The Art of the Con
posted by rdsp
After participating in seven conferences/conventions in less than two years we have perfected our technique. Using the following methodical approach will maximize your exposure, profitability, and overall effectiveness at “cons.”
– If you are a writer, editor, or other industry professional, the con is a business trip. That said, it only works if you are in a “fun” mindset; there’s no use in sweating over every last detail and working yourself into a frenzy. As we can all testify nothing works out exactly as planned when traveling and/or taking part in public appearances. Have a plan and stick to it as best you can, leaving room to improvise if necessary. The more relaxed you are the more pleasant you’ll be for the other attendees to talk to.
– Cons are expensive, but not in comparison to other forms of advertising. Take Publishers Weekly, for example: a week’s worth of ads cost anywhere from $1,200-$7,000. Therefore, nothing is better for a professional than attending a con because not only is the event cheaper for the amount of exposure, but a person in the flesh is always more memorable than a two-dimensional ad. Having said that, get involved as much as physically possible. Most of us have to miss either the first or last day because of travel arrangements, but there are always plenty of panels/discussions, reading slots, autograph signings, parties, and other group events. Some cons also have charity auctions, and donating your product guarantees you another free ad by being listed in the auction material. Simply contact the event programmers in advance (way in advance) and have them arrange these events for you. Once you’ve made the contact keep on the program coordinators because, sadly, they are often overworked and can lose track of who is supposed to be doing what.
– Prepare. If you are going to be reading, practice every day so you can come off as an old pro—nothing’s worse than looking like you don’t know your own work. It helps to come up with anecdotes and other banter for the audience. Practice in seclusion at first, then try out your reading on family and friends. Stick to the script as much as possible, even if they already know the event that inspired your writing, or know about the book and how to buy it. As for timing, it pays to run short rather than longer, as people will want to talk to you afterwards or even get your autograph—make sure they know you’ll be available for such after the reading. For panels, give the topic some thought. Come up with questions for the audience and your other panelists. As there are always multiple people on a panel the weight won’t be all on your shoulders, but you can’t allow that to make you lazy. To really blow everybody away print up twenty or thirty handouts on the subject, offering a bibliography and excerpts from books (preferably your own!). If you are hosting a party, make sure all the decorations and food/beverages are planned out in advance. Also, make sure you know the hotel’s policies on smoking, how late parties can run, whether the con organizers frown on selling things at the party, and what the policies is regarding people loitering outside the party. The last thing you want is for police to come and start busting heads. For autographs, practice your signature. You can’t take forever while people around standing in front of you. Make sure you remember to ask people to spell their names, and ask how they want it made out to them. It’s good to date the signature and write the location, so it helps to make sure you can spell the city’s name.
– Printed matter. Have your business card on hand at all times. Leave some in small stacks at various points around the larger cons where you know you won’t be able to meet everybody (The Associated Writing Programs Conference, Horrorfind Weekend). Print up flyers or subscription forms for your magazine, brochures/catalogs for your company’s products, or handouts about your latest book. Leave them laying around on the free info tables or, better yet, hand them out. Have bookmarks made and leave them next to telephones, on the tables, etc. Posters are excellent but also a very quick way to get in trouble with the hotel hosting the con—double check first to see where/how/when materials can be attacked to walls, pillars, doors, etc. Anything is better than nothing at all, but at the same time get an artist/graphic designer friend or relative to handle design if possible. Better yet, pay to get it designed for you. When it comes to paying extra for color, only do it if you are using a lot of color. Only one or two colors here or there really isn’t worth the expense. Above all, make sure that anybody looking at your printed matter knows what your product is, who you are, and how to order or contact you. And, finally, the most important printed matter: that which advertises the various events you are in. Make sure everybody gets one. As for distribution, it’s best to put out a little at a time at every place the handouts are allowed. Come back multiple times daily to monitor them—this way you can restock as necessary instead of wasting all of your material. Plus, it seems that people are more inclined to “wait until later” to take from large stacks, whereas small piles get used up because people don’t want to miss the opportunity. It also helps to return frequently because your material is likely to get buried over the course of the day unless you are around to dig it out.
– Man a table. Every con has a dealer’s room/book fair as one of the main attractions. Yes, it is an added expense, but think of it as an advertisement on top of an advertisement. Sales are secondary to the added exposure a table gives you. Be sure to engage every passerby in conversation. A good way to do that is to offer them, out of the generosity in your heart, an invitation to one of the events you’re participating in by giving them a corresponding flyer. Make sure your product handouts, bookmarks, business cards, and catalogs are all prominently displayed at the front of the table so those who don’t wish to purchase can easily grab freebies and move on. In the center of those materials should be located a mailing list with spaces for name, postal address, and e-address. A lot of the cons also list the dealers in their programs—even more free advertising. It helps to offer special deals too, such as selling your oldest products together at a discount, and on the last day especially people are looking for deals. Furthermore, you can often get a discount for attending the con if you are a dealer, and can get those “helping at the table” a reduced rate as well. Another type of table is the “book debut” table offered at some cons, usually free of charge. You are only allotted a certain amount of time, but the signing will be included on the schedule of events—another free ad. Again, selling here takes a back seat to engaging passersby or being able to hype the event beforehand. It’s always good to have a second party on hand to assist the author either as a gopher or to help draw people in, manage the flow over ever-loving fans, etc.
– Arrange in advance to meet somebody. You’ll be a stranger at most of these things; unless it is a region-specific event the con will always be held in a new part of the country, so the attendee roster often goes through a drastic turnover. Having a friend around doubles your chances for meeting people, as they’ll be able to introduce you to those they know. Plus—strange as it seems—travelling in a pack seems to turn heads. More importantly you’ll have a team for all of the above events, so long as your friend is willing to help out. We’ve found that having a number of authors sitting at the table with you makes the day far less stressful and attracts a lot more interest for all involved. You can attend each other’s readings, signings, and panels, and the more friends you have involved in this exchange the better the attendance will be, making for more successful events overall. On the financial front, if you can share a room with these people you’ll be set. Reducing your hotel costs by half or even two thirds can make all the difference in the world, allowing you to pay for a table or a party or for all those handouts, etc.
– As you’ll be keeping long hours, and travel can be stressful, you should maintain a high intake of fruits and vegetables (or, if your diet minimizes these foods, at least eat regularly) with minimum alcohol consumption. When it comes to sleep, however, be as greedy as you can—especially when the con is in a different time zone. It’s impossible to predict how your schedule will be altered to fit in events you didn’t know about, or to connect with someone new and exciting. Bearing that in mind always eat/sleep as much as possible! At one con I was on the go 24 hours straight every time I got up…in fact the last two days I didn’t sleep at all. I drank heavily and was in a different time zone, participating in multiple events every day. It’s no wonder that I experienced what most con attendees go through: burn out, a combination of lethargy and sickness following these events. Don’t make the same mistake I did. After note: regarding the massive amounts of alcohol at cons, remember that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and many people (myself included) say some…uh…unintended things when drunk.
– Lastly, prepare a to-pack list. This may seem ridiculously basic, but if you are indeed doing all of the above activities your mind will be going in many different directions at once. Last year I forgot my belt when leaving for the World Horror Convention. This year I forgot my socks—let me tell you, wearing the same pair of socks five days straight is not a good move for those of us with noses. The worst offense was failing to pack a mockup of our visually spectacular special edition book, which would have generated more interest in our table.
While no plan is foolproof, the above strategies should help you to get the best of these large public events, whether they are attended by only 250 hardcore industry types or tens of thousands of fans. More important than anything listed here simply be courteous in every encounter. Remember, you’re attending as a professional and you never know who knows who. As an author all my biggest breaks have come through meeting others who later came to me with opportunities because I had made a good impression on them. Also, it is said that the sales are really made in schmoozing publishers at the after-hours events, but if you take that route try to remember to minimize the drinking. You don’t want to dis a crowd of people the next morning by being too hung over to do your scheduled appearance.
current mood: refreshed
current music: Half Machine Lip Moves by Chrome