Library Liaison to Sisters in Crime for five years.