Conventions are in my opinion, an essential for the indie author looking to build a following. In fact, I prefer working conventions over attending them and not just for the sales and exposure, but because of the convention community. After several years of being a part of the con-circuit in Southern Ontario, I have come to recognize fellow authors and vendors as not only friends, but family.
In my previous post, Con Season, I break down the two main types of conventions with a list of pros and cons, in this post I’m going to map out how to participate in conventions as a panelist and vendor.
On Being a Panelist
A panelist is a publisher, author, or seriously famous actor, like Nathan Fillion, who attend the convention professionally to discuss themselves, a topic of interest, their newest book, season, or movie etc. Directors, comic book artists, and many other speakers attend conventions as panelists to connect to their audience and promote their material.
As mentioned above, a panelist can participate on a panel about their own person and profession or in support of another fandom that they enjoy and are a part of. My suggestion for the new author or artist looking for networking and exposure is to sign up for as many different panels as you can. Try to do a mix of personal (a reading from your latest publication), professional (e.g. Marketing Self-Published Books), and just plain fun panels (e.g. a cosplay workshop), this way potential readers and collectors can get to know you better.
Having a table at a convention helps to sell something as an indie author or artist, but being on panels is how you reach people that otherwise might have walked past your table or not come into the vendors room at all.
When you sign up to be a panelist and do a reading from your book or to talk about the latest season of Dr. Who, or like myself, discuss self-publishing, you are connecting to people on a different level, as an individual, not a book promoting robot. No one wants a salesman, they want a person who has poured themselves into the next masterpiece that’s going to sit on their bookshelf.
In addition, as a panelist, you have become a public figure. Someone who has written a book, started a publishing company, or someone who’s become a well known artist. When convention attendees see you on a panel, it signifies to them you are someone of note; someone who’s made it through the artist’s struggle and created something worth having.
Becoming a Panelist
First, the honest truth. The likelihood of becoming a panelist as a new artist or author at a commercially-run convention is very unlikely– unless of course you have an agent or PR rep who can set that up for you.
Fan-run conventions are smaller, more intimate, and therefore easier to approach. Most fan-run conventions are welcoming to new authors and interested in bringing in new panelists for programming.
How does a budding author or artist become part of programming?
E mail programming.
It’s that simple. Most conventions have a “contact” page. Click the link for the contact page and then click the e mail listed for programming, ask to be a panelist and viola, you’re done.
More specifically, write an email explaining who you are with links to your work, how long you’ve been published or selling art, and ask if they have room on programming for you as you’d love to be considered.
If they don’t get back to you right away, don’t get discouraged. All fan-run conventions are volunteer-based, so the programming team is doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, in their spare time. Most of them have full-time jobs, significant others, or families. Be patient, give them a week to get back to you. If they don’t, draft a second e mail saying “Not sure if you received my first e mail, thought I should send it again. Thank you for your time,” or something along those lines. I’d like to mention that angry e mails get you nowhere. Be polite and positive. If they don’t get back to you this year or reply saying programming is full, send a final e mail letting them know you’d like to be considered next year.
Once you’ve gotten into your first convention as a panelist, a world of conventions, festivals, and events will open up to you. Talking to and befriending fellow authors and artists will allow you to get the inside scoop on upcoming events and conventions you might not otherwise have heard of.
Many authors and artists are introverts and programming may not be their thing. That’s ok, because there’s always a table in the vendor’s room for the creative-types that want to share their wares from behind the comfort of a table. As an introvert– I totally get that.
Not unlike programming, getting a table at a convention is pretty straight forward. Look for a “Contact” page or a “Vendors” or “Exhibitors” link on the website for the con you wish to attend.
At fan-run conventions tables are generally the same pricing for everyone. They are broken into half-tables, full-tables, and generally include a discount on each additional table a vendor might need.
There will either be links to applications to fill out for a table or an e mail listed to get the applications sent to you. Cons normally have a table fee for the weekend and provide a badge or two for vendor access all weekend. Fill out the application and follow the instructions to apply.
For the new artist or author starting out with only a few art pieces or book, I would suggest a half-table. It’s cheaper and all you’ll need.
Commercially-run conventions organize themselves a little differently. They typically get much larger vendors, in addition to artists, authors, and small business owners. Because of this, they break things up into Retailer and Artist Alley tables. Retail tables are ridiculously expensive, stick to artist alley, that space is for smaller business owners.
Because commercially-run conventions are typically quite large, their tables are more expensive. I’ve seen tables up to $800 for a weekend. Until you are confident you can sell enough to cover your costs, I do not recommend getting a table at a commerically-run convention, unless you share a table with other artists and authors. Sharing a table is a great way to get your books and art out there and making sure you cover your costs.
– Being a panelist at a fan-run convention is not only a great way to network and meet new people, but it is often free
– A new author with a single book benefits greatly from becoming part of programming. If you’re a panelist, you are able to advertise yourself and potentially sell your books for free
– Join a variety of different panels. Connect to as many different people as you can and remember, you are selling yourself and your interests. Do not constantly bring up your book, unless it’s relevant to discussion. No one likes a salesman.
– Cut table costs by sharing with other authors and vendors
– Only get a half-table starting out, unless you’re confident you have enough wares for a full table and can cover the cost
– Sometimes conventions can only take a certain number of new authors/artists. Do not get discouraged if you can’t be a part of programming this year. Buy a half-table for the weekend and start getting your books and name out there
A word on etiquette: If you are sharing a table with a fellow author, let people approach your shared table and pick up the book of interest to them. If they ask about your book, then discuss it, but if they are talking to the other author and you interrupt, suggesting your book, this is poor behaviour and will not win you any friends. You may find other authors and artists unwilling to share with you in the future.
If you are doing this to authors at a different table, this is just as, if not more unacceptable. You might gain a sale or two, but you are cutting yourself off from a network of authors who can assist you in the future. Be polite and wait your turn. Let people approach you.
In addition, I have seen many authors trying to draw potential readers in with FREE things: free candy, a free e book, a free bookmark. . . Consider that if someone is drawn in with free, they may have a limited amount of cash to spend or they were never going to buy your stuff in the first place. You are putting money into free things and expecting a return that may not be there. It can be beneficial to have free things on your table, but from my experience, if not handled a certain way, this can make you appear desperate.
I was walking by an author’s table who shouted free e book to me, got up, and made me spin a game wheel she had brought. Her salesman attitude was a turn off and I felt pressured to do what she asked. I spun the wheel and won a free e book that I will never read.
On the other hand, having a candy dish with Easter-themed or Halloween-themed candy is fun and inviting. I know two authors that bring candy to conventions, but for fun, not for sales. They do not use the candy to segway into a sales pitch or pressure anyone. They are instead creating a fun and open atmosphere, thus making them more approachable to potential readers.
If you’re going to print off bookmarks, make them an advertisement for your ebooks and art and make sure to have links to where your books/art can be purchased. Don’t hand them out and then jump into a sales-pitch, give them to people who are already interested in your books and art, but might not have the cash right now. It could potentially lead to an online sale later, but the important thing is being polite and not expecting anything in return.
It’s not always about sales and modern sales tactics have changed drastically. Conventions are about fun. Someone may not be a customer today, but they will remember your kindness and may be a customer at the next con.
Thank you for reading and I hope this article helps to assist you in your career as an author or artist. If it weren’t for the authors, volunteers, and vendors I’ve met along the way, who have helped me at cons, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Conventions can be an extremely rewarding experience, a way to build a following, and a gateway into a whole new network of friends, colleagues, and supporters.