Note: This was originally posted to tumblr in August 2016
Had a week to decompress after my first time running a table at a convention, which has given a chance for my thoughts about it to simmer to the surface.
Overall, things went very well. Not all smooth sailing, but I was able to get set up and sell books without too many problems. I sold enough to make it worthwhile, and picked up a bunch of new readers in the process (Hi if you’re reading this!). Another thing though is that I had a lot of fun; it was great to meet some of the other exhibitors and get advice.
What follows are a few lessons I learned and things to avoid if you’re going to do something similar.
Books are heavy!
This might seem super-obvious, but I totally underestimated this. I mean books ARE like bricks of paper, so when en-masse they can weigh a lot more than you realise. This is fine when in storage, but as soon as you need to unload them from a car, or stand in a queue carrying a box…
Be very careful about how much you choose to carry each trip, and maybe invest in a trolley. I certainly will for next time.
Be prepared to adapt your setup
Running a table involves a degree of planning – making sure, for instance, that you’ve got enough stuff on your table, and you can arrange it in an interesting way. However, you can’t predict everything and you need to be able to adapt things. The main thing to watch out for is that every “aisle” at an event has a prevailing direction – i.e. do people tend to come from your right or left? If you don’t have a symmetrical store (I didn’t) then be prepared to deal with that.
DON’T SLEEP IN
Yeah, I did this. Yes, I was an idiot. Don’t do it.
Bring more than you expect – but numbers are hard to predict
Sales can surprise you. I did quite well, actually MUCH better than I planned. I brought half my total stock down on day 1, and I had to actually bring more on day 2 (numbers at the end of day 2 suggests I would’ve ran out if I hadn’t done this).
That being said, I spoke to other vendors on the day with a similar outlook to my stall, and the results were varied. Some of them did much better than expected, some did far worse. It seems that it really is difficult to judge.
My advice on this, if you’re looking for a yardstick, is that you should be at least bringing enough stock so that you can break even on the table. If you’re not doing that, then you’re guaranteed to lose money, and that’s not a good situation to be in. You’re there for publicity and promotion, but it helps if you can make things at least cost-neutral.
You WILL need to leave your stall, and you WILL lose customers because of this
No matter who you are, no-one can stand looking perky at a stall for 9 hours. If you’re on your own, you need to pace yourself. You need to stay hydrated (cons can be busy and hot), you’ll need to eat, and as part and parcel with that, you’re going to need to know where the toilets are.
Firstly, have a “be right back” sign.
Secondly, be prepared – whenever that sign goes up, odds are someone is going to suddenly take an interest in your stall. You’ll be walking back from the loo, or eating, or just taking two minutes to walk up and down your con aisle, and that potential customer is going to be there, and they’re going to leave before you can speak to them.
It happens. It’s a pain. Live with it. There’s nothing you can do, short of having multiple people on the stall.
Sales will come when you least expect them
When I opened on the Saturday morning, it was over an hour and twenty minutes before I made a single sale (whilst I stood there about to chew my own arm off). True enough, someone came along to buy a book, and then another, and another… But the most surprising thing was that my sales didn’t correspond to how busy the con was. I had sales during busy times and sales during the quiet times, when hardly anyone seemed to be walking around.
Try to stand, if you can.
This depends heavily on your product. For instance, if you have a stall with many competing products that will draw people in and speak for themselves (jewellery, t-shirts for example) then it might not matter so much.
Books, on the other hand, are a bit more work. People might walk past and see your artwork, but if helps a great deal to engage them. Once you’ve explained the premise of what you’re doing, get a book in their hands to give them a chance to read your blurb – and if your blurb is good, more often than not you’ll get a sale.
Of course, some people will either blank you immediately hold up a hand and say they’re not interested. That’s fine, but similarly, try not to let it bother you.
As a general rule, I tried to wait a few minutes in between engaging customers (unless someone actively came up to the stall and seemed VERY interested without my help). Otherwise you start badgering people, which isn’t good for attendees and is potentially worse for the people running stalls next to yours.
Try to look professional
For the record, this doesn’t mean wearing a suit (unless your book is about investment banking, I guess). What it means is to have a tablecloth (which is ironed), have good artwork, and have a plan for how your stall is going to look. To give an idea, someone during the weekend approached me and during the conversation, made it clear that they thought I’d been “doing this for years” – they were surprised when I told them this was my first time. That was (though unintentional) a huge compliment. As an addendum to this…
Have good artwork
People’s opinions may vary on this, but for a book stall, I think artwork is incredibly valuable. Books ask a lot of their “end-user”, i.e. a reader – a great investment of time. On the other hand, at a con, you only have seconds to catch someone’s attention – perhaps even a single glance!
This is doubly problematic because most con stalls are intensely visual. Comic book creators have a real advantage here, but so do other content creators like film-makers. Don’t forget that these are your competition.
My artwork is handled by Jim at Jelzoo.com, and he’s done an amazing job. I can confidently say that I wouldn’t have sold anywhere near as many books without his cover, bookmark and banner artwork (multiple attendees and buyers said the same thing).
Remember – you’re a small business, and don’t worry about being new
People like to support small businesses and creative endeavours. Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have built an entire industry off that sense of goodwill.
I’m not ashamed that I self-publish. I’ve deliberately gone my own way with things, and found an approach that works for me. I would strongly urge you to think along similar lines.
A fair few of my sales came from people who were driven by this. I’d say about half of them were people who were content-creators too (one guy was a singer, another worked for a movie company…) and the other half were people who have considered writing books themselves, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Either way, those people were all too happy to support a local artist who is trying to run a small business.
Similarly, don’t worry about letting people know you’re just starting out, for the same reason.
Bring essential supplies.
Tissues. Chewing gum (or mints) for breath after food. A 2-litre bottle of water. Hand sanitising gel (every few hours or you will get con-flu). An emergency USB charger which can power your phone if it starts to run out. Petty cash to get coffee. Deodorant/aftershave/perfume or anything else you routinely wear (again, these places can get hot). A bag for rubbish.
If your con is in a town (as mine was), you don’t need everything (you can always run out to a shop) but if you’re at an airport conference facility, make sure you have everything you could possibly need – as if you don’t have it, you can be certain you’ll need it.
Bring a USB power source
I mentioned this under “essential supplies” but I want to mention it again. For about £10 these days you can buy USB power sources – basically a battery you charge, and you can use this to charge your other devices. An inexpensive one will be enough to bring an iPhone back to 70% from near-dead.
Most cons do not allow you to use a power source unless you’re willing to pay, and the cost is expensive. As an exhibitor, you have two things which need power – your phone and your card purchase machine, and both of these need to be powered in order to work.
Lollipops aren’t worth it
This was the only part of my stall that was a bit of a waste – I had free lollipops to give away in a bowl, and I brought nearly all of them home with me! Certainly I made lives easier for some parents who had young, bored-looking children, and a bit of good cheer hurts no-one – but they weren’t free to me, and overall, probably weren’t worth it. I think only one sale came from them.
Most importantly, try to have fun!
OK, so this is a bit of a cliché, but it’s true. You’re trying to reach out to new readers, so you need to try your best to seem enthused. Your attitude (along with your artwork) is the first element of your work they’ll encounter, and you need to seem inviting. This is a lot easier if you’re having fun – so take plenty of breaks, stay hydrated and fed, and try to keep your spirits up even when things are quiet.