Selling Yourself at Flame Con: An Insider's Guide

Flame Con is the premier comic and speculative fiction convention for the LGBT community. I attended last year, just as a guest, and had an absolute ball. It was a no-brainer for me, as a queer self-published novelist, to make the call to buy a table this year and display my books. It would be my second con as an exhibitor, so I wasn’t quite a virgin, but my first was a little small and mostly straight so it really shouldn’t count. This was the con that mattered.

My load-in time was scheduled for 8:00 AM on Saturday morning, and despite having enjoyed myself greatly at the Firestarter kick-off party the night before, I was up and ready to go promptly at eight. Thirty. Ish. Look, I needed some extra time to get ready. Convincing strangers to take a chance on your work, to spend their hard-earned money on an unknown author, is as much about selling yourself as it is selling your stories. One must look one's best, and it’s not easy for me to get glammed up so early, especially when all I had for dinner the night before was vodka and high-fructose corn syrup.

But I made it down to the vendor floor with plenty of time, looking fresh and beautiful (keep any dissenting comments to yourself), and was confronted with my blank canvas. The figurative street corner from which I would peddle my wares. My home for the next two days. Table 86.

The tablecloth looks sort of beige here, but it was actually a cheery yellow, which is really not my style at all. This is New York. We do black.

Much better. With the help of my friends Mike and Kate, who acted as my helpers/wingpeople/pimps for the weekend, I got a pretty sweet table ready for the marks. I mean, guests. I did a lot of research into what makes for a good vendor display at a convention, so if you're a writer, artist, or craftsperson considering buying a table for Flame Con 2017, here's a closer look at my table, along with some tips I picked up that led me to lay it all out the way I did.

  1. Bookmarks! It's important to provide something that will remind guests about you after the con is over. Something that gives them an idea of the kind of work you do and provides your pertinent information. You can use a basic business card, or pick something more creative that jibes with what you're selling. Since I'm a prose author, I printed up some nice bookmarks with my covers, tag line, and website. The printing costs are pretty low when you get them in bulk, so they're well worth the cost. I came to the con with a couple hundred, and ran out not long into day two. People love free stuff.
  2. Pins! Consider making some kind of merchandise that complements your work – there are plenty of sites online where you can have inexpensive schwag made up. The title of my first book is Alan Lennox and the Temp Job of Doom, so I printed buttons that read “Temp Job of Doom.” I figure a lot of people can relate, even if they’re not interested in the books. These don't have to be free, but don't charge too much. They double as advertising, so you want them in as many hands as possible.
  3. Books! The most important element will obviously be whatever it is you're actually selling. For most people at Flame Con, that's books, either prose or comic. Stand a few up to show off your nice covers, and stack the rest for browsing. But don't stack too neatly – people are more likely to pick up a book if they feel like they're not messing up the pile. If you have text on your back cover, make sure a few are flipped upside down. Sometimes people feel obliged to buy a book if they touch it, and if they don't want to feel that obligation, they won't stop at your table. Having the back cover text on display will catch their eye and let them read without having to pick the book up. And then they’ll like what they read and buy it anyway. What, you think only the giant retail stores use psychology in their layouts? Convention vendors have got more mind tricks than a Jedi!
  4. Mailing list! Maybe as important as the books, truth be told. A mailing list is an absolute must for any artist. Sales at the table are fantastic, but someone who signs up for your newsletter is a potential customer long after the con has ended. You can use a tablet or keep it quick and easy and just slap some paper and a pen on a clipboard like the dinosaurs did.
  5. Signage! Banners are cheap and easy to make online. I had a lovely banner with my name, website, and tag line, “Horrible Things Happening to Interesting People,” made at Staples for under twenty bucks. For some extra bang, I also had gorgeous posters made up of my book covers. There was a lot of visual stimulation at Flame Con (I think my favorite visual stimulation was the guy dressed as Waluigi), and bold visuals will help you cut through.
  6. Candy! If you're feeling generous, you can provide some free sweets, which might get people to pause and take a look at the books while they chew. I brought way too much, though. Lots of people enjoyed it, but a large proportion of the con-goers were either shirtless or wearing spandex. They were not about to eat chocolate. (Whatever. More for me.)

When the doors opened and the guests descended upon us, Mike and Kate greeted them with grins and some subtle product placement.

I had a slightly harder time with the smiling. Socialization is not my specialty, but I just pretended I was at a club, chatting up some hottie on the dance floor. Then I remembered that I don’t know how to do that when I’m sober, and realized with horror that I’d have to rely on my actual personality.

Uh-oh. I muddled through, somehow. I switched my metaphor, from picking up a one-night stand to building an honest relationship. I dealt with passers-by with an open heart, treated them like real people with their own wants that may or may not line up with mine, and spoke to them truthfully, offering what I had, responding gratefully when they wanted it and gracefully when they didn’t. You know, all that crap.

I recommend avoiding the hard sell. There’s nothing worse than being trapped at a con table politely listening to a pitch for a perfectly fine product you have absolutely no interest in. But when someone paused, I would give a quick description of the storyline, encourage them to flip through the books, and answer any questions they had. I had some good deals on offer, including a discounted rate for buying multiple books, and an ebook bundle I mailed from my phone, right at the table. And it all worked pretty well. I won’t discuss numbers – that would be vulgar, and I’m a lady – but a common measure of a reasonably successful con is if you made back the cost of your table, and I did that, and a bit more besides.

The two days of Flame Con flew by, and by the time it was done we were pretty much spent.

I met some lovely people and made some great connections, with my neighbor vendors, with the Geeks Out crew, and with the other self-published prose authors exhibiting. But the con attendees were the best of all, and I’m not just saying that because some of them gave me money. I love being surrounded by people who are passionate about shared interests and excited to be in an environment where they can let their freak flags fly with no risk of judgment, who also, by virtue of their kind and welcoming hearts, represent the LGBT community at its best. To then have those amazing people excited about, geeking out about, something that you yourself created – I’m not sure there’s a better feeling.

So yeah. That’s why I exhibited this year. And that’s why I will again next year.

As soon as I’ve recovered.

Maybe I'll see you at the neighboring table at Flame Con next year? Feel free to ask me any questions about exhibiting in the comments. If you’d like to check out what I was selling, you can find me at brianolsenbooks.com, or on Twitter at @brianolsenbooks.

Brian Olsen's picture
on August 31, 2016

Brian Olsen is a NYC-based writer of sci-fi novels and is trying to convert his apartment into a Zero Room. Find his books at www.brianolsenbooks.com, and find him on Twitter @brianolsenbooks.