Conventions, conferences, and book signings for every Author Ecosystem
I started my career at shows, and it's how I mainly built my business for the first several years. It's how I learned about my audience and how I kept myself going in the dark times.
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Authors who know me probably learned of me through Kickstarter, but Kickstarter was a relatively small part of my business until 2017, and even then it wasn’t until 2020 when I started doubling down on Kickstarter. Before then, the vast majority of my fiction income came from conventions.
I wrote a chapter of my book How to Build Your Creative Career about it, and co-wrote a whole book withcalled Get Your Book Selling at Events and Signings. Here’s the intro to the chapter in How to Build Your Creative Career about them.
Live events are festering cesspools of wasted money for most creators. Most creatives know live shows are important for their career, but don’t know how to use them to make money or to grow their brand. It ends up being a financial burden instead of a lucrative, money-making opportunity.
The good news is that it’s very possible to make money and grow your brand at live shows. If you can do it right, live shows are the absolute best opportunity to quickly build and maintain a passionate audience that will buy from you.
That’s the beauty of live events, but it takes incorporating much of what we’ve talked about previously into the live event experience. It means thinking about live events differently than you do now, and understanding how to make the live event experience work for you.
Live events are the easiest way to build an audience, as well. People are a lot nicer and more engaging in person than they are online. Since you are directly in front of customers with your wares, you can quickly turn somebody from a cold prospect into a warm lead—and even convince them to buy—in a single interaction.
The best thing about live events is that everybody who passes your table is a potential customer. They have all paid to get in and decided to walk through your area. In doing so, they have self-selected themselves as being interested in what you have to offer. Now, the trick is just convincing them you are the right vendor for their needs.
Before you read through this section, I highly recommend going back to take notes on the sales funnel, pitching, and mailing list lessons we discussed earlier. I’m not going over them again in this section, and they are critical to your success at live shows.
The most important aspect of live show success is to get in the right mindset before you walk into the door. It’s critical that you are prepared to deal with people for ten hours a day for the entire length of the show. Live events will drain you. You need to have a full battery before you walk into the convention center, and you will need time to recharge that battery before the following day.
Everybody has different tricks when it comes to getting in the right mindset. It could mean psyching yourself up in a car for thirty minutes, finding an anchor point with people you know, or picturing everybody naked. Whatever your secret, you need to find the right headspace in order to be successful. All the tactics in the world won’t work unless you are mentally ready to employ them.
I know you will want to curl up in a ball and hide after your first unsuccessful pitch, but you have to keep going. Just remember, home is just a few hours away—however, you paid a lot of money to be at the show, and you need to make the most out of it. It’s way better to head home with a big wad of cash in your pocket than to have nothing but a hoarse voice to show for your effort.
It’s been the better part of a decade since I wrote those words, but they are still true even today. It’s just that, in the ensuing years, we’ve created better systems to understand your author career.
Of all the elements of direct sales I teach, event sales is easily the one that the least people are interested in, which is wild considering they kept by business going through some very dark times.
I’m still bullish on conventions, with the caveat that conventions have an ableist problem that became starkly clear after my surgery last year before San Diego Comic-Con and reinforced after getting Long COVID last year. This is what I wrote about it last year.
For all the good conventions have done me, there is a pernisious problem with them as well. You see, there is a critical accessibility issue with conventions that I only realized at San Diego Comic-Con.
I can't in good conscience do a little series about convention selling without bringing this up, because being successful at conventions is simply much harder for some people.
I have spent many, many days dealing with my own chronic conditions, and my wife's, but this was the first time I actually experienced a physical disability that forced me from giving 100%.
Or, I should say, that my 100% was really maybe 50%.
Which meant I couldn't stand. I couldn't walk well. I used a cane, and I wasn't able to interact with new customers with my usual gusto...
...I realized during these interactions, where I was in pain, in grief, and just not at my best, that unless you are standing behind your booth, smiling, and acting as if everything is perfect...
...90% of people will not buy from you, no matter what.
I always knew about the song and dance. I mainlined coffee to make sure I could stay up for it during the day...
...but experiencing it with a disability, and age that prevented me from doing what I used to do was really enlightening, and disgusting.
This is not something that shows can fix, because it is inherent in the human condition.
People buy from the song and dance. They buy from the passion they can see on your face. If you are unable to provide that for them, they walk away.
Yes, I made sales, but they were mostly from existing customers who knew me, and a few lovely humans who saw through the pain.
It's not fair, but it is the truth I saw this weekend.
I am astounded I never made the connection before, and I am very sorry for the ableist way I've been going about teaching convention sales for years.
The most important thing you can do for yourself is know your body, and know your limits. It might not be profitable for you to do shows, and that is okay. It's only one channel.
Regardless of all that, I think conventions are an important element of direct sales, and it’s important to know how to sell at them in ways that best fit your ecosystem. So, I’m going to lay out the best strategies I have found that would work for each type.
For the sake of this article, I’m going to define conferences, conventions, and book signings as three distinct pieces.
Conferences - These are events set up to learn about an industry, with very little selling going on. There are likely vendors at these events, but they are mainly there to answer questions and set meetings for future sales. Conferences include events like ALA, Bookexpo, 20books, NINC, and the Future of Publishing Mastermind, but also exist in every industry. Events like WorldCon and World Fantasy Convention are a hybrid of the two, but I believe they call on the conference side.
Conventions - These are events where you set up to sell books. These include events like SDCC, NYCC, Phoenix Fan Fusion, Readers Take Denver, and DragonCon, but I’m also going to throw swap meets, flea markets, street festivals, and the like into these because the vibe is more sales-forward.
Book Signings - These are events where you go to a bookstore or library and sign your books, either alone or with a small group of other authors. I’m not going to single these out below much because they can be beneficial to all ecosystems.
Finally, people often ask which events I recommend and I can’t tell you that since my experience was defined by my ecosystem. Your experience will be vastly different than mine. However, I keep a con sheet of all my revenue, expenses, and thoughts on shows for everything I’ve done from 2015-2022. This is solely focused on conventions, but hopefully, it can help you.
Advantages: Deserts are the ecosystem with the least interest in meeting fans and building an audience, so it might at first seem like a poor fit to add events into your catalog, but there are a couple of things that could make event sales work for you.
First, since Deserts generally aim their books at the center of the Bell Curve to appeal to the most people, Deserts have the best ability to hire help to run their booths for them. They might not even show up, since their books are designed to sell themselves. Other ecosystems have a hard time hiring staff to work for them because their books sell at least partially because they are the ones who wrote them.
Not true for Deserts. For Deserts, the appeal of their books is that they are the perfect encapsulation of a genre or trope, so they should be able to sell without the author even being present. This is one of the reasons that Deserts make great publishers because they create experiences that exist beyond any single author.
Additionally, while most other ecosystems should focus on very niche shows where they can find their people, Deserts can usually expand out well beyond that into the flea market, swap meet, and street festival circuit more easily. In general, these events are filled with middle of the Bell Curve readers who want easy-to-consume books that make them feel a certain way inside.
Finally, if you choose to go into the convention circuit, then a Desert can take in the most popular items at an event and learn how to attract the most people to their table with additional merch or special edition covers that speak to the audience without them having to say a word.
As for conferences, Deserts are best attending to collect data, watch, and learn. They won’t get a lot of value speaking at conferences because revealing their secrets would diminish the arbitrage they traffic in for their success. However, people tend to reveal their best secrets in person, and this is like gold for Deserts.
Challenges: Deserts are generally opposed to building audiences, speaking to people, or “dancing for dollars”. So, they often come across as surly instead of inviting. All they want to do is write their books in peace, so if you do decide to attend conferences or conventions, especially as a vendor, just remember that you are part of the experience, and you need to put on a good show if you want to make sales.
Events are a microcosm of the overall audience. If you start to cater to them, you’ll miss out on the trends of the overall market and it can seriously affect your sales. I’ve made lots of mistakes by tailoring books to event buyers at the expense of my online sales. That said, you should at least have special edition covers for your books at conventions because those buyers prefer uniqueness over the homogeneity of retailer platforms.
Advantages: Since a Grassland’s superpower is depth and owning a topic, they will get the biggest advantage of being seen at events catering to their topic. In fact, they should try to speak everywhere they possibly can, as they are trafficking in authority. Every time a new event that allows you to speak is on some level bestowing their blessing on you as an expert, the more audiences you can get in front of, the more authority you will build.
The secret to this is hyper-focusing on your topic. If you are talking about self-publishing, then going to ALA really won’t help you at all, because libraries almost exclusively order from Ingram or similar distributors. Similarly, if you are a mid-tier publisher looking to network with bookstores and libraries, 20books Vegas would be a terrible show for you to attend or speak at, because it’s all about self-publishing.
I’m talking about publishing here, but my wife does shows hyper-targeted to BCBAs and ABA, and there are similar industry shows for just about every topic from tractors to plumbing to doctors.
For fiction authors, your strength is in having a massive catalog of books in one world, so it will benefit you most to go to places that are hyper-specific to audiences that want your books, even if they are smaller than other ecosystems would benefit from with their books. This is because if you can make one sale, you’ll probably sell your whole catalog of books. I highly recommend looking into Dropcards and offering all your books digitally. That way you don’t have to carry a thousand books across your epic series.
While I normally recommend that a fiction author not do anything less than a 10,000-person convention, if you can find one laser-focused on your genre, then you’ll probably become the most popular author at that event, especially if you speak on a panel. Even as a fiction author, it’s critical that you speak on panels about your topic depending on the genre because you also traffic in authority.
Challenges: It’s much more exhausting to speak at a show than anyone realizes. I spend the same amount of energy walking 10,000 steps and speaking for one hour. While it’s really exciting to be asked to speak at a conference, make sure to be judicious with your energy. Additionally, it’s easy to get charmed by shows and let it blind you to online audience building or any of the other ways you should be building your list.
It’s really easy at conferences to blend into the crowd, and Grasslands risk being swept up by the crowd if they don’t speak up. Large events might not be advisable if you aren’t willing to take advantage of the large numbers by inviting them into your universes.
I know a lot of Grasslands who make their living traveling the conference or convention circuit and neglect building their own audience, which makes them dependent on the conference. If it ever stops existing or gets worse, then their business dries up.
Advantages: If Tundras traffic in excitement, conventions are excitement on steroids. Because Tundras like to exert maximum energy for short bursts, conferences are the perfect outlet for that energy. As long as they remember to rest between events to recover, they can basically just keep running conferences at regular intervals between Kickstarter or other launches.
Since Tundras are often the loudest, most exciting thing around, it’s easy for a Tundra to stand out from the crowd and make money at a show even if everyone else is floundering. Their ability to trope stack also allows them to tailor their pitches to different customers, highlighting different aspects of their book depending on what each reader likes.
Additionally, Tundras are the ultimate BOFU (Bottom of the FUnnel) superstars, so they can create packaged offers designed to sell. All of this means that Tundras more than any other ecosystem should look for events with lots of traffic, so they can have the most conversations with the most readers. This doesn’t mean going anywhere there are a lot of readers. I’ve made that mistake before, but if there’s the option of several similar events, default to the biggest one where you can get the most traction.
For conferences, you want to make sure you’re on as many panels and workshops as possible, so you can capture the excitement of the attendees and get them to take action. Make sure to have some sort of lead magnet or offer so you can get your audience into your own funnel.
Challenges: Tundras are all about big energy investments to secure big wins, so small events are kind of the death of a Tundra. You still have to expend a ton of energy, but you don’t get anywhere near the ROI for your time as you get at big events. Other ecosystems can go on energy saver or low-power mode, but not Tundras.
You also have to remember to recover between shows. You should have at least a 2-week break between shows, but hopefully longer. It seems like 10-12 big shows a year is a good clip for a Tundra. Just make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.
Advantages: Forests are great at making everyone in their community feel welcome and a conference or convention is a great way to bring everyone together at one time and invite new people to join you. Forests radiate warmth and are great at engagement, so if they can get somebody to stop at their table or engage them in conversation, they will do great at shows.
However, often Forests don’t make the first move. They prefer people to identify as their perfect customers before they engage, so they lose a lot of potential fans who are just casually browsing and don’t show that immediate enthusiasm. Forests don’t care much for casual anything, especially fandom. They focus their attention on people who self-identify as already choosing to enter a Forest’s orbit.
On top of that, Forest authors are often introverts outside of their communities, so they shy away from engaging until somebody is bought in, which means they can get drowned out at big events. Instead, a Forest should make their table as welcoming as possible and present a low-barrier-of-entry way to get people excited about their work on a small level. Yes, you want to have something for your superfans, but you should also provide ways for new readers to enter your ecosystem easily.
Think about welcoming everyone with a smile and interacting with as many people in conversation as possible. Additionally, you’ll likely want to avoid broad shows like SDCC and focus on ones that are smaller and allow for long conversations with your potential readers, unless you can find ways to create a more intimate experience inside of the larger conference or convention atmosphere.
When you’re at a conference, make sure you create ways to meet up with your people, either specifically through your own coordinated events or more generally by providing safe spaces for people in your perfect audience to connect together in event-sponsored meet-ups. The power of your community is in that shared language, and the more your people have chances to connect together and expand your message, the more successful you will be at any event.
You might also consider founding your own conference filled with just your readers to give everyone a safe space to gather and express their inner weirdo. If not, you can consider any conference a chance to build a narrative around your fandom and find your people by the end of it. Start broad on the first day and narrow your focus by the end to bring more ardent fans into your universe.
Challenges: Forests are great at welcoming their people, but they tend to be imposing to people who haven’t bought into their worlds yet. Forests more than any other ecosystem need to open up and become super welcoming to everyone that passes their table, not only superfans. It’s an amazing experience to watch a Forest talk to somebody already excited to be around them, but the excitement dries up if somebody doesn’t know their world yet.
That makes sense because if you’re used to speaking to excited and enthusiastic readers, coming across one who doesn’t know you from a stranger is offputting and jarring. It’s natural to want to retreat to your community for support, but events are great for breaking you out of your comfort zone and attracting new readers. Once you have them, you’ll create lifelong fans. Don’t be scared to reach out beyond your comfort zone.
Advantages: Aquatics are masters at delighting their audience. While Tundras sell through excitement, Aquatics sell through delighting their fans with different formats and knowing them so well that they can create superfans almost at will if they get in front of the right customers. Aquatics have the highest percentage of superfans of any ecosystem. However, they also tend to have very small audiences because they are hyper-focused on those people who resonate with their message.
Like Forests, Aquatics should focus on how to delight the most people at a conference if they want to have success. Since they are usually delightful, this means if they extend themselves beyond just their superfans and create ways for readers to join their universe, they will succeed. The great thing about Aquatics is that they already have a ton of formats that are tailored to so many buyers, so they can lean on that to bring people in from a wider pool than just readers.
Like Grasslands, it’s probably best for them to focus on events that are very tailored to their specific audience because they’ll be able to convert smaller audiences better than any other ecosystem, even if they don’t have a ton of content. Since they are trying to create a trend from nothing, most people will pass by their booth at a large, unfocused show. If they are able to have long conversations with a select group of people, they will thrive.
Even more than Forests, Aquatics should think about forming their own conference or convention. Their people will pay top dollar to have an exclusive experience with them, and Aquatics will rise to the challenge to create something unique and wonderful.
Challenges: Aquatics speak the language of their universe, which is isolating to most people they meet at a conference. They need to find ways to expand their message and broaden the appeal if they want to bring in new readers. Aquatics don’t really care about new readers, but you can’t get superfans if you don’t get new readers, and you can’t get new readers if you don’t expand your message to give them permission to join your world.
More than any other ecosystem, Aquatics risk being drowned out at an event because their topic is usually very niche. The more they can tack that message to an overall topic or theme with more resonance, the more people they will attract and the more success they will have. They already know how to treat their superfans. They just need to find ways to bring new fans into their universe.
As I mentioned at the top, I didn’t mention book signings much above. I highly recommend you go into your local bookshops and libraries to schedule events with them. Most of them have events throughout the year you can join for free or cheap and they can become excellent advocates for your work.
There is no doubt that these types of events are time-consuming and energy-draining. You need to take time to recover from them and plan for that time. However, they are also the quickest way to inject much-needed enthusiasm (and revenue) into your business.
While it takes 7-14 touchpoints to make a sale online, you can drastically reduce that at an in-person event, often down to a single conversation. We are social creatures and like to do business with people we meet in person over those we only see online. That is the power of these events.
Additionally, since you are surrounded by other people who are all on a similar journey as you, or at least resonate with the same kind of stuff, there is a shared language that develops, and shared experiences bond people together.
Just remember, events are only one pillar of direct sales. While they can be used often, as I used to do 30-40 events in a year, it’s also very effective to pick and choose your events carefully around launch events, or lulls in your years to inject excitement into your business when you need it most.
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