One of my publishers, namely Twisted Core Press, is particularly active on social media. They also have a growing list of writers who are, for the most part, in the early stages of their writing careers. As such, Twisted is very interested in helping their stable get better at their craft, and they understand there is more to a writing career than just developing characters, building worlds, and creating viable plot arcs. We must learn to promote ourselves.
The days of publishers handling all those nasty little tidbits of promotion are just about over. The indie revolution has had a marvelous effect upon the publishing industry (in my opinion, anyway), but there have been a few prices to pay along the way. What most writers these days need to understand is that if they can’t get the word out about their writing, it’s not going anywhere. That means MARKETING.
New authors need to wrap their heads around this little four-letter-word. I know, I know, there are nine letters in “marketing,” but once you start actually doing it, believe me, the odds are it’ll be a four letter word for you too. There are countless books on marketing, and you should probably go read a few. However, rather than take on that particular mountain (and at the behest of Twisted Core), I thought I’d focus on one potential boon to a writer’s marketing strategy: getting face to face with fans.
To date, I’ve participated in a quite a few public or semi-public events that fall into five categories: Fandom/Genre Conventions, Writing Conventions, Writing Seminars, State Fairs/Public Events, and Book Signings. They all have distinct difference, in no small part because of why the patrons are there. Some are focused on writing or even your writing. Others are designed for more general purposes, many of which have nothing to do with writing. The most important thing to remember is that every person you meet is a potential reader, customer, and fan. Always treat them as such.
So how does one “work” an event? For the most part, it’s about being friendly, approachable, and a very good listener. One of the first and most important things I ever learned at Superstars Writing Seminars is, “Don’t be a jerk.” You just never know who the next person you talk to is, or who they know, or what they do. They could be a publisher, or the friend of a publisher. They could be an agent looking for his or her next superstar. They could be that one fan who blogs to 10,000 readers, and if you make a connection with them, you could be placed in front of those 10,000 readers.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the only reason I’m nice to people is because they could advance my career. That’s completely not the point. Nice people create a positive environment around them. Nice people create opportunities through the simple method of being nice. This becomes especially important for writers whose livelihood literally depends upon the goodwill of hundreds or thousands of people. I do my level best to live and breathe this philosophy, whether I’m on FB, at a book signing, or any convention you can think of. It’s not only good business, it’s good living.
The next question to ask is what sorts of events should you do? I can tell you where I started. For me it all began at a local and fairly well respected fandom/writers convention called MileHiCon. At this convention I met Sara Megibow, a local literary agent, and quite a few writers who were on their way up. A number of very good friendships came out of my interactions with the people at MileHiCon, and as a result, I started building a tribe, but more on tribe later. While I was there that first time, I also met folks from the local steampunk scene, and that meeting led to writing for RadioSteam, a radio show that’s still live on the Internet today. Writing gigs and contacts: that’s why you do these.
As your writing career begins to blossom, you need to reach out to the local conventions in your area and do your best to get on panels. That’s one of the best ways to start putting your face in front of the people who read or buy books. However, in order to do that, you need to have at least a few things published. This can be a novel or even a few short stories that you’ve placed in anthologies. As long as you have at least a little bit of street cred, then you have as much right to be up on panels as the next writer. Grated, you could be up there sitting next to people like Connie Willis or Kevin J. Anderson or Brandon Sanderson. Your inputs into any given panel discussion may not carry the same insight or experience as they do, but as a writer, the odds are that you’ll have something to contribute.
Panels are only one place where you have opportunities to make connections. Some conventions will provide (or allow you to buy) a table where you can sell your wares or at least meet and greet potential readers. I recommend that you only pay for a table if you have books to sell and can get at least a partial return on your investment. However, that’s a business decision you should always make with both short and long-term career goals in mind.
A good table setup will have visual displays that clearly indicate who you are, what you do, and, hopefully, the titles you have written or even have for sale. I also recommend that you get a six-foot banner that should be a permanent fixture in your table displays. You can get these for around $100, and if you do them right, they can be well worth the investment. You should have business cards and/or bookmarks. Make sure that all of your marketing collateral includes most if not all of the following information: Author URL, FaceBook URL, Twitter ID, other social media links and tags, email address, latest titles. Your table display and all collateral should include this information in a professional manner and be consistent in how you present it.
I mentioned the notion of tribe before, and public events are one place where having a tribe can pay off. For starters, becoming friends with other writers extends your awareness of new conventions and extends your reach to the people who run them. I’m constantly learning of new conventions and making contact with the convention managers simply because I talk to my writing friends all the time. Additionally, having a few friends at the next convention makes the panels a much better experience both for you and the audience. Being on a panel with members of your tribe makes everyone feel more comfortable and therefore decreases your apprehension. The discussion flows more readily, and as a result the audience gets a better panel experience. And the better experience they have, the more they will remember the authors on that panel. The other benefit that come from having a tribe is that a group of writers can share the costs of participating in conventions, fairs, and book signings. This can include hotel rooms, meals, snacks, and that ever-important author or vendor table. Find ways to reduce your costs, and you’ll find that you’re already ahead of the game.
So what do I look for in a con and is travel worth it for smaller cons? The first question you’ll usually hear is, “What will the foot traffic be for the con? I’ve participated in cons from as small as a couple of hundred people all the way up to Denver Comic Con which claimed over 60,000 attendees. As a panelist, I do my best to have my convention pass provided as compensation for my time. Most conventions allow this, although they may have a minimum number of panels necessary to comp a day or weekend pass. Make sure you ask this question, and remember that they may not offer it unless you specifically ask for it. Your time is valuable, and you are providing valuable content to the convention. This can be a harder sell when you are a lesser-known author, but it’s always worth the question. The other thing to keep in mind at all times is ROI—Return On Investment. Don’t spend a lot of money getting to and paying for a convention unless you are certain you are going to get something out of it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to sell enough books to cover your costs, but that should always be something you strive for. There is inherent value is “face time,” that time you get to spend in front of a captive audience showing them that you are a likable writer with a passion for and knowledge of storytelling. I look at this pretty simply.
For smaller conventions, I generally insist on a free author table where I can display my books, sell them, and promote my brand. This may not necessarily be in their vendor room, but it should at least be on the premises. For larger conventions, the odds are you will have to pay for everything above your pass. Make sure that you’re going to get value for your investment. To give you an example, next year’s Denver Comic Con has a booth cost of $750. I’ll be sharing this expense with three other local authors, all members of my tribe. This past year I actually made money on my table cost. I saved expenses by not staying in a hotel and only eating lunch at the convention. Two of the other authors who participated this year didn’t cover their costs, but it was still valuable to them. Next year we’ll be working even harder to increase our revenues. Part of this will include more and better marketing collateral and more titles to sell. Each of us will be expanding our library of works and expanding the genres in which we write. The intention is to provide more and better titles that appeal to a wider audience.
That’s really what this is all about. You’re running a business, and the key objective is to provide to your customers exactly the product they are looking for. So, what books and swag did we have this year? I currently display and sell four different volumes of the Penny Dread Tales, and anthology series I help produce. I also had my paranormal novella Voices on the Wind, four other anthologies of different genres that I helped produce, my novel Chemical Burn, and my latest work, Out Through the Attic, a collection of my own short stories published by 7DS Books. I generally keep five copies of each on the table and have as many more copies as I can realistically transport to the convention waiting under the table. Keep a good inventory, and hope you sell out every time.
7DS wanted me to answer the following question: things you need nobody would know without someone telling them? I’m going to answer this in several ways. The first thing I recommend is to have some sort of giveaway that passersby need to sign up for. All you really need is an email address (with a disclaimer that you’ll never share this information, but get potential customers to provide you with this information. Use it in the future when you have future titles coming out or new events you’ll be attending. Be able to take both cash and credit card payments.
This means you need to have enough currency to make change. It also means you need a CC processor, and I recommend Square is a very good resource. They provide you with a card-reader that plugs into just about any mobile device and a free application for download that you can use to create an inventory, add items to, and sell product. Their percentage is much better than many of the Merchant Accounts that banks provide, and to date, I’ve never had a problem with Square. The final thing is not something you need, it’s something that you need to do. Engage every potential customer that you can. Be friendly without being pushy. Ask them what they like to read and direct them to titles that might fit the bill. Be encouraging but not oppressive. Remember that they are in your booth because they are curious, interested, and probably have money to spend. Give them a good reason to spend it with you, but don’t be a jerk about it. The key is to talk with them and find out if there is common ground. Once you find that common ground between your writing and their interests, you have a shot at making a sale. However, if there isn’t any common ground, then give them suggestions about other book sellers where they might find what they’re looking for. If you help them, they might just come back later with a friend that you can find common ground with.
One thing I will add is that you do your best to keep things on a professional level when you’re at these events. You may end up with friendships that come out of your associations, but when you’re at the event, remember that you’re at work. This is your job. Do it professionally, politely, and in a cordial manner. If friendships blossom out of your interactions, all the better, but keep your friendships separate from your business affairs.
There is one last thing. Be prepared to sign autographs if you’re selling books. That’s pretty much the whole point of selling at public venues, and you’ll be surprised at how many people ask for your autograph even if they’ve never heard of you. And if someone asks you for your autograph, be sure to ask if the customer wants a personalized autograph or not. If they do, ask them their name and how to spell it, otherwise, just sign your name on the half-title page at the beginning of the book. In the case of anthologies, you can sign next to your story on the table of contents as well as on the page where your story starts in the book.
I could go on and on about public events, marketing, and how to be successful at them. Keep in mind that I’m still learning, and you will too as you go along. Being a writer is always a work in progress. The only thing I would add is that you give some consideration to your branding. Be consistent in at least one aspect of your appearance and demeanor. For me, it’s been the mohawk. I have the illuminated mohawk on my business cards, banners, and now even on the backs of my books. I’ve taken the one thing people are sure to remember about me and turned it into a key facet of my brand. There’s much more to branding, but you want to have something that people will remember you by. Neil Gaiman uses the black leather jacket. Kevin J. Anderson uses a black suit. Peter J. Wacks frequently has a scarf or his burgundy sport coat. G.R.R. Martin has his black hat. If ever there was a time for mnemonic devices, it’s when you’re on display at public events. You want people to recognize you at a glance, if at all possible, because that will have tremendous dividends down the road, especially as your career takes off.
I hope this helped, and feel free to shoot me questions via my website or on FaceBook. My doors aren’t always open, but I’m not all that hard to track down. Best of luck, and above all else, keep writing.