The first SF convention was held in 1936 in the United States (New York City), or in 1937 in England (Leeds) – a matter of debate that hinges on the definition of “convention”. At any rate, more than seventy-five years later, SF conventions are Big Business, with events held every weekend of the year around the globe. Nearly every convention has a Dealer’s (Huckster’s) Room. Typical merchandise for sale includes jewelry, artwork, clothing, toys, games, weapons … and books. For dealers, the great thing about genre conventions is that they provide a tightly focused customer base that is highly motivated to spend money. And while it is true that in the last decade or so more and more of the money spent in the Dealer’s Room has been going to non-book merchandise, reading is still the core of most genre conventions and books remain a very strong seller.
Upcomingcons.com/science-fiction-conventions is a good resource for finding information on a variety of upcoming conventions. Once you’ve located a con in your area, check out its website. Look for the email for the Dealer’s Room contact, but carefully read any information that might be available. For example, if the Dealer’s Room contact specifies no inquiries before a certain date, then you should pay attention. A large number of SF conventions are run by volunteers, and irritating someone who is doing a difficult task without getting paid is a bad way to introduce yourself.
This article is mainly based on my experience selling at the past nine Balticons, with a couple smaller cons thrown in over the years. Balticon is a four day SF and Fantasy convention held annually on Memorial Day weekend. It is the largest convention of its kind in the Baltimore, MD area, with approximately 1500 registered members. It is not my intent to push the idea of selling at genre conventions as a viable option for all online sellers. But even if con selling isn’t right for you, this article should help demonstrate that there are alternative selling venues for online sellers. These alternative face to face sales venues represent an opportunity to make some profit, generate contacts, and have fun selling books.
To be sure, SF convention selling is not for everyone. For example, you need to have a strong knowledge of the genre. Genre readers love to talk about what they’ve read and are always looking for recommendations for new books and authors, so you need to be able to at least hold your own in conversation. You can’t expect to make money if you know nothing about the genre, and show up cold with some boxes of SF paperback tat that you’ve randomly accumulated. In the nine years I’ve been selling at Balticon, I’ve established relationships with a number of repeat customers. For example, one woman likes omnibus editions, and spent nearly $300 at this year’s con because I scout inventory with her in mind.
Space in the Dealer’s Room is usually sold by the table. You should check to see if the con provides the tables, or if you need to bring your own. Spaces are limited, and routinely sell out early for the mid-size and bigger conventions. When you email the Dealer’s Room coordinator make it clear that you will be selling books. Some conventions are having trouble getting as many book dealers as they would like, and so might give you preference in getting a space. However, preference is also given to veteran dealers so don’t be surprised if they tell you there is no room left. Ask to be put on the wait list, and you might get in if another dealer drops out. This will also give you a head start for the following year.
Costs will vary, mainly depending on the size of the convention. Balticon currently charges $150 per table, and includes a convention registration with each of the first two tables. You might have to purchase con registrations separately from the spaces in the Dealer’s Room, or you might need additional registrations if you have people helping you. If you do, be aware that most cons raise the registration prices as the event date gets closer.
Overhead costs will certainly be a major consideration in deciding if convention selling will work for you. As with book fairs, you will have to figure travel, food and lodging into your expenses. In my case, the site for Balticon is only about 30 miles from my house, so not having to pay for a hotel lowers my overhead considerably. I have thought about doing large conventions that are further away, such as Philcon in Philadelphia, but have not taken that step yet mainly because of the added overhead. Some of the dealers I know do six or more conventions each year.
Be very picky when acquiring stock. Don’t worry about having enough stock to fill up your space – your problem will be having enough space to show all your stock. In general, don’t waste time, money or space on anything less than Very Good condition. A worn paperback with spine creasing just takes up the place of a better condition book, which has a much better chance of selling. My minimum selling price is $3 for paperbacks, and $8 for hardbacks – though I carry many books that well exceed those minimums. For that amount I think the customer deserves a very good or better book. Obviously, exceptions apply – some books are so scarce that the price goes up no matter what the condition.
When selling at an SF convention, take advantage of the face-to-face situation. Talk to the customers, find out what authors or books they’ve read and liked. Using your knowledge of the genre, recommend other books or authors – ideally, ones that you just happen to have in stock. Of course, I will make recommendations of titles that I do not have in stock, even to the point of directing them to another dealer in the room that I know has a copy. These customers come back to the con year after year after year, and something like that will stick in their memory. I have one customer who was really pleased with some books I picked out for him several years ago. He now comes back every year, trusting me to make recommendations on what he should buy next based on what I know about his reading likes and dislikes. He spent nearly $200 this year alone.
Speaking of the repeat customers, you should periodically “freshen up” your inventory. Part of this will happen naturally as you add new stock to replace that which has sold. My experience has been approximately 15 to 20 percent turn rate on my stock for one convention. But as part of your inventory catalog you should note when a particular book was added, and consider removing certain books after some arbitrary number of years without selling. I bought a couple of big SF collections this past year, so pulled nearly 50 percent of the bottom end of my old inventory and replaced it with all new stock – and my gross revenue went up by nearly the same percentage compared to the previous year. Now I just have to figure out what to do with the books that I pulled… box lots on eBay, garage sale with ads on Craigslist, trade in for store credit at a local used bookstore?
Another tip – know your inventory. One customer wanted to buy a $3 paperback, which I noticed was the first book in a trilogy. I showed her a trade paperback omnibus edition that had all three books, which she bought for $10. Another customer was wearing a Pink Floyd concert shirt, and I showed him a hardback book on the history of the band (one of the many non-genre books that I like to stock – see below) that he bought for $20.
Which leads to my biggest secret for success in selling books at a science fiction convention: bring lots of interesting non-genre books, or “specials” as I refer to them.
The non-genre books that I like to stock can cover any number of subjects. For many fans, costuming is a big component of the science fiction convention experience, and books about vintage clothing and jewelry, hair styles, hat making, military uniforms, and makeup and costuming for the stage all sell well. I’ve sold coffee table books on the history of Halloween costumes, on the world’s most elaborate tree houses, on 1960’s concert posters and rock album covers, on Japanese woodblock prints, on roadside Americana, on European and Oriental arms and armor, on Dr Seuss’s war time cartoons, and blue prints of homes from classic TV series. Collections of Pogo, Dick Tracy, Little Nemo, Tin Tin, and Betty Boop all sell. With the sub-genre interest in Steampunk (google it, if this is not a familiar term) almost anything related to Victoriana could sell. Non-genre writings from well-known authors like CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien are also in demand.
Describing how to pick what non-genre books will be of interest is difficult. It really comes down to a gut feeling – if it interests me and I am a science fiction fan, then I assume it will interest other SF fans. I would not bother with a glossy picture book on Porsche sports cars, but if I found a similar book on the history of the Delorean (think Back to the Future) for a couple dollars, I might try it. The beauty of books like these is that even if there are six other book dealers in the room with you, the odds of any of them having those particular non-genre books is vanishingly small. And because these types of books are so interesting and have such great visual appeal, they can move to my antique mall space after the con is over and work the whole year round.
To make setting up and tearing down more efficient, I’ve come up with a simple system. Paperbacks are stored in alphabetical order in flat plastic tubs, and set up is as simple as placing the tubs in order on the tables and pulling the lids off. Hardbacks and trade paperbacks are stored in alphabetical order in long boxes, just as they would appear on the shelves. Ideally, for setup the books come straight out of the boxes and on to the IKEA book shelves, with everything then in order and ready to go. Tear down is just the reverse, and just as easy. You’ll also notice in the picture below that I put a lot of the large format “specials” (described above) in face-out display, using the paperback bins. Face-out display is absolutely critical in maximizing sales: for one thing, it capitalizes on the work that the publisher put in to designing an attractive or compelling cover. Face out covers will catch the eye of someone passing by, and draw them in to look more closely.
My reasons for selling at Balticon are varied. To begin with, I make a very good profit for a weekend of work. Of course, there is time spent over the year prepping for the con. Some of this is time spent scouting, which I would still be doing as part of my online business. I do have to clean, price, catalog and organize the stock. There was a one-time initial outlay for the IKEA shelving and the plastic bins that I use. And storing the part of the inventory that I don’t use at the antique mall or online (see below) does take up some room for most of the year.
Selling at Balticon complements my online and antique mall selling. Balticon and the antique mall provide a nice outlet for good books I encounter while scouting, that are too low value to list online. The antique mall is a good place to put some of the books that I also sell at Balticon (the interesting non-genre “specials” I talk about above), so that they work for the whole year and not just one weekend. And I can list my high end SF books online, and pull them to bring to Balticon.
SF conventions will usually have at least one major Guest of Honor (GOH), typically a big name author. Balticon has both an author and an artist GOH, and there are always other well-known authors and artists who show up for the fun. The GOH is announced well in advance, which gives you time to stock up on the author’s works. These will of course sell very well at the con, and you can also get books signed. This has obvious implications in terms of adding value to your stock, and to books in your personal collection if you so choose.
And when all is said and done … I really enjoy selling at the cons. I’ve been a big SF fan all my life, and I really enjoy meeting and talking with other fans and the pros. I supplied a blurb for Bud Webster’s book on SF convention selling (The Joy of Booking, Merry Blacksmith Press, ISBN 0615523439) in which I said “… he has found a way to take something he would do anyway – press a book into someone’s hand and force them to read it – and make a little money doing it.” This neatly sums up how I feel about selling at Balticon. I don’t make a fortune. But it consistently generates a nice profit, has helped to grow my business, and is a lot of fun.