Authors and convention directors alike seem to have a love/hate relationship with conventions and book signings. Convention directors are killing themselves to fill the seats while authors are spending a lot more time complaining about disappointing turn outs. Well, I know some secrets, peeps. I’ve seen some stuff, I’ve heard some stuff. Most importantly, I’ve LEARNED some stuff, and today I’m going to share that stuff with you.
Yesterday I did something I never thought I would have to do. I put the nail in the coffin on the Queen City Author Event. The event started as a tiny little book signing and we expanded it out to be a two-day event (day one being private for author workshops and day two being a two-session book signing) for the same registration price as the original event.
For 2015, we marketed our asses off to let authors know about the signing. In order to keep it budget-friendly, we needed to have fifty authors signed up. Unfortunately, we only had twenty-nine who expressed interest, and as a result, we had to cancel the 2015 event. We were hopeful for 2016, though! We went right to work planning with a new hotel, got great pricing for a very inclusive package, got all the details squared away, and then we posted that the author registration was open! And we waited….
That’s right, ladies and gents. Crickets. We got nothin’ but crickets.
Not. One. Single. Registration.
I reached out to the twenty-nine authors who were interested in doing the 2015 event just a few months before hand, and never heard back from a single one of them.
Then I got a private message from a friend of mine, a convention director for a MAJOR convention, to give me the heads up about not one but TWO new pop-up events happening in my area. Aside from the Believe Hope Live event in Maine and North Shore in Massachusetts, I’ve never been up against any other events in my area (New Hampshire), which is why we offered the event. As it turns out, about half the authors who had been interested in QCAE2015 are going to one of the two pop-up events.
Announcing that we have completely done away with Queen City was, I admit, heartbreaking for me. I had a grand plan for QCAE, which involved a name change and permanent relocation to AZ when I move there in June 2019. I wanted to be able to get the event established with a regular author family in attendance, but, apparently, it just wasn’t in the cards for Queen City….
This comes on the heels of a massive event failure we experienced in 2014. The Pure Textuality Convention. I’m sure, at this point, this event is probably infamous. It was my first time organizing a large-scale signing and I made a mistake that I will never make again: I signed the contract before having all authors lined up and I also relied on attendee ticket sales to pay for part of the contract. Of the forty authors registered, not one single author reserved their hotel room at the host hotel, which was part of the contract pricing. As we neared the event, no one was talking about it. I did everything in my power short of holding a gun to the authors’ heads to get them talking about it with their readers. No dice. Of the forty authors, I could only get about eight of them to even say anything to their readers about the signing. Between no ticket sales and no rooms booked, the hotel, justifiably so, became nervous and made the decision to pull the plug on the event. Now, I say it was justifiable for them to get nervous and pull the plug, but here’s where Jena gets screwed: the hotel kept the money that had been paid to them as a deposit. All of the authors’ registration money.
On the one hand, this SUCKED because that meant I had to pay back every dime out of my own pocket, which I did not have. On the other hand, because I had signed a contract for the event, they could very well have held me accountable for the full price of the contract, which was $53,000+ with the room nights. So, in the grand scheme of things, having to pay back $10,000+ out of my own pocket was a gift and a blessing. I have nothing but love and infinite thanks to all of the authors who waited for me to be able to take a loan against my 401(k), then wait again for my tax return, then continue waiting as I work my tail off trying to earn the extra money to pay back the remaining amount. I’m only down to a handful of the original forty authors left that I have to pay back, but I will have every last dime paid back, even if it kills me.
Signing the contract in advance was the dumbest move I could possibly have made and I certainly learned my lesson. Since then, for the smaller events I have been doing, I get my contract price, determine registration price based on the contract price, and then line my authors up before signing the contract with the hotel. By doing this, I am able to pay for the contract in full the day I sign it. One down side to doing things in that order is people are now great big skeptics thanks to some assholes who screwed over the author community.
I never once told anyone they wouldn’t be paid back. I never once tried to skip out on anyone (I’m one of the easiest people to find online….like, to a ridiculous degree). I, apparently, am an exception, and not the rule.
Recently, there have been a rash of events where the hotel contract was never signed, the con director collected everyone’s registrations, and then just bailed, one of them (an author, no less) even going so far as to delete all of her social media accounts and profiles in an attempt to hide from the authors she’d just duped into paying for an event that (by all appearances) was never going to take place to begin with. I can’t say for sure that was her intention from day one, but that’s what it seemed like to the rest of the world because she ran and hid rather than being up front with the authors about what was happening.
Not everyone wears a black hat to let you know that they’re scum bags. Unfortunately, due to authors sick of being screwed over, the way of it has been tainted, which in turn has changed how convention directors have to do business. Some are taking that to a totally different place and literally going event to event, taking misleading pictures, and using the images online to make it look like the event was a disaster. I know, I know. Sounds like a load of horse shit. Trust me, had I not been at an event to witness it happening with my own two eyeballs, I never would have believed it either, but I swear to all of you, right here, right now. It’s happening. The thing that doesn’t make sense is the convention director doing it???? Their event is huge. Like, sold out every year right away kind of huge. HUGE. But they’re doing it regardless. At the event I was participating in, the con director in question sent someone to take pictures while we were setting things up, before the doors were technically open for the signing, and then posted the pictures later online stating that the place was dead and authors were actually packing up. See what I mean??? Saying they were ‘being misleading’ is a very kind way to describe their behavior. I myself can think of a few more colorful words, but it wasn’t my con they targeted, so it’s not my place. Either way, this huge con is intentionally going around sabotaging the events of other smaller book signings in what appears to be a bullying maneuver.
The only reason I can think of (and, to be clear, I didn’t say the reason was RIGHT) for this behavior is this con director sees the same thing I’m seeing as of late. The pool is severely diluted. It’s basic supply and demand. At one time, there were only a handful of actual reader events, and even some of those weren’t really aimed at readers, they were more aimed at industry (i.e. Book Expo America in NYC). For big reader conventions, we really only had RT and Authors After Dark. However, for the state of the industry at the time, these met the needs of the masses. Then the self-publishing boom hit. When self-publishing really came into its own, there were very few things indies could even participate in.
And queue the onslaught of author events.
I admit, when they first started popping up, the readers screamed for more at the top of their little bibliophile lungs. The industry listened, and more and more events started popping up. Hell, that’s how the Pure Textuality Convention began! I took a poll among readers to determine what part of the country they felt was being overlooked and that’s why we chose Minneapolis.
More and more events keep springing up, and it’s resulted in less and less readers attending each event. Now, there are a few exceptions to this rule. There are a few conventions, conventions aimed at a niche market, which are consistently performing well. The attendance rates are perfection and the authors, the same authors who attend every year, are signed up a year or more in advance. However, as I said, these are niche market events. They are aimed at one particular genre or one particular age group (i.e. Naughty Mafia, Book Splash, UtopYA, Penned Con, etc.). Having that type of concentrated content ensures a select group of readers, and securing particular authors every year ensures that their readers will be there every year. It’s smart way to go if you’re an author who never ventures outside of that genre or age group in your writing.
That leaves the rest of the events, and they are tanking almost as fast as they are popping up. The supply went up so demand went down. There are too many events and not enough readers to go around. Additionally, you have authors booking themselves for twenty events all on one coast. Part of what draws readers to an event is the authors attending. If you’re always attending events in the same geographical area, you’re not gaining many new readers, and that is actually the point of a reader convention. To grow your readership. My guess would be that the huge convention director/saboteur was probably seeing a decline in attendance and decided to take it into their own hands to pull a Tonya Harding on the competition. You don’t have to worry about your readers dwindling if you remove the chance of them going anywhere else. Shitty, I know, but I’ve watched this con director do the same thing to several smaller book signings, including the one I was at, in less than a year. It’s most definitely a pattern of behavior, and I doubt it’s likely they’re done.
So, as a person who is used to acting as both a convention director and author, I’m here today to offer some words of wisdom to my fellow authors on events. I’m not putting this out there to somehow bring Queen City back to life. As I said, the nail is in the coffin already. But I can see where the industry is headed and I don’t want to see author events become just another marketing tool in an author’s tool box that becomes utterly useless due to overuse and abuse.
CHOOSE YOUR EVENTS VERY CAREFULLY
As an author, you should be picking and choosing your events. You want to register for events with authors who write genres and age groups somewhat similar to your own. Pay attention to the names of authors who are already registered. If you write Young Adult Fantasy, it makes no sense what so ever for you to sign onto an event composed mostly of Erotic Romance authors. Chances are pretty good that their readership is not the right readership for you, and those readers are just going to bypass your table completely. When it comes right down to it, your writing is a business, and as such, you should be approaching conventions and author events with a business mindset. Ask yourself a few questions:
Is this a good business decision for you?
Will this grow your readership?
If it doesn’t grow your readership, does it have good networking potential?
Good learning potential?
There are a lot of important questions to ask yourself, and every last one of them should essentially boil down to you looking at the event and asking yourself “What’s in it for me?” That’s not an unreasonable question for any business person. In fact, it’s just good business sense.
If you do twenty events a year, all in one region, you’re limiting yourself greatly. Instead of wasting your money on twenty events in one area, choose three or four across the country. Use the money you would have spent on the extra events to cover travel costs. You may not think you’re spending the same cash, but I assure you, you are (think about the cost of gas, swag, hotels, paperbacks, shipping, etc., etc..). This brings us to the next point…
KEEP YOUR TRAVEL COSTS AS LOW AS POSSIBLE
There is no reason on this rock to pay out the nose for travel expenses! In the last four years, I’ve traveled to the west coast six times. In total, my trips averaged about $500 each and that includes round trip airfare.
Here are a few quick travel tips to make your cons a little more wallet-friendly:
- If you’re flying, book your tickets/hotel on a Wednesday. All the travel package sites (i.e. Travelocity, Kayak, Priceline, etc., etc..) have cheaper pricing on Wednesdays.
- If possible, schedule your trip to be flying out on a Wednesday and back in that following Tuesday. These are the cheapest days to fly. Shift your trip in either direction, or shorten it up closer to the weekend, and watch your price quotes soar. Also, put something out to your readers that you’ll be in town a little longer than just the event and organize a get together that’s all about you and/or your books! This is a great way to really get some bonding time with your readers. Earlier this year, I had a book signing in Las Vegas and I organized a night out to see Thunder From Down Under. We had soooooo much fun and I will never forget those readers as long as I live! Or the strippers. The strippers were pretty awesome.
- Compare pricing at different airports in the region of where you’re traveling to. If you have a signing in Phoenix, fly into Vegas, then get a rental car and drive into Phoenix. Trust me, this works out way cheaper than flying directly into Phoenix EVERY DAMN TIME.
- If you’re ever having trouble making your trip cheap, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org as I’m a TRAVEL NINJA! I make Travelocity my bitch.
KNOW WHO YOU’RE GETTING INTO BED WITH
When you sign onto an event, reach out to some of the other authors, preferably ones you know and trust, to see if they’ve worked with the event organizer in the past. If you can’t get anyone to vouch for the organizer, PASS. You also want to make sure you’re not signing on with someone like the saboteur we were talking about earlier in the post. Guilt by association really is a thing, especially in this industry, and you really don’t want your reputation soiled by someone else’s actions. Also, don’t allow yourself to get dragged into someone else’s drama. And that shit will follow you around like SKUNK SPRAY if you get tied to it, so just be careful who you’re dealing with.
PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT INFORMATION COMES YOUR WAY
There is usually a LOT of info that comes down the pike concerning conventions. There is nothing more stressful than running around a convention hotel trying to figure out where you’re supposed to be because a) you missed it in the Facebook group, or b) the information was never conveyed and you just think you missed it. You can make your con a million times less stressful if you just make sure you have a clearly written out itinerary for yourself before you even leave home. Know where you need to be, when you need to be there, and be on time. Nothing will get you on a con director’s bad side quicker than being late and not ready to go when readers arrive.
For my conventions or conventions I do the PR for, I build what I refer to as author hubs – a central blog/website for authors and staff only. I compile all the information into the one location so they have one central location to go get their questions answered. This may not work for all event coordinators, but it’s gotten nothing but good feedback for the events I’ve done it for. Most events set up private Facebook groups and when you get staff plus a hundred or more authors all trying to figure shit out, important information gets buried easily and someone always misses info. If you’re part of an event that doesn’t have an information hub website, suggest it to them. It’s a lot easier than picking through Facebook posts for hours on end.
DON’T TREAT YOUR EBOOKS LIKE CASTOFFS
I know the goal for most authors is to sell out of all their paperbacks. My first big con, I sold a grand total of four paperbacks. Four. I brought one hundred. However, when I was getting ready for the con, I had some business cards made up. The front was the cover of my books (four titles, four different business card designs) and on the back was the QR Code for the book’s Amazon listing:
Throughout the day, I found myself a little disappointed in my paperback sales. I did everything you’re supposed to do. I was warm and inviting (maybe they thought I was crazy…..). I talked to every single person who walked by my table (whether or not they wanted me to…..). I schmoozed my ass off! I even made friends with a few readers I still talk to today on Facebook! But at the end of the day, I sold four paperbacks.
And then I looked at my ebook sales.
OMG! The cards were a brilliant idea!!! Although my paperbacks weren’t flying off the shelves, my ebooks were. Out of my four titles, two of them were back on the bestseller lists due to those business cards I had made up. So, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Take a conservative number of paperbacks with you, a mail-order form in case you do sell out, and business cards for your ebooks. Remember, your books may not grab new readers enough to make them NEED your paperbacks right there on the spot, but they just might be interested enough to spring for the ebook. When you’re at cons, always remember that you also have ebooks available.
These are just a few pieces of advice to offer authors who are either new to conventions/author events/book signings, or are struggling to make cons a worthwhile investment for their writing career. The bottom line is in most authors’ cases, cons are a business decision, and not everyone knows how to make it work for them.
That’s it for today, ladies and gents! I really hope this helps some of you make your con decisions a little easier. I’m always available if you have any questions or need any advice. You can either comment, or drop me an email if you’d rather it be private.