Conventional Wisdom

Kraken Con characters

Kraken Con characters

Phew! November and December were really busy, so I took a little hiatus from blogging. And for my return post, I wanted to talk about my recent convention experience. In November, I attended Kraken Con (a convention in the Bay Area that caters mostly to anime fans) as a featured guest author. It was my first convention (as either attendee, vendor or guest) and I learned quite a bit. And while this was, by far, one of the most fun things I have ever done it was also incredibly tiring and not for the faint of heart. Here are my reflections on the experience. If you ever plan on selling books at a convention, I hope you find them helpful.

1. Time and space expectations

Anticipate issues. Get their early (I arrived two hours before the expo floor opened to the public) and expect to be there the whole time. If you have a banner, make sure it will fit your booth, or maybe bring more than one in case one doesn't. Don't plan on using your time at the convention for anything other than being at your booth. Any time you are not at your booth is time you are going to miss a sale!

2. Etiquette

 Some things are more obvious, and some less so. Be conscientious of the space around your booth and don't let your stuff creep into someone else's turf. If someone is checking out the booth next to / across from you, wait until they're clearly moving on before attempting to make a sale. And don't leave the conference early! Stay until the bitter end. Leaving early is a bit of a slap in the face to the organizers and sure fire way to get yourself uninvited to the next one. It says to them that you have better things to do with your time. If you really have somewhere else to be, let them know ahead of time.

3. Be approachable

Know your audience and talk at their level. Being a normal and relatable human being sells books. This also requires quite a bit of nerve and an ability to feel comfortable in your own skin and talking in an honest, earnest and excited way to complete strangers. For me, a devout extrovert, this was heaven. I could have 1-on-1 conversations with complete strangers all day every day and not get tired of it (in fact, that's kind of what I do for a living). But I could see where this would be intimidating for my more introverted colleagues out there. Unfortunately, there is no way around this if you are going to a convention and representing your work to the world.

Along the same lines, know what to wear. My initial instinct was to be a little formal: button up collared shirt, +/- tie. But while that might have been appropriate for a strict writer's convention, it would have made me stick out like a sore thumb (and not in a good way) at a convention where every other person was dressed up like a vampire, or Sailor Moon, or Mega Man, etc. So instead I went with nerdy t-shirts. 

Me at my booth at Kraken Con with my assorted books and give-aways

Me at my booth at Kraken Con with my assorted books and give-aways

4. Draw them in with free stuff

People are used to business cards, but they generally don't get many other free things at these types of conventions. You can stick out in people's memories by offering them such. While I did have business cards, I also had personalized book marks (that I signed for free), little aliens and little toy wind-up robots as give-aways. And while some people were shameless and just snatched one and left, most of the time it got people interested. To look at this from a more diabolically psychological level, it makes people feel a little beholden and like they should show interest in exchange for the gift. 

5. Develop a strategy!

My strategy was intimately tied to #4 above. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I talk about that, a word about appearances. I cannot tell you the number of people at booths around me who were sitting behind their tables, reading a book or playing on their phones. DO NOT expect attendees to just come up to your booth by themselves. If you don’t show interest in them, they will not show interest in you.

Here is my strong recommendation (and it is going to sound exhausting, because it is): stand and make eye contact… with everyone. Sitting there and looking disengaged is going to turn people off. If you are going to hock your wears, you need to work for it. And those first moments of interaction are arguably the most important. I would say that 90% of people who I talked with at my table came over because I engaged them. They were in the process of walking away, and I reeled them in. I would also estimate that ¾ of my sales came from this group as well.

So here was my process: I intently watched everyone as they walked in my direction. Now as you can see from the picture of my booth, it was not immediately obvious what I was selling. In a place where most people were selling art or other tangible goods, it took people a second or two to register that I was selling books. But you could tell right away that they were science fiction. So as they passed the booth, if their glance lingered for more than a second or two, or if I saw the faintest gleam or interest in their eyes, or if they slowed down at all, I engaged them. I would offer a brief and friendly, “Sci-fi fan?” with my most winning smile. This did several things. It was a non-threatening opener. It started a conversation. And it confirmed for them what they thought the booth was about. Again, these were people who were in the process of walking away. Most of the time, they would change course and come over to the table. They would smile in return and the person typically responded with something along the lines of “sort of,” or “sometimes.”

Me being attacked by a xenomorph over one of my books. It was not happy with my sales strategy.

Me being attacked by a xenomorph over one of my books. It was not happy with my sales strategy.

Now if they asked about the books right off the bat, then great. But most of the time, their eyes were glued to the goodies I had laid out on the table. So I would say, “Ok. Well feel free to grab an alien, or a robot or a bookmark of a business card and let me know if you have any questions.” See #4 above. I would then wait patiently until they broached the subject of the books (which were sitting in large, obvious stacks on the table) and I would not hit them over the head with my pitch until they asked me for it. At that point, I knew they were interested and were asking because they wanted to know, and I wasn’t going to scare them away.

My actual pitch changed depending on the person. When they asked what the books were about, I typically responded by asking what type of science fiction they liked or were familiar with. I would try to draw a comparison if I could, using that as a springboard. Never lie! You have to be honest about your work. Don’t try to make it sound like something it’s not, because that’s the quickest way to make someone unhappy with a purchase. If done correctly though, this will make them more interested and earn you a new fan!

From there, just be enthusiastic. Excitement is infectious. Talk about your work in a way that conveys that excitement, and relates back to specific questions they have. Try not to be too long winded or you’ll lose them.

6. Set a price

Another bit of psychology here. People like round numbers, and they like deals. I originally set my price at $15 per book with a “buy-one-get-one-half-off” type sale. But that meant $15 for one and $22.50 for both. This made perfectly good sense to my math-oriented brain, but it totally turned people off. Then my neighbor at the booth next door recommended dropping the $22.50 price to $20, and holy smokes did it work.

Even though it was only a $2.50 difference, when I told people $15 for one or $20 for both, most people responded with, “Wow! That’s a great deal. I feel like I have to get both.” No. I did not make that last sentence up. Many people literally said, “I feel like I have to get both.” No joke.

7. Network

Make sure that you meet the convention organizers and thank them for inviting you to come. A free signed book is a nice thank-you gift J. If there are tables representing other conventions there, also think about introducing yourself to them and let them know if you would be interested in presenting at their convention.

Those are the high points. If there’s anything that I missed, or something you’d like to know about, feel free to drop a comment below.