Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Surviving the Con: Tricks of the Trade

I just returned from World Horror Convention 2011, which was held in beautiful Austin, Texas. Who'm I kidding...I live here. It wasn't that big of a stretch to figure out I'd be going to that one. In fact, I'd have had to kick my own ass if I missed it.  It was a great con, with lots of panels and fun stuff, and even a mass book signing with more than a hundred authors (of which I was one).  But as I walked around, I noticed a few things that I felt needed commenting.  Not with the con itself, but with a few of the attendees.  No, there were no jackasses (that I saw, unless I was one of them and no one told me).  But what I did see were quite a few people, aspiring writers, who didn't take full advantage of the con.  Sure, they had a good time, but they missed out on some golden opportunities.  So here, then, are a few helpful hints on how I work a con.  Some may appear to be common sense, others not so much, but I hope this helps.

  • DO - Meet people.  Talk to folks.  You're at a (insert your genre here) convention, so chances are you'll have something to talk about.  And you never know who you're talking to.  I had a chance encounter with a gentleman in which we discussed the state of horror and we seemed to get along fine.  It wasn't until the conversation was over that I realized that the man I was speaking to was PETER-Frickin'-STRAUB.  Another friend of mine told a similar tale in which a kind man asked her about her novel and what she had going on the writing front.  Because he introduced himself by his real name, she didn't realize that she was talking to Jack Ketchum. See what I mean?  You never know who you're talking to.  Also, by meeting people, you make connections that'll serve you well in the future.  Plus you'll make some really good friends. 
  • DON'T - Be "that" guy.  The one who targets any one person or group and imprints himself on them like a baby duck.  Learn to read people and learn to know when to walk away.  
  • DO - Go to the parties put on by the publishers and folk.  It's good for them to get to know your face, and it's another good opportunity for them to get to know you.  At the parties, you'll meet lots of people, published authors, and will have the chance to talk to them, even if it's a simple "Love your work" or "How's it going."
  • DON'T - Again, be "that" guy.  The one who drinks up all the free booze, spends the whole evening hoarding over the snack tray, and ends up making a real jackass of himself.  You want these people to remember you for the right reasons.  Also, don't be last guy to leave, unless you're planning on helping with cleanup. 
  • DO - Go to as many panel discussions and readings as you can manage.  There's nothing worse for an author than to agree to do a reading and find himself reading to an audience of one.  Especially if that one is his mother.  You'll learn a lot from the panels, and you'll hear some really good stuff at the readings.  Even if you don't hear good things, you'll learn what not to do.  Once the reading or panel is over, go up and shake the reader's (or panelists') hand(s).  It's a simple act, and one that's greatly appreciated.  And don't do it because you feel you have to, do it because it's a nice thing to do. 
  • DON'T - EVER, and I do mean EEEEEEEEEEEEEEVER, interrupt a panel or reading in progress.  Once the doors are closed, they stay closed.  And if you happen to be reading after the guy currently reading, don't, no matter how long he takes, take any opportunity to go and put your stuff on the table behind him.  Be respectful of the readers.  Be respectful of everyone.  
  • DO - Hand out and collect business cards, but don't just throw them around willy-nilly.  Take care of who you hand them out to and under what circumstances.  When I have a table, I put a stack of cards at the edge, right in front of my books, so folks who don't buy one can still look it up and see if it's the kind of thing they like. Similarly, take the cards offered to you.  Follow up with a simple note of "Great to meet you!"  They're here for the same reason you are. 
The mass signing was an entirely different animal, with (as I said) more than a hundred authors lined up at tables hawking our wares.  What surprised me was how many authors sold nothing, or how many of them didn't interact with the people coming to potentially buy books.  I'm not the best known author in the world (obscure may be too kind a word), and while tables manned by Joe Landsdale, Joe Hill, Peter Straub, and Jack Ketchum did big business, I still managed to outsell many of the other authors.  But how?  How did little old unknown me manage to sell almost thirty books?  Here are a few tips.  They many not work for everyone, but they sure do work for me. 
  • Talk to people - I'm not saying to leap out in front of every passer-by and shriek "buy my book!" but at least smile at people, ask how they're doing, and let them know you're approachable.  Too many of us author-types avoid eye-contact or even turn away when someone comes up.  Be a real person.  You're selling yourself as much as you are your books. Be friendly.  And, as with all other things, know when to shut up. 
  • Catch the Looky-Loos - If a person walks past my table more than twice, I snag them by saying "Okay, you've walked by twice, I know you want to come over here."  Of course, I do it in a joking manner, which usually brings them over.  
  • Have a Pitch-Line Ready - Quick, in five seconds, tell me what your book's about!  Go!  Okay, so that wasn't exactly fair, but when people are walking by your table, even if you've managed to shame them into stopping, they don't want the full-blown "My book is an existential examination of the zombie-subculture in modern day society in which my protagonist, Ruben..."  Nope, they want something that will pique their interests.  For my tables, which usually have six titles on them, the pitch-line goes something like this:  "This one is post-apocalyptic zombies, this one is horror-noir, these are books one and two of a series about a guy who sees dead people, and these two are the true ghost stories of Austin and San Antonio."  That's it.  That's the pitch-line.  If someone looks interested in any of them, I'll expand the pitch a little.  But that's the hook that draws them in. 
  • Have a Deal - Okay, we all know that cover-price is not what the authors pay for the books.  For most of us, we get between 40 and 60% off the cover price, which means, to make up the money spent on books, we need to sell them for at least that much.  If we want a profit, we need to sell them at cover price.  Of course, we don't want to lug them home if they don't sell either, right?  So here's what I do.  My books are, on the cover, $15 each.  When I sell them at conventions, I sell them as such.  But if someone were to buy two of them, the price doesn't jump to $30, but to $25. I still make a profit, but the other person gets to save five bucks in the deal.  It would surprise you how far a finski will go to changing peoples' minds.  Even so, on the last day, don't change your prices, or if you do, at least have a price you won't go under.  Trust me.  Even if they don't sell at the current con, they'll sell at the next one. 
  • Bait the Table - Sometimes I'll put a bowl of candy on the table, just to get people dropping by.  For the record, the best candy I've found are Jolly Ranchers.  I don't know why.  And the sour apple and cherry ones go fastest. 
  • Be Friendly - This may seem like a no-brainer, but be nice to folks and give them the impression that you're having fun, even if you're not.  No one wants to go to a table manned by someone who looks like he doesn't want to be there.  As far as you're concerned THIS is the place to be!
There's more to the whole convention thing (such as why you should be nice to the dealers and why you shouldn't hesitate to scope the dealer room), but that's for another blog.  I hope this one helps just a bit. 

If you have any more ideas, by all means, post 'em in the comments section!


  1. I would suggest coming to my teaching session in June. I will be talking about the do's and don'ts of attending a con and the biggy - How to prepare for the con. Yes, this is something that needs to be done in advance. It isn't just a big party where you accidentally meet someone who wants to buy your book. It's work! But you can make it fun work. By the way, there is a small publishing house interested in manuscripts from MFA students. Be there. Thanks Scott!

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