DON’T PAY FOR THE PRIVILEGE
There’s something my father taught me when I was a teenager: “Never pay for the privilege of working for someone.” What I’ve added these words of warning is, “Go to shields-full anytime someone tells you it’s ‘good exposure.'”
Whenever I hear that phrase, I think of a quote from the movie Krull. In it, a thief who has already escaped his bonds is asked to serve a king and is offered freedom and fame in return. His reply encapsulates the plight of every creative in one way or another: “Freedom? We have it! And fame? Nah. It’s an empty purse. Count it, go broke. Eat it, go hungry. Seek it, go mad!”
There is real wisdom here, and it can be applied to a lot of industries, but perhaps none so much as the creative ones. I’ve been around the block a few times, and one could make the case that I might have, perhaps a teeny tiny bit, broken this rule once or twice along the way. I’ve seen quite a few folks toss around the word “exposure” like it was cash in a paper bag.
Having said that, the name of this business–the writing business–is getting your face and name and words out in front of people. That, by definition, is exposure.
I’m going to keep this focused on conventions, but the reasoning applies across the board. There are a lot of conventions, big and small and everything in between. As authors, we want to go to these conventions, get in front of attendees, and let them know how awesome our books are.
Now, if you just want to go to your local comic con, stand up on one of the stages, and talk about your books, you’re pretty much going to have to pay for the privilege. The convention owners paid for the space, paid for advertising, managed the volunteers, brought in the actors and comic book artists and, yes, even the authors. They did all of that so they could charge attendees to get through the front doors and discover all the magical wonders that lie beyond.
If you want a piece of that action, you’ll have to participate in some way or your going to have to pay to play. Which gets me to that word “participate.”
Every convention I’ve ever been to had panels. It is customary for the convention guests (which can include authors) to be placed on panels where they get together and talk about a particular subject. The second you and the convention agree that you will be a panelist, then you are working for them. You are giving your time to create additional content that they are selling to their attendees. The second that relationship is established, you should not have to pay for the privilege of working for them.
The exchange is your time for their content, and a full pass to the show, or at least a pass for each day you are on a panel, is a reasonable exchange. Insist upon it, and if the convention is unwilling to make this exchange, then you better have a damn good reason to give away your time. Because giving away your time is exactly like taking twenty dollar bills out of your pocket and handing them to strangers.
Don’t do that. It’s bad for business, and as an author, you are a business owner. Does that make sense? If you’re providing content for them, then they owe you. Get your pound of flesh or walk.
So, does the same thing apply to tables upon which you can sell your books and behind which you can place a banner?
“Why?” you may ask. Well, the exchange of your time for the pass has already taken place. You’ve used up your credit and are at a net zero. Now, I will say that there are some conventions that will provide authors a free table in author alley. Those are usually owners who love to read and understand that most authors are barely scraping by. But in most cases, authors will have to pay for table space to shlep their wares.
The caution I would make here is, know your P & L… that’s Profit and Loss. As I said, as an author, you’re a business owner. If you pay for table space at a show, then you should walk in the door knowing exactly how many books you have to sell in order to break even. That number should always be foremost in your mind every time you talk to a new potential customer about your book or books.
To understand this number, you need to know how much your books cost to print, how much they cost to ship, how much your table space cost, how much your gas cost to get to the show, even how much the hotel room and travel expenses (including meals) cost to set your books up. If you don’t know these things, then figure them the hell out before you ever place a single book on a table at a convention.
There’s a phrase you should look up. You can Google it, and it’s one of the most important things every business owner should know after P & L. That phrase is “cost benefit analysis.” Know your costs and then define your tangible and intangible benefits in cash, exposure, or whatever else is of value to you.
Once you have all those pieces, you can make an honest assessment as to whether or not it’s worth your time, cost, and risks to undertake the endeavor… that includes going to conventions. They’re fun and all, and some authors treat it like a hobby they pay for. I, for one, prefer to treat conventions as a huge facet of my business strategy.
I continue to find ways to limit costs and increase revenues, because as an author, I am a business owner. I make myself very aware of what that actually means.
As an old mentor used to hammer into my brain, “Hope is not a strategy.” Be a business owner and act accordingly. Make good decisions. Reduce costs. Increase revenues. Know what the hell you’re doing and what you’re paying to do it.
And never pay for the privilege of working for someone.
As always, keep writing!