A Convention Primer with Author Wesley Southard

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Joe Sullivan: I think some newer authors might be overwhelmed by the idea of going to a convention to sell books, when the sign-up process is often fairly straightforward, and can be a great avenue for increasing your yearly sales. In a non-pandemic year, how many books would you say you’re able to sell in person at events, and typically how many events do you attend?

Wesley Southard: I’ll start off by saying everyone’s mileage will vary. I’ve been doing conventions for several years now, usually three to five a year, and most of them are local to where I live. But with 2021 being as wide open as it was for my schedule, I decided to roll the dice and see what I could do and how far I could reach. Though a few were cancelled last minute and one was eventually turned into a virtual show, I attended fifteen conventions/book signing events this year. With this, I started asking for Southwest Airlines gift cards for Christmas and my birthday (both only a month apart), which was a massive help in curbing the outrageous cost of plane tickets.

2021 was also a huge year for learning how to talk to strangers at these shows. Believe me, it’s not easy and it’s not always all that comfortable, especially if you’re an introvert, as most authors tend to be. I tabled nearly half my shows this year with author John Wayne Comunale. If you know anything about John Wayne, he’s a character. But despite the rowdiness and silly demeanor he can have at the table, the man knows how to sell books. My shows with him started back in February in Atlanta, Georgia and he spent the weekend showing me the right way to engage with passersby, how to have a short but sweet pitch for every book on the table, the proper pricing for each unit, deals that can be cut depending on the number of books purchased, and the small talk that can be made while signing books. It’s very hard work, despite the smiling face you put on behind the table. Conventions can be fun, but they are indeed work, especially when you’re busy.

As for the number of books sold, it all depends on the show and how hard you’re willing to hustle. Look, the sad reality is most people aren’t going to horror conventions to buy books. They’re there to get celebrity autographs and to buy t-shirts and toys. Like it or not, that’s the reality of it. We as authors, for better or worse, have to sing for our supper (as John Wayne puts it). You have to be open to saying “Hi. How’s it going?” to every single person who walks past your table. More often than not, people will say hi back (or throw you a weary side-eye) as they continue on their way, but if you catch the right person at the right moment, they’ll stop and talk. Once they start to ask about what’s on the table, then you turn on your salesman mode and get to work. Before this year I was lucky to sell maybe twenty books the whole weekend. After picking up the ticks of the trade, my normal weekends have more than doubled to between forty and sixty books a show. It all just depends on the event and how willing you are to bust your ass for the sales.

Do you normally table conventions with other authors? Obviously, it lowers the price of the table if you’re splitting it. What are some of the other benefits of tabling with another author?

I table with other authors all the time, my main three being my friends Somer Canon, Wile E. Young, and John Wayne Comunale. The biggest benefits are absolutely cutting the costs of the table and, if they don’t mind, sharing a hotel room and splitting that bill as well. Traveling out of town for conventions is extremely expensive. If you’re friends with someone who is willing to go fifty-fifty with tables and accommodations, that’s a huge win.

Being able to create price deals with your tablemate is also a big plus. I normally have each book at my table at $12 apiece, but the deal I offer is three for $30. It’s been my experience people will either buy one book or three books. Rarely will they buy just two. When they do that, I causally let them know for $6 more they can get one more book. That usually gets them. When you’re sharing a table, both can offer the same deal. I’ve found more often than not when the three for $30 deal is in place, the potential buyer will get books from each author, which is obviously a win for both parties.

How do you price your books? Above/below what they sell for online? Do you do bundle deals? How many of your titles do you typically put out?

Like I said in the previous answer, my con prices are $12 or three for $30. For most of my books that’s around the price that’s set by the publisher on Amazon.

Most shows I’ll bring copies of everything I have. With my current catalog I have a wide variety in styles and story types, so when I ask someone who their favorite authors are or what type of stories they enjoy, I might have something in that very wheelhouse.

What are some of the additional items you sell, giveaway, or find useful for decorating your selling space? Do you bother with email/newsletter sign-ups?

I’ve known other authors that sell various items like t-shirts and art prints at their tables, but I don’t have anything for sale other than my books. There’s nothing wrong with having extra items; I don’t have any myself. Just be careful not to overwhelm potential buyers with too much on your table. Make the focus your books, that’s what’s most important. I imagine once you start to gain a name for yourself and you find you’re getting repeat buyers when you’re doing the same shows year after year, then maybe having some swag for sale wouldn’t be a bad idea.

As far as giveaways, it’s extremely crucial to have some sort of custom bookmark to hand out to anyone and everyone that approaches your table. It needs to have your name, website, social media, etc. You have to make yourself as easy to find online as possible, that way, even if they don’t buy from you right then and there and end up shoving your bookmark in their pocket, they can hopefully find you and your work at some point in the future. Bookmarks are very easy to make yourself. Most websites that make them offer a template that’s very easy to clip art into and customize however you want. I personally make mine on www.uprinting.com. I’ve been using them for years and have always had good results.

It’s also beneficial to have some sort of signage on or around your space. I have a couple of vinyl banners of varying sizes that I put on the front of my table with my name and some pictures of my book covers. Again, they’re easy to make and fairly inexpensive on a site like www.signs.com.

I occasionally make stickers with my books covers that I add with the sale of that particular book.

Though I’ve never done a newsletter signup, I don’t see how it can hurt having it there if you have one.

Are there any atypical places you table at that you’ve found rewarding?

I normally try to vend at conventions and book-related events, but I’ve found myself a few times in the past selling books at some pretty odd places. I’ve vended at a drive-in event in the Harrisburg, PA area the last few years and have not done too bad. I’ve sold on a street corner in the downtown area of my city during a First Friday celebration but didn’t have much success. The weirdest place I’ve ever sold my wares was at a local pet store. My wife was friends with the owner and they were looking for some Halloween-related vendors for their Spooky Pet Photo Op day. I was not into the idea whatsoever. In fact, my wife had to drag me there to do it. I thought it was going to be a massive waste of time, but strangely it turned out to be a great event. I sold a ton of books. You just never know until you try.

What are your personal top-5 conventions/selling venues around the country?

Much like I said before, everyone’s mileage will vary on what works for you and what doesn’t. I’ve had great success at some shows and left happy as a pig in a shit pit, and others I found myself standing around for hours with absolutely no one giving me the time of day. My personal opinion is try to find shows in markets that aren’t completely over-saturated with horror-themed conventions. Keep in mind that shows like Monster Mania and Days of the Dead have been known to host shows in the same venue in the same city two, sometimes three times a year. The more shows they have, the less likely people will spend money in the vendor room. And keep this in mind as well: the higher profile the guests the show gets, the less time and money patrons will be spending on merchandise. I was at a show back in September where Robert Englund and Christopher Lloyd were the guests of honor. Suffice to say, the vendor rooms were a ghost town, despite there being lines around the hotel to get in. In my experience, finding shows that only happen once a year in that city, that aren’t getting celebrities who are still considered A-list by Hollywood standards is the way to go.

I’ve been a regular at Scares That Care Weekend in Williamsburg, Virginia for years now because I love to support the charity and the show is extremely author friendly, with tons of programming for writers to be involved in such as panels and readings. I found probably my best show of the year was at the Full Moon Tattoo and Horror Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. I don’t know what it was about that show, but John Wayne and I barely had time to breathe or use the restrooms with the constant flow of people coming to our table. I tried both the Kansas City, Missouri and Minneapolis, Minnesota Crypticons this year and was pleasantly surprised with the sales at both. One of my favorite shows I’ve vended at the last two years has been Living Dead Weekend in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. It’s held in the Monroeville Mall, where the 1978 Dawn of the Dead film was shot. The show is always well attended and run, and afterwards you can take a tour of the George A. Romero museum they have set up inside the mall. Again, conventions are nothing if not a test in trial and error. Try whatever show you can. See what works for you. I have shows I did this year that I won’t do again because it wasn’t a great experience, and that’s okay. Everywhere you go your goal is to create new readers. Treat every sale and every book going into that reader’s hands as an opportunity to grow your name and your brand. Try to take every positive you can from every show you do and use that to keep climbing up the ladder.

Wesley Southard is a 2× Splatterpunk Award-Winning author of ONE FOR THE ROAD, RESISTING MADNESS, CRUEL SUMMER & WHERE THE DEVIL WAITS. THE FINAL GATE (with Lucas Mangum) out now!

Check out his links here.

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