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Selling Your Books Ain’t as Easy as it Looks

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012 | Posted by Bud Webster

bud-dealing-smallAs I write this, I’m preparing to travel 60 miles or so to attend a (more or less) local convention, MarsCon 2012 in Williamsburg, Virginia. It’s a terrific event, mostly a relax-a-con where the emphasis is on having a good time rather than doing business. The Guest of Honor is S. M. Stirling, author of Dies the Fire and the other Emberverse books.

I say that doing business is a secondary aspect of MarsCon, but that’s true primarily of hanging with agents, editors and/or publishers and signing contracts. Not a lot of that kind of business goes on. There is plenty of trade going on, though, and in fact MarsCon is well known for having one of the best and most varied dealers’ rooms on the Eastern Seaboard.

Me, I sell used and rare books there every year. Did you have any doubt?

There are other book dealers there, too, some selling even rarer titles than I do (my main concentration is on old, raggedy-ass paperbacks and SFBC hardcovers after all), and some with new titles right off the Ingram shelves.

Bud Webster wonders if he can afford TEXT

Bud Webster wonders if he can afford a first edition San Diego Lightfoot Sue

We hang out together, we booksellers, swapping lies about the Collection That Got Away and trying to pry something we want from the greed-infused hands of our competition without having to, y’know, pay money for it or anything.

We compete for the same dollar, yeah, but we also send each other customers who are looking for what we don’t have ourselves. We’re good, old-fashioned bookmen, we are, even those of us who are women.

We’re not the only people selling the bound codex, mind you. There are tables set aside for writers who bring their own titles to sell, and believe me, there are so many that each year (and every year there are more and more of them), the poor bastard who runs the hucksters’ room finds it necessary to pick and choose who does what, and where, and most importantly, IF they do it at all.

That last is a real consideration. A year ago, a friend who runs the dealers’ room at a good-sized regional was approached by a father who had paid to have his 15 year-old daughter’s novel printed and bound. Dad wanted a free table in the room so they could sell her book. Okay, the kid gets kudos for actually writing – and finishing – a novel, a task that plenty of adults never get around to, no matter how much they might yak about it. My friend reluctantly gave them a table in what he calls “Authors’ Alley,” where other self-published or small-press authors set up their bowls of candy and be-dull their buttocks.

fantastic-stories-of-imaginationThis year, dad contacted him again, having paid for yet another of his progeny’s books to be “published,” and this time my friend refused out right.

His reason? Anybody can pay somebody else to produce a bound set of pages with words all over them and their name on the spine, and whereas the industry and commitment shown by this teenager is more than just laudable, daddy’s indulgence does not entitle her to the status of those authors who have sweated through the process of submission to an actual publisher who provides at least a modicum of editorial oversight.

That process of consideration on the part of a legitimate (even if small-press) publisher as to quality of story and story-telling; the simple act of proof-reading on the part of the acquiring editor to correct errors in grammar, spelling and syntax; the judgment on the part of that editor as to the marketability of the book in question is absolutely vital, if only to separate the actual, professional-level writers from the pretenders. Without it, all you are is somebody who paid somebody else, and anybody can do that. Just sayin’.

That aside, there are some very real problems with selling your own books at conventions. First and foremost are the expenses. At some conventions, especially the large regionals (don’t even mention the Major Leagues), tables can cost $150 or more each. Add that to travel&tool, hotel and food expenses, and you’d better hope you get one hell of a lot of foot-traffic past that 6-8′ flat surface.

Don’t depend on cute bookmarks or a bowlful of Hershey’s Kisses to make the nut, either. We’re not even talking about what your stock is going to cost you, even if you get a 50% discount from your publisher.

prelude-to-spaceThen, you have to factor in the time you’re going to spend in a folding chair with your ass growing number by the hour. Hucksters’ rooms are open late on Fridays, usually from 9am-6 or 7pm on Saturdays, and 9am until 3pm or so on Sundays. You gotta eat, you gotta powder the writerly nose from time to time, and there are those panels you promised to do so that you can wave the cover of your latest at the assembled masses and remind everybody that you’re selling copies downstairs.

That means you’ll have to bring someone with you, or depend on a convention gopher (if they have any to spare, that is) to help out, and then their butts will be stuck in that chair. They might not have the enthusiasm to successfully push your stuff, though. Fair warning.

Oh, yeah, at a lot of conventions there are going to be as many as a dozen other writers doing the same damn thing, with their bowls of stale chocolates and anesthetized hineys competing for your $$. So you’re going to be stuck there busting your hump to divest Joe Phan of his beer-money.

Hell, they might even have fresh-baked cookies or fudge, and if you think I’m making a joke, you haven’t done this before. I’ve seen a crowd of fifty or more people gather around one self-published “author’s” table because she brought in hot peanut-butter brownies that you could smell all over the room, and she sold out her nasty little book of badly-written paranormal-romance yarns by the time the pan was empty.

You can forget about the weaponry and jewelry and DVDs and soft-toy Cthulhus and steampunk kitsch and toy robots by and large, because people who buy that stuff generally don’t read all that much anyway. You’re going to be competing for exactly the same customers as the other scriveners.

John O'Neill selling BLACK GATE magazine in the Windycon Dealer's Room.

John O'Neill selling BLACK GATE magazine in the Windycon Dealer's Room.

(You’re also going to be competing with old-time hucksters like me flogging OP Clarke and Bradbury and all the rest of those Great Old Ones, but I don’t mind the competition. Knock yourselves out, I will be.)

Here’s a suggestion if you want to be free to wander around the con and schmooze, eat a decent lunch instead of sending your SigOther to KFC or eating the pizza or cold-cuts some concoms are kind enough to supply their dealers, and be free to pee when you have to without finding said SigOther so they can watch your table while you run to the can: find a bookseller in the room and make a deal with them.

I’ve done this for years, keeping a box of a Guest’s books under my table with one up top as a display, selling at full whack and taking a 20% consignment fee. That way, you don’t have to lug them around, you don’t have to worry about leaving the table uncovered if you have to visit the Ladies’ or Gentlemen’s Lounge, and when you have a signing you just tell your fans where they can buy a copy for you to scribble in.

It’s not hard to do this. A few months before the con, send e-mail to the dealers’ room honcho asking what booksellers will be in the room and for their e-mail addresses and/or URLs. Drop them a note asking if they’d be willing to take copies on consignment at 20%, and throw in a signed copy for their own collection to sweeten the deal.

the-green-girlIn fact, offer to sign any stock they might have of your titles for future sales. Note: Don’t work this deal with more than one seller; leave the others for other writers. We all gotta coexist; we might as well not step on each others’ toes. Of course, if the other sellers and/or authors don’t mind if you double- or triple-up, by all means.

(I don’t have to tell you that it’s far easier to do this if you’re published by one of the Majors, or at least by one of the better-known semi-pro houses. If you’re a Name, half the dealer’s work is done for them; all they have to do is grab copies out of that box, take the money and keep track of the number sold. At the end of the con, you get paid, probably in cash, and they don’t have to shlep the leftovers away – if there are any left, that is.)

There is nothing easy about selling. It takes attention, it takes engagement, it takes energy, and it takes determination. And you can’t sit there and write, or read, or play World of Wordcraft, or anything else except make eye contact and smile brightly (no matter how many room parties you went to the night before) and sell your deadened ass off.

You can’t just lay the books out there and wait for the customers to walk by and pick up a copy of your latest (or your first), you have to interest them in buying what you have. And you’d better be damn good at it, and be willing – and able – to do it as many weekends a year as you can afford.

Me, I am damn good at it, and since I’m in that ass-killing chair for the duration anyway, I don’t have much of a problem selling the stuff that I write. In point of fact, I really, really like it. Just sayin’.

13 Comments »

  1. Mr. Webster: If you’re trying to discourage fledgling authors from going to these conventions, your article had the opposite effect. :)

    Comment by Mister_Alex - January 17, 2012 6:28 pm

  2. Not at all. I just want them to be prepared to work hard and deal with potential disappointment.

    Comment by Bud Webster - January 17, 2012 6:37 pm

  3. An extremely helpful article. Thank you. One author on my area’s con circuit is a true master of unabashedly hand-selling his own books. I have marveled to see him at his table, picked his brain a bit (he was very gracious about it), and concluded I am not the right person to sell books at a solo table for a whole con.

    Often members of Broad Universe band together to get a group table at cons, and many hands make light work. I’ve had some good times selling books with the broads. I put in four hours a day, and my duty is done. Much more manageable.

    I hope to have occasion to use your ally-with-a-bookseller method. It’s very good to have the etiquette spelled out in advance.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - January 17, 2012 10:32 pm

  4. Sarah, that sounds like a very good approach to the task. You split not only the time, but the cost as well, and that can make an enormous difference in whether or not it’s worth your while in the first place. I hope other writers consider doing the same, even if they aren’t, er, Broads.

    Comment by Bud Webster - January 17, 2012 11:06 pm

  5. […] Black Gate (Bud Webster) on Selling Your Books Ain’t as Easy as it Looks. […]

    Pingback by SF Tidbits for 1/18/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog - January 18, 2012 2:06 am

  6. I agree that selling books takes hard work. It’s a lot more difficult than it looks. I had the experience of doing trade shows for my daytime job so most of the advice you give I learned during that process. I do take exception to your view on self published writers, mainly because I’m one and I’m doing quite well. But that’s another discussion. Otherwise I think you’re sharing some great information here.

    Comment by Ndoro - January 18, 2012 9:14 am

  7. I’ve run many dealer rooms for various conventions, and I’ve noticed the growth of self-published authors over the past decade.

    I’ve also noticed that, in general, they are the most annoying people to deal with: pushy both to the DR manager and the customers. I’m sorry, but just because you managed to get your book printed, that doesn’t make you a god. And if I only have room for 20 dealers, you can bet I’m gonna pick people who can *fill* their tables with a wide variety of titles that my con members want, not someone who’s an unprofessional businessperson with, if they’re prolific, maybe half a dozen titles. Note I’m not talking about a small press here, who is publishing other people’s stuff.

    I’m happy to hook these self-pubbed wannabes up with my room’s new book dealer, and good luck to them. But I made the mistake once of buying a self-pubbed book of the author, and I’ll be damned if I’ll do it again without knowing the person. The editing was non-existent, the layout was horrible, and the story was unoriginal. And frankly, it’s a common problem with the self-pubbed crowd, which makes me practically run past their tables whenever I see them. And I’m not the only one.

    Comment by lisahertel - February 1, 2012 10:43 pm

  8. Lisa, I wish I could disagree with you. I’ve self-published myself, under particular circumstances and with a title that even a small press wouldn’t have touched at the time (an epic poem about hobos in space illustrated by a friend), but my experience with other self-published writers has been much like yours. I will hasten to add, though, that there are small-press published authors who can be just as difficult to deal with. Hey, writers have egos; that’s a given. It’s how they display their egos that makes the difference.

    Comment by Bud Webster - February 1, 2012 11:01 pm

  9. I see all these poor people trying to sell their self-published novels at SF conventions, and there they are, competing against millions of books that have been sold to actual publishing houses that pay the author, publish the book, get it into bookstores and numerous sites that sell books, promote, advertise and get reviews for their authors, and in general are Real Publishers, not someone operating out of a P.O. Box with a garage full of unsold books. It’s sad. When I was publishing SCIENCE FICTION CHRONICLE, my reviewer refused to review these things, btw.

    If you ARE going to try selling your stuff at conventions, then you should know that 1: you sell more things standing up, making eye contact with people walking by; 2: you sell less stuff by trying to entice people to your table with free pens, free bookmarks, free chotchkes of all types; 3: if you ARE standing up, and you’re at a convention that doesn’t have carpeting on the floor (read: all genre conventions), then you wear really comfortable shoes and stand on several layers of cardboard, which you’ve brought with you as cartons of your books. This will save your feet from becoming numb and falling off at the end of the day and/or end of the convention. Of course, I’ve only been selling stuff at conventions since LACon, the 1972 World SF Convention, so what do I know? Wanna know more about me, look me up on Wikipedia.

    Comment by Andrew Porter - February 2, 2012 12:48 am

  10. Here’s a short addendum to the longer post: if your stories or serialized novels appeared in genre magazines, by all means bring ’em along and put them out on display. Collectors are always interested in the original appearance of your work, and ephemera like magazines are emminently collectable. Back issues can be purchased at a significant discount from the magazines’ back-issue departments, and selling them even at cover can be profitable enough to make carting them around worthwhile. Display one copy of each, face out, and keep the rest under the table. Bring along a pen (I use one of the metallic ink fiber tips) to sign them, and keep a pocketful of nickles so you can give change.

    Comment by Bud Webster - February 2, 2012 3:30 pm

  11. […] how Howard Andrew Jones introduced C.S.E. Cooney to C.L. Moore; Bud Webster’s advice on book selling; which Black Gate author reached #1 on Amazon sales list; which BG staffer interviewed his own […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Keep up with the Black Gate Staff with the BG Staff tag - March 15, 2012 1:55 am

  12. […] written several columns on bookselling and collecting here on the BG blog, including “Selling Your Books Ain’t as Easy as it Looks,” “Spreading the Word (or, “Book ‘em, Bud-O”),” and “What I Do and […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Discover the 20th Century’s Great SF & Fantasy Writers with Bud Webster’s Past Masters - July 21, 2013 6:47 pm

  13. […] also written a dozen blog posts for us, most recently “Selling Your Books Ain’t as Easy as it Looks,” and “Talk to Any Squids Lately? In Space, I Mean?” His most recent books are […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » January/February Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction now on Sale - January 5, 2015 3:48 pm


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