This is about my recent experiences promoting my books at a convention. I posted this on the Ascension Epoch webpage yesterday, and thought it might be helpful to other libertarian creatives if I shared it here as well. Over the course of the weekend, I met at least one fellow libertarian who I also alerted to some other libertarian authors and the Libertarian Fiction Authors group. There is a market for the message of liberty in the wider world, provided we’re not hamfisted about transmitting it. I hope this encourages some of you to go out and start changing the world through creative and artistic works.

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After the Steel City Con this weekend, my wife Shell said it would be a good idea to share some of our experiences and insights of our first convention experience with other creators. On the lead-up to the convention, we had a hard time finding similar advice elsewhere and so we had no idea (for example) how many books to bring or how many we could expect to sell, how best to approach potential customers, whether audiences now preferred e-books to paperback, and so forth. We learned an awful lot about what works and what doesn’t work and think we can do a lot better next time. Hopefully, this post will help other independent authors and artists plan their own convention appearances.

First, the raw numbers. We had four different titles to sell, and we brought a little under 200 copies total. As I said, Shell and I had no idea how many we could expect to sell, but we knew we would not sell out. We bought this many books from Createspace because we wanted to have enough for several cons, so it was an initial investment to pay for the next several appearances. The first few hours we spent there on Friday were slow, and I was afraid we weren’t going to sell anything at all, but by the end of the show we had sold 49 books, several pieces of art, and collected 57 email addresses. Only six books were sold on Friday, 27 on Saturday, and 16 on Sunday. Of the 49 books, only three were ebook sales.

What worked

  1. Preview flyers: Shell made a promotional flyer for After Dark and another for Copper Knights and Granite Men. It was double-sided, had our contact info, some pictures, and a long excerpt from each book. We passed out 800 of these. We had originally only taken 600 along with us, but we had run out with about two and half hours to go on Saturday, so spent the rest of the day just passing out business cards by themselves. Several people came back to us on subsequent days saying that they read the previews (or read the longer excerpts on the website) and decided to buy.
  2. Calling out to people and pitching them: If we didn’t directly interact with people and just waited for them to come over to us, we might have sold 5-6 books all weekend. Maybe if you’re famous and people know a lot about you they just flock to you, but if you’re unknown, you have to be aggressive. Sometimes pitching to one person also drew a crowd; passers-by would see one person engaged and curious and would linger to hear what the books were about.
  3. Taking pictures of cosplayers and telling them they’ll be posted on the website: This got a lot more people to stop and take our literature and at least a half-dozen of them ended up buying a book. After posting the gallery yesterday, we got around 500 page views.
  4. Offering people with their hands full a bag: There were a few people who were reluctant to take flyers because their hands were full of prints, action figure boxes, or they had young children with them. Shell would bag our flyers and business cards, then hold the bag open and invite those people to put their items in. This almost always got the person to come to the table, and almost all of them stayed for a pitch.

What didn’t work

  1. Ebooks and QR codes: As I said, I only sold three e-books the whole weekend. I presume they were from people at the con, but can’t be sure. Even if they were, a lot more people told me that they would prefer to buy the e-book and then never did. People come there to buy something physical, so if you’re going to a con and relying on selling e-books, it’s probably not going to work. Although I had a printed stand-up with a QR code for each of my books (and two for J.P. Medved’s Clockwork Imperium books), only a single person snapped the QR code all weekend.
  2. Table space: Going in, I didn’t think we had a lot of stuff, but with the books, the QR stand-ups, the email list sign-up sheet, business cards, flyers, and Shell’s artwork, we had very little left over space on our six-foot table. We ended up having to alternate a lot of our displays and weren’t able to promote our friends at Grapple Gun Publishing or the Libertarian Fiction Authors Association as much as we would have liked. So if you have a lot of product, bear in mind that a six foot table is not a lot of space.

Lessons learned and recommendations for the future

  1. Don’t bother with electricity: I paid something like $80 for an electrical hook-up. I did this purely so that I could keep my phone charged so that I could use Square to take credit card transactions, but as it turned out only three people paid with a credit card all weekend and my phone battery never died (go figure). I had also intended to set up the laptop and my tablet to show a slideshow of artwork and our website, but we didn’t have the table space. I will not be paying for electricity again – it just isn’t worth it. Unless you are going to run a laptop all weekend or have a fancy set-up with TV screens and sound, it probably won’t be worth it for you, either.
  2. Audio Books: Several people who had very poor eyesight, including a little boy that was about 85% blind, showed interest in our books. Most of them ended up buying the paperback, and they had no interest in e-books. I plan on recording a couple of our books in audio format for the next con so that we have something to sell these people. This is also a direct answer to the objections of people we pitched to who said they “no longer had time to read” or didn’t read at all (you would be appalled by how many people sneered at us, very proudly telling us that they didn’t read). We are also going to have a little listening booth set up with our audio books hooked up to an iPod or a CD player for people to sample. This may also distract the friends and spouses who otherwise stood there nagging an interested customer until he or she finally gave up and walked away.
  3. E-books on CD: We are going to package each book in three e-reader formats, as well as in bundles of multiple books, and burn them onto CDs. This costs us almost nothing (CDs are cheap, and anyway, we have hundreds of blank CDs just sitting around gathering dust) and provides an answer to the objection that they prefer to read e-books. We will sell them at a discount to what is on Amazon, thus providing an incentive to buy from us and still letting us capture more profit than we would from the e-book retailers.
  4. More prints and posters of our original characters: These actually sold as well or better than already known characters. An awful lot of people came to us saying that they were hungry for something new, and that was the one thing we could offer in spades over the artist booths filled with prints of Batman and Captain America.
  5. Bags and Totes: We are going to order several canvas shopping bags with the Ascension Epoch logo on them. We will sell these by themselves, or sell them at a slight loss if they buy a single book (or give them away with multiple book purchases). A lot of people didn’t have bags of any sort and were fumbling around with too much stuff in their hands. Some of these people didn’t stop by for that very reason. If we can get people just to buy a bag for their convenience, and have no interest in our books but want to walk around with our logo hanging off their shoulder all day, fine. If it gets them to buy a couple books, even better.
  6. Food: On Saturday and on most of Sunday, the floor was so busy that we could not step away from the table for any purpose other than going to the bathroom. We had a bag of Combos and some dried fruit, but having a mouthful made it difficult to talk to people as they came by. We are going to bring pudding, those squeezable applesauce packets, and things of that nature to tide us over next time.
  7. Putting information on art prints: The sales of Shell’s artwork, particularly of original characters, caught us somewhat by surprise. Almost none of the items came with anything to identify where they came from. In the future, we are going to include a sticker on the back with our website.

The Bottom Line

The convention was a modest success financially (we did a little better than break-even, counting the table, travel, and lodging expenses, but not counting the cost of all 200 books), an enormous morale boost, and — though the verdict is still out on this — seemingly a big success in terms of raising awareness. Since the con, we have received five positive reviews on Amazon, our first Twitter mention, and a three-fold increase in page views. We’ll see how many sales all those flyers translate into in the future, but even if we only get a trickle of new e-book sales from convention attendees, it’s hard for me to think of a better use of time and money for advertising. By appearing at a convention (appropriately themed to your genre, of course), you can engage interest in an a targeted audience in a way that Google Adwords, banners, and Facebook ads simply can’t compete with on the same price level. In fact, even if we hadn’t sold a single book, I’d almost say that the 57 email list subscribers were worth the price all on their own.