Lessons for Fellow Convention Rookies
Over the past year I’ve made it a point to start attending more cons. So far I’ve done Comicpalooza, CONtraflow, Con Carolinas, and I’ve applied to have a vendor table at Denver Comic Con on the weekend of 6/30-7/2. It has been a ton of fun, as well as a great learning experience. Now I am by no means a con expert, I’d say I’m still firmly in the n00b category and will be for some time. However, I’ve been lucky enough to share several of those cons with Authors & Dragons crew, one of whom is a damn master of conventions: John Hartness. I’ve learned quite a bit from working with John, and going to these things in general. So, while I’m still new enough that some of these lesson still feel like revelations, I thought I would jot them down for other authors and artists just starting down their path of the con scene.
1) Buy a vendor table. As much fun as doing the panels are, they only occupy so much time in your trip. And while it’s tempting to go watch other panels and absorb the con’s stuff non-stop, that’s not totally fair to the folks who came out to see you. They might really want to say hello, but your panels all conflict with others that are higher up on their list. Having a vendor table means you have a checkpoint where people can swing through to get signings, ask questions, or just say hello. It also gives you a place to be between panels, one that’s more productive than just heading back to your hotel room. Remember, we go to these things for the readers, so being as visible as possible makes things easier on them. Plus, if you can sell a few books you can take some of the fiscal strain off attending the con, and that makes going to more of them down the line a lot easier.
2) Bring bags. I don’t mean branded bags, although yes of course that would be cool. Just plastic grocery store ones will work fine though. I’ve seen many a person walking around with an arm-load of stuff they bought from a vendor at the point of near-dropping, only for John to pluck out a plastic bag and give it to them, saving the day. Not only does this make things easier for the guests, and for the people who buy his books, but it also allows for a natural discussion to start, during which the person might find out that they like the genre John writes in and want to check out his works. Bags should really be a basic staple, yet time and time again few vendors seem to have them (me included) so it’s worth considering this detail and keeping a stock on hand.
3) Be responsible. A con schedule is an important thing, it holds a lot of people’s time in the balance. Guests might be showing up to a panel just for you, or another author, excited to hear them speak. If you arrive late, holding things up, you’re taking away that time from the other authors and all the guests who want to see them. I made a lot of jokes about drinking a beer during all my panels at Con Carolinas, but that is A) Pretty much on brand for what folks expect from me, and B) was done carefully to fight a hangover, not get sloppy drunk in front of people. I haven’t seen a lot of panel guests blow things off, but when it happens it can be a real bummer. I ended up doing a two-person panel at one con when all the others skipped out, and you could see how disappointed the guests were. Treat the time of everyone with respect, especially if you want to go back to that con next year.
4) Have displays. I’ve been skating by mostly on the fact that I can tower over the rest of the room and have a voice that is a level of loud my parents called “please shut up”. But even that won’t last much longer. I’m already ordering table aprons and a banner display for my next few cons, because in the sea of vendors it’s important to stand out. Not just in the eye-catching, lure-in-a-new-reader kind of way, but so that the folks who might enjoy your work don’t pass by without ever noticing you’re there. Remember: the goal is to make it as easy as possible on the people who want to see you. Good displays are one more step of that, and I’ve watched firsthand the difference they can make at various author tables. I’m not saying go all out and blow a ton of cash upfront, if you need to make your own displays that’s okay, just have something that makes you noticeable for the sake of the existing readers and the prospective ones.
5) Network. Go to con parties. Talk to other vendors/authors/artists/everything. Make friends. A con is one of the rare places where other people in your line of work are all gathered and you can talk shop with them. There is so much to learn, about the business or the cons themselves, so tempting as it can sometimes be to hit the bed after a long day at a con, push through and go out to the recreational stuff. You may meet the cohost of your next podcast, or your next cover artist, or just someone you have a good chat with about the state of Kindle Unlimited. It’s always worth your time to be friendly and meet new folks, so put in the effort.
6) If possible, go with a group. I’ve yet to do a solo con where I had a vendor table, but I already know when it happens it’s going to be harder than the ones I’ve done with the Authors & Dragons gang. There are a lot of reasons to attend cons with other authors, fiscal being one of the most immediate that jump to mind. You can split hotel rooms, tables, and even travel costs in some circumstances. That takes a lot of the burden off of going to cons, meaning you can accommodate more of them. Aside from that, there are also logistical benefits. Having friends there meant we always had someone to cover our tables when we were on a panel, rather than having to shut it all down every time. And, of course, it’s often just nice to have friends around to spend down time with. I know this one won’t be viable for all people in all circumstances, but if you can head out as a group then I think it will make the experience as a whole a lot more fun.
I’m sure I’ll have more to add when I’ve gotten much more con experience, but ideally this makes things a little easier on you folks taking your first trip. Hope I end up at a con near everyone soon!