Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Long Con – Author Lessons Learned from a Year on the Convention Circuit

By John G. Hartness, @johnhartness

Part of the Indie Author Series

I might have mentioned that I do a lot of conventions. 36 so far in 2018, with a couple still to go. That’s up from 29 in 2017, and way more than I intend to do in 2018, so let’s take a look at some of the sales numbers, expenses, and lessons I’ve learned across the last two years of selling paperbacks at conventions all across the Southeastern United States.

One caveat before we start: I have excluded Dragon Con from these numbers. I don’t sell books at Dragon Con, because that’s not what I go to that convention for. Plus, it’s so much more expensive than any other con I do that it would skew the numbers.

First, the raw numbers. In 2018 I sold $15,240 in books at conventions. That’s a pretty good increase from the $11,953 I did in 2017, around 27% from 2017 numbers. Not bad, right?

Well, let’s dig a little deeper. I also spent more in 2018, $6,600 over $5,600. So I spent an extra $1,000 to make an extra $3200. I’ll do that all day long. Except that ignores the largest single expense – the cost of books.

I see a lot of authors doing this when I talk to them about how they’re doing at the con. The most common thing I hear is “Well, I made back my table cost, so now I’m good.” Except they haven’t made back the table cost, because they have sold the same amount in gross revenue that they spent to rent the table in the dealer room, ignoring the cost of the books.

If a book sells for $10, assume that it cost about $5 landed cost (cost of book plus shipping to them). This assumes that the seller is either a publisher or self-published. If they’re traditionally published, then there’s a layer of profit built into their book costs already, so assume that book probably cost them $7 landed cost. Don’t ignore incoming freight, because it’s probably the third-highest expense, after books and hotels. So rounding numbers to make math easy, I made $7500 in book sales after cost of books. Take out the expenses, and I made $1,000 in 2018 selling books at conventions.

And that’s my best year ever. I actually showed a profit this year, almost completely on the back of two events – ConCarolinas and Raleigh Supercon. Both of those cons blew it out of the water and made up for several shows that were significant losers financially. So what are my takeaways from this year of convention travel and expenditures?

1. Two-day comic cons are not good for me

 I did a lot of comic cons this year, ranging from small one-day events like Free Comic Book Day to massive shows like Heroes Con.

I did okay on the one-day events, because the tables are inexpensive ($0-100), and my sales were decent ($150-300). These events also typically involve less travel, because I only do the one-day shows that are close enough not to involve a hotel. The bigger shows are decent, because I have enough space to display more titles and appeal to a wider cross-section of the attendees, plus the bigger shows have more people, so more potential customers.

The two-day shows hit a dead zone for me, unfortunately. At a two-day show with 5,000 attendees, I will lay out around $300 in table, hotel, food and gas expenses. But rather than doubling or tripling the money I make from a one-day show, I usually only made about 150% of the money, or $200-300. You can see how a $300 gross revenue show doesn’t work out too well financially if I drive three hours to get there, eat on the road for two days, and have two nights in a hotel. I’ve spent my $300 before I pay for the books! So in 2019, I will only be doing one two-day comic con, SC Comicon. It’s bigger than most, the crowd buys more books, and it’s close enough to only require one night in a hotel. Plus I can split the room to cut expenses.

2. The cost v. benefit of one day comic cons isn’t high enough unless they are free

I love comic cons. I love comics, which is one of the reasons I shouldn’t do many comic cons. I’ve excluded my dealer room purchases from expenses, but it’s not an insignificant line item. I had one freebie one-day show where I sold $125, which was decent for a very small show that cost me breakfast and $5 in gas. Except that I spent $25 on comics before I sold a book! That’s not a legit expense, but it is a bad habit.

But even when I can curtail my bad spending habits, the one-day shows just aren’t worth investing cash in. If I spend $150 on renting a table, eating, and traveling to a small comic con, I need to sell at least $300 to break even, and there just isn’t a big enough crowd to do that most of the time. So in 2019, I am only doing one-day comic cons where my table is comped by the promoter (which does happen sometimes, based on reputation for drawing in fans or my level of promotion on social media, and it is greatly appreciated) and I don’t have to stay in a hotel.

3. Too much travel hurts my writing productivity and my work/life balance

I’ve been gone too much the last couple of years. It hurts my word count, it reduces the amount of time I can spend with my wife, and it cuts into our vacation and relaxation time. Those things all pile together to make me a very grumpy boy come November and December. Since Labor Day, I’ve been home three out of ten weekends, and the number is only that high because I got sick at Dragon Con and missed two weekends’ worth of events. I need to balance my family time and my writing time with my travel time. In 2019, I am currently booked on 14 events, and will work very hard to keep that number well under 20.

4.  As I focus more on promoting Falstaff Books as a publisher than myself as a writer, multi-day fandom cons are more effective than comic cons and vendor hall cons 

Since we founded Falstaff Books in 2016, we have taken off like a rocket. With well over 50 titles and 30 authors under our belts now, promoting the press is a better use of my time than just promoting myself, because promoting the press also promotes my work. I can’t do that on a one-day comic con with just a six-foot table in a convention center and no opportunity to speak in front of audiences and wow them with my wit and charm. Or hypnotize them with the flowing of my purple hair. Whatever works.

Also, fandom cons (ConCarolinas, ConJuration, Con-Tagion, etc.) give me an opportunity to speak with other writers about projects they’re working on that might need a home, books that their rights have reverted on, projects that their agent can’t place—the kind of books that fit in very well with a small genre press. I said of a recent signing event that it sucked as far as sales, but if I can sign one author that I met that I’m very interested in, then it will all be worth it. I don’t get those opportunities at most of the smaller vendor hall cons. In 2019, I will be focusing on conventions that put me in front of an audience to build fans, and opportunities to connect with authors to build Falstaff.
That’s a lot of bold statements, and a big shift in how I’ve done business for the past few years. Check back with me in a year and see how well I’ve held to these plans!

My hope is that traveling less will allow me to focus on my writing, editing, and building the Falstaff line, while giving me more family time. And even though there will be a loss of revenue, the reduction in expenses should more than offset that, as I’m cutting out shows that were typically less profitable, to focus on bigger conventions where I can have better displays. So come out and see me sometime!

John G. HartnessJohn 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 award-winning author of the urban fantasy series The Black Knight Chronicles, the Bubba the Monster Hunter comedic horror series, the Quincy Harker, Demon Hunter dark fantasy series, and many other projects. He is also a cast member of the role-playing podcast Authors & Dragons, where a group of comedy, fantasy, and horror writers play Dungeons & Dragons. Very poorly.

In 2016, John teamed up with a pair of other publishing industry ne’er-do-wells and founded Falstaff Books, a small press dedicated to publishing the best of genre fiction’s “misfit toys.”

In his copious free time John enjoys long walks on the beach, rescuing kittens from trees and playing Magic:the Gathering.

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