The Lessons of Phoenix Comicon
Phoenix Comicon was, as always, a wonderful and classy experience. Matt Solberg and his organization run a fantastic show which has grown like topsy. Each year more and more people show up, and each year I do better and better selling books and other items from my table. I gave my 21 Days to a Novel seminar there on Sunday morning and despite the early hour, had a mess of folks show up. I really had a bunch of fun, enjoyed meeting all sorts of cool folks, and cannot wait for the show next year.
I learned a number of things at the show this year which are directly applicable to authors and sales, both at shows like this and in the general world. Some of these things may be intuitively obvious to the incredibly sharp minds reading this blog. Please forgive me for belaboring such points because I think there are many folks—most of them house slaves—who need to understand these things.
1) At the end of the show I was asked by another exhibitor if I knew, roughly speaking, how much money booksellers made, on average, at the show. Now, as a guest, I had a five-foot table, which I covered with a variety of books and other items. This includes things like limited runs of comics, a few sets of out of print books, a stack of first edition, hardback I, Jedi, a Decipher promo card and a couple other odds and ends. If you came by the booth, it was pretty clear that my stock in trade was books.
But, really, it wasn’t. I replied to the question thusly, “Actually, I don’t sell books. I sell souvenirs.” By and large, what I sold were copies of books that folks already owned or had read, so that they could have me sign the book as proof they’d met me. The Decipher card (which has both Timothy Zahn and me on it) is a prime example of this sort of thing. It has no intrinsic value other than as a curiosity or something that will soak up an autograph. The fact that it’s fairly rare helps the collectibility angle, but you can’t read it, you can’t use it in a game, all you can do is hang on to it and display it in your collection. So, on those items, my stock in trade is souvenirs and nostalgia.
This realization didn’t surprise me. I’ve known this about my sales at Phoenix Comicon for years. The significance of it, however, is this: if I’m going to be at such a show and want to make money, I better have souvenir items to sell. I know, obvious—but it means that I have to look ahead and pick out those items of which I can produce a limited quantity and sell for their souvenir and collectible aspects. The nice thing about them is that, if done right, they are small, fairly inexpensive, and can be trotted out at conventions and signings for on-the-spot sales and/or sales to specialty outlets.
2) In his blog, Dean Wesley Smith shares an idea for being able to sell electronic books in independent bookstores. He goes into all the details, but the short form is this: authors can print up gift cards with the cover art on them and sell them into independent bookstores. Customers buy them, go home and download the book. Authors can also pack the cards with them to conventions and, just as I mention above, can have the cards at signings to sell. With a paint-pen you can even autograph the cards.
In time for the summer convention season, I went in a different direction. I printed up CD-Rom versions of In Hero Years… I’m Dead, the deluxe edition. The disks come in a printed and shrink-wrappepd cardboard sleeve which has a spot on the cover suitable for me to sign it with a paint pen. Oddly enough, by going with the cardboard wrap, I had to add another fifty cents to the cost of each disk over using a jewel case. Go figure. I sell the books for $6, which is what it would cost to download the book; and each disk has the mobi and epub formats, as well as instructions on how to load it onto a variety of machines. The disks pack small, so they’ll be easy to take to conventions.
The first thing I learned was that ebooks have made a much deeper inroad into public consciousness than I had imagined. When I told folks that this was an ebook, no one asked, “What’s that?” The most common question was wondering if they could read the book on their computer since they didn’t have a reader, but I only got that question twice. More commonly folks said, “I’d buy this, but I already have it on my [ereader of choice].” No one batted an eye about a book on a CD-rom.
Second, and even more surprising, I only signed 25% of the disks I sold. Folks just bought and walked away without asking if I would sign it. So, what I thought would be more of a souvenir type item wasn’t being treated like one by my customers. And their acceptance of the book in this format really throws open the door to being able to sell many more books this way; and to sell them into independent bookstores, just as Dean is doing with the gift cards. It’s not a question of whether or not it will work, it’s just a question of working out the economics so it works well.
Third, and most important of all, not a single person person balked at the $6 for a novel. Not one. I didn’t hear anyone ask why they should pay me $6 when other authors only want $1. (My reply would have been, “Because I’m ten times the writer they are and I’m cutting you a deal.”) Readers understand that a book is an entertainment experience, and that at $6 or even $10, it’s one heck of a great entertainment value.
3) Author attitudes about selling from behind a table really need to change. First off, an author can make some good pin-money at a table. In an hour’s autographing at Dragoncon I’ve made anywhere between $50 and $200. (I made the most when Kristy helped me—she was great at talking folks into buying things.) While there are some authors who think doing the whole clerk-thing is beneath them, I like making money to pay for airport parking or some meals while on the road and, more importantly, folks who want to buy a souvenir get a chance to do just that.
Second, you get to learn a lot about readers and their tastes while working a table. Back in the early days with Flying Buffalo I used to work the table at countless conventions. I got to listen to what customers said, and then I got to compare that with what they spent their money on. Not only did I see what they were buying from me, but I got to see what they were buying from other folks. This convention was four days solid of a pop-culture survey. I learned what was hot, what wasn’t, what selling techniques work, and ideas on the direction in which I should go for next year. For as much as I might complain that traditional publishing is completely out of touch with the common reader; not all that many writers are dialed in. A weekend behind a table, hawking your wares and talking to folks really gives you a solid feel for what’s going on.
4) Among creators, I had a ton of people telling me that they read this blog, and that they’re going ahead with their own digital publishing efforts. Across the board they were a bit nervous, but hopeful; and realistic. More than once I was told that folks understood that it was an “endurance race,” not a sprint. Had house slaves overheard those conversations, they’d have been tsk-tsking; but their masters would have had their blood running ice cold. Some of those folks might not make it—some of them might never have made it—but those who have the will to make it, and the skills to make it, now will make it completely independently of the traditional publishing system.
To paraphrase a well-known philosopher, “The Meek shall inherit tradpub because the rest of us will be out here doing it ourselves.”
5) The very last lesson, and most important lesson, is one that house slaves refuse to believe because they like the faery stories about how what they are going is art or Literature. It’s this: we’re entertainers, and what we do is entertainment. In this massive festival celebrating popular culture, never did I hear, “Oh, you’re just an author?” It was always, “Oh, cool, you’re an author.”
It’s in these places where popular culture and the written word meet that wonderful opportunities are born. I was working my table when a very well-known actor came over, picked up At The Queen’s Command, and said, “I think Hollywood is ready for more stories like this.” He offered to buy it—I gave it to him because I like his work. And nothing may come of that or, down the line, something might happen with another project; but the important thing is that this opportunity never would have happened save that I was there at my table, and he was at the convention, and we got to chat a bit.
The world of publishing is shifting more radically and quickly than I certainly ever imagined. The importance of attending shows like Phoenix Comicon is to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the world of entertainment. Only by paying attention do I have a chance to recognize opportunities that will keep me going.
The Ivory Towers of Literature might have been great for writing back in some imagined Golden Age; but this is the industrial revolution of entertainment. Come on down and get your hands dirty; or forever wonder why the world you once imagined was yours has evaporated in front of your very eyes.
Writing up this series of blog posts is cutting into my fiction writing time. If you’re finding these posts useful, and haven’t yet gotten yet snagged my latest novels, please consider purchasing a book. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)
My latest paper novel, At The Queen’s Command, is available at book retailers everywhere.
Tricknomancy is a braided novel. That’s author for a serial story told through a number of shorter pieces that all come together as a novel. Think of it in terms of a television series. This is series one, consisting of seven episodes. The stories feature Trick Molloy, a magick-using, ex-cop who left the force because he was framed for being a dirty cop. He now works as a bouncer in a strip club, helping friends, solving murders and dealing with an insane family, most of whom would like to see him dead or worse. It’s available for the Kindle, and for sale directly off my website for any epub compliant ereaders.