Gut Check: So You Think You Want to Sell at a Convention

If you've never worked a dealer's table at a convention, or you have and it wasn't as successful as you thought it would be, you've probably got some work to do. A successful convention is all about the preparation and your own fortitude. When the typical dealer's table or booth can cost upwards of $100 dollars, which may not include the cost of con admission, and attendance can range from the thousands to hundreds of thousands, you need to do whatever you can to make sure you're moving product rather than watching customers keep moving past you.

Presentation is everything.

If you remember nothing else from this article, remember this: if your booth isn't catching people's attention right away, you've already lost out. This means you have to look nice, your booth needs to look nice, and your merchandise needs to look nice.

So, here are some handy guidelines:

  • Dress comfortably but neatly. You don't need to show up at the con in a suit or a fancy dress, and in fact, I don't recommend that you do. Wear something comfortable to move in and shoes comfortable for standing in across long hours. The average amount of time you'll be working your table is 7 hours or more, if you run it for the entire length of time the Dealer's Room is open, so don't wear shoes that pinch or are too stiff. And whatever you wear on your body should be free of holes and stains and be as wrinkle-free as possible.
  • Don't just sit there. As suggested by the point above, you should be standing as much as possible so that you can greet your customers face to face, eye to eye. The only time someone should be staring down at the top of your head is if you're doing an autographing session. This doesn't apply, of course, if you are in a wheelchair or have other physical limitations that prevent you from standing for extended periods. By all means, use a chair as you need to, but if you can, try to be upright as much as possible. And remember to smile when greeting someone passing by.
  • Grab attention with a banner or two. Banners should not be displayed on the front of your table. Why? Because the majority of people walking past your booth are not two feet tall, so they're not looking straight at your table. (There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and I'll leave it up to you to know your audience best.) In general, banners should go behind you. I recommend telescoping vinyl banners, because they are usually not too expensive, are durable, and are easy to assemble and take down. Your banner should have an attractive graphic of some kind, maybe your book cover or something related to the book, if you're an author.
  • Avoid the black tablecloth. Once you've got the customer's attention with your banner, they'll be looking down at your wares and your table. If you choose to cover your table with a cloth, pick a color other than black or white. White doesn't stay white for long, and black is both really overdone and picks up fuzz like crazy. If you have any kind of cloth or plush merchandise, the fuzz is going to collect on a black tablecloth pretty quick and make it look like hell. Consider red or blue (but not electric blue, which some find irritating to look at, myself included) or even a custom tablecloth of some kind.
  • Make sure your best products are front and center. I've seen a lot of ways of displaying merchandise, some that work and some that don't. If you're talking about books, covers should be facing out at passersby. I am not a fan of books on bookshelves, or worse (I saw this once), on multi-level pamphlet shelving. I use book stands, which tilt the book back slightly for easy viewing, which I arrange in a line. I also attach a short snippet from positive reviews to the stand. In the case of the pamphlet shelving person, every little paperback title he had ever written was displayed on this thing. It was not very appealing, and buyers seemed to gravitate to the same two titles over and over, which leads to the next point.
  • Less is more. You may be tempted to bring as much product as you can fit into your vehicle. I caution you against this. One, it's costly to gather that much merchandise, and two, you don't know how your products are going to be received. So, be conservative your first time out. Get a feel for what your buyers really respond to. It's better to run out of merchandise and take down the names of buyers still interested in getting something than it is to have to cart home products that didn't sell well or at all.

Moving on to the next important point...

Selling isn't everything. Swag also rules.

In addition to the products you're selling, you need to have items that sell your brand without costing passersby a dime. This means stickers, magnets, pens, promo cards, and other such inexpensive items. I've gone so far as to provide a free bag with my company's logo on it to book buyers. Everyone they pass is going to know who they bought books from, and that makes my job easier.

Keep these free items aside from your saleable items (which should be well labeled) so that there's no confusion as to what's free and what's not. Your business cards and email list sign-up sheet can go next to these free items.

A quick note about bookmarks for authors reading this. Reconsider using a bookmark in place of a business card. I know you think this is a neat way to communicate a line or two from your book, where to buy the book, and your social media info. But unless your bookmark is printed on thick card stock or plastic (you know, like a regular bookmark) and has the world's coolest design, it is unlikely it will survive past convention day. It may not even last beyond the taker's passing the next trash can. If you really don't like the idea of business cards, consider a magnet or a promo card, say 4" by 3".

Bundle up.

I'm talking product bundles for a discount. I usually offer a slight discount for individual items I sell at cons, and I also create bundles. My bundle at Confluence was very popular. Both of my books plus a Thystle sticker for $24. The customer saves $4. Buyers really liked this bundle. Consider something similar.

Be swipe-ready.

Do not assume everyone is carrying cash at the convention. Many are, but many more are looking for vendors who take credit and debit cards. Be one of those vendors. Companies like Square offer free or low cost card readers that plug into most cell phones and tablets, and the fees that are charged are low - usually in the ballpark of 2.75% - 3.25%.

Also, it has been proven that people spend more when they are using their cards. It may seem a little dishonest to play into this, but you're in business to make money, so make it easy on yourself to do that.

If you use a point of sale system (POS), please resist the urge to charge extra for swiping. This is tacky at best, offensive at worst.

Also be aware that depending on the state laws of your home state, you may be required to pay sales tax on any items you sell. In my case, I eat that cost for the benefit of not having to carry coins.

Don't rely on the last day to make your money.

If you have a choice of which days to set up your dealer's table, do not pick the last day of the convention. Pick at least two days, but don't pick the second and last day of a three-day convention. I learned this the hard way.

By the last day of the convention, many people have left or are in the process of leaving, and those that haven't already spent their money on purchases in the Dealer's Room on the first and second days.

Bring a buddy.

Last but often most important is to bring a friend to the convention. Chances are, you will have to use the restroom at least once during the convention. Also, there might be a program you want to see or are actually a part of. If you're working your table all by yourself, that means you have two choices: hold it for 7+ hours or shut down your table so that you can step away (which might be as simple as draping your merchandise or as complex as locking items up). My advice is to avoid both of those scenarios. The first is damn uncomfortable and the other means you're not making money while your table is shut down.

So, bring your significant other, a family member, or a trusted friend, anyone who you trust to man the table while you're gone. Don't pick anyone you don't trust to handle money or to handle your merchandise with care.

Nervous yet?

Yeah, there are a lot of moving parts to running a table at a convention, but it's not impossible. Plan ahead and don't take on too much, and you'll be fine.


Next Thursday: surviving the con itself.