Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with buying books from the stores or bowing to their wishes in trying to get your books (if you've been published) into the stores. The people there are trying to make a living and they've always been great to me.
But the stores don't supply your stock for cons and shows and they aren't usually there to deal your books for you.
Your publisher (or your POD) does supply them, and it the case of a con or show, it's your job to act as both book dealer and author.
Forgive the length of this blog post - I have quite a bit of information to give you and one post to do it in.
But how do you walk that fine balance between giving your readers a reason to buy from you and still walk away from a con without losing money (*well, without losing money related to your books... I don't know about you, but while I go to a con to make money I tend to do the tourist thing and spend a little bit too) and hopefully make a bit of money... or at least break even so that the books paid for your way into an awesome con and the weekend.
There are a few things you need to take into account when you go to a con as a dealer vs. an attendee.
First, you now have a table to work.
Second, you have a table to work.
The first step is figuring out how much that con will cost you to even walk onto the premises. This will be the deciding factor on whether to go or not... well... maybe... it might be the deciding factor on how much it subsidizes going... making $200 to $300 bucks on a con you normally drop $400 or more to go without working a table as an attendee means that trip was $100 to $200 instead of what you'd normally pay.
However, you're not there to subsidize a trip - when it comes to being a writer you need to make money to pay rent and bills.
So, first things first, decide on your one-time cost budget. This includes things like a table cloth or two to cover the front (and sides) of your table to the floor and perhaps some sort of backdrop so people aren't looking through your display but, instead, are forcing them to look at you and what you have to offer. You can find these things almost anywhere, especially if you don't need something fancy. Thrift stores, liquidation places, discount stores... all great sources for these. One recommendation is to go with something plain and in something that doesn't detract from your display. White is just fine, and it works with everything. If you need to do something to look a bit different, you can throw a coloured sheet over it on the diagonal and stand out from the crowd. Black is also another great colour, but can be somewhat difficult to find.
The other "one off" costs are promo materials - you don't need to go all out crazy on this either. For books, I suggest bookmarks. You can use them instead of business cards and have what information about you want on them. Don't worry about having handouts as these usually end up in the landfill or as litter, but do have an eye-catching sales sheet on a stand-up frame for each book. Throw a QR code on it to take someone straight to Amazon or Chapters... or to more information about the book (the stuff you would have put on those hand-outs!) and you have a green and high-tech (and cheap) alternative.
Add all of these up. This is your personal start-up for going to cons. This is what you have to make back to break even.
The second step is figuring out the ongoing costs of going to cons and shows. Things like:
- Hotel cost (if necessary)
- How much that table was to rent
- Fuel and other costs associated with driving, or the bus ticket and other transportation costs.
- The cost to buy your own books from the publisher/POD, including shipping and taxes.
- Food & other miscellaneous items to support a human being outside of their home.
Once you look at this, chances are you are already coming up with nifty ways to cut down on how much you're going to spend. If you have family or friends, and they're fine with the visitor, you could save the money you'd spend on the hotel and stay with them. The cost of the table there's no getting around, and each option for transportation has its ups and downs (not exactly recommending trying to do something like Anime North as a dealer by using the TTC... it's not impossible, but it's far easier to do with a car). For food, instead of buying take-out you could head to a local grocery store and make your own sandwiches and pack your own snacks (*actually, if you're trying to watch your waist line, this is not only the cheapest way to go but usually also the healthiest) and keep them in a cooler. Make sure you also budget for water and other ways to keep yourself hydrated without heading straight for the pop.
The one thing that will always remain the same will be how much it costs to buy your books from your publisher/POD, but we need to do another step first.
Tally all of this up. Yes, I know you don't know exactly how much it is. Chances are you can ballpark it using the tools online to find out how much things will cost and a fair idea how much your car uses in gas.
Whatever the total happens to be is now your break even point.
I am going to use two cons as an example... one con is a 4.5 hour trip from here and the other is a local one-day con.
Con A - Anime North (4.5 hours drive south by car to Toronto)
- Table cost: $250 (*includes weekend pass for two, though)
- Hotel cost: $400 (*if I stayed in a hotel. I usually visit family at this point, so my cost ends up being a gift card for a nice dinner and a nice card for around $100)
- Fuel: Round trip usually costs around $50 to $75-ish, including trip to the con from where I'm staying and back per day.
- Grocery: $50 for the weekend, and I take some home with me for the rest of the week. This includes snacks and coffee on the way down and on the way back up for both me and my Dad.
- Bookmarks: $50 for enough bookmarks to hand out.
Looking at that, the cost to go to Anime North is around $525 to $550, depending on price of gas and if we go a little over on grocery.
Con B - Graphic-Con (local, Sudbury)
- Table cost: $15 (*includes day pass for 2 people... it's only a one-day con)
- Hotel cost: N/A - we live in the same town as this one.
- Fuel: $5 - the drive isn't very far and parking is free on weekends
- Grocery: $15 for the day in lunch, dinner, and snacks for two people.
- Bookmarks: $50
Right away you can see the difference here. The cost for Graphic-Con is $85, depending on the same two factors as Anime North.
- Tablecloths: $15 for four large black tablecloths to cover tables and create a backdrop.
- PVC frame for backdrop: $10 at local hardware store.
- One-shot promo materials: $10 at local print shop, or used my own printer
- plastic stand up frames for promo stuff: $5 at local buck store
- Banner: $45 at local print shop.
Total con ready overhead for any con: $85 to $100, depending on how many of each thing you buy.
What does this have to do with book prices?
To go to Anime North, I will have to make at least $600 over and above the cost of the books to break even. With Graphic-Con, the number is obviously far lower. Setting my book prices to something that gives someone a deal but still gives me as much as possible per book sale will control if I manage to break even, let alone make any money at all... and, like the rest of you, I have to think about the roof over my head and the bills that need paying.
Now, because it costs me less in shipping to do, I tend to buy my books in lots of 100, however, to break even on Anime North on 100 books means that $6 of each book has to go towards paying for Anime North. The obvious solution to this is to sell more books as, if I sell 200 books, that means that only $3 of each sale goes into supporting Anime North.
However, that's not a guarantee... most don't come close to this.
I certainly don't... well... okay, there was that ONE time I sold nearly 1000 copies in a few hours but I have yet to ever experience that lightning bolt of incredibly amazing good luck ever again.
The chances of that happening again is very, very slim so it would be better to say that a trip to Anime North as an artist/author would be better written off as a method of getting my name out there and any money made subsidized that trip I normally take as a regular attendee anyway and to hang out with friends after the artist's alley closes for the night.
The alternative would be to forgo the solitary table and go with a group - go as the rep for a writing group and sell as many books as you can for not only you but everyone else who couldn't make it. This results in the cost of the table being split amongst the group and taking turns on who goes for that year... unless it's always you because no one else can for various reasons. The cost then becomes far closer to Graphic-Con in that case since you're only paying for a share of that table.
Now, in the case of Graphic-Con, or any other con local to you that has a similar price point, the cost per book is significantly lower and you don't need to take as many books with you or sell as many to break even.
Basically, the only thing here controlling your break even point is how many books it takes to sell to cover the cost of buying them in the first place, whereas the more expensive con means not only the cost of the con but also those books... and then you really, really need to sell all of them.
So, how much is that?
For me, I pay around $12 to $13, including taxes and shipping, per paperback.
To break even with Anime North means I literally have to sell 100 books or more to come close.
For Graphic-Con, I only need to sell 10.
If this the first time I'm going, then I also need to factor in the upfront, one-time costs, of going to a con. if that's the case, I need to factor in the set-up of the table and add at least 10 to 20 books to the total I need to sell to break even.
As a note, though, books are not like baked goods. If you don't sell them all at one con or show, you can attempt to sell them at the next one you go to, or sell them anywhere else (like local and indie stores who will sell your books on consignment, sometimes for a small percentage and sometimes for nothing) to break even on a trip. If you are travelling, contact a few of these stores (or all of them) and see if they would be interested and what their terms are. Sometimes this can make a travelling trip go from a bust or 'just breaking even' to profitable. Combine with a book signing at one (or more) of these stores, and you've actually managed to kill two birds with one stone.
You really should be factoring all this into it anyway, as what sells a book is how much you are willing to put into it for promotions and marketing. Real, in person, face time is always worth more to a reader than virtual... so do try to do more than one thing per trip so that you don't have to make more than one car trip to a location.