Writer in Public: My First Convention Selling Books

It's taken about seven years working as an author (four of those years selling stories online) for it to finally happen, but this weekend, after many months of careful planning, I made my first public appearance as an author. It was at Gem City Comic Con in Dayton, where I teamed up with my dear friend and cover artist for my Colt Coltrane series, Justin Wasson.

The Dynamic Duo! (Photo by artist Scott D.M. Simmons)
First of all, why a comic convention? I'm not a comic book artist (or visual artist, period), nor am I a comic book author. I don't even write superhero fiction in novel form (like my friend Ian Healy). Well, there are a couple reasons why I chose Gem City as my public debut, but let me first say that if you are a relatively unknown author like me and you have a concept that would appeal to the same audience who enjoys comics and geek/fandom culture, you really shouldn't exclude these venues for means of self-promotion. But these are the two main reasons I went with the comic con:

1. From what I've witnessed so far, Dayton isn't much for supporting indie authors. Or if it is, I haven't found the nucleus for it just yet. There are a couple decent indie stores and one expo event at the local community college, but getting into a store for a signing gig has proven challenging, and it isn't quite the venue that has felt comfortable for me being so unknown to the general public. I've worried that if I staked myself at a table in someone's shop all by myself, I wouldn't be able to make the sale. On the other hand, the indie artist and geek community here is huge, and there are several game and comic book stores in the area. I've watched the Gem City con grow by leaps and bounds year after year, and I felt more at home with a convention format, where people aren't expected to show up just for me, but for the event as a whole. In other words, it was a good proving ground with minimal risk for someone who is a virtual unknown in her own community.

We're all in it together... (Photo by the folks behind Derby City Comic Con)
2. While Colt Coltrane and the Lotus Killer is not a super hero book, it is pulpy and throwback, and its cover was illustrated by a well-known figure on the local comic book scene who was kind and generous enough to let me ride his coattails into this world. When I first devised this series, I had a hope that it could eventually branch out into movies and graphic novels. Its content is aimed directly at the same people who enjoy comics, teenagers or older readers alike, and this venture was intended as a small step to see if the concept could appeal to people enough for me to develop this universe further. Did it? I'll get to that in a second.

Now that I've laid down all the prologue stuff, let me break this down into chunks, because I've been through a bit of a whirlwind and my brain is teeming with stuff.

I. Prepping for the Con

First of all, I designed Colt Coltrane to be a small book, like any good dimestore throwback pulp book should be. It's around 55K words, worked out to only be about 175 print pages, and therefore only cost about $2.70 to print through CreateSpace. This made getting a decently sized inventory inexpensive. Given the size of this particular event, I had 40 books printed. I used six of them for GoodReads giveaways, leaving me with 34. If you're attending your first local convention, you probably won't need quite so many books, but I figure it's never a bad thing having a physical inventory left over for other small events or giveaways.

Also, because I was teaming with Justin and wanted to see more of his artwork in action, I wanted to have him do a poster print for the show. I gave him free reign, only specifying that it be "action-packed." We would then sell them for $10 each, and the lion's share would go to Justin because it was his artwork and I wanted him to make money off it because to be honest, the guy is working far below his market value as is on this project. While I didn't expect we'd sell very many at all at this show, I wanted it to be another seed that might sprout later in this growing universe. Here is the concept he came up with, title and all:

In turn, because I was so inspired by his art, I did what I do best. I wrote a short story by the same title, which you can get both for Kindle and on Smashwords. For the con, I printed up little free download coupons for people, because people like free stuff. I also included bookmarks and a little handout sheet basically explaining who I am. Finally, I made two laminated 8 1/2 x 11 signs, one about STRINGS with some review blurbs, and the other a price sheet. Printing flyers, bookmarks, signs, and coupons like this didn't cost much at all just going through the local FedEx Office store. You can easily do all of that for under $50. If you have artwork, that's really on a per-case basis. Office Max did my printing on 11x17 glossy card stock, and I got 30 of them made for about $38, but any local office store with a print shop can do the same for about as much. Shop around and seek out coupons for maximum discounts.

Additionally, I asked my publisher if he wouldn't mind sending up some copies of STRINGS for the event, and he was happy to do so. While it is a bit of an oddball offering for a place like a comic con, it represents me as an author, and I wanted people to get the whole package of who I am, so they could see that I'm not just publishing my own work, and that I'm a "legitimate" author who's been doing this awhile and knows what she's doing. And if I managed to sell a copy or two, all the better. If you don't have a traditionally published book to offer people, please don't let that stop you from doing something like this. This is just one of those "if you got it, flaunt it" situations. The success of the sale rests solely in how you present the product, and if your self-published work is performing well on Amazon, make up a sign that boasts that.

With all that in hand, I was ready for the big day.

II. Making the Sale a.k.a. The Hardest Part (at least for me)

Going into this, I figured if I could sell maybe five or ten books over the course of the weekend, I'd be happy. I set the bar extremely low because I just wasn't sure anyone was going to want to take a chance and part with their hard-earned money on a nobody author with a completely unknown property when there were all these amazing artists who could draw all their favorite comic book or movie characters. I just wanted to sell SOMETHING.

But my friend, bestselling author Shewanda Pugh, slapped some sense into my head a few days before and told me I needed to SELL the books. And she was right. That kind of defeatist thinking doesn't sell anything. Even so, my sales acumen has always been a bit on the timid side. I've always taken the more oblique approach of making people like ME and at that point, maybe they'll want to buy what I'm selling. I'm terrified of the idea of pressuring people to buy something directly, and I have very little practice pitching my own work to the public as is. It takes a healthy ego to do something like that, and mine is still in the preemie phase. I live in awe of people who persist in the face of a customer's uncertainty or even a downright "no," turning their charisma up to a ten until that person says "yes." No one awed me more at this than Justin. Here is a guy who can draw any character from any medium by request for ten bucks a pop. He also had some pre-sketches done that people could buy for the same price, in addition to a portfolio full of posters people could choose from. Through his personality and persuasive sales prowess (in addition to his talent on full display), he closed sale after sale (many from people who initially expressed no interest, or who said they'd be back later and actually DID come back later because his work made an impression on them), and as a result he spent 90% of the two days at the con drawing until his eyes crossed.

This was only the beginning...See more sketches here.
In addition to that, Justin developed a sales pitch for Colt Coltrane that went something like this: "My friend Allison here wrote the amazing book, Colt Coltrane and the Lotus killer, a 1940s sci-fi noir. Think "Gangster Squad" meets "I-Robot." That perked people's ears up immediately. From there I would pipe up and tell people that Justin did the cover art, and that he developed a print poster, on which I based a short story by the same title. We also added other catchy phrases ("Murder, Mayhem, and Mechs!") or ("Gumshoes, Dames, and Robots!"). I also came up with the phrase, "My take on a dimestore pulp novel, with a modern twist." And it worked. Again and again and again. I think this, combined with the great cover and the fair price of $6, made it an easy sell.

Justin and I both make the sale!
STRINGS was a bit more of a challenge, but I took to using my platform as an established horror author for a selling point. I would gesture toward Strings and say, "This is my bread and butter, my bestselling traditionally published horror/thriller." I would let them look at the review blurbs and feed them the requisite "Stephen King meets Thomas Harris/Silence of the Lambs" comparison, and then I would point to COLT and say, "This is my passion project, the reason I am at Gem City Comic Con today . . ."  In several of those cases, people bought BOTH books for $15. Many of the people who ended up buying Strings were just attracted to the cover as they were walking along, and that alone would bring them to our table. By the end of the con, I managed to sell all of the Strings copies my publisher shipped up here. At a comic book convention, of all places. I consider that a huge boost that validates this book more and more in my eyes. As for Colt? I sold 2/3 of my inventory, a lot more than the ten I'd originally hoped to sell. We also sold a couple posters and donated another one to a drawing.

III. Final Thoughts and What's Next . . .

The whole experience of a dyed-in-the-wool introvert having to interact with hundreds of people non-stop for two days is draining on a level I haven't experienced in awhile. But it was worth every second of exhaustion. Getting to sit next to one of my favorite people, cracking jokes and watching him draw pictures, was one of the best times I've ever had. Not only that, but I was neighbors with other artists who awed the hell out of me with their talent and their hilarious jokes. These are my kind of people.

Stephanie and Sean Forney RULE! (Photo by Scott D.M. Simmons, who ALSO rules)

I sat next to Dave Aikins, the awesome illustrator of many Dora and Spongebob books
I'm also feeling a glimmer of hope for my future as a writer after this weekend. Not only did I manage to sell the books that had the full backing of my publisher, but I also managed to sell the books that only had the full backing of myself and the artist who put his name on them. People got a look at the whole package and decided to give it a shot. It seems that Colt Coltrane, my little pet project that I've struggled to get off the ground and keep in the air, might have a pair of legs after all, and I feel a much bigger impetus to write another book in the series so I can have a larger selection at future conventions. Not only that, but based on how well Strings performed, when my sci-fi book The Last Supper comes out this summer, I'm feeling supremely confident it will do well on the convention circuit as well. People seemed excited about it when I teased it to them over the weekend.

I'm not sure if the mathematics are currently in my favor to hit a larger convention with just the selection I have right now. For one thing, larger conventions involve more travel expense. They also mean I need more inventory, and the tables are more expensive. This doesn't rule them out completely, of course, but I think I can only make it financially practical if I can offer more things for sale than just two books and a poster. I'm definitely doing Gem City again, though. I will also look into other local events and might step it up to the cons in Cincy or Columbus in 2015. Doing two or three shows a year seems like a good way to get some public exposure and to further ingrain myself as a part of the local artist community. Not only that, but it's just nice as an author to actually make money on the spot. Writers know what I'm talking about when I say that's a very rare thing to experience, especially if you don't do a lot of public appearances.

I advise people who have the right kind of material for events like this to get out there and become a part of your local fandom movements however you can. They are full of friendly and generous souls who are eager to lap up something new and exciting, and you will also see some awesome costumes, adorable families, and have the time of your life watching people express their love of geek culture. And the events organizers and vendors are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.

Finally, this weekend wouldn't have been nearly as special without the dear friends and family who came out to show their support. Liz and Brad, who drove all the way up from Lexington--I've known them online for many years, but finally got to meet them in person! My friend Zach, whom I also haven't seen in about sixteen years, and who has been waiting forever for me to have a public event so he could come buy a signed book. My dear friend Matt, whom I have known since I was a wild eighteen-year-old child, also came by and picked up some books and a long overdue hug. My awesome mom and dad, who are just always plain awesome. My wonderful husband and beautiful kids for whom I am doing all of this. Natalie wants her own table at a convention one day.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite things I saw all weekend: the History Channel "aliens" guy and his little girl "Ash"-ley. Parenting done right.

Until next year, Gem City. Shine on.