Friday, September 23, 2011

Author Costs in Attending Conventions: A Brief Overview

Author Costs in Attending Conventions: A Brief Overview
by Stephen Zimmer

Conventions are a fantastic venue for authors to meet readers, gain exposure, and network. While containing many enjoyable moments, they do require a lot of effort and expense on the part of the author, and it is my hope that this overview of the reality of attending conventions will help give readers and others some insights into the things that authors undergo to attend these events.

Unless you are on the top of the heap on the NY Times list, it is highly unlikely that your publisher will give you much support for appearances and events. From mid-list authors at Big 6 publishers, to small press authors, to self-published authors, the burden of expense falls upon the authors themselves. It is up to the author's own initiative to decide, in most cases, what conventions will be best, and how many of them are doable financially. The author pays for the table space, travel costs, food, and hotel, in addition to any incidentals.

Things certainly haven't gotten any easier in the last year. With gas costs pushing higher (as of now ranging between $3 and $4 a gallon across the USA), the costs of simply getting to the conventions have risen considerably.

For the purposes of this overview, I will examine a mid-sized convention taking place within a reasonable range of distance. This translates to a Convention of around 1000 to 1500 in size of attendance, in a location around 3 hours from the author's home.

Taking a vehicle with modest fuel economy, the first expense is going to be roughly $50 in gas to get to the convention and back home.

Next is accommodations. If you stay at the convention site, the cost will average around a hundred bucks a night, give or take a few dollars, but many authors opt to stay at discount hotels just off-site. We will go ahead and use the cheaper hotel option, so we will estimate around $60 a night for both the Friday and Saturday of the convention weekend.

To effectively sell books at a convention, you need table/exhibit space. Small conventions will be around $30-45 for table space, whereas a mid-sized convention will be more around $60-75. We'll use the cheaper option here as well, going with the lower end $60 figure for a mid-size event.

For food, you can take advantage of the con suites at many conventions, but at larger events these are not always available. We'll estimate a per diem of $20 in food support for this simple demonstration.

The total expense, so far, with the cheaper options on hotel and table space, is $290.

This cost could go even higher if the convention does not give the author a complimentary badge for serving on panels. As most cons do give authors participating on panels a badge, for doing a certain amount of programming, the cost of a badge will be omitted from this estimation. Just know that at a few conventions, an additional $50-75 would be added to the $290.

Now, let's take a look at the books themselves. Most good publishers will allow you to purchase books at a wholesale-type rate that is just marked up very slightly from hard cost. A roughly 300 page novel will therefore run about seven bucks to an author, to round the cost to an even figure.

The author then has to decide what to sell the book for. With a book of about 250-300 pages, in trade paperback format, the price that will move the quickest to buyers is $10. However, that is only a $3 margin over hard cost, which means that one would have to sell nearly 100 books over the weekend to cover the cost of the convention and the cost of purchasing the books. At $12, a person would have to sell 58 books exactly, and at $15, they would have to sell approximately 36 books.

Now, bear in mind that most authors I have been around range between 10 and 25 books sold for a mid-sized convention. True, there are those such as Shane Moore and Nick Valentino who are amazing sellers of their work. Shane has sold over 70 books in an afternoon appearance at a 7-11, while Nick has sold stacks and stacks of books at events of moderate-larger sizes (I have witnessed this in person as a neighbor of his in the dealer room). However, sales figures like Shane's and Nick's are not the norm for most authors. Rather, they are the exception.

So, let's take the top range for most authors and add an additional five units to round sales out at 30. At the $10 price figure, this is 70 units short of a break even level, at the $12 figure, it is just over halfway to the break even level, and at the highest price, which is going to be the toughest to move books at, with the size of the book and price, it is still 6 books short of breaking even.

As you can see, even with attaining a pretty good sales weekend in terms of copies sold, all three price scenarios fall short of covering cost. It is a real challenge just to approach a break-even level at a convention for most authors, and uncommon that an author can fully make expense, and perhaps have a little money to come back with.

There are ways to further mitigate costs, such as sharing hotel rooms, sharing table space, etc, but it is nonetheless very hard to cover the spread on a convention weekend. Even WITH sharing hotel and table space, the third tier of pricing is the only likely area for most authors that cost could be adequately covered, and that third tier is a much tougher pricing to sell a book of around a 300 page count at. This is not meant to be discouraging to authors, but instead something for convention goers to keep in mind when they are browsing the dealer rooms.

Instead of picking up a New York Times best-selling novel at the convention that you can get in any bookstore, why not give a little more attention to the exhibiting small press authors and find something that appeals to you? These authors are putting a great deal on the line in attending conventions, and have a lot of time, effort and financial sacrifice invested. Give them a little support and encouragement by picking up that $12 book, and help them get a little closer to covering their trip expense in the process. At the very least, you are reducing the financial bleeding that they will likely incur over the weekend.

You will find yourself discovering quite a few literary gems, which are every bit as good as major press offerings. Take careful note that increasing numbers of independent press and even self-published authors are filling up the top end of the sales charts in the eBook world, in a market where they are not gated out from getting on the shelves like they are in the traditional distribution channels flowing into the chain stores (A sector that is rapidly decreasing in this new age of publishing).

I say this to make the point that I am not advocating acts of charity in browsing and purchasing from author tables at conventions. Rather, I am inviting those who haven't tried independent, small-press, and self-published offerings to discover what increasing thousands and thousands of readers are finding out; many authors on the small, independent, and self-published level, in this new age of publishing, have works that are every bit as good as major press offerings.

The author of today's brave new world of publishing has to wear many hats, in addition to writing. They must be travel planners, marketers, public relations representatives, sales people, office managers, and more. Conventions are a very important part of the equation, but it is not easy for authors to regularly attend them due to the financial hurdles. Hopefully,this overview of the situation facing authors who attend and exhibit at conventions has given you a better appreciation of the sacrifices involved on the author's road.

-Stephen Zimmer

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  1. Excellent post Stephen. This is why I asked and have been asking lately in interviews regarding costs that authors have to go into not to mention time and effort in getting a book promoted. Thanks for the awesome insight.

  2. This is why I drive a Prius (50-55mpg) and generally take 2-3 more people along. Splitting a hotel room 4-5 ways makes it so much more affordable. I take a cooler and find a local grocery store.

    I tend to sell between 5 and 15 books at an event. There's also things like swag or give aways, promo candy, etc. (I did "Win Random Crap Off Angel's Desk" for Fandom Fest and it went over well)

  3. A difficult thing to estimate is how many novels sell after the convention from folks you talked to and went online to get it a few days or a week later...or how many of those 10 or 15 told a friend or two about it.

    Still, it's best to plan on the convention as an expense and work toward breaking even rather than a big money maker.

    Good post as it's something I've had to consider when being contacting conventions or being invited. I only have so much money in the budget to travel.

  4. Good post. I would only add that just because you see an author with her books, it does not mean that she is self-published or using a vanity press. Small press publishers have high standards, too, so don't assume that just because you have heard of a publishing house that means the books are self-published.

    Also most authors are paying not the 40% that a bookstore pays for the books but generally 45-50% of the cover price. The royalties are small indeed so instead of looking at books and saying "I'll just buy it in a store/Amazon" buy it from the author. You'll get it signed and that isn't something you will get via online or brick stores usually.

  5. Jessica: Thank you! It is a basic example, and there are exceptions and such, but it does give a fairly accurate gist of the situation facing authors.

    Angelia: You are one of those experts at shaving costs that I refer to in the article, and even with that, you know how tough it still is.

    Terry: I agree that there is always the unknown residual, and lately I've seen a definite eBook spike following a Con experience. As time goes on, this will factor in more and more as eBooks take up a larger portion of the market.

    TammyJo: I agree wholeheartedly, which is why I always try to get people to understand that there are small press releases every bit as good in quality as major press releases (and in some cases, even better). And I share your wish that people would buy direct from the author, as it helps much more directly! LOL

  6. This is why I sleep in bathroom stalls....

  7. Scott, we'll get there! Keep moving forward at all times! ;)

  8. Excellent post! Another thing you can do is actually talk to the con about "comping" your table. OR, if not a full-time dealer's room table, several time slots at an "author's signing" where you are available to sit and sell and sign. It isn't as good as your own table, but it is definitely an alternative.

  9. Great post. Thanks for sharing, Stephen. This is a painful (and good) reminder of the costs of marketing.