#WritingWednesday: My top 10 Survival Tips for a First-Time Exhibitor

September 06, 2017

I recently had a friend and fellow author ask me about how I prepare for a convention.I've attended both author signings (where the dominant genre was romance) and also pop culture/comic book conventions. My books are far better place at pop culture cons, but I think my tips can be used across all convention platforms.

If you've never been an exhibitor, it can be pretty daunting. Authors are natural introverts, so volunteering to put yourself out there and talk to <gasp!> real people, can be pretty overwhelming. But never fear! I have some advice to give. Here are my top ten tips for a first-time exhibitor:

1.  Have effective banners:

This is kind of a ‘duh’ point, but I’m going to make it anyway! I cannot stress this one enough. When I first started doing cons, I only had a couple of posters that went onto the board behind me. At the time, I was sharing my table with a fellow urban fantasy author, and I was struck by just how much more attention she received because she had larger posters with a more eye-catching design.

I’ve since refined the type of posters I use behind me, and instead of just using a regular A1-sized poster (23.4 × 33.1 inches), I began to use a pull-up (retractable) banner without the stand. Why, I hear you ask? Because they’re made of vinyl, and that means it doesn’t fray and won’t break apart as easily as a regular poster. PLUS, the length of a pull-up banner (760x1830mm or 29x72 inches) makes a really striking first impression, people can see it from a distance and over the heads of people as they move through the room.

For my Australian readers, I use Vistaprint for my banners. For my American readers, GotPrint has got some great products too.

    2. Sewing pins and scissors:

It's probably not something you'd think to bring, but both are invaluable.

I use sewing pins to tack up my pull-up banners! A lot of people use Velcro dots, which are great, but I’ve had them fail on me a number of times. The sewing pins (inserted at an angle into the padded backboard) can hold the weight of the banner all day long. 

And the scissors will always come in handy. You never know when you might need them.

    3. Condense your blurb into two or three sentences you can tell people interested in your books

People at conventions go with a goal – whether it to see one of their favorite authors, to get a celebrity’s photograph or autograph, or to buy something very specific that’s exclusive to the event. Getting people to come to your table is easy; keeping them there is where it gets tricky.

I approach this in a couple of ways:

a) I ask them a question about their day, ask what genre they read or who their favorite author(s) is/are, or
b) I ask them who they came to see at the event, or
c) I tell them about my series as briefly as possible. My exact words are: “This series is about werewolves and vampires; this series is about Norse Gods. Both are dark urban fantasy with paranormal romance elements.”

If people are still hanging around after that, I can tell them more specifically about the first book in each series. This is where you need to condense your blurb down to 2 or 3 sentences. People will know whether it’s something they’d be interested in after that. If they move on, no problem. If they want to know more, they'll stay and ask you questions.

I also realize that trying to sell yourself and your books is a contradiction of terms for an author since they are, mostly, introverts who don’t like talking to people. BUTconventions really are a great way to meet new readers, connect with existing fans and network with other authors.

     4.  A good supply of snacks and water

If you’ve got a food allergy like me, or you want to save some money on the sometimes crazy prices at events (at least in Australia), you’ll want to bring a good supply of food that you don’t need to heat up, refrigerate or add hot water to. Getting access to a microwave or boiling water is impossible as an exhibitor, so take sandwiches, crackers, nuts, fruit and snack bars. Personally, I’m all about protein as it keeps me fuller for longer, so I’m snacking on almonds. Bananas fills up space in your stomach and muesli/fruit bars do in a pinch.

Fluids—especially water—are essential. The point of going to a convention is to sell your books. In order to do that, you need to talk. You’ll be repeating yourself all day long, so stay hydrated.

    5. Candy for the table

Perhaps a cheap ploy, but it works! Seriously, put a bowl of candy out on your table.

“If you place it, they will come.”

People love free stuff, and free candy? You’ll have them coming back for seconds. As a side-effect of bringing joy and making someone smile, a little sugar hit is sometimes just what someone might need. After all, conventions are a long day out.

If you're at a romance dominant event, can I suggest lots of swag also - bookmarks, buttons, key chains, jewelry, magnets, stickers, bracelets, pens etc. This website has a nice selection of sources. I also did a post on promotional material sources, too so please check that out for some additional companies and websites.

    6. Stock

Another ‘duh’ bullet point, I know, but there has been one occasion where I’ve been caught out with not enough stock. The worst part? It was book one in the most popular series. Trying to sell the other books in the same series was tough without the first one there.

So, make sure you have enough stock, especially of the first book in a series. As a general rule, I take 30 copies of the first book and 20 of the remaining titles. I probably sell about half of those figures over the duration of a convention, so my numbers are a bit of overkill, but I’d rather have too many than too little, and you can never predict what’s going to sell on the day.

    7. Have a flyer with the essential information

For the past three cons I’ve done, I’ve had two flyers that I’ve handed out. ‘Flyer’ is probably not the most accurate word as a flyer is a thin piece of paper with the information on it. I actually use A6 postcards (from Vistaprint). I haven’t been able to find a US equivalent for our A5, but in inches it measures 4.1 x 5.8.

The card stock is 265 gsm so it’s nice and thick. I get mine made double-sided with the book cover on the front and the blurb and my website on the back.

The theory behind these is simple – people are drawn to the cover but maybe don’t want to stand in front of your table to read the blurb on the back of the book. If you give them a flyer, they’ll go away and possibly read the info over lunch. Maybe they like what they read, so they come and find you again. By having the cover on the front, they’ll be able to recognize your books and by having a website or Facebook page on the back, people can also follow up when they get home. This could lead to some e-book sales, or maybe some social media interaction.

    8. Consider a mini-book with the first chapter or two to give out

A good author friend (Hi, Belinda Crawford!!) of mine started making mini-books of her own book to hand out at conventions. Inside was a couple of chapters from the book along with some social media links at the back. This idea was GENIUS! She gives away so many of these at conventions and they’re great because they give people a little sample of your writing style and of your book. They read it and often get people coming back the next day to buy the books as they’ve liked what they’ve read.

According the the mini-books Facebook page each mini-book:

“This Hero mini book is printed on a single A4 page (a US Letter version will be available soon) and features the first 1,500 words of Hero: The Hero Rebellion 1 as well as a review quote and links to sign up to my newsletter.”

   9. Make friends with your neighbors:

Network, network, network. I can’t say this enough. Make friends with your author neighbors; you’ll be spending a lot of time with them over the course of the weekend at your convention. Just remember, you’re all there trying to do the same thing – sell your books and meet new readers. This is a great opportunity to get new content for your blog (if you have one) by doing interviews, reviews or just spotlighting their books. Perhaps you could agree to do an even swap – a review for a review. Maybe set up a group giveaway, bundling the books in a specific genre together and running a competition post-convention. Another idea is to help out with each other’s new releases or blitzes.

    10. Make sure you set up with plenty of time to spare

I hate being late. I hate not being prepared even more. So, when it comes to conventions, I always do a little scout-out before to figure out where I need to go and how long it’s going to take to get there. This usually comes in the form of setting up the afternoon or evening before, if you have the opportunity to do it. If you’re driving yourself, make sure you pre-book your parking (if you can) since you will be in the same spot all day and the dollars can add up. If you happen to be staying in a hotel close by, even better, although sometimes that’s not always possible. 

Make sure you plan ahead and pack accordingly, especially if you'll be traveling with banners and booth supplies. Book flights and hotels well in advance to save some cash. For my American readers, Vegas is the hub of conventions so make sure you use this page​ to book your stay.

So there you have it: my top ten tips. I hope you've gotten something out of it, and with any luck you'll have a very successful convention.

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