Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Selling Books at Conventions

I used to attend a lot of science fiction conventions as a guest. Occasionally I’d do signings and readings, and a few cons I go to have author tables you can use to sell books for the whole weekend. My sales at this type of convention are seldom spectacular. If I sell more than ten books I consider them a success.

A few years ago I started selling books in the Artist Alley at comic book conventions. I’d written superhero novels, so I figured there’d be an audience for my work. To my surprise, I sold many more books at these conventions than I did at science fiction conventions, but it wasn’t my superhero novels that were selling, it was my epic fantasy. Maybe it’s counter-programming. There’s so much superhero stuff at the con, it’s hard for me to stand out. There’s a lot of overlap between comic book readers and fantasy readers, and sometimes I’m the only fantasy author at a convention, so my books don’t have as much competition.

When I first started going to cons, I tried to split the cost of a table with other authors. A cheap table is going to cost $150 and really big cons will charge $300 or more. By the time you factor in the cost of the table and the cost of inventory, it’s easy to worry you won’t recover your investment. Fortunately, with one exception, I’ve at least broken even at every con and usually turn a nice profit without sharing a table.

Even if I weren’t making money, the conventions would still be valuable. At most cons these days I get a lot of signups to my mailing list. This is a good base for future marketing. Even more valuable is watching the real time reaction of people to various covers. My Dragon Apocalypse collection has a cover that draws fantasy readers like a magnet. Since publishing the collection, it’s usually my best seller at cons. In the course of selling it again and again, I’ve polished my pitch, learning what people respond to. I used to try to sell my books by talking about plot or characters, which are, of course, the things that I find most interesting about the book. For a while, I’d also make references to other, better known fantasy authors, saying if you like this author you’ll like my work, but I too frequently found out that people hadn’t read the authors I was referencing. Instead, the pitch that again and again lights up customers’ eyes is when I describe Greatshadow, the first book of the Dragon Apocalypse, as a tribute to my D&D roots, a sword and sorcery dungeon crawl where a bunch of powerful adventurers team up to kill a dragon and take its stuff. It’s concise, accurate, and sells the book again and again.

Of course, not all potential buyers want to listen to your pitch. A lot of readers want to pick up the book and read the copy on the back. Fortunately, I’ve been getting better at writing back cover copy. My back cover copy for There is No Wheel has sold the book more than once, and I’ve learned to trust the cover of that collection as well. The cover has a certain creepy feel to it and a reader attracted to the cover is probably going to be attracted to the stories within.

Readers of my blog probably notice I revise my book covers fairly often. If people ignore a book con after con, it’s time for tweaking. If people read a back cover and have no reaction at all, I also know it needs to be reworked. 

Let’s say you do decide to take the plunge. Aside from a table and some books, what else do you need?

The top priority is an obvious one, business cards. Bookmarks are also a good investment. I’ve never seen the point of postcards, but a lot of people have them. I have a table banner with a catch phrase “A guy who writes stuff” that a lot of people smile at, so it’s worth every dollar I spent on it. I also have a couple of retractable banners. The last con I did I used a Dragon Writer banner and tried out a Burn Baby Burn banner. I definitely sold more superhero novels this time than I had in previous years. Retractable banners can be purchased for under $100, sometimes under $75. Almost everyone in a convention hall with have them, so they are now part of the package of looking like a professional.
My table at Bull City Comicon.

Also part of being a professional: Taking credit cards and having good accounting. I use Square for all my transactions now, both credit and cash. I’ve added every book and set of books I sell as preset items. As the con goes on, I get instant reports on what I’ve sold and also keep track of which books are selling best. So, at NC Comicon I can see I did 40 sales. A lot of these were sets, so I actually sold 63 books. Last year at the same con I sold over 100 books, but I was at the end of a row where I was the first table people saw when they came through one of the doors into the hall. This year, I was stuck in the middle of a row. Location is really important, but, unfortunately, you don’t really get to pick which table you’ll be assigned to. Still, I made money, and gathered data. My Dragon Apocalypse collection sold 10 copies, making it my bestselling title. But, Nobody Gets the Girl, my superhero novel which normally doesn’t sell well, sold 7 copies, almost certainly due to the attention the Burn Baby Burn banner drew to my superhero novels. In all, I sold 15 superhero novels.

Square also lets me look at data for the year. I did six comic conventions this year, Oak City, Supercon, Greensboro Comicon, Fayetteville Comicon, and NC Comicon. I’ve made 223 sales, many of them sets, so I’ve easily sold over 300 books. I can confirm that Dragon Apocalypse didn’t just do well at the last con. I’ve sold 55 copies this year, so by itself it accounts for 1/6th of my sales.
But, I’m getting bogged down in specifics, and should be talking about the generalities. The point is, if you use Square or a competing service to track your sales, you’ll be able to see sales trends that might help you focus your energies on what you should be writing. It’s definitely a big reason that I’ll be shifting back to dragons after finishing my current superhero series.

Before I got sidetracked on Square, I was talking about what you need for supplies. One thing I overlooked early on was bags. Believe it or not, I lost some early sales because people didn’t want to buy a bunch of books if they didn’t have an easy way of carrying them. I also have table flare. Since I sell dragon books, I have stuffed dragons and dragon miniatures. I also buy cheap plastic toy dragons off Amazon and give them out to kids too young to read my books. Discovering that my table often draws children has been an important lesson. I’m now planning to write a series set in my Dragon Apocalypse universe aimed at younger readers. I want that allowance money!

I think I have an advantage over some authors in that I do have a pretty good variety of titles. If people like science fiction, I steer them to Bitterwood. High fantasy, Greatshadow. For steampunk, I have Bad Wizard. For less genre specific readers, my short story collections are a good fit. I also have a nice variety of price points on the table. I sell some sets of books for $35, but have a lot of books that I price at $10, and this year I’ve been adding a clearance box where I’m selling books with old covers or some damage for $3. We spilled coffee on the table and stained some books on the edge of the page. I couldn’t have sold them at full price, but I had no trouble selling them for $3, and the alternative would have been to trash them. I also wound up giving away two coffee-stained parts of a trilogy to make a full price sale of the third book in the set. While the lesson of having a lot of price points is a good one, an even better one is don’t set coffee on the same table as the books, ever!

Set up and break down is a lot of work. You will definitely need to invest in folding hand trucks. For my last con I carted in 8 cases of books. This turned out to be overkill, but I’ve been to cons where I’ve sold out of books where I was sure I had all the copies I needed. I now have three hand trucks. Two are useful if I have to haul books through rough parking lots, plus I have a big flatbed cart that’s only good on smooth, flat surfaces. But, at some convention centers, you can drive your vehicle right onto the convention floor to unload, so the flatbed lets me get everything in two trips, versus five or six trips with smaller carts.

Don’t pursue selling books at cons if you can’t stand the accounting. You need to keep track of every dime you spend and document every receipt for taxes. Also, I pay sales tax on everything I sell in North Carolina, and it’s a real pain when you’ve sold books in different counties during the same quarter, since you have to divide up your sales in different tax jurisdictions with different local rates. I meet a lot of people who don’t worry about paying sales tax since they don’t feel like they are doing that much in sales. But, my revenue has grown every year I’ve been doing this and I’m glad I started keeping up with the taxes early on when my con revenue was a few hundred each year instead of a few thousand.

Also, don’t get into this if you have a fragile ego. For every customer who stops at my table, I have a hundred walk by with absolutely no interest in my wares. And, of those who stop, I sell books to maybe one in four. People have very specific tastes and sometimes your books just don’t fit those tastes. I give my pitch to some people and can see them lose interest. Or, they really are interested, but are also on a budget, and deciding whether to spend money on you or on an original drawing from an artist two booths down, and they decide to go for the art. You also get a lot of people who are interested in writing their own books, want advice, but have no intention of reading your work.

The flip side of this is you’ll run into people who’ve actually read your work before and are more than happy to tell you how great the book was. At Supercon, I had someone tell me James Maxey was one of his favorite authors when he saw my books, only to then realize that I was, in fact, James Maxey. A lot of these encounters don’t sell a single book, since they already own my books, but it’s still nice learning you’re connecting with readers.

So, if you have books to sell and want to give cons a shot good luck! Hopefully you’ll find it as rewarding as I have.


Unknown said...

Hi James,

Thanks for the information. I just signed a contract to get my debut novel published. I have to do a lot of the marketing and thought attending a conference where I could promote my fantasy book would be a good idea, especially to getting my name out there.

Do you have any recommendations for conferences where I might be able to sell my fantasy book?


James Maxey said...

Hi Cassie,

I can't give specifics since I don't know where you're based, but if you are writing in a nerdy genre (epi or urban fantasy, SF, superheroes, or horror) you could check with your nearest comic book or gaming store and see if there are local conventions they can recommend.

A lot depends on how outgoing you are, how far you're willing to travel, and how much money you're willing to spend to promote yourself. If you only have a single novel, you might start out at small local comic conventions. Contact them and see if they have and artist alley and if they allow authors into it. Some of these tables can be very inexpensive. I occasionally do shows that only charge $20 for a table. In general, the less they charge, the smaller the crowd. This limits how many books you might sell, but if you've never pitched your book directly to a potential buyer, a small crowd gives you a little breathing room and lets you gage what works in your pitch and what doesn't for a relatively low cost.

On the other hand, if you just like going to conventions, or think you might, it doesn't hurt to apply to a larger event. You'd be unlikely to get into a really huge show like the San Diego Comicon or the New York Comicon, but the various Wizard World and Galaxycon shows might be worth pursuing. Tables aren't cheap, between $150 and $350. It's going to be tough to cover your costs with just a single book, so if you have short stories maybe look into printing up some of these that can be sold cheaply. You can also partner up with another author or artist to split the cost of a table, which is still a strategy I use quite often.

In the long run, the big shows, 25,000+ guests are where you can really sell a ton of books if you get good at drawing customers to your table, pitching, closing, and moving them along. And even if you lose money starting out, as you publish more books and gain more experience this can be a very viable source of real revenue, assuming big conventions ever return after covid! I've got some of my calendar for the summer, but we'll see if they really happen or not!