Welcome to Part 3 of my series on conventions, what they’re about, how to make money at them, all that jazz. Today we’re going to talk about what I call Trade Show Cons, or Exhibit Hall Cons. These are most often your comic cons or your book fairs (where you’re not a big guest, just a schmo with a table). They bring with them a whole new set of challenges, strategies, and expectations.
What is an Exhibit Hall Con? Well. these are the cons where you sit behind or beside or in front of your table all day and work to sell books. I don’t recommend sitting in front of your table. It’s hard to see the books through you. Like your dad used to say when you stood in front of the TV, you make a better door than you do a window, kid. These are often Comic cons (like the Roanoke Valley Comic Con, where I’ll be next weekend or Heroes Con, June 2018), but can also be big book fairs (like the West Virginia Book Festival, where I’ll be Friday and Saturday). Sometimes they’re even outside, like Time Travelers’ Weekend at the Carolina Renaissance Faire (where I’ll be November 11-12). I don’t feel like linking everything. If you wanna come say hi, just Google it.
So I do a fair number of these. By “a fair number” I mean that I have 17 already booked for 2018, ranging in size from maybe 2,000 attendees to 50,000+. So obviously I see some benefit in them. But what are the benefits, and what makes them better than a fandom con?
Well, it depends. This time it depends on you, the person who has to stand there and sell books all day. I’m good at this part. I’ve worked trade shows, conventions, flea markets, and that kind of thing my whole life. When I was a little kid, I learned how to do this stuff by sitting under the table at craft shows reading while my mom sold little stuff she made. So I got a start hand-selling things when I was seven or eight. It’s been my entire life doing this kind of thing. It just feels natural to me. So for me, I get a chance to shake hands, kiss babies, and sell.
I like selling. I see it as a challenge. Somebody walks up to my table and says “I’m not much of a reader.” That’s like waving a red flag and shouting “Toro!” to me. I often look at the folks I’m sharing a table with and mutter “hold my beer.” Those are my favorites, because I have to use all the muscles I trained in two decades of business sales to get somebody to drop twenty bucks on my table and walk away with a new book. It’s a game. If I get the sale, I get a point.
If you hate selling, or hate talking to strangers, you shouldn’t do these conventions. They won’t be fun to you, and people can see when you aren’t having fun. I have a great crew going to West Virginia tomorrow. Me, Gail Z. Martin, Darin Kennedy, and James P. Macdonald. If you get within our orbit, you’re almost certainly leaving with a book, because all four of us are talkers, and we all have fun selling to people. That’s a huge key to these events – have fun. Because as with everything in writing, if you aren’t having fun, it’s not worth doing.
Exhibit Hall cons are probably the single best place for short-term gains. You can sling some paper, and get some green paper in return, and you can usually cover your costs (books, parking, hotel, food, gas) and make a small to medium profit. This of course depends on how many titles you have. With your first book it’s going to be tough to move enough copies to cover a table rental. Table rentals run from $50 for a small comic con to $350 for a big one, and even more. And once you get to a certain level of inventory, you can’t do just one table. At Raleigh Supercon next summer I have a corner vendor booth. It cost a bunch. But I have a ton of titles, not just my own, but by my authors, so I need as much real estate as I can get. And by next summer, we’ll have well over 50 Falstaff titles on display, and that takes a lot of table space. That convention will cost me probably $1,500 by the time all costs are figure in, so I’m hoping to move a fuckton of books.
If you don’t yet have a fuckton of books to move, look around for the small comic conventions in your area, and book those instead. There you can get a table for $50, drive in the morning of the show to set up, buy a $10 convention center lunch, sell ten books and drive home at the end of the day with a few bucks of profit in your pocket. And ten new books out there in the world working to build new fans for you.
I estimate that probably half the books I sell at an exhibit hall con ever get read. So if I sell a hundred books over the course of a weekend (which almost never happens, that’s a BIG number), fifty of them will get read. Twenty of those are by people who are already fans, so that’s thirty new fans. People buy a lot of multiple books, and I do a lot of bundles, so let’s say I pick up twenty new fans in a weekend. That weekend trip probably cost me $500, so I spent $25 per fan.
If I could guarantee that someone would become a fan for $25 each, I would pay that in a heartbeat. I’d just go to the Fan Vending Machine and put in Benjamins like I was P Diddy at a strip club. Because a fan is worth so much more than $25 over the life of their fandom. That’s how much they might spend with you in one year, so as long as you don’t piss them off or stop writing, that $25 is going to pay dividends far exceeding your initial investment.
So your Per Fan Cost at an exhibit hall show is likely to be greater than at some other cons, but you also have the chance to reach more fans than at fandom cons or industry cons, and the people there are predisposed to spend money. A comic con isn’t like a fandom con, where people save up all year just for the trip and the experience – people come to these things to spend money. When I used to go to Heroes Con, I never went without at least $100 budgeted to buy stuff. So people are predisposed to spend money, you just have to convince them to do it with YOU.
I’ve run long again, so next week we’ll talk about Starfucker Cons, then we’ll move into Table Setup, Elevator Pitches, and Why I don’t sell hard to cosplayers (and I LOVE cosplayers). Until then, I just had a book come out, so go buy something, will ya?