Thursday, January 18, 2018

10 Things You Need to Know About Going to Conventions as a Writer

John G. Hartness
By John G. Hartness, @johnhartness

Part of the Indie Author Series

JH: Conventions offer writers a variety of opportunities for both sales and valuable networking. John G. Hartness shares tips on making the most out of a convention. 

John G. Hartness is a teller of tales, a righter of wrong, defender of ladies’ virtues, and some people call him Maurice, for he speaks of the pompatus of love. He is also the best-selling author of EPIC-Award-winning series The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 2015 has seen John launch a new dark fantasy series featuring Quncy Harker, Demon Hunter.

In his copious free time John enjoys long walks on the beach, rescuing kittens from trees and recording new episodes of his podcast the Writer’s Journey, where he interviews other writers and explores their journey to writing success. John is also a contributor to the Magical Words group blog. An avid Magic: the Gathering player, John is strong in his nerd-fu and has sometimes been referred to as “the Kevin Smith of Charlotte, NC.” And not just for his girth.

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Take it away John...

It seems like every weekend, there’s another convention, comic con, writer’s workshop, or book festival somewhere. I should know, I’m either prepping for one or recovering from one right now. I have over thirty convention appearances schedule for this year, and we haven’t hit January 10th yet! 

Obviously I find value in attending conventions as both an author and a small press publisher, but if you’re just getting started going to cons, it can be a daunting prospect. So here are ten things (out of hundreds!) that I wish I knew before I booked my first convention.

1. There are a lot of different types of convention out there. 

There’s the one-day comic book conventions, which can be a great way to get your feet wet and get you used to working a table. These are usually less expensive, as the table fee is less, and they usually don’t require a hotel stay. You just show up, put books on the table, and sell all day. I’ll do at least half a dozen of these this year.

Then there are the small to mid-sized genre fiction conventions. These are usually three-day affairs, hosted in a hotel, with panels, a vendor room, gaming, and other programming, These tend to be better for networking and brand-building than actual slinging of paperbacks, so make sure you pack your swag! (Don’t worry, I’ll explain what swag is later!) These cost more, because there’s usually a hotel involved, but once you get enough credibility to get on programming, your badge is usually free. Sometimes they’ll even set you up with a free block of time to sign or sell books, but if you want a dedicated sales table in the dealer room all weekend, that’s going to cost you a little.

The bigger comic and pop culture cons are not where you want to start out when you just have one title to sell. I should know—I did just that, and lost my ever-loving shirt. When the table at a convention center costs $300-500 for the weekend, and parking is $10-30 per day, plus convention center food costs, it’s pretty easy to drop $500-750 on a convention. And that’s before hotel and other travel! If you have one trade paperback, selling at $20 per book, with a 50% per book profit, you’re going to have to sell 50-100 copies of that same book just to break even! If you can split a table with some folks, then go for it. But don’t try to solo a huge con with one book. It leads to heartache (and there’s nobody to watch your stuff when you go pee!).

Writer’s workshops and professional development cons are great for networking, but usually crap for selling books. That’s fine, because it’s important to develop your network of friends and connections within the industry, but understand going in that it’s unlikely that you’re going to see a quick return on investment. The long-term dividends may be phenomenal because of the people you meet and make friends with, but it’s doubtful that the money you spend is going to come back to you this year, or even next year. But remember, it’s the Looooong Con.

2. Make friends, and cut expenses

Conventions are expensive. No question. Hotels are usually gonna run around $100 per night, then you have to eat. I typically budget $500 for a three-day genre con that’s within driving distance and has a reasonable hotel cost. Then I cut that number in half, because I travel with a pack.

There are about four or five genre writers in my local area that often share rides and rooms on convention trips. My buddies and I love cons that are held at Embassy Suites, because that gets us three beds without having to bunk with anybody! I do bring an air mattress, because fold-out sofas suck, and none of us are spring chickens anymore. But splitting hotel costs two and three ways turns a $500 trip into a $200 trip really quickly. And piling three people into a minivan with a cooler full of drinks and snacks knocks another $50-100 off the bill.

So don’t think that just because you’re a professional, that it’s all corporate cards and expense accounts. It ain’t that kind of profession. As a writer, no matter who your publisher is, you’re a small business owner, and keeping costs down is one of the best ways you can be profitable. I spent way too much money on hotels my first year in the business, and I split rooms with people as often as I can now. I also got a CPAP machine, so people can actually stand to sleep in the same room as me (grin). 

3. Yes, you have to take credit cards

Square and Paypal make it easy and affordable for one-person shops, such as writers and other artisans, to accept credit cards for products. Sign up for one of them. Get a smartphone or a tablet if you don’t have one. You must do this. I shared a table at a comic con with a guy last year who bemoaned the advances of technology into the field, and told me all day how much he didn’t need a smartphone. At the end of the day, he said “You’ve done a bunch of credit card sales, haven’t you?” I responded by calling up a report and telling him that I had sold $320 for the day, and $250 of it was by accepting credit cards. Oh, and spring for the chip reader. It protects you better from fraud and actually works a little better than the card swipe option, in my experience.

4. You gotta have some swag 

I don’t just mean that you have to walk in with confidence, although that’s also true. I mean you need SWAG (stands for Stuff We All Get). On my table at cons, there’s always little stuff to give away for free. Bookmarks are great, as long as they are effective. My best one is for my vampire series, The Black Knight Chronicles. It says “Suck It, Edward” at the top, so that’s what’s sticking up out of books in the rack as people walk by. I’ve had people walk all the way across the aisle at a con and buy the book because my little shot at Twilight made them laugh. That’s the point. I think Twilight is fine, but it’s easy to make a harmless joke at Edward’s expense.

There are lots of different kinds of swag, and I’ve tried a LOT of them over the years. T-shirts (expensive, and you never have the right size, do for those instead), postcards (meh, not great), stickers (cute but not very useful), coasters (these are good because people look at them again and again), pens (great), and of course bookmarks. On the back of every bookmark I not only put my web information, I print a download code for a free ebook sampler that I made and put up on Instafreebie. You can get one here - This way they can get a free ebook just for picking up the boomark.

Generally, any piece of swag that people will reuse and look at after the event is a good place to put money. Things that are going to get binned after the con is over are probably a waste of your marketing dollars.

5. Flat Stock is the Devil

Go to a bookstore. Look at the displays of books in the front of the store. The bestsellers and co-op advertising sections are all on stands, or at least standing up. The remainders are lying down, cover to the sky. That should tell you something.

I use to purchase folding books stands and collapsing book racks. Once you get over six or eight titles, you probably need a rack to maximize your space. I currently have a small rack, a big rack, and a dozen individual stands. This year I’ll pick up another big rack. I also publish over forty titles. You may not need as much verticality as I do.

But you gotta get your stuff up off the table and into people’s eyeline. Jason Sizemore of Apex Books has a couple of very classy looking wooden shelves that he totes around. I have a pile of black wire racks. Most folks have at least a few stands. Don’t be the person there with your books just looking forlornly up at the ceiling. Help them put your best foot forward.

6. You won’t transfer all those email list signups off that clipboard

Don’t lie. You won’t. Oh, you might for the first con. Maybe even the second or third. But after a dozen cons, and half a dozen coffee cups get set down on that email list signup form, and you can’t read any of the handwriting, you’re going to stop collecting email address.

THAT IS A MISTAKE! People buy things from people they like, and if they’ve talked to you long enough to write down their email address, they are predisposed to give you their money.

But you need a better email capture system. Don’t worry, I got you. Remember that Kindle Fire from last Christmas? The one you don’t use because you like your paperwhite better? Repurpose it, get a small Bluetooth keyboard, and a stand, and turn that into your email capture system. I use a Kindle Fire I got on sale, an Apple keyboard I had lying around the office, and a stand I got from (no, I don’t own stock in the site, but by now I should!). Then I use the free list from and collect email addresses that way. With the free version I can only download 50 addresses at once, but it will hold way more than that. I have used this to collect several hundred pre-vetted email addresses, and it looks cool (grin). 

7.  Business gets done in the bar

Okay, I already knew this, but I was in sales for a couple decades before I got into writing fiction (unless you count employee evaluations – rimshot!) so I did a lot of conventions in my former life, too. But it’s an immutable rule of business – you get more work done when people don’t feel like they’re working.

People are easier to sell to when they’re relaxed, and it’s easier to build a real relationship with someone when neither of you are in an environment that feels forced. I have made several great friendships at convention room parties, and struck many publishing deals in hotel lobby bars. Get to know people as people, and then decide if you want to do business with them. One meeting I had last year started off with both of us saying “we like hanging out together, we should talk about how we can make money together.”

That’s a key – be genuine. People can tell when you’re “networking.” Nobody likes to be networked. People like to be befriended. People like to hang out. And just by having a table, and having a guest badge at a con, you’re already in the club. You’re in. You just have to act like you belong, and don’t fanboy too much (we’re not going to talk about last year at Dragon Con when I sat on a panel with Mercedes Lackey and Kim Harrison, two of my absolute favorite writers. After all, it’s still okay to fanboy out, just don’t go over top with it).

And just because business gets done in the bar, that doesn’t mean you have to drink. One, nobody cares if you don’t drink. It’s not Mad Men. Two, nobody wants to hang around a sloppy drunk. We’re working, we’re not at a kegger. And Three, if you feel like you need to look like you’re drinking, nobody can look at a glass of Coke and tell that there’s no rum in it. Or do what I do and nurse three beers all night. That’s how I stay on brand as a partying drinker, and never lose control of my environment.

8. Never punch down – Or up, frankly. 

Punching down is when you slag on somebody less successful, or talented, or intelligent than you. Maybe you’re on a panel and you make a joke about how shitty the writing in Huge Bestseller of the Year is. A lot of people will laugh, and you feel smart, right? Except for the two people in the audience who loved that book with all their heart, and now think you’re a colossal dick.

If you talk crap about someone or their work, and they’re less successful than you, then you look like a bully. If you talk crap about someone or their work, and they’re more successful than you, then you look like a jealous putz with sour grapes. There’s really now win, and no point. There’s not a time that you can put down someone else’s work and look good.

I’m not talking about responding to an honest question. If someone asks me what I thought of Twilight, I’ll tell them (I didn’t care for it, but it was fine). If someone asks me what I think of the cover art for D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker series, I’ll tell them (gorgeous, Chris McGrath, that artist, is one of the best in the business). But I try very hard to refrain from making jokes at the expense of another writer, or their work. Unless they’re my friend, and they’re present. Then I’ll give them all the crap in the world. But they knew that was coming when they signed up (grin). 

9. The guest of honor is just another person.

Genre cons frequently have one or two bigger name guests of honor, and a bunch of local or regional guests. The GoH is usually someone with a ton of sales, or big awards, and they probably are from way out of town. This means they might not know anyone there. And if the con is really small, the GoH might not have anyone as their handler to introduce them around.

This can be a really good way for you to meet people whose work you really enjoy. Basically kidnapping Patrick Rothfuss and taking him to dinner with a bunch of friends at a con was great for everybody, because Pat had some people he could have a relaxing dinner with, and we got to hang with one of my favorite writers working today. We’re all in the same boat, dealing with the same crap, so don’t be afraid to hang out with the big name guests. Sitting in a hotel lobby with Joe Haldeman and listening to his stories is one of my favorite con stories. And sometime I’ll tell you the story of eating lunchables with Larry Dixon (grin).

10. Have fun – this crap is hard, no doubt. 

But if you do a couple of cons and find that you hate it, don’t do them. It’s not going to kill your career if you don’t like conventions. I love getting out and meeting other writers and fans, and converting strangers into fans and friends. I’ve got a couple of crazy Canadian stalkers that I met because they came to a panel at DragonCon and thought I was funny. Now we hang out at the bar at that con every year, and they’ve become good friends. But if the con scene isn’t for you, don’t sweat it. We’ve got plenty of other ways for you make more money writing. Just keep reading.

About Amazing Grace - A Southern Paranormal Mystery

Jessica Fletcher meets Aunt Bea meets Odd Thomas in this Southern Gothic Paranormal Mystery with a dose of romance from award-winning novelist John G. Hartness.

Lila Grace Carter is your favorite new detective, you just don’t know it yet. She’s determined, smart, caring, and sassy as the day is long. She also talks to dead people. Of course, as she puts it, “I’m Southern. We all talk to dead people down here. The difference is, they talk back to me.”

Lila Grace has lived in Lockhart, S.C. her entire life, and has always been shunned for being different. Discovering her ability to see and talk to ghosts at an early age, she used her ability to help people settle disputes, communicate with lost loved one, and generally make life better in small ways.

Until poor dead Jenny Miller showed up on her doorstep. Now Lila Grace has a teenaged ghost following her around, a handsome new sheriff in town, and a murderer in her sleepy southern town. This ain’t Mayberry, kids.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |


  1. Thanks for writing this! :)

  2. Great post. Gonna share on Jean's Writing. Everyone needs to understand conventions. Thanks

  3. Great info. Every first-time-con-goer needs you as their guide. :)

  4. John Hartness is the best. Everyone should buy his stuff.

  5. Thanks for all the nitty gritty info.

  6. Being in the newbie category, this was very helpful.

  7. Good stuff, John. I wish I had this 6 years ago when I was one of those with just a single book on my table.

  8. Awesome information! Thanks for sharing.