Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Surviving the Con

If you are a writer (and, let's face it, if you're reading this, you probably either are or want to be), you will eventually be faced with one of the most terrifying and wonderful experiences an introvert can have:  The Convention.  It doesn't matter what your genre is, there is a convention dedicated to it.  Don't believe me?  Google it.  Go ahead.  I'll wait.

Satisfied?  Good.  Let's move on.

Writers use conventions to sell their books and meet their audience.  While most of us would be happy never having to leave our dark little caves, the reality is that you'll need to get out and shake hands, press the flesh, and use good will to try to get some new fans.  You can only sell books to friends and family for so long.  Eventually, you need to get the word out about your work if you intend to have a sustained career.  To that end, I'd like to give you a few pointers about how to make it through your convention experience with as little emotional or physical trauma as possible.  Keep in mind, this is for you AS A GUEST or a vendor, not as someone who goes to the conventions.  That's a whole 'nuther issue for a later post.

First off, you want to come across as professional.  Easier said than done.  Dress the part, yes, but don't costume yourself out.  Remember, a little goes a long way.  For my convention wear, I have a fairly standard "uniform."  I wear a nice black shirt (usually a work shirt or a button-down), blue jeans, motorcycle boots (because I always wear motorcycle boots or converse, and my boots make me taller.  Don't laugh.), and possibly a red tie.  The colors I wear are almost always black and red.  I often wear a tie-tack that is a small (subtle) brain if I'm wearing a tie, but other than that, you have my typical look.  If I wrote steam-punk, I might consider a pin on my lapel made from gears and cogs.  If I wrote sci-fi, I would pick some other subtle piece that denoted my passion for that genre (in my case, most likely my Serenity pin that reads "I aim to misbehave.") without being too ostentatious.  On the other hand, if I'm going to be formal (and we're talking really formal), I wear my kilt with a black button up shirt, red tie, black vest, and a black sporran.  Why?  Because I'm proud of my Scottish heritage, and that's my formal wear.  It sets me apart from other people, but doesn't come across as a costume.  If you dress in a somewhat flamboyant manner all the time, then go with it.  The point is, be comfortable because people can tell when you "dressed up" and when you are being real.

World Horror, 2013, with Kristin Dearborn and Tim Waggoner

Second, let's talk about your table.  The tables are usually of the six-foot long variety, and you may or may not have to share it with someone.  If you don't, you have plenty of room to spread out your wares.  If you do, conservation of space along with division of property is key.  Decoration of your table is a good thing, but again, I prefer to go with subtlety.  The last thing you want is for people to walk by your table and not know who or what you are.  For me, the books should be the focus.  I arrange them at several different levels, making sure that each title is clearly visible from the front, and that I can move them without knocking the others down.  If you have only one book, you have less to worry about.  If you have more than one (13 here), you need to arrange them so they complement each other.  Parts of a series go together.  Chronological order (when they were published) should be considered.  But of great importance is also whether or not someone walking by can see YOU.  Set your books up so they frame you, rather than hide you.

Pictured:  Owen, my seat saver, with books and stuff.

I said I like to use a few subtle decorations.  Over the years, I've used everything from gargoyles to Owen (my creepy doll that sits in my chair when I run off to do a signing or go on a bathroom break).  Owen still goes with me, but I've refined my decorations.  I carry with me a cup that looks like a pile of skulls (it's actually a toilet brush holder, but no one usually knows that, and it's only been used in conventions as a…) for a candy dish, a small coffin (about six inches long) to hold business cards (more on this in a moment), and some other receptacle for sharpies.  I also bring my own table cloths because I don't trust that the convention venue will provide them, and if they do, they're usually dirty and white. I carry with me one extra large satin black tablecloth (which can be folded for size constraints) and a round spiderweb table cloth (a gift from my mother).

I mentioned the candy dish.  Fill it with Jolly Ranchers.  Not chocolate, not mints, not anything generic.  Jolly Ranchers.  Why?  Because everyone loves them, no one is allergic to them, they keep forever, and you can buy them in bulk.  Jolly Ranchers attract people to your table.  Everyone wants a freebie from every table, and if you have Jolly Ranchers, you hit the "must visit" list.  I buy bags of them from Sam's Club and keep my candy dish full.

Note the candy dish on the left?  Also, this is an example of a non-cluttered table.

I mentioned, also, business cards.  Folks, they are the single best investment from a promotional standpoint that you can make.  Design them yourself or have someone design them, but make them look professional.  And they are not expensive at all.  I use GotPrint,  and I get 1000 glossy-front, color front, black and white back business cards for about $20.  Seriously.  And I pass them out everywhere I go.  Make sure it has your name, e-mail, website, and something identifying on it, but for $20, you can't go wrong.

Pictured:  Something Identifying

I also make sure to have a banner for myself.  I carry a small wooden easel upon which to hang it, and also carry duct tape for wall hanging.  A banner should announce your name and have some identifying characteristic on it (like your business card), and they too can be done cheaply.  You can get one that you can use over and over again from the same company (that's GotPrint, btw) for about $40.  You can also get them from your local Kinko's, or even from a buddy at a university with access to a plotter.

You also need a change box (with enough money to make change), a receipt book (because some people insist on them) and a clearly marked price list.  Do not short-sell your books.  Make deals, sure, package them together, but make sure you are not selling them at cost.  Make the trip worth your while.  You should also get a card-reader for your smartphone so you can take credit cards.  Companies like Square allow you to process credit cards, send out virtual receipts, and charge a very small percentage.

Finally, let's talk about you.  When I go to conventions, I usually see two types of people.  The first hides behind his books (iPad, smart phone, etc).  Whenever people walk by, they act like they don't notice, or pray not to be noticed.  The second is the wolf… The one who is obviously there to sell things.  The one who, as the convention progresses, gets more and more desperate to sell.  It it shows.  That person reeks of desperation.  You should strive to be a third type:  The personable vendor.  You make eye contact.  You smile.  You say "how's it going."  You have your one-line-synopsis ready if they ask, but you're more there to meet folks and shake hands.  When people approach you, they're interested in meeting you.  In fact, what you're selling at your table isn't a book.  It's you.  And you are your most valuable commodity.

When you're at the convention, be nice to everyone.  Be professional, but come across as you would want them to remember you.  Be nice to the other vendors because they'll share tips and send other people your way.  Be nice to the promoters because they want you to come back.  Be nice to the fans because you want them to be your audience, and you never know who you are talking to.  Be.  Nice.

Lastly, whether you're booked to do a reading or not, have something prepared, just in case.  The motto of the Boy Scouts is the rule here:  Be Prepared.

So that's it.  Those are my tips for surviving the con.  Do you have any that you'd like to share?  Leave them in the comments!  Until next time, see you on the road!

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