Con-ventional Wisdom – a 2016-2018 Post-Mortem Retrospective

To follow my sales journey and to see how I did at past conventions, click here for the full list of articles.
I talk conventions with my BFF on my new podcast, BUSINESS BFFs. Listen here.

Since 2013, I’ve been attending conventions to sell my books. But in 2016, I doubled down on this strategy, and I’ve spent the last three years doing constant conventions, festivals, and craft markets. “Constant” is a word here that means, 10+ shows a year. That’s nearly a show a month for three years, averaged, but usually shows clump together in the spring and fall months, with a break in the winter. I also give myself a month in the summer where I don’t do shows. I do have to write at some point, you know! 🙂

There are other artists who do 30-40 shows a year – and that’s awesome. I’d love to be able to do that many, though it’s hard on the body, and you have to leave time to produce new work! I write and sell books, I’ve been lugging them around the country for several years now, and I’ve kept a fairly detailed account of my progress in my post-mortems.

I started writing the post-mortems for my future self – to remind Future Clare, when she gets excited about commerce, to slow her roll and remember gritty details before jumping in with both feet into something she can’t easily escape. Memory is a fickle thing—even eight months later, shows that I was lukewarm on, I want to try again. So I have to ensure I don’t get overexcited about something that ultimately is bad for my business.

I’m writing this post to give you a more intensive breakdown of things I’ve learned and also the benefits of doing all of these shows…all across the country. This is not a Conventions 101 post – that’s another article altogether! This particular post is for the aspiring convention or market artist who wants to Do A Business, has done some business, but is looking for general advice in executing a long-term convention strategy.

Couple of things to note:

• I sell YA (teen) fantasy and science fiction books! Putting that here in case…for some reason this is the first thing you’ve ever read by me. So…hi!

• I handsell everything, whether that’s at a show, or on my website. I have no traditional distribution team.

• I also have no marketing team. Conventions are part of my marketing strategy, putting product in front of faces. It’s just me, Doing It All.

• I’m talking about print books here. I sell eBooks on Amazon, etc – this is an area that I haven’t put a lot of focus on, so the sales ranking you see there affects that. I’ve put my focus on print books because that’s where the YA market is. If you sell romance or science fiction, the eBook market is definitely one to consider! But for me, up to this point, one sales channel at a time.

Here are my top 7 pieces of advice for artists & authors (in particular) who want to use trade shows/comic conventions/craft shows to sell their art.

Planning is Everything

I already see you scrolling by this one. BYE!

But…you shouldn’t.

In 2014 and 2015, I had a handful of titles and not much of a plan. I’d just successfully crowdfunded The Silver Spear. My freelance business was limping along, but I wasn’t getting the kind of work I craved, and I wasn’t making the kind of money I needed to sustain myself. Dave had just finished his teacher’s degree in BC and we were settling in Calgary for the second time to continue saving for our shared dream – house ownership.

To get where I wanted to be, to see the numbers I wanted, I couldn’t just throw books on the table anymore. You’ll see in those post-mortems, I talk about having a “publisher” table versus an “author” table: I wanted to present the brand in a way that would leave a lasting impression. That was the glimmer of insight I had – the difference between throwing all your resources and strategy at an event to create an impact versus throwing books on a table and sitting there.

I’d renewed my spot for Calgary Expo, and Kate and I talked months in advance about a new strategy. I was going to be in a row of ALL BOOKS – in one of the busiest conventions in the country. We both smelled an opportunity. I made a list of things I needed to make more of an impactful display. There is something empowering about planning ahead for a show. It’s like being on a covert mission.

I ordered the new tablecloths in advance and the new banner as well. Days before the event, we went shopping. Flowers for the table, table prop items, and any thrift store finds the two of us could scrounge up for both of our displays.

And that Calgary Expo was the first time I’d seen real money from my book sales. Yes, I’d made profits before…but this was a month’s worth of income for me (at the time), over four days. The small investment of time and money into my display carries on to this day.

You reap what you sow.

I did this again in 2018, with the Festival of Crafts show. Having done it once, I knew Signatures ran a serious show with large booths with seasoned artisans, showing their wares. I drew a sketch, I made a plan, I made some purchases, and again I benefited from foresight and planning.

You can’t just show up to show after show, put books on a table, and “hope” that it will work out. I’ve grown because I not only made goals, but I developed a strategy to help me achieve my goals – and trade shows are part of a bigger strategy.

Once is Not Enough

I’ve probably beaten this point to death in my previous posts, but it bears repeating. You can’t just do a show once and declare it “bad.”

Why? Because it’s hard to draw a conclusion from one data point.

Granted, some shows are just too small or badly run to be effective. That’s why I opted to only do larger, more established shows in 2018, which paid off immensely. If I perform badly or under expectations at a show, I’m likely to leave it alone for a few years before giving it another try.

A theory me and my artist friends have is that it takes at least three years to establish yourself in an unknown city and/or at a new-to-you show. You can’t do a show once and think, “Hmm, didn’t work.”

You have to think, “Hmm…didn’t work – what can I do differently next time?”

You take the data you’ve gathered, and you show up in a different way, and you gather more data. Then if it’s worth your time, you decide if you want to keep showing up at all.

Any time you arrive in a new city, you’re starting from scratch. Unless you’re extremely established, social media won’t really help you. You have to pound the pavement. You have to develop a relationship with the citizens of that city, prove to them that you’re worth their time, and then maybe they’ll grace you with their dollars. And if you show up enough times, that’s when you start reaping the rewards.

Going outside your sphere is the MOST successful if you already have a good product. And here’s where you really can’t delude yourself. If you aren’t seeing local interest, it’s unlikely you’ll see interest from away.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, hoping you’re going to make thousands of dollars at your first-ever show. It’s an experiment. Pay attention to how people react to you. Do they even SEE you in the visual noise? Then: when they see you, what does their face say? Do they slow down? Do they hover at a distance, evaluating? Do they approach of their own volition? Is your pitch short enough that you’re not boring?

If people aren’t naturally interested – or you can’t convince them to be interested – then you need to take a hard look at what isn’t working. The covers, the brand, or perhaps you’re at the wrong show.

It’s never their fault if they’re not buying. You, and only you, are responsible for your own success.

Show Up Better Than Before

This is a picture from my first show, Keycon 30.

And these are from my most recent shows.

The fact is, at comic cons especially, people get overstimulated. It is a visually noisy place and you have to be able to compete. If you can’t compete, people won’t find you, even if they walk right by you, and you will miss those valuable sales.

Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they will come. You have to attempt to be the loudest, the best, and/or the nicest display in your row.

To have a successful display, you must have (in no particular order):

Height. I absolutely hate book displays that primarily lay flat on the table. What is this, a yard sale? No. Your book is beautiful and needs to be placed in a beautiful spot. Create stacks and bring the product higher so it is more visible to the customer.

Support and decorative items. Shelves and boxes fall into this category, but what can you add to the display that creates an atmosphere around the product? That’s a bit of an airy sentence, I know. Decorative items might include lights, flowers, and small props. Don’t go too overboard with this. A big item might draw passersby but ultimately you want them to be intrigued about the product – not the prop.

Banners & Signage. You can never have enough of this, in my opinion. I have a horizontal banner, a table runner, a stand-up banner (two or three of these may be needed, depending on space), and my plastic signs with reviews, prices, etc. All of these are branded. All of them tell the customer immediately what genres I publish.

Honestly, since getting a table runner that says YOUNG ADULT FICTION PUBLISHER, I’ve had way less questions about what kind of publisher I am. And I’ve had that information on my banners for YEARS.

Table & Booth Dressing. Invest in a couple of nice tablecloths that match your brand. Black and white tablecloths are easily obtainable from stores like Walmart, but if you want a custom colour, Amazon will help you out. Make sure they are machine washable and wrinkle resistant!

You’ll notice most of my displays to this point are front-facing. I’ve done a few walk-in displays, but because I have less than ten unique products, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to spread it out so thinly. Also: many readers are introverts, or they often don’t want to “come in,” or be sold to. The front-facing display gives everyone permission to approach and interact with my product without pressure.

If you go back through my catalogue – you’ll see that I didn’t just innovate once. After 2016, my sister and I decided I needed a better shelf solution. I’d been wrapping empty boxes in tablecloths to create height. No, no, she said. Let me design you some shelves. Then: maybe I need a better banner, one that doesn’t fall on people. Then: my white tablecloth isn’t a table runner, like I want it to be. Let’s do a table runner.

Just to drive home this point some more, here’s 4 years of Edmonton show pictures for you.

2015:

2016:

2017:

2018:

For the first three years, I was in the same row, and for 2016 and 2017, I was basically in the same spot. Talk about testing ONE variable for three years. Also for the first three years, the “small press row” had 8ft tables. In 2018, I was in “regular” artist alley, with a 6ft table – that’s why you notice a difference in product placement and why things look extra crowded.

As you can see, innovation and nice displays don’t always happen all at once, and sometimes the innovation is small. As you do more shows, you learn what works for you and what you need – and then you make that happen next time (also, you get better phones that take better pictures!)

The more thought you put into your display, the more people will believe you care about the brand. If you don’t care, why should anyone else?

Branding Is More Than Pretty Colours (and nice book covers)

So you’ve got a cohesive look. That’s great! Pretty, appropriate for the genre book covers? Also great.

Does that mean you’re branded?

Well…sort of.

What is branding, exactly? You might think it’s a well-constructed, cohesive look. But branding is actually the relationship the customer has with the company. In my case…with me.

Your “look” is part of that relationship. I ensure that everything looks appropriate and appealing to make a good first, second, third, etc, impression. But that extends to everything you say and do. I wear my best clothes and (more recently) make-up because I have deep feelings about putting my best foot forward. I want to be as approachable as possible and communicate without words that I am someone you can trust.

That’s really important because…

Books are an Active Sell

There are two things that sell your books.

Other books by you.

And you.

Buttons don’t sell books. Stickers don’t sell books. Ancillary items and merch do not sell books. Readings…don’t really sell books, unless you are already capitalizing on prior fame, and/or you’re a big name. Movie and TV deals sell books, sure. But chances are, you’re not there – and it’s not something you can rely on.

Word of mouth helps you sell books. If you’re just starting, chances are you don’t have that. Word of mouth comes from continuing to show up in the best way possible.

With my artist friends, it’s different. The customer knows as soon as they look at a piece of art whether or not they like it. All that’s left for the customer is price and feasibility of transport.

With books, it’s different. The customer might be attracted to my covers, but what about the story? Now they have to approach the table, read the back, and/or have a conversation with me. Is this appropriate for my kid? What is this about? What are the themes? This book looks short – oh wait, the print is small, that’s a good or bad thing, depending on preference.

I’ve seen authors and publishers alike sit at their tables sourly, watching their potential customers go by, and it’s like throwing shredded money into the bin. And, I get it. Convention hours are long. Craft show hours are longer. You have to be on. Always. I say hello to everyone I can, meeting their gaze at eye-level, because in a visually noisy setting, everything is vying for their attention.

And when you’re more popular, it doesn’t get easier. At Turner’s, it was one customer after another for hours. It’s like playing ping-pong, except you have to recite the same information over and over again while you swat the ball, with the same enthusiasm on the one-hundreth play as the first. And then occasionally there’s third and fourth players who try to join in, and you’re like, can I get some clones up in this match or what?

People care that it’s the author selling the books. They love talking to the author about their books, about writing and publishing, or the books they’re reading currently. I am a factor just as much as the display, because I’m part of their buying experience.

I’ll let you in on a secret – remember what I said about branding above? If the customer doesn’t have a positive, meaningful, or genuine interaction with me, that lessens the chance they’re going to buy.

On my side – I love selling things I’ve made. So the positive part, that’s not hard for me. In general, I’m a happy-spirited person. I love talking to people about my stuff.

So let’s explore meaningful and genuine.

People have a sixth sense for deceit. If you are just going through the motions with your customers, they’ll know. If you only care about the money in their wallets, they’ll know, and worse, if you treat them like cash cows – yikes. They’ll know, and they’ll avoid you. They might forgive it once. But for repeat business? No.

When you’re talking with a customer (and yes, you have to talk to people if you’re going to sell books, they’re not going to fly off the table themselves), don’t focus on the sale. Focus on them. What is their body language telling you? What are they saying? You often only have a few seconds to determine what kind of person they are.

• If they’re shy – give them space, give them permission to browse. This is so important with shy bookworms. They will ask you questions when they’re ready!

• If they want conversation, give them that. Sell them on stuff they are interested in, but otherwise, focus on their happiness. Answer their questions and be as generous as you can with your time and information.

• Hand them the product, even if they’re unsure. A physical interaction makes the buying experience more real.

• Be polite, or at the very least, tactful. Some people just want someone to talk to. Some don’t take social cues and you have to be direct. Others are actual problems and you’ll have to resolve them quickly.

• Make appropriate challenges to their assumptions, in all things big and small. The more you do this, the more you’ll learn what to say and how. I’ve built up some stock answers to questions, from “Is this for girls or boys?” to “Is your goal to be in Chapters/Indigo?” and “Is publishing easy or hard?” People have deep-rooted assumptions about all kinds of things, political and not, and more than likely, you saying something witty isn’t going to change their opinions. But it can help them decide if your brand is for them, even if they don’t agree with you. Just say what you believe, as you are, in a way that the customer can digest quickly (how I would respond to the gender question would be worded differently for grandparents and parents, for example). Those who are intrigued are your potential customers. Those who aren’t, aren’t.

• It’s okay if you mess up. In five seconds, someone new will come along, and the conversation resets.

If your book isn’t for them – don’t sweat it. I’d rather not sell to someone who is lukewarm on my pitch – because that creates a lukewarm buying experience, which leads to lukewarm reviews and lukewarm word-of-mouth. I want excited, passionate fans, not pity sales. The excited customers are the ones you can turn into loyal fans who will buy everything that’s new. Because they’re not just buying the product. They’re buying into the brand – the ever-evolving story of your progress – that they are part of.

Find Help and Seek Community

When I first attended Humber College for publishing, I was convinced that I could run a publishing business myself. It took four months of the intensive program, and a project where we had to create a publishing company, where I realized just how much work and energy it takes, and that maybe I can’t Do It All.

The truth is that you can’t do it 100% by yourself. Sure, I have a lot of knowledge and I do a lot of the heavy lifting. But I wouldn’t have come as far as I have if I didn’t have friends and family willing to support me – putting me up in the various cities I visit, helping me bring things to and fro, feeding and consoling me – and that’s just the physical support. It’s important to find your community, to surround yourself with not just like-minded people, but with people who are achieving and want to achieve as you do. I’m very lucky to have found that community.

I am so grateful to everyone. Mom, Dad, Jessie, Marie, Joe, Sam, Greg, Justin, Kate, Leif, Finn, Chadwick, Jessica, Kathleen, Jennifer, Brianne, Jake. And Dave, of course 😉 <3

The Rewards

So I’ve thrown a lot of advice at you, so I thought I’d do a quick then-and-now breakdown from the beginning of 2016 and now.

Since committing to 10+ shows a year…

My freelance business exploded. I mentioned at the top, in 2015 I was doing…okay. Now I’m drowning in work and I’ve been turning away clients to focus on Faery Ink Press. How do I know that my conventions have contributed to this work? Easy.

a) People see me at shows and say, “Wow, I want to do what you do” and they hire me as their editor, as their graphic design person, as their website person, etc etc.

b) People see my pictures and post-mortems and think, wow Clare looks like she’s doing really well, she seems like the right person to hire for my project.

c) The more shows I do, the more post-mortems I write, which generates website traffic and interest, which perpetuated the idea (and what becomes more true each and every time) that I am successful at what I do.

Website sales. Yeah. So…this is a recent explosion in 2018. Before that I’d get a few orders at Christmas, and maybe one or two throughout the year. In 2018, I made a small convention’s worth of sales, with consistent orders from fans and relatives of fans each month. This is a huge potential growth area for me, one that I wasn’t sure was possible (and was told, “Maybe don’t?)

But I can attribute the difference between consistent orders and a smattering of sales on the site to one thing: me telling the customer, “You can buy the sequel from me, on my website. Yes, you can order it into Indigo. But if you buy it from me, I can ship it out faster, it’ll probably be cheaper, and I’ll sign it.”

I mean…that’s checking a lot of boxes for people. Faster, cheaper, and signed. And they don’t have to go to a store.

Are there things I can improve to lower the barrier to entry even further to get people to order from me directly? Absolutely. That’s part of my plan over the next two years. Innovate the website as I have innovated my convention tables. We are lucky, to live in this particular patch of retail history, because probably 75% of the people I talk to about website ordering ask me, “How can I order that best supports YOU as the artist?”

Opportunities. This one is a little more general because opportunities arise when you prove to the world you’re willing to show up consistently. So here are some noteworthy things that have happened just because I continued to show up:

a) Guest status. Because I showed up at Hal-Con several times, a con that’s kinda out of my way travel-wise at this point since I now live in Calgary, I made some connections, and I was asked to be a guest. Hal-Con is a great convention, a shining example of an independent show that is organized, well-run, and always improving.

b) Book projects. I’m doing a book project with Greg Chomichuk and Justin Currie (Chasing Artwork), look for it April 2019. This collaboration will expose me to new readers and increase my distro power immensely.

More than that, just meeting people in-person leads to relationships and connections you wouldn’t have had if you only use social media at home to promote your works.

c) Speaking engagements. Every talk I’ve done is because I showed up physically somewhere, someone saw me doing my thing, and they presented me with an opportunity to speak. Sometimes they follow through, sometimes they don’t, but I wouldn’t happen at all if I were only sitting at home.

d) Travel. I don’t think I would have seen as much of the country if I hadn’t decided that all of Canada is within my reach. Like, I wouldn’t have known that Saskatoon is really pretty, and Ottawa is super clean, and Montreal is kind of intimidating but in a way that makes you want to be better.

It’s a Process

If you only take away one thing from this article, it should be this:

When you show up consistently, with new product, in an improved way, people take notice.

When you are inconsistent, with the same product, in the same way, people tune out.

In a nut-shell, that’s how you see progress – by doing new things. You have to go outside your personal sphere, and sometimes, your comfort zone. At times, that means going to cities where you know no one. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable and afraid and wrong. If you only do what you are comfortable with – staying in your own town, promoting your books on social media, spending cheaply – well, in my experience, like I said previously, you reap what you sow.

And you can’t just do it once. You have to do it again, and again, and again, each time with improved knowledge from the previous iteration. The more shows you do, the more people will take notice, and the more impact you’ll make.

In-person marketing and presence is still EXTREMELY IMPACTFUL. What are you going to remember more – a random tweet in the void about someone’s book, or an in-person conversation you had? Both of these work together to help promote your business, but an in-person conversation allows more opportunities to meet your customer, see what they need, and deliver.

It’s not about the short-term sales of one convention in one city. It’s about building a sustainable business that will support you for years.

After all, I’m in this for the long con.

To follow my sales journey and to see how I did at past conventions, click here for the full list of articles.
I talk conventions with my BFF on my new podcast, BUSINESS BFFs. Listen here.