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Nearly all BookThink readers sell books online - or at least are thinking about doing it. A good percentage of our readers probably also operate an open shop as well. While these are certainly the two most common bookselling venues, they are not the only ones. If it is a bookselling truth that books can be found anywhere, then a necessary corollary to this is that books can be sold (almost) anywhere.
You can hold a books-only garage sale or pay for a table at a flea market or church sale - all good ways to clear the shelves of low-end stock and recoup some cash. There are also local and regional book fairs of varying size where you can sell your better stock. In today's column, I will focus on selling genre books at fan conventions and share my recent experiences selling at JohnCon 2005 and Balticon 39 - two science fiction conventions held annually in the Baltimore area.
In it's purest form, a science fiction convention is a gathering of fans (the members) at a specific place and time, usually with an organized program of events, and usually attended by people (the guests) with some professional affiliation with SF - for example, authors, actors, artists, etc. The Readercon) has been organized specifically for written SF.
There is no such thing as a typical SF convention. SF fandom has a unique and distinctly insular culture; it has its own customs, language, and codes of behavior. It is at the same time remarkably tolerant. Techno-geeks, medievalists, barbarians, Klingons, cyberpunks, goths, vampires, and New Age goddesses all co-exist relatively cheerfully.
To illustrate the complexity of fandom culture, consider the many terms used in fanspeak to describe an SF fan. A fan is a reader of SF. A faan is a fanatical fan. Mediafan, fringefan, fakefan, drobe and dozmo are all more or less derisive terms, whereas trufan refers to a true fan in the best sense of the word. Fandom itself is split between those who believe in FIAWOL (Fandom Is A Way of Life) and FIJAGH (Fandom Is Just A Goddam Hobby).
In addition to the members and guests, a third denizen of the SF con is the dealer. Nearly all cons will have a Dealers (or Hucksters) Room stocked with just about any merchandise even vaguely related to SF and Fantasy. Merchandise typically includes clothing, jewelry, art work, weapons (much more tightly restricted in recent years and strictly prohibited at JohnCon), CDs and DVDs, comics, toys, gaming supplies, and of course, books. By the way, the implied separation between Member, Guest and Dealer does not really exist. A member may in fact be an SF author who is not on the program for some reason, and guests and members sometimes set up as dealers for part or all of the con. It is not uncommon for an individual to set up in the Dealers Room just long enough to cover expenses for the weekend, and authors will often have a table to promote and sell their books as well.
SF conventions are quite literally a global phenomena. In the United States alone, it is estimated that multiple SF cons are going on every weekend of the year. A handy site for identifying upcoming conventions is SF Site.
This site allows you to specify multiple search parameters, including month or months, location, and convention category - e.g., All SF, Horror, Star Trek, Anime, Gaming, etc. You can also check Locus Online for lists of conventions.
Another good source is the SF-Lovers Convention List.
Check to see if there is an SF fan organization near you. These are typically the organizing elements behind the larger SF conventions. If you live near a college or university, contact the student organizations office to see if there is an SF club. For example, JohnCon is organized by Hopsfa, the Hopkins Science Fiction Association. In the Baltimore/Washington area, we have both the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS), which sponsors Balticon, and the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA), which sponsors Disclave. If you know the name of a convention or organization and need contact information, take a look at the Fandom Directory and click "search the database."
Nearly all SF conventions maintain websites that provide dates, confirmed guests, programming, etc. Usually, there is a Dealers Room coordinator. If you are interested in selling at an SF convention, check out the con's website for specific instructions. Note: dealer space is usually limited, and preference is given to dealers who have sold at earlier cons. If the Dealers Room is full, put your name on the waiting list. Sometimes spaces will open up at the last minute, and landing one will improve your odds of getting a space for the following year. Also, if you are on the list, it could be worth contacting the dealer coordinator a week or two before the con, but be tactful. Most likely s/he will be VERY busy.
Costs associated with selling at SF cons vary. At JohnCon, there were no fees other than admission to the con: a very reasonable $9 pre-registration or $12 at the door. The fee at Balticon for 2005 was $100 per table with a 2-table limit. This included the $35 con registration for each table - in other words, $200 bought you two tables in the Dealers Room and two registrations.
The difference in fees between large and small cons is approximately commensurate with the amount of exposure you will get. JohnCon cost next to nothing, but con members (i.e., potential customers) numbered probably no more than 100. Balticon was a much bigger initial investment, but membership was closer to 1500. Of course, at JohnCon there were only five dealers, and I was the only bookseller. Balticon had over 40 vendors, at least a dozen of them booksellers. In my case, these factors seemed to balance each other out, and I ended up profiting more or less equally at both venues.
There are other costs associated with selling at a convention - principally travel (airfare, gas, parking, etc.), hotel, and food. Fortunately, since JohnCon and Balticon were both local, I did not have to get a hotel room, and, except for parking at Balticon ($45 for the four day weekend), food and travel costs were minimal. Next year, happily, Balticon will be held at a new venue outside of Baltimore City and provide free parking. At any rate, keep your receipts and/or record your expenses. These costs are deductible.
There are two advantages to selling at a genre con: one, you know exactly what your customers are looking for, and two, they are highly motivated to buy from you. In addition, you can sell stock that does not rise to a level that makes online selling practical. Example: modern hardback and paperback genre fiction priced in the range of $2 to $10. Once I made the decision to start selling at conventions, I gathered all the low-price genre fiction I had already accumulated and systematically acquired more stock. Since I had about six months before the first convention, I was able to be very selective.
Early on I decided that high quality and low price were the two most important factors in buying. I did not want to waste my time with beat-up paperbacks or ex-lib hardbacks, and I could afford to be picky about how much I spent. My average cost for paperbacks was around $.10, hardbacks $1.00.
Also, I was fortunate to luck into a "shopping cart" sale at a local thrift: for $10 I filled a cart with almost 200 quality SF and Fantasy paperbacks - about $0.05 per book. Not bad considering that quality paperbacks often sell at $3 or more at an SF convention. I would estimate that better than 90% of my stock would grade between Near Fine and As New, and since new paperbacks retail in the $7 to $8 range (does anyone else find that shocking?), my convention customers don't mind spending $3 to $4 for a quality paperback, especially if the book is out of print. And while they could probably find the book for less online, add in shipping, and they would still end up paying the same amount.
Paperbacks, by the way, are especially suitable for sale at conventions. As discussed above, they can cost next to nothing to buy, even in great condition. Moreover, they take up much less room than hardbacks and are much easier to pack and display (some important discussion about this later). They are also easier for the buyer to carry and pack - an important consideration at large conventions, where many attendees are from out of town. Yes, hardbacks will sell, but in my experience the sales ratio is about 2 to 3 paperbacks to every hardback. For this reason, I would recommend stocking at least 2 paperbacks for every hardback.
The great advantage here is that the kind of stock you need for con sales is readily available at all the places you already go for your online stock. To repeat: be picky about condition, and spend as little as possible.
Selling at genre conventions is not for everyone. For one thing, a strong working knowledge of the genre is necessary, and you should enjoy talking about it. Your target customers are genre fans, and it will be obvious to them if you don't know your stuff (see "fakefan" above). There were several instances where I was able to make a sale because I was knowledgeable enough to suggest titles or authors based on a conversation with the customer.
Looking back on my initial experience, I would conclude that this was hard work for a modest profit. However, I suspect that my profit margin will increase as I am able to refine my convention business model. Also, there were some startup costs that I won't incur again. But for me it's not all about the money. I enjoy spending the weekend talking with other SF fans and selling them my books. It's also a great way to make contacts in the field - both authors and other sellers. And cool things sometimes happen. A woman I met brought in a big box of Locus magazines and traded them for a $10 paperback.
Next time I will discuss the nuts and bolts of running a book table at an SF con. Topics will include how to build a sturdy, portable shelf system for under $100, how to display your books effectively, tips on how to streamline setting up and packing, how to keep track of inventory sold and manage sales tax, how to choose books that sell particularly well (and avoid ones that don't), and how to sell high-end, collectible books. I will also make some sales comparisons: hardback vs. paperback, fantasy vs. SF vs. horror, etc. I, for one, am really looking forward to seeing the results of that analysis!
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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