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Collecting Science Fiction
Selling at Science Fiction Conventions
Part II

by Timothy Doyle

#49, 8 August 2005

In last month's column, I talked about the Where and Why of selling books at SF and Fantasy conventions. I noted that selling at the cons is an excellent way to profit from lower value stock that might not be worth selling online and that this kind of stock is readily and cheaply available at all the scouting venues that you already frequent. But it's important to realize that huckstering at the cons is not easy nor is it the right venue for just anyone. After reading these columns you should have a good idea if it's right for you.

This month I'm going to focus on the How of convention bookselling. The key to success here is planning. There is quite a bit of logistics involved, so find out everything you can about the particular con you are attending. How big are the tables? How much floor space will you have? Is electricity available? Are table coverings provided (if the con is at a hotel then usually yes; otherwise, usually no)? Will staff (con or hotel) be available to help in unloading, and will handcarts or luggage carts be made available? The dealer room chairperson can answer these and any other questions you have.

Balticon is by far the largest SF convention in the Baltimore area, so I thought it would be a good idea to start off at a smaller con - a kind of dress rehearsal before the big show. A little bit of Internet research led me to JohnCon, an annual convention hosted by Hopsfa, the Johns Hopkins University Science Fiction Association. JohnCon is relatively small (about 200 members) and primarily a gaming and anime convention, which meant that the total number of potential customers would be low. However, it had several distinct advantages: the total dealer cost was a $9 con admission fee; I could have as many tables as I wanted; and I would be the only book dealer there.

Contrast this with Balticon: attendance was a healthy 1500+ members, but dealer cost was $100 per table; two and three table spots were limited and previous Balticon dealers were given preference; and there would be many book dealers attending. In fact, of the eight dealers adjacent to my space, four of them were booksellers.

One of the biggest logistical problems you will face involves storage and transportation of your stock. Bud Webster (The Joy of Booking: Webster's Guide to Buying and Selling Used SF and Fantasy Books; SRM Publisher, 2004 ISBN: 0972247351) suggests large, flat plastic bins - the under-bed storage kind - that are deep enough to pack your paperback stock. This has the advantage of providing easy storage, and the low flat bins also pack easily in the car. When you arrive at the con, simply arrange the bins on the table, pull off the lids, and you are open for business The bins I use measure about 32" by 13" by 6" and each holds between 60 and 70 average size paperbacks. My starting paperback inventory was approximately 450 books, stored in 7 bins.

Hardbacks are somewhat more difficult as the plastic bin trick just doesn't seem to work. Good old-fashioned cardboard boxes are still the most space efficient way to pack hardbacks. I would recommend getting standard sized boxes (copier paper boxes are ideal), as they are easier to stack and pack. The Xerox boxes will hold between 15 and 20 average size hardbacks, depending on how efficiently you pack. By the way, I would strongly recommend packing horizontally and not vertically, since you will inevitably need to stack boxes atop one another. My starting hardback inventory (and in this category I include oversize paperbacks) was approximately 300, packed in 14 boxes.

The JohnCon Experience

JohnCon was held on the undergraduate campus of Johns Hopkins University from April 8 to April 10, 2005. Registration was $9 in advance or $12 at the door. The con program consisted of 24 hour gaming, including role playing (Dungeons and Dragons, Mechwarrior, etc), board, and video, as well as a b-movie room, an anime festival, and live medieval combat with padded weapons.

As I mentioned earlier, dealer space at JohnCon was not an issue, and I was allowed as many tables as I wanted. I took two large tables, which I had absolutely no trouble filling. This was bad news because I had only paid for one table for the upcoming Balticon convention (more on my solution to this later).

Here is a summary of my sales for the JohnCon weekend. HB and PB are, of course, hardback and paperback; TPB is trade paperback. The "Sold" field indicates day one, two or three of the three day weekend.

 
Day Sold
Format
Receipts
# Sold
Average Price
JHU1
HB
$22.00
2
$11.00
JHU1
PB
$27.00
2
$13.50
JHU2
HB
$56.00
7
$8.00
JHU2
PB
$57.00
21
$2.71
JHU2
TPB
$12.00
2
$6.00
JHU3
HB
$5.00
1
$5.00
JHU3
PB
$35.00
12
$2.92
JHU3
TBP
$5.00
1
$5.00
Total
 
$219.00
48
$4.56

Not a particularly impressive return on the amount of time and effort invested, even with a minimal amount of overhead (approximately $50 including cost of the stock sold).

I did learn a lot from JohnCon, though. First, there was no way one table was going to do for Balticon. I talked with some of the other dealers at JohnCon, one of whom was going to be at Balticon. She recommended that I find some way to "go vertical" with my stock since having it all laid out flat on table tops is visually unappealing and also more difficult for customers to see. This was great advice, and formed the basis of the subsequent solution to my space problem.

Another thing I learned at JohnCon is the importance of talking to people. In sales, half the battle is just getting the customer to stop long enough to look at what you have. Engage them in conversation, draw them out on what kind of fiction they like or their favorite authors or titles, and then make the sale. Some people are looking for something very specific - a missing title to complete a series, the new book by a particular author, etc. - which is fine if you have it. If you don't, then they are quickly off to the next dealer. But more often people are just browsing, looking for something to catch their eye. It's your job to get that book in front of them, and the best way to do that is by talking to them.

For those people who approach you and ask if you have this title or something by that author, it is a very good idea to have master inventory lists sorted by title and by author. The lists should include author, title, format, price, and notes (scarce, paperback original, no DJ, signed, etc.), plus two additional columns: Sold and Sold For. I use the Sold column to note when the book sold (e.g., JHU1 means first day of the JohnCon convention), while Sold For is the actual price I sold the book for. Usually the Price and Sold For columns are the same, but there were occasions where I ended up knocking a dollar or two off to make the sale. I found this method to be the simplest way to keep track of inventory sold. At the end of the con, I fill in these columns on a custom Access inventory database I maintain, and I can then do some simple analysis of sales, as well as removing sold stock from my active inventory.

You might also want to have an inventory list for stock that you didn't bring; you might still be able to make the sale and mail the book to the customer. I did this with my higher priced stock that I chose to leave home: collectible first editions, signed books, etc. Having that list helped me make a $95 sale at Balticon.

So, to sum up my JohnCon experience: I had a lot of fun, made some good contacts, and learned a lot. I just didn't make a whole lot of money while doing so.

Balticon and The Shelving System

After my experience at JohnCon, I knew I had a major problem. I needed at least two big tables for all of my stock, and I only had one available at Balticon. With the advice about "going vertical" in mind, I went out on the Internet looking for a solution. My first thought was to look at folding bookcases, but it quickly became apparent that they were too expensive and wouldn't provide the height and shelf space I wanted. Eventually I ended up looking at some websites that showed shelving systems for retailers. Lots of chrome and wire racks, or big and heavy shelf systems - all too big, too heavy, and too expensive.

But then I saw it. On a site for clothing store displays, I found a picture of a single wood A-frame with slats on each side and shelves that rested on the slats. In my mind's eye I saw two A frames, with shelves running between them. This was followed by the realization that the A frames were essentially nothing more than stepladders. I did some more checking around, and located six-foot high wooden stepladders at Ace Hardware for $32 each. I already had some decent boards to use as shelving, but appropriate stock for four shelves can be purchased for less than $20. I also realized to stabilize the system I would have to clamp the ends of the boards to the ladder rungs: eight 2-inch C-clamps ($2.00 each) for $16. Total cost for the shelving system was $100, or potentially much less if you already have any components available. I also decided to paint mine, using a matte black spray paint.

This system has some great advantages. To begin with, it is easy to assemble and tear down. Because it breaks down into components, it is very easy to transport, and it takes up very little room when stored away between uses. And once assembled and clamped down, it is extremely strong and stable. Finally, the shelves are high enough that the books are very visible and easy for the customer to get to.

The top shelf on my system is 7 feet long and 1" thick. The next shelf down is 6 feet long and " inch thick. The two lowest boards are both five feet in length and " inch thick. I did notice some bowing to the 6-foot board from the weight of the books, so it might be best to use (nominal) 2-by (actual 1 ") stock, which is readily available at home centers, for long spans. (The 1" thick piece, by the way, was salvaged from a waterbed, and is not commonly available.) In all, my setup yields approximately 20 feet of shelving. If your average book is between 1 and 1.25 inches in width, this will accommodate approximately 200 books, give or take a few.

Some Tips on Setting Up

At a large convention like Balticon, the name of the game is visibility. There were at least a dozen other booksellers, and there is a steady stream of potential customers flowing by. I realized before long that I had to set up my books in a way that would catch the eye of someone walking by, make them take a longer look at my stock, and give me time to engage them in a conversation. Fortunately, the publishers have already done much of your work for you. Book covers are designed to do exactly what I have just described - catch the customer's eye and make them stop for a longer look. Take a look at the photo of my table at Balticon, showing the bins of paperbacks for sale.

Note that the table is perpendicular to the aisle so that people will be looking up the length of the table as they walk by. By simply turning selected books so that they sit upright, the eye is drawn to them. A certain title, a certain author's name, or part of the illustration will catch the eye, and then the customer is drawn in for a closer look. Maybe they'll buy the item that originally attracted them or maybe they'll buy something else. The only certain outcome is that they won't be buying anything if they keep walking past your booth. I didn't try it this time, but it might have been worth sacrificing part of the top shelf to display some of the better hardbacks face forward.

What Sells - And What Doesn't

Note that this discussion is somewhat subjective and based on a limited amount of practical experience. However, it is reinforced by discussions I had with other, more veteran sellers, so I stand by it.

What's Hot:

  • OMNIBUS EDITIONS (including the Science Fiction Book Club). People can't resist a bargain, and buying three books for the price of one is a bargain.

  • HARRY POTTER. Any book in the series, any printing, as long as it is a hardback and in good condition. Easy $10 to $15 sales.

  • NEIL GAIMAN AND TERRY PRATCHETT. Individually and together.

  • DAN BROWN. Common paperbacks in good condition will sell for $3 to $4, and non-first edition hardbacks for $10 to $20. If you have any first editions, I'll gladly buy them from you for $20.

  • LAURELL K HAMILTON, KELLEY ARMSTRONG, KIM HARRISON AND JIM BUTCHER. An exception to the horror doesn't sell rule (see below).

  • NON-SF STUFF. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you can only sell SF and Fantasy at the cons. On a whim I put three Pogo collections in my stock, and they weren't out 10 minutes before someone snapped them up. Turns out there had been a big article in the Washington Post a few days earlier about Walt Kelly and how collectible Pogo was. $50 sale for me. Other non-SF sales included Penn & Teller, Monty Python, an Annotated Treasure Island, and Dr. Seuss (Dr. Seuss Goes to War, a very interesting book that I kind of wish I'd kept).

  • DOUGLAS ADAMS.

  • TRADE PAPERBACKS (TPBs). They are bigger and heftier than regular, mass media paperbacks, and people really like them. The great thing is that you can comfortably price TPBs $3 to $4 higher than their smaller cousins, but most thrifts don't distinguish between them so they cost you the same.

  • CTHULHU. Another exception to the Horror Doesn't Sell rule. The Cthulhu Mythos originated in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, but many writers have subsequently written in the Mythos. Most any of them will do well.

  • PHILIP K. DICK. Paperbacks, hardbacks, SFBC - it's all good.

  • HIGH-END, COLLECTIBLE BOOKS. I originally decided not to bring any of my higher priced SF/F stock, mainly because I didn't think it would sell, and I was concerned about theft. Instead, I printed up a catalog with color pictures of the good stuff, and had it on hand to show to people who expressed interest. I made one decent sale this way, a pair of books for $90. In the future I think I will bring at least some high-end stock and display it in a prominent position to attract customer interest. Like the guy on the street corner selling $1000 apples, you only have to sell one $100+ book to call it a good day.

  • BOOKS BY AUTHORS WHO ARE AT THE CON. Convention guests are usually announced a year in advance, so you have a lot of time to accumulate books by the upcoming guest(s) of honor. I for one will be spending the next year buying up books by Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe in preparation for Balticon 40. And as suggested by Colleen McMahon in an email after last month's column, the media conventions (Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.) are great venues for selling books and magazines with photographs of stars who are at the con, suitable for autographing. Thanks for the suggestion, Colleen.

What's Not Hot:

  • DRAGONLANCE, FORGOTTEN REALMS, ETC. There is a market for these books; it just doesn't appear to be at the SF conventions. I had over 60 of these paperbacks in VG or better condition, and not one of them sold at either con. I plan on selling these in lots on eBay, where the books seem to sell with an average price from $1.50 to $2.50.

  • HORROR HARDBACKS. Modern horror by very popular authors in general does not seem to sell well in hardback. This would include authors such as Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, and Anne Rice. The demand is certainly there, but there are so many copies printed that you'd have to price yours at $2 to $3 to make them attractive. And given that I can pack four or five $3 paperbacks in the space occupied by one Stephen King hardback, it's just not worth it.

  • PIERS ANTHONY. I had 30 PB and HB books by Anthony. Only one sold between both conventions, and that was an omnibus edition of his Tarot books, thus proving my first rule of What's Hot.

  • JACK CHALKER. 15 Chalker PBs, not one sold. Of course, with individual authors like Piers Anthony and Jack Chalker, I could sell out to the one right customer at the next con. But I'm thinking book lot on eBay.

  • MICHAEL CRICHTON. Like Stephen King, Chrichton's books are published in such huge numbers that you can't price them for more than $2 to $4 and expect them to sell. Plus, many SF fans consider him to be a non-genre hack. Exceptions are very early titles like The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, and even those are only in the $50 to $100 range.

  • SCIENCE FICTION BOOK CLUB. Too many copies available, poor quality - and pretty cheesy cover illustrations for the most part. There are exceptions, of course. As mentioned above, omnibus editions of popular authors can sell for $5 to $10 or more. The SFBC version of books that are outrageously expensive in their true first trade edition can carry real value. The example I've used many times before is Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, which should fetch at least $50. Also, there are a small number of cases where the SFBC edition is the first or sometimes only hardback version published. The 1977 SFBC edition of Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane (1977, code "H21" on page 403) is the true first edition, released prior to the Holt Rinehart Winston 1977 trade hardback, when the latter was delayed due to dust jacket production problems. The SFBC edition of C.J. Cherryh's Hunter of Worlds (1977, code "H06" on page 213) preceded the mass market paperback edition, and there has been no subsequent trade hardback edition. Also as mentioned above, any SFBC Philip K. Dick is worth getting. They make great lots on eBay.

More Facts and Figures and Some Analysis

Following are my sale results from Balticon. Note that "HB*" indicates a signed hardback.

 
Day Sold
Format
Receipts
# Sold
Avg. Price
Balticon 1
HB
$40.00
5
$8.00
Balticon 1
PB
$47.00
9
$5.22
Balticon 2
HB
$63.00
7
$9.00
Balticon 2
HB*
$25.00
1
$25.00
Balticon 2
PB
$60.00
18
$3.33
Balticon 2
TPB
$8.00
1
$8.00
Balticon 3
HB
$136.00
6
$22.67
Balticon 3
PB
$60.00
9
$6.67
Balticon 3
TPB
$44.00
6
$7.33
Balticon 4
HB
$40.00
2
$20.00
Balticon 4
PB
$37.00
14
$2.64
Total
$560.00
78
$7.18

These results look more encouraging, but remember that my overhead was a lot higher here. Expenses totaled about $250, including the table fee, extra membership for a helper, parking, food, and cost of inventory.

Here is some summary data looking at my sales across both conventions, broken out by genre:

Genre
Receipts
# Sold
Average Price
Fantasy
$295.00
60
$4.92
SF
$265.00
36
$7.36
Other
$134.00
11
$12.18
Horror
$85.00
19
$4.47

Fantasy and SF were the clear favorites, although my "Other" (non-genre) books had the highest average sale price. These included the Pogo, Monty Python, Penn and Teller, and Dr. Seuss books I mentioned earlier, plus some anthropology-type books on magic. A bigger stock of the right kind of non-genre books could make a big difference in total sales and would make your stock stand out from the rest. And as noted earlier, horror did not perform well and took up valuable shelf and table space.

Here is summary data looking at all sales across both conventions, broken out by format:

Format
Receipts
# Sold
Average Price
HB
$387.00
31
$12.07
PB
$323.00
85
$3.80
TPB
$69.00
10
$6.90

Comparing the number of sold books by format to the total counts of books by format, I can calculate per cent sold by format:

Format
Inventory
# Sold
% Sold
ARC
6
0
0.00
BCE
3
0
0.00
HB
224
31
13.84
PB
452
85
18.81
TPB
55
10
18.18

Here's an interesting result: the trade paperbacks sold at nearly the same percentage rate as the paperbacks but for almost double the average price. This tells me that I should make every effort to stock more trade paperbacks.

Conclusions

As I said in Part 1 of this column, selling at the conventions is not for everyone. If your main goal is maximizing your profit while minimizing your work, then con selling is probably not for you. However, for those of us with a real enthusiasm and even love for the genre, the idea of spending a weekend surrounded by like minded individuals, selling books and talking, and leaving with more cash than you started with sounds pretty darn good. I had a great time, and I definitely plan to do it again.

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editor@bookthink.com

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