Why Do Authors Need To Go To Cons?



On Monday we leave for Finnish shores. Worldcon 75 here we come! I'm laughing/crying at the logistic nightmare ahead of us: 5 cricket bags full of books! Between the early rise to catch the plane and the dragging of luggage, by the time we reach Helsinki, we'll feel like Sisyphus in the Underworld. However, the plan is to return home much lighter :) so please, make our authors (and our back) happy and adopt a book!

Conventions are a big part of an author's life. I cannot imagine being where I am today without my con experience. Specifically, I am referring to book conventions/events, rather than traditional book fairs like London or Frankfurt, and definitely not ComicCons, which are a different matter altogether. The ones I go to are primarily about SF, Fantasy and Horror.

That said, I also realise that I am lucky to be able to attend, as they are also one of the biggest expenses in an author's yearly schedule, which not everyone can afford, for several reasons. And what if you can't go? What will people think?

With Worldcon upon us, I want to share my con experience with others and why I think that authors should go to conventions if they can. We'll look at Pros and Cons as well as tips for when money is an issue.

PROs of Conventions

1. Friendship. I met some amazing people over the course of the years, who are now close friends. I went to their weddings, birthday parties, dinners, etc. Some of these friends also happen to be talented writers, editors, publishers, and I realised pretty quickly that no matter how established they were, they always found time for a chat and good advice.

Most importantly, these friends love what I love: the speculative fiction world; the writing of it, the reading of it. It. They love IT. You can bounce ideas off each other, ask for beta reading, support each other's projects. It's all very positive for me, and I am grateful to have met so many amazing people.

This show of support is very important for authors, believe me. Writing brings self-doubt and you need your friends to be there for you, to nudge you along the way. Other friends, generally outside the con world, don't all read my books or engage with my Luna socials, even though they know that my life revolves around Luna these days. But that's OK. I just remember that friends join your path at different times in your life, and fulfil different friendship needs - I can't possibly be talking about electric sheep and Delta Quadrant ALL the time, can I? ... -_-

2. Networking

It is at cons that people learn about your work. Self-published authors don't have the same budget as a publisher when it comes to marketing, so a live event is a perfect place to start. My first ever trader's table, at Eastercon 2013 in Bradford, had 3 books on it. I had bought a nice stand-up banner, made some bookmarks, business cards, carrier bags, and introduced myself to everybody that passed by my table.

I was so green, that when a couple of well-known writers stopped by for a chat, I actually asked them what they did for a living... clueless as I was *groan*. In my defence, writers are not like actors - you don't always get to see their faces.


Aside from exposing yourself to that world, and sharing your expertise, you also link with people who can enrich your writing experience - editors, writers, reviewers, beta readers. It is like the Roman Forum. You need to be there to keep your finger on the pulse.

And since I'm never one for baby steps, at that first convention I also took part in the programme, running what is now my regular writing workshop for younger writers. Proper commando that I am.

Here is where you build your reputation, your fan base; where those who buy your books get to meet you and talk to you. And if you can get subsidised by your publisher, bonus!

3. Satisfaction :)

At cons you sell your books. Nay, you SIGN your books! This brings satisfaction and recognition, as well as some money. Most con goers love to read, and they are kind towards new authors. Be yourself, share your experience and you will find that people are more than willing to give you a chance. Retaining a customer is up to you and your writing skills, of course.

4. Travelling

Cons take place all over the UK and, of course, there are Eurocons and Worldcons. If you love travelling, this is perfect. When money is tight, and you have to choose between a holiday or a con, you could make your con the holiday, by adding a few extra days for sightseeing, for example.

5. The Dealers Secret Club (not as dodgy as it sounds!)

It's unspoken, but it's there. Dealers are the people I often spend most of my time with at cons. I often manage to see NOTHING except the traders' hall and the bar in the evening. I generally leave to attend Luna's programme items and launches and, if I'm lucky, some evening panels.

We normally access the con before other people and end up helping to set the whole room up, not just our table. It's hard work manning a table for 8 hours straight, but it's part of my job, and I love it! We look after each other's wares and generally just look out for each other. Friends will pass by your table to bring you sustenance, allow you toilet breaks (before your bladder reaches bagpipe levels), and even a pint if you behave. ;)

CONs of Conventions

1. Expenses.

As you establish yourself and your body of work grows, more income will be generated during conventions. But it takes time and, of course, writing time.

Every con I go to means starting at a deficit. No two ways about it.

For every con, you need a budget. These days, a 3-day con will need an average of £400 between hotel, food and drinks.

Registration ranges between £50-120. The table can vary from the £40-50 of Eastercon/Fantasycon, to £100 of Nine Worlds Geek Fest, to the £180 of a Worldcon - and that's for the same size table. Then you need to buy stock to sell; perhaps some marketing material, carrier bags, banners. And of course, petrol, flights, train tickets, you name it.

To make it viable, you also need to offer new products. The people who go to these national cons are mostly regulars, and you can't really sell them the same book twice, unless they are buying a present. If you have a table just for your books, this means that you need to write and keep at it, or space your appearances out. I have published one book a year for the last 8 years, and that's hard going when you have other things to do. Of course, now that I have finished the Tijaran Tales series, and my table is Luna's table, the pressure is less, as I publish other authors and sell their books too.

Finally, let's not forget the book launch. Should you decide to take that route, it is customary to offer some refreshments. It's not a rule, but we all do it, just like a host would. I did it when I was launching for myself, and I do it for Luna's book launches. The drinks price range is £100-150 for a one hour slot, unless you only offer soft drinks, in which case it will be substantially less. In my mind I see it as a nice thing to do, whether the drinks be soft or strong. I'm celebrating, I want you to celebrate with me and I am very happy to pour you a glass to toast the occasion.

"What if people only come to get a free drink?" Let them - it's perfectly fine. They are listening to what you have to say; they are learning about a new book and a new author; besides, audience count is always good for morale. It's all good.

It took me some time to recoup the table money, then the table and registration money. Currently working towards Luna's next target. And will I ever be able to recoup the whole con budget from the sales at a con? I couldn't say right now; I know it's possible, but we are only 3 years old. On the other hand, you may meet someone at a con who, in time, becomes your customer - even if the sale wasn't made there and then, your meeting worked as an investment.

Oh. The plus side to this is that you can offset expenses (except for booze!) in your tax return, so keep every single receipt.

TIPs to save money for Self-Published Authors

A) If you are a self-pub, with only one or two books out, perhaps you could double up with someone else to share the expenses. B) Often cons offer a self-pub table, where you share with similar authors. Find out if the table handler takes a commission or if you simply have to contribute towards the cost of the table. C) To save money initially, you can skip the whole table/stock/marketing material thing and try to get on the programme. It would give you some exposure, keeping the costs down.

D) Get a day registration only, to ease yourself in and meet new friends.

E) Save money, like you would for anything else, and try to make one con a year, perhaps one near your home, so you can save on the hotel.

F) Bring food and drink from home to save buying these items at the hotel.

G) Find a shorter event, closer to home, to start with. The big annual cons like Eastercon, Fantasycon, Nine Worlds, etc. run for several days and are held in big hotels to cater for numbers. Why not try 1-day events, such as Edge-Lit (or its Christmas equivalent, Sledge-Lit), or BristolCon.

H) Find a book festival near you. They often need volunteers for the programme and stalls to sell books.

I) If you can only afford one event a year, pick the con most relevant to what you write.

J) Again, once you identify the con most suited to your genre, make that your regular annual occasion. It will be easier to network if you become a regular of a particular con.

K) Associations, like the BSFA or the BFS, run regular events every year. You could start with those - a cheaper way to introduce yourself to the community.

2. If the author isn't there...

As we've established, cons aren't cheap for authors. By now you'll have realise that I love going to cons and I try my best to attend as many as I can (as an author and as Luna), but of course it comes at a price: financially, time, etc.. In the end, I run a business, so the number of cons I go to has of course increased since I was just an author. I am now responsible for other people. As a small business, I am not at the level where I can subsidise all my authors to attend, but at the very least I can be there, promoting their books.

So, what happens if the author doesn't show? We were having this chat on FB, and one author voiced the concern that, if you are already established, fans can feel let down and organisers can think that you don't care anymore which, we know, is not necessarily the truth.

And, if you are a new author, you simply remain in the shadows, outside of a most useful network.

How can an author get around this obstacle? Aside from the tips I have listed above, if you can't make the live event at all, even once, then my advice is to be visible on social networks.

Establish your website and add a blog or even a vlog. Be active. Engage on Twitter or Facebook, where most con goers are. Make use of Goodreads, or LibraryThing. The cons we've mentioned in this article all have annual subscriptions, forums and groups. Join the ones which are relevant to you, so as to not waste precious time, and make yourself known this way.

It's not quite the same as going to a con, but it's a start. And when you do make it to one, you'll already have friends waiting to meet you.

The Dark Side of discounting bulk sales.

Just as I finished writing this article, Luna author and acclaimed fantasy writer, Juliet McKenna, brought a Philip Pullman article to our attention. It highlights, indirectly, one of the reasons why authors cannot always go to conventions, even if they want to.

I don't want to go off topic right now, but it is worth pointing out that making a living out of writing is actually very challenging these days, and funnelling money into cons becomes increasingly hard.

And, since we are discussing authors attending cons, well, if the money doesn't come in, it's not going to be easy, is it?

Briefly, Pullman is the president of the Society of Authors and has spoken out before against the damage created by discounting bulk sales to places like book clubs and supermarkets. Not only does it hugely diminish the money earned by an author, he says, but it also turns books into a cheap commodity.

One argument is that the collapse of the NBA, the Net Book Agreement, is to blame for this discounting of bulk sales, and a reintroduction in some form of such an agreement could help make up some lost ground. In a nutshell, the NBA, established in 1899, is a price-fixing deal between publishers and booksellers to protect the wide range that is published and stocked in shops. It prevents booksellers offering discounts on "net" price books. As you know, this is no longer the case. We are talking here about an 80-90% discount, not a regular sale. The snowball effect touches everyone as the prices are cut: independent retailers, small publishers, authors, indie authors, etc. are all affected.

To conclude.

Cons are a big YES for me, a chance to meet like-minded people, stand out and be known. And, in today's packed market, it's no small feat.

Let me know if you have any questions and feel free to add advice or comments.

Thank you!

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