Hey there! If you’re one of the new people who found me through Chris Fox linking to me, welcome. If you’re looking for more contentious debate, I think this week may disappoint. But if you’re looking to sell more books, particularly by hand at conventions, then hopefully this will help out.
If you’ve been around here any length of time, you’ve probably seen me say that you usually won’t make your money back in the short term doing conventions. They’re part of the long game, rather than a quick ROI project. Conventions are about marketing, brand-building, and networking. Selling books is a side part of the gig. Most of the time. Some cons, like comic cons and the big media cons, are way more about selling stuff, because in a crowd of a couple hundred vendors and 50,000 people, it’s going to be hard to get noticed enough to be “sticky” in someone’s head unless they buy your shit and love it.
So for the purposes of this article, let’s use the term “con” to refer to the small to mid-sized Sci-Fi and Fantasy cons like the one I did last weekend (LibertyCon in Chattanooga, TN) and the one I’m doing next weekend (ConGregate in High Point, NC). These events can have anywhere from a couple hundred people to several thousand, and running a table at one of these cons takes a few more things than you would initially expect. So here are a few tips and “con hacks” that I’ve come up with through the past seven years of doing this.
1) Have some flat swag – Have something to put into people’s hands. Bookmarks, postcards, even a xeroxed one-sheet about your book if you don’t have the money or wherewithal to make anything better. But a lot of people are not going to buy your book at the con, realistically you’ll talk to far more people who won’t buy the book than people who will. So you need to have something to put in their hand so they can remember you when they leave.
2) Have a Sharpie – Especially at bigger cons, you’ll have folks who say “I’ll come back.” If you give them a piece of flat swag, they still might not be able to find you amidst all the chaos. Write your booth number on the back of the bookmark. Look, I didn’t say these tips were rocket science. I just said they were helpful.
3) Carry plastic bags to the con – You intend to sell shit to people. People need a way to carry shit. Plastic bags are cheap if you buy the crappy ones you get at all the dollar stores, or free if you just recycle plastic grocery bags. But I have made more than one sale by beckoning over some poor soul who is barely able to carry the stack of books and crap they’ve bought, and they’re so grateful to have a bag that they listen to my pitch. Admittedly, I’m way more likely to help out somebody with an armload of books than an armload of Funko Pops, but I don’t sell Pops. I sell books, and someone who has already shown a predisposition to buy books that day is my target audience.
4) Flat stock is the devil – Don’t lay your books down so that the shopper has to stand completely over them to see the cover. Invest in some cheap wire folding book stands (sometimes also called plate racks) and stand your shit up! You spent money on the cover to that books, or someone did, so show it off. Standing up your books helps draw in the long-distance browsers, the folks that don’t want to get too close to the table, lest they buy something. Until they see something awesome, and can’t help themselves. if they can’t see your book, you aren’t giving yourself the option to be that something awesome.
5) Witty bookmarks are the absolute jam – I have one piece of marketing material that i can trace to direct sales. For The Black Knight Chronicles, I made a run of bookmarks that say “Suck It, Edward” in big letters at the top. So when I put those in my vampire books, and stand them up, people from across the aisle can see me making fun of Twilight. Frequently they’ll chuckle, then walk all the way over and either pick up the book or ask me what it’s about. Worst case, they want the bookmark. But more than once I’ve had people buy either the Omnibus ($23) or the entire set of Black Knight books ($50) just off seeing the bookmark. H.P. Holo makes bookmarks with a big circle at the top that says stuff like “SPACE PIRATES” or “WIZARDS & MONKEYS” (it doesn’t really say wizards & monkeys) on them. This lets people see what the book is about from a distance, and draw them in. That kind of dual-purpose swag is awesome for drawing people in.
6) Take Credit Cards – I did a comic con this year, in 2017, with a comic artist who didn’t take credit cards. He proclaimed his disdain for a smartphone, why he wouldn’t need one, why he does fine without a Square reader, and why all this newfangled technology was silly and useless. At the end of the one-day con, after he watched me ring up over $200 in credit card sales, compared with his $20 in cash sales, he said to me, “Maybe I need to look into getting one of those.” I understand that it used to be hard to accept credit cards. There was expensive equipment, monthly fees, and all that BS. Square is free. Paypal is free. Yes, they take about 3% of the sale. Last weekend I processed almost $300 in credit card sales, and I only had a sales table for Saturday. Square can have their $9, because I guarantee you that I picked up at least $100 in additional sales by being able to process cards. Added Bonus – money that is spent with you on credit cards usually doesn’t hit your bank until after the con, so it’s not burning a hole in your pocket whenever you walk through the deal room!
7) Make friends with your neighbors – I try really hard to help out the people next to me at cons, whether I know them or not. Selling books is not a competition, and a rising tide really does lift all boats. Getting a book in someone’s hands is awesome, no matter if it’s your book or the book from the guy next to you. Because once people are predisposed to buy books, they will buy a variety of books. So it’s good for everyone when everyone is selling. Being nice to your neighbors also means that you’ll have someone to keep an eye on your shit when you have to go pee. So don’t erect huge displays that fuck the sightlines of people getting to your neighbor. Don’t blare sound music all day through the con (no matter how cool it is), unless of course you’re a band or a musician, then at least try to mix it up so your neighbors don’t have to hear the same song for three days. Bring extra bottled water and share it with your neighbor. Be happy to break a twenty for them if you have more change. Just be nice and friendly, and it’ll work out well for you in the long run.
8) Get a bigger hand truck than you think you need – I had a decent little $50 hand truck from Lowe’s that I used for a couple years. Before that I had a nice little fold-flat hand truck that did me well until I had too many title to carry on that in one trip. At RavenCon, I had the Lowe’s hand truck, which theoretically had a flatbed load rating of 400 lbs, loaded down pretty damn heavily. We hit a pothole in the hotel parking lot, and one of the wheels shattered. A few feet further along, and the overburdened other wheel gave up the ghost. We struggled that shit into the room, set things up, and did the show, but that hand truck was toast. For the next con, Suzy bought me one like this. Mine is a little different, but it can do vertical or horizontal, has 1,000 pounds capacity, and is big enough to carry everything for two authors (at least) in one trip. It’s friggin’ awesome and I wish I’d just spent the $150 on that one the first time.
There’s a million other things, but I’ll leave with just a quick inventory of my “con box,” the big blue tub that I carry around that has no books in it, just the stuff that I feel like I should have with me to do a booth or a table.
- (2) 8′ Black Tablecloths – I use them either to cover the table if one is not provided, or to cover up my crap at the end of the night.
- Falstaff Books Table Runner – this is new, but it’s just a nice little banner that drapes over the table with our logo on it.
- (12) folding wire book stands – I almost always need less than this, but it leaves me one or two to loan out. See point #7
- Package of big zip ties – I have a sign that ties to the back of my book rack. Also useful for hanging my bags and a trash bag.
- plastic bags – I got a box of “t-shirt bags” years ago and they haven’t run out yet.
- Bookmarks – I have a Falstaff Books bookmark, plus one for Bubba, Harker, and Black Knight. On the back of the Falstaff Books bookmark is a link to a free ebook download of a sampler that gives people a taste of everything we publish.
- Stickers – I have stickers for each property that I have bookmarks for. Buy a book, get a sticker.
- deodorant – I forgot it once on a trip. Never again.
- Drugs – I keep a stash of ibuprofen, immodium, and claritin-d in my con box. These treat the three main things that can ruin a con for me, so I try to stay prepared.
- post-it notes & a small legal pad
- pens and a sharpie
- SC Business License – not all states require a state business license to vend at a con. SC does. I just never take the license out of the box, so I always know where it is.
- Business cards and holder
- spare phone battery – it’s one of those little things by Anker that can recharge a phone, iPad, or more importantly, a Square chip reader.
- Square reader, iPhone 7 adaptor, and Chip reader – I know the chip reader is more secure, but more importantly to me, it’s more efficient. The swipe reader takes multiple swipes at least 50% of the time, but the chip reader almost never takes additional time and effort. I hate the fact that the iPhone no longer has a headphone jack, but I didn’t get to design it, so I bought an extra adaptor and put it in the con box.
- (2) Snap light stick – shit happens. Some con spaces have very few windows, or are even underground, like the Charlotte Convention Center. I don’t ever expect to need to have a small chemical light source, but the day I want it will be the day I REALLY want it.
- pocketknife – I don’t leave home without it.
- Leatherman – some jobs are too much for even a pocketknife
That’s what’s in my con box. It goes to every con, and is the most important thing that goes into the truck.