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The Great Con – An Author’s First Fantasy Convention

This weekend marked a memorable occasion. Not only was it my first book signing, it was also my first sci-fi/fantasy convention – ever. I’ve always wanted to go, and often imagined doing a signing at one. I envisioned droves of teen boys dressed as Star Trek or LOTR characters – harmless, funny, passionate people to whom I could relate, at least a little! LepreCon 37 in Tempe, Arizona wasn’t exactly what I imagined.

ashley3Day one was pretty dead. We dealers were told to set up late afternoon, and our wares would be available for purchase at 3:00pm. I don’t think anyone sold anything, but that was okay with me. It turned out to be a great opportunity for networking. I met the charming owners of a local bookstore who invited me to do signings, as well as the facilitators of DarkCon, a convention coming up in January. Chris Baldwin, who writes the delightful sci-fi strip Spacetrawler, was stationed at the table behind me and kept me company. The few folks who did stop at my table were pleasant, brief, and interested. I met a cool guy who works in dentistry and makes the most realistic vampire and zombie teeth I’ve ever seen. It all boded well for Saturday, which I was told would be the busy day.

ashley4Day two started off well enough. Traffic was indeed better, though not great, and I sold a book within the first hour. I sold another shortly afterward to a woman wearing swim goggles – it took me awhile to figure out it was part of her steampunk costume – and she showed me her artwork involving erotic elephants. I met a few pirates, snapped some pictures, thought about buying a corset, and sold two more books. A nice college student interviewed me for about twenty minutes on camera for his documentary about discrimination against women in fantasy. I’m not sure I helped his argument as I haven’t been discriminated against, that I know of anyway, but I did give an impassioned rant about the New York Times journalist who recently claimed Game of Thrones would not appeal to women because she personally didn’t know any women who liked fantasy. Don’t worry, Autumn2May and all you fantasy gals out there, I did you proud. After that, things got a little weird.

The squatters were out in force that day. They lingered at tables, including mine, for up to forty-five minutes at a time, just chatting. They scared off potential buyers, and for a girl who is socially awkward and has very little boundaries, they were a bit intimidating. Still, I was able to hold up okay until an older gentleman, whom I believe was well-intentioned, invited himself into my second chair. I had already reached my threshold for social encounters, and now had to endure a good thirty minutes of conversation in very close proximity that involved multiple offerings to buy me dinner. I started to get light-headed, dizzy and nauseous, and knew that a full-blown anxiety attack was looming on the horizon. His third offer to buy me dinner was interrupted by the Zombie-Eyed Man. When my new best friend commented on his moonstone necklace, zombie guy launched into a twenty-minute monologue about moonstones, ley lines and ghosts, most of which went over my head because it was all mumbled. The gist of it, however, had to do with his ultraviolet vision that granted him perfect night vision and an ability to see ghosts and auras. He went on to “prove” it by shining an ultraviolet light into his eyes. Under the light, his pupils dilated and turned purple. He claimed this was because he had “zombie eyes.” And to show what “normal” eyes were supposed to do under this light, he then leaned over and shined the light in both of my eyes.

I’m the girl who gets an instant headache from the light under the lid of copy machines. I get nauseous if someone takes my picture more than three times with a flash camera. I do not do well with any kind of light shined directly in my eyes, even if it’s a soft, ultraviolet light. And here I was, light-headed and dizzy already, and then the light. I knew if I didn’t get out of the situation soon, I was going to scream, vomit, faint or cry. Using the air-conditioner as an excuse, I went outside to warm up.

I took some deep breaths, called my husband and said, “I want to come home!” In the middle of our conversation, the Con photographer asked to take my picture. It was in the sun, so I figured I was safe. No such luck: eight pictures with the flash on. I ran back into the hotel and went upstairs; I’d heard there was a staff room where dealers could grab a bite to eat. I found a room that looked promising – it had a sign that said Con Suite. Six angry women looked up when I walked in, and snapped at me. “This is the Con Suite. That’s why it says Con Suite on the door.” I was very close to tears at this point, and was hoping that a little food would help settle my stomach. I finally found the staff room, and it was occupied by just two people, one of whom was the Zombie-Eyed Man. He was magically armed with a camera of his own, and when he saw me, he brightened and I said, “Can I shoot you?”

ashley1I do have a point when I don’t care anymore about being rude. It takes me a very long time to get there, but thank goodness it happens eventually. I told him no thanks – yeah, watch out for this bitchin’ chick! – and promptly went back to the dealers’ room and proceeded to pack up my things an hour early. I had already intended to skip the third day as it was Mother’s Day, but this certainly cemented that idea. Yes, I missed out on potential sales, and Sunday might have been the day the Star Trek and LOTR teens came out. But none of it was worth the risking the Return of Zombie-Eyed Man.

This was certainly a learning experience for me, and now that I’ve had some time to recover, I may be willing to try it again at a different Con. Apparently LepreCon is fairly sparse in general, and I was told I might do better at a more heavily populated convention. DarkCon sounds like a good bet, especially since my novels are dark fantasy. This convention certainly wasn’t worth it financially, but I kind of expected that going in. For authors considering a Con to sell books, here’s a rundown of my costs:

10 copies of my book with author discount and shipping: $115
Table rental: $70
Tempe city business license: $25
Arizona state business license: $40
Banner, bookmarks, business cards: $40
Total cost: $290
I sold four books at $15, which means I’m in the hole by $230. Ouch.

A note about the licenses. I asked the Con people if I needed them, and was told, “Vendors are responsible for any business licenses.” The City of Tempe explained I could get a Special Event license for the weekend ($25) but I was required to apply for the Arizona state license ($40) as well. However, no one asked to see these licenses, so that’s probably $65 I didn’t need to spend. A lot of conventions do require them, so make sure you find out ahead of time before skipping out on the expense. Also, I might have sold more books had I gone the third day. That was a personal choice (ZOMBIES!), and I’ll take that loss gladly.

Something else I discovered – aside from obviously needing better boundaries – is that it pays to be a little aggressive. I naively thought that if they wanted me on a panel, they would invite me. As a first-time author I did not feel comfortable asking if I could sit on a panel. I soon learned that much-less qualified people were sitting on several panels, and all I had to do was ask. There was also a book reading and signing that I didn’t know about, and an Arizona-Author Book Launching party, which I was not invited to participate in. Had I but asked, I could have experienced all of this. It’s clear that the marketing world has no place for simpering ninnies with low self-esteem. Not to sound like a self-help CD, but I had every right to be there, to be involved, to feel important. Sitting on panels would have been a great opportunity to showcase my book, not to mention providing an escape from the squatters. If I do go again, you can bet I’ll be asking to participate in everything.

So what did I learn from my first convention? It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to ask. It’s okay to shine. And it’s okay to hit zombies with a waffle iron.

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13 Comments

  1. Avatar Stefan says:

    What do you mean by “much-less qualified” panelists? That sounds rather condescending and arrogant, for a debut author.
    Looking down the list of panelists, there were plenty of authors who have at least two novels under their belt (some many more), so I don’t really know what makes you think they are “much-less qualified” than you to talk about their respective genres at a Convention.

  2. well it was a fun read, if not a fun experience! 🙂

  3. Avatar Autumn2May says:

    Great article! Lots of good tips for first timers. 🙂 When I do craft shows, I always make sure someone goes with me, that way if there are ‘interesting’ people about, at least I have backup. 🙂 It makes the time go faster if it’s slow too. Hope your next experience is a better!

  4. Avatar Jared says:

    Heh. I agree with Mark – nice writeup, if not a great experience!

    Seriously, the con-going experience varies wildly from incredibly great to incredibly horrible. Now that you’ve seen how it goes horribly wrong, hopefully that’ll help for future experiences. Going as a dealer is also a full-on (and super-expensive) experience. But it sounds like if you were there for networking, it wasn’t a complete loss. Maybe for the next con, attend first as a visitor and do the dealing/panelling/involvement the NEXT year.

    Volunteering is also a really good way to attend your first con. It seems a bit childish, but it really is the best way of meeting people (including the movers/shakers/planners/committee-members that run the show), and helps set up the groundwork for future cons.

    Perhaps a con-going tips & tricks thread in the forum would be a good idea?

    ANYWAY, all that aside, that was a hilarious write-up. Sorry it was such a crap experience, but hope that doesn’t sour you for life!

  5. Avatar Kathy says:

    Hey Ashley,

    Find one in Minnesota and I’ll come be your body guard;-)

  6. Thanks, guys — there were a lot of fun moments too and I’m glad I went for the experience. I met some really awesome people, not just crazy ones! Definitely agree that I should bring reinforcements with me next time. ; )

  7. Avatar Aston West says:

    It definitely helps to take a second person along, if for nothing else than someone to sit at your table while you take care of business in regards to the bathroom and meals. Sadly, even having additional people around does not always help with squatters. When that takes place at the conventions I go to, I keep an eye out for customers who may be approaching the table. Even if it may be rude (trust me, a person who hangs out for longer than a few minutes talking is likely never going to buy your books), go ahead and welcome the new customer anyway. Putting material (bookmarks or other such items) in their hands may give them incentive to come back when the coast is clear.

  8. Avatar Jude Johnson says:

    Ah, experience is such an interesting teacher… Another possibility for next time is to see if that bookstore would like you to do a signing at their booth, allowing you time to sit on panels and do readings without having to shell out for a booth or worry about the tax/business licenses.
    And you have every right to say to someone, “You know, I appreciate your story but I’m here to conduct business, so if you’ll excuse me I must sell books or the kidnappers are going to kill my dog.”

  9. Ashley, Thanks for sharing your experience. AsMark and Jared said, a great article even if you didn’t enjoy every moment. I hate the term ‘learning curve’…but I guess you had one of those. At least you know now what not to do. Taking someone passive aggressive with you might be worth paying their entry fee. Even of only to sit in the second chair and keep the strangers at bay. As for Zombie eye man… weird. Bring on the waffle irons. Obviously an intergral part of the dealer’s stock. Next conference will be brilliant I am sure. Here’s to hoping!!

  10. Avatar Susan Walgenbach says:

    I heard the story verbally from my lovely daughter-in-law. It’s so you Ashley; kind, patient and compassionate. However, I personally would not have had the patience to put the precious time in with little reward and time lost.
    You are a good woman. I agree with taking a buddy along, my choice would be a very good looking, tall and muscular hard body. Fun and intimidating.

  11. Avatar Libertine says:

    Great article, thanks for sharing the experience, I hope future cons are much better for you.

    On the plus side, you’ll probably get some sales from writing about it too, you’re on my ‘to read’ list!

  12. Avatar David says:

    Thanks for sharing, Ashley! I’ve never done a writing con, but I’ve been to manufacturing cons and I run into my fair share of “memorable” people. Good luck with your next con!

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