Spring and summer are conference and convention seasons. Regardless of your publishing path, indie or traditional, you must budget for certain things. You can’t expect your royalties to pay for them early in your career. And just so you know, many award-winning authors must still work their day jobs to pay their bills long after becoming bestsellers.
At first, getting your books in front of readers is a challenge. The in-person sales event is one way to get eyes on your books. This could be at a venue as small as a local bookstore allowing you to set up a table on their premises.
Or it could be as large as a table at a regional conference or convention.
Signings at writers’ conferences are usually a bit pricy for the number of books you might sell, but they are great ways to network.
What are the minimum costs for working a table at a signing event?
The bare minimum expenses:
You must have a stock of books on hand. You can’t sell books that you haven’t ordered. I order well in advance, as it can take three weeks for an order to arrive via the least expensive shipping method. Paying for overnight shipping of fifteen to twenty books is well out of my price range.
We must consider the table fee. A bookstore might not charge you anything for the table, but they may take a small cut if they run your sales through their cash registers.
However, large conferences and conventions will charge table fees ranging from $70.00 to as high as $300.00 or more. This varies with the size and type of conference, the venue where the convention is being held, and the vendors you will be competing with.
Sci-fi and Fantasy fan conventions can be quite pricy. You will be in an immense, crowded room, competing with big-name RPG game franchises and movie franchises, plus all the vendors of memorabilia and collectibles that are available in the vendors’ alley.
If you are able to get a table at a major fan convention, you must pay for transportation, food, and lodging. These costs could be gas, parking, airfare, hotel, etc., if you don’t have friends or family in that area. If you are planning to stay in a hotel, take simple foods that can be prepared without a stove. Being vegan, I tend to be an accomplished hotel-room chef, as most coffee bars don’t offer many plant-based options. While that bias is changing, I still go prepared.
Bring at least one pen for signing your books. I bring four or five because sometimes the pens don’t work as advertised.
The final thing you will need is a way of accepting money. I have a metal cash box, but you only need something to hold cash and some bills to make change with. A way to accept credit cards, something like Square, is a good option. You will find a lot of vendors use Square, but there are other options out there.
These things are the bare minimum you will need to provide. At many shows, you’ll be given a table with skirting and a sign attached to the front with your name in block letters. You can get by with this if you’re on a tight budget. New vendors manage with this minimal setup all the time. This option lets you squeak by on little more than the cost of your books. Your setup and teardown time will be short, and you’ll have little to transport—always a positive, in my opinion.
My good friend, Lee French, is a pro when it comes to selling at conventions. She co-wrote the book, Working the Table: An Indie Author’s Guide to Conventions with Jeffrey Cook. She tells us that to really succeed, you’ll need to invest a bit more.
It helps to have some kind of promotional handout. I find bookmarks and business cards are the most affordable option. I know a few authors who have all sorts of little buttons and promotional trinkets relating to their books made. They give them out to everyone who passes their table, buyers or not.
However, most of my friends agree that business cards and bookmarks are the best bang for the buck in promotional material. They are less expensive when purchased in bulk, so I get as many as my budget allows.
You will need a business license to sell books at most conventions. Each state in the US has different requirements for getting these, so do the research and get whatever business license your local government requires. This allows you to get a reseller’s permit, enabling you to buy copies of your own books without paying sales tax. If your state doesn’t assess sales tax, you don’t need this, but you’ll still need the business license.
If you live in a state like Washington State, be smart and set aside the money collected as sales tax. It is not yours and shouldn’t be considered part of your income.
Investing in some large promotional graphic, such as a retractable banner, is a good idea. A large banner is a great visual to put behind your chair. A second banner for the front of the table looks professional, but they do require some fiddling with pins.
Lee French suggests getting a custom-printed tablecloth that drops over the front of the table, acting as a banner. It looks more professional, and the books will hold it down, so you don’t have to mess with pins. You can find a wide variety of sizes and shapes of banners and graphic promotional props on the internet.
I have an inexpensive black tablecloth for under my books, but you can get one in the color of your choice. Venues will often provide a white tablecloth, so buying one isn’t necessary, but it makes your display look more professional. Most shows offer a 6×3 table.
I suggest buying book stands of some sort. Recipe stands work, as do plate and picture stands. Whether they’re fancy or cheap, be sure you know how to use them properly so they aren’t falling over when someone bumps the table. I use folding plate stands as they store well in the rolling suitcase I use for my supplies.
This brings us to storage and shifting goods. We must move our gear between the table and our vehicle, and sometimes we’re forced to park in inconvenient places. Many people use wheeled bins or fold-up handcarts. Luggage carts are a great, lightweight option when you only have a few books. I use a large wheeled suitcase, as I travel pretty light.
I have a plastic container with a good lid for storing pens, bookmarks/cards, book stands, and other whatnot.
I suggest you keep it simple because the more you add to your display, the longer setup and teardown will take. The shows and conferences I have attended offered plenty of time for this, but I’ve heard that some require you to be in or out in two hours or less.
Aside from the table fee and transportation, Lee French says it will cost about $400 for your stock of books, banners, bookmarks, and odds & ends. The way inflation is going, it may take more than that.
Shop the internet for sales on banners and similar items. You will need to replace bookmarks, business cards, and book stock, but most larger promotional items won’t need to be repurchased for a year or two.
If you plan to get a table at a large conference this year, I highly recommend Working the Table: An Indie Author’s Guide to Conventions by YA authors Lee French and Jeffrey Cook. This book has all the tips and tricks you will need to successfully navigate the wild seas of selling your books at conventions.
And if you choose to embark on the in-person event circuit, I wish you good luck and many happy sales.