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Behind the Tables

It appears that I’m going to be running a pair of tables in the dealer’s area at Stoker Weekend, the interesting event that’s currently being plugged on the board.  I thought I’d take some time to give people an idea of just what goes on for dealers at conventions.  Some of you may be eyeballing books on your shelves or the craft items you’ve been making as a hobby.  Let me give you a little insight into what might await, should you try to sell at a convention.

1) Travel.  If you’re driving, this isn’t a big deal… unless you’ve got a small vehicle.  If you’re bringing enough to make good use of a table, you should have enough to fill the back of a small car.  If you’re carring something heavy, like books, you’re going to need to drive differently… that much weight doesn’t only decrease your fuel mileage, it also increases the stopping distance for your breaks.  And a flat tire becomes a real nightmare.  Airlines are fine… but you’ll have to ship your item to the hotel via a package service, and that’ll add to your costs.

ANECDOTE: Keep in mind the conditions for your products, also.  I attended a convention in Oklahoma called Conestoga.  It was a great convention, well organized with friendly staff, engaging guests and a good attendance.  I, however, failed to consider that the vehicle in which I was making the trip lacked air conditioning.  In August.  Many of the books suffered heat damage during the multi-hour trip, particularly the paperbacks as glued bindings expanded and warped.

2) Setup.  This comes in two parts.  The first is getting the stuff to the table.  If you drove, this is where a dolly will come in handy.  And someone to open the doors for you as you move the items to your table.  And a lot of luck regarding the weather.  You’ll typically have a six-hour gap on the night before the convention and a few hours before the dealers’ room opens to get all of your merchandise in and set up.  All of the other sellers have the same time span.  If you mailed your items to the hotel, they’ll be waiting in a storage area, and you’ll again be well-served by a dolly.

The second part is arranging the goods on your table(s).  Displaying items can be a complex game.  You have to take into account what you’re most trying to sell, and display it for optimum notice by passersby.  You also have to look to see what other dealers are selling, and make a spot decision about the competition.  Modifying this will be the type of convention.

ANECDOTE: I was set up at a science fiction convention, and there were three other book dealers.  Rather than follow the usual formula and spread all of us out, the convention organizers decided to make a “book alley” where all four of us had adjacent tables.  Two of the dealers had new books out for sale, and one had 1950s hardcovers.  Rather than spend my limited table space duplicating what was already available for sale, I put out modern collectibles, expanded the area I’d designated for rare paperbacks, and set three more boxes of rare magazines on the table for people to hunt through.  My sales were brisk.  Although I did have to restrain myself from responding to comments made by the 1950s HC dealer about the innate superiority of his (overpriced) wares.

At the next convention, I undercut him on many of his books.  Important lesson: respect the other dealers.

3) Sales.  This is what you’d think would be the exciting part of the convention.  And, well, it is.  But it’s exciting in the manner of a full day at the racetrack.  There are typically bursts of activity, followed by periods of quiescence.  It’s very hard to reach a happy medium.  Ideally, you’ll have a constant flow of one or two customers.  In reality, you’ll get five people at a time, with two others browsing, causing you to watch for theft while simultaneously trying to make change and fill out receipts… and all the while, someone will be trying to hold an interesting conversation with you.  This is a recipe for stress.  After the sales flurry dies away, you’ll find yourself sitting… and sitting… and sitting.  Depending on the convention, hours can go by without anyone doing more than walking by your table.   More than anything else, you have to be expecting this and not let it worry or depress you.

When there’s a con guest who has a table, they usually can shut down (by throwing a tablecloth over their wares) and go to a panel or lunch, and return with little worry.  Their primary purpose for attending is to be a participant, with the sales a helpful aside.  When it’s a dealer, the story is different.  They’re present to make a profit, and their presence makes both attendees and organizers happy… the former because it gives them yet another available activity (shopping) and the latter because happy attendees make for a pleasurable convention.  It’s not a good idea for any of the three groups if the dealer has to close down in the middle of the shopping times for more than an incidental break.

The best part of being a dealer, to me, is the chance you get to talk with others who share your interests.  That is not always a good thing.   If you’re lucky, you’ll get someone like Mort Castle wandering by, noticing a book you have out, and getting into an informative and interesting discussion.  If you’re unlucky, someone will start a long discourse on why the Hulk could beat up Superman, or why a cross-genre novel featuring Frodo Baggins and Lestat as private detectives would be a great idea.

Authors deal with these people all the time.  For the most part, they’re nice people who are a touch obsessive.  Remember, though… the dealer is stuck there, at his or her table, while an author participant can merely walk away.

No matter what the temptation, be nice.  That person has paid to go to the convention, and it’s in everyone’s best interest that all the attendees have a good time.  And know ahead of time that it’s likely to happen.

ANEDCOTE: At the last convention, I surprised a legendary sf writer by having a variety of Fredric Brown paperback mysteries on my table.  He’d heard good things about them, but had never seen more than one in any place.  We proceeded to get into a lengthy discussion about Brown’s work in sf, mystery, and horror, and then spun off into a general discussion of mystery/thriller books.  At the same convention, a person provided a full synopsis of a fan-fiction novel they want someone to write, featuring Anne McCaffrey’s Pern.  I listened to him politely, despite A) his having told me the idea before, B) Ms. McCaffrey aggressively defending her copyright regarding Pern, such that no fan fiction is allowed to be professionally published, and C) it being a better idea to learn to write than to wait for someone to do it for you.

4) Breakdown: At the end of the convention, dealers typically have three to five hours to get everything boxed up and clear of the room.  That smaller time span can cause logjams at the doors out of the room.  The best thing to do is to watch, and try to time your departure; if everyone is scrambling to leave, spend a little extra time packing items up; if the majority are packing, start moving things out immediately.  A little careful assessment can save hours.

This is meant both to encourage and dissuade readers from setting up a table at a convention.  If you’re ready for the tedium, annoyance at missing an interesting panel or three, and troubles associated with getting your merchandise to and from the con, and then if you have wares to sell, you might be successful with convention sales.  If any of that sounds like it would be a bit too much, stick with ebay and direct sales off of your web site or a message board.

And, of course, I have another motive.  As I stated at the beginning, I’m going to be attending Stoker Weekend as a dealer.  Conversation will almost certainly be not merely appreciated but encouraged, and I hope to see some of you there!

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  1. February 11th, 2009 at 06:42 | #1

    “. . . B) Ms. McCaffrey aggressively defending her copyright regarding Pern, such that no fan fiction is allowed to be professionally published . . .”


    Must . . . resist . . .

  2. February 11th, 2009 at 14:07 | #2

    Nice post, this is a pretty good resource on what to expect for your first trip to a convention. thanks.

  3. Bill Lindblad
    February 11th, 2009 at 18:01 | #3

    Come on, Joe… you can’t throw that out there and leave it unexpounded upon.

    I’ve been told by two sources close to Anne McCaffrey (one of whom is a deceased sf Grandmaster) that the main reason she’s so defensive about her work is fear of rights diffusion. If you’ve got something contrary to that, or if you’ve got an interesting supplemental story, I’d love to hear it.

  4. February 11th, 2009 at 18:34 | #4

    mrm, my post seems to have been eaten, so I’ll try again.

    No, I don’t have anything serious. I was just joking about her tendency to have many novels set in her universes written by other authors.

    I have a friend who thinks of the Star Wars prequels as fan-fiction by George Lucas, so it was a natural connection for my brain to make. :D

  5. Bill Lindblad
    February 11th, 2009 at 19:33 | #5

    Ah, gotcha! Oh, you’re right there… The Ship Who series, The Planet Pirates, The Unicorn Girl, and a bunch of others.

    But Pern is her bread & butter, and she knows it. The only people she’s let do any fiction in that world have been Jody Lynn Nye, a longtime friend who she allowed to write a couple of chosen-path game novels in the 1980s, and now her son, Todd. The other stuff is for friends and authors she thinks are promising or who deserve the attention that McCaffrey’s name will bring. Pern is a legacy for her kid.

    I enjoy watching others tinker with an original character or world, if it’s done well and with the author’s okay. The Dead Cat anthologies by Houarner are worth hunting down, for example, and shared-world anthologies live by that rule. (The only horror-related shared-world series I can recall is the Greystone Bay books edited by Charlie Grant, but sf and fantasy has a bunch of them.) Still, if an author declares something of theirs off limits, I’m going to support them on it.

    Thanks for clearing it up. I was wondering!

  6. Rex DuBois
    February 11th, 2009 at 23:44 | #6

    Good post. Me and my dad have run into a lot of this when he sold baseball cards. Only things I would have added is that even if you have something you need to sell fast, you don’t have to take someone’s offer. Sure, bartering is fun though a bit of a well-crafted skill but you can say no if its just not worth it. Also, never let your wife take a few Rollie Finger rookie cards out of the case, you’ll end up with over-priced Bo Jackson & Jose Canseco autographs. Even after almost 20 years, my dad still hasn’t forgiven my mom for doing that.

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