Thursday, March 1, 2012

Convention 101 for writers

Promotion is an ever-present job for writers, and one of the greatest opportunities comes from fan-driven conventions if you are fortunate enough to be writing in a genre supported by such a thing. You want far more than simply attending such a convention. You need to be a part of it.

So how to start?

Target your convention.

Make sure the convention you are interested is going to be interested in you. Sounds obvious, but some book fairs and such are not going to be aimed at your audience. Others may be more trade related (such as EPIC's convention). I strongly advise attending at least one convention before diving in if you are uncertain.

Get a table.

You want a table. In fact, if you can't get a table, then you might consider calling off the whole thing. While autograph tables can get you some exposure, or "renting" a time slot, your exposure won't usually be worth the trouble even if you landed a panel. Having a significant other (or minion) to man the table with you helps - especially if you need to leave for panels and such.

Each convention has its own quirky rules and pricing about setting up a table. You may have to come in as a vendor. They might have an artist "alley". You may get a discount for being on a panel. Or not. In any case, as with panels, you want to inquire as soon as a contact name (usually under "Dealer Room") comes up on the site. Prices can vary from free to OMG. In the latter case, for huge events like a Comic-Con, this can run in the hundreds of dollars. The general ball-park figure for fan-run cons tends to be around eighty dollars. If the price is too pricey, share the table with another author. Two authors per table can be done, but three tends to be a squeeze. Might want two tables in that case.

You've got that table. Bring a table cloth just in case one isn't provided. Essentials are your books, business cards with links to an author website, and some kind of brochure with your blurb. Have a plan if they come up with a credit card - iPhone folks can use Square. Usually, they will hand you a twenty, so have change. Keep in mind that you are there to promote - not make money. Price your books modestly above your cost. Accept a loss if necessary.

Dress for the occasion and don't hesitate to consider a costume if the convention fan base arrives in them - I find Steam Punk to be a good choice. You get better eye contact if you are "one of them", but dressing casually is just fine when coupled with a smiling disposition. Get a banner to put behind you - banners and stands are not that expensive and look great. Got a trailer? Put it on an iPad or other tablet and purchase the "VLoop" app to loop it. Put it up around eye height or as close as you can get in order to catch the eye. For me, this necessitated a nicely created stand. Speaking of "nice", make sure everything you present is professional - if you are using bricks and boards, people will draw conclusions (grin). Remember that whatever you display, consideration is a key. I didn't put music to my trailer for a reason - I didn't want to drive my neighbors crazy.

A word on showmanship. Don't be obnoxious either in tone or dress. While some may argue on this point, don't shove things into peoples' hands if they're just passing by. Hawking doesn't work from what I've seen - trash cans will end up being the recipients of your material. If folks show interest, invite them in with smiles and candy (just make sure you're only doing this at a convention!).

Get on panels.

You want on panels. Seriously -this is the Number One way to attract folks who would otherwise pass by your table with nary a glance. Not essential, but highly important.

This is all about networking. There are two ways to do this - "cold call" via email or phone to the program director and pitch yourself (it is good to be a real published author). Do this as soon as the convention web site comes up "live" with a contact name. The best way to go about this, however, is with some face time. Most convention organizers will hold "parties" at other conventions to advertise themselves. It is a great time to introduce yourself. Of course, if you actually know the programmer or other staff (even through a friend) you can possibly set up a meeting. Oh,and line up a reading if you can get one.

So, you've got to be a panelist. Good. Don't expect to know what panel you'll be on for the majority of your wait. I've been handed program sheets literally as I came in the door. Often you will get a questionnaire about your panel preferences, but don't bet on being on the panel you wish. Most often or not you will end up as "filler" until they get to know you better.

When on a panel, don't interrupt, but do get a word in if another ends up being a panel hog. If the other is a Name, be patient. Most folks came to see them anyway. If you're lucky (like I once was), said Name will arrive late - leaving you to entertain all their fans. If you don't have anything major to say on a panel, at least slip in a witty comment (not a snarky one), but do try and add value. Never be late for a panel. Always be gushingly grateful to the volunteers and staff.


Don't get slammed - watch the drinks. You don't want folks to remember you for that time in the middle of the floor when you...


You need to bring physical books even if you are with an e-book publisher. You have to show something, right? Order books ahead of time - at least two to three weeks. Order only what you need if you can't afford to go big. An average of ten books per novel will do you just fine at most conventions. No, you're not going to sell a lot unless you are already wildly popular.

Even if you only sell two or three books, you may have passed out scores of business cards and received hits on your website. In the age of e-books, many of your novels will be bought from a Kindle or such anyway (had this happen right in front of me several times).


First and foremost, you are not at a convention to make money. You are there to promote. Never forget that axiom and you will feel better about selling your books at just above cost. Often, it will be money, not time, that ends up limiting the number of conventions you will attend. An average convention (definitely not a big Comic or Anime convention) runs me around three hundred dollars once all expenses are, lodging, and table.

You can avoid hotel costs by staying with friends or relatives. You shouldn't have to worry about paying for the convention itself - that comes with the table in most cases. If you can manage to show up early Saturday and put on a great display even after a long drive - don't bother coming in on a Friday unless you can afford it. Of course, early panels and other considerations will dictate.

Food is a big expense, especially if you end up eating at the hotel. Best rule is to avoid that - there are usually shops and such around the area where you can land a good meal. I've even brought in fixings and made kingly lunches simply by stopping at an HEB en route to the convention. Most decent hotels include a fridge. Use it.

Don't forget to save each and every receipt. Even that latte in your hand is tax deductible. So is that nifty hat you found in the dealer's room - a valid promotional expense if you wear it at the convention. Schedule C is your friend.

So, see you at the next convention! You can find where I'm heading next by looking at my schedule on my website.



Anonymous said...

Okay KT, got to ask. Was there an Oktoberfest with beer and bratwurst going on in the vicinity? Luv the attire (g).

Michael Davis (
Author of the year (2008 & 2009)

January Bain said...

Good advice!

KMTolan said...

That was my steam punkish look for the day, but hey, beer and bratwurst? Yeah, I can do that!