Networking at Conventions

Over the years of running various businesses, studying marketing techniques, and observing what’s going on around me, I’ve discovered a few patterns to adopt and to avoid. It breaks down to a “do and don’t” list; I’ll start with the “don’t” list so that I can end on a positive note!

DON’T  buy a table to market your books. While that may seem counterintuitive, sitting at a table throughout a convention locks you in to one spot, limits your networking opportunities, and will never pay you back the money you put into it unless you’re already seriously famous.

(added 6/2011) Exception: at a certain point in your career, it’s a smart move to split a table with other beginning authors, or to join a group like Broad Universe for much the same sharing-of-effort purposes. As a standalone author, however, I reiterate: unless you’re already famous, don’t bother.

DON’T sneer at other attending authors in different genres than your own. Conventions are secretly massive cliques; if you get a reputation for being snotty, you’re closing a lot of doors you didn’t even know were there.

DON’T only talk about your books. Unless someone is really, deeply engaged by your writing and just can’t shut up talking about it (we should all be so lucky!), after about two minutes you’ve said all you can usefully say about your book. More will bore the hell out of people and make you look egotistical.

DON’T wander by a vendor’s stall or room and say, “Oh, this is all so gorgeous, but I have no money!” or “Ooh, pretty, but wow, expensive!”. I’m guilty of this myself and I really need to break the habit. It annoys not only to the vendor but anyone nearby, and makes you look whiny. As an associated point, most vendors really do not expect anyone to buy anything on the first day of a convention. First day is almost always just looking; second day they get some sales, last day turns into a big rush as people decide on final purchases. So don’t apologize. They get it.

DON’T — this is a huge peeve of mine — whine publicly about flaws in the con, hotel, or a performance. ESPECIALLY if you’ve managed to get in as a guest author, your job is to SUPPORT the convention. If you have problems, take it up with the staff of the con or hotel directly, NOT with your friends in the middle of a crowded room. Rude or not, people do eavesdrop, and if you’re talking loudly, it’s hard for them not to hear you in the first place. Bad feeling spreads like wildfire, and your grousing could literally sour the entire convention. Not a real good way to get invited back or earn any respect. . . .

DON’T get hammered. Seriously. Please. Silly happy is fine; puking and passing out on the floor is not.

Ah, now the fun part; the DO list:

DO ask other people about their creative endeavors (I’ve found almost everyone at a fantasy/sci fi convention wants to be a writer or an artist). Have a helpful list of resources ready to hand out to aspiring authors, and engage non-writers in conversation about what’s important to them — dogs, cats, kids, global warming, whatever. (Kissing babies is optional).

DO volunteer. Conventions are run on the blood of volunteers, but the sad truth is, at least a quarter of most volunteers turn out to be utterly useless or slope off to a party without notifying anyone. If you’re reliable and pick up the slack, the staff will thank you profusely, remember you clearly, recommend you as a guest to other conventions, promote you for free, and very probably invite you back next year (big batches of homemade baked goods as a thank you for all the staff’s hard work are always really appreciated). Remember, the staff of a convention are the folks who take care not only of the gamers, but also the big-name guest authors; they are NOT people to offend!

DO sit on panels. Figure out what your expertise is, and get up there in front of a crowd to talk about it. People really do want to hear what you have to say, and if you make them laugh or catch their interest during a panel, they’re more likely to remember your name in a positive light when they see your book on a shelf somewhere.

DO  talk to the vendors at a convention. Ask them how business is going; if they answer with a sour expression or negative attitude, move on: they have nothing to teach you. But if they’re happy, beaming, in costume, putting on a show, and drawing in customers, stop and watch for a while. Ask questions about their merchandise. Ask them where else they will be in the coming months; tell them about other events they might want to attend, if you know of any. Get their business card. Without monopolizing their time, make yourself memorable as a nice and intelligent person. Plan on stopping by for several casual, SHORT visits during the course of a convention, not one long (and boring) chat.

DO go to the evening parties. You don’t have to drink; most of them offer water, and always soda (must have that rum & coke!), but it’s an awesome place to meet people. If you’ve been invited to the convention as a guest author, there’s an unspoken expectation that you’ll attend at least some of the parties. The convention has invested in you by letting you in for free, remember; you owe them return value. This is BUSINESS.

DO collect business cards, making a note on the back of each one as to why you have it (“great chainmail bikinis,” for example), and — this is really, incredibly important — when you get home from the convention, SEND THANK YOU NOTES to EVERY ONE of them!! No need to be elaborate; “Thanks for braiding my hair, you did a super job” or “Loved meeting you, your chainmail bikinis are fabulous” is all you need to say. Email is the most common method of communicating these days, but you may need to track some folks down through Facebook or Myspace (in which case, FRIEND THEM!!) or their blog (in which case be careful that your message is appropriate for public viewing). Remind them of any suggestions you made regarding upcoming events to apply to (but don’t send them a huge list of details and contact info; that’s being pushy. If they’re interested they’ll look it up themselves).

DO write a brief account on your web site or blog about the convention, naming names whenever possible, and provide links to the performers and vendors who impressed you the most. They will notice. They will thank you. And they will return the favor in many cases.

I’m sure there are many more tips that I’m missing; what are YOUR pet peeves and experiences with convention networking? Also, do you agree or disagree with any of the above points? I want to know!

Thanks go to Barbara Friend Ish and Allen Wold for their advice, which contributed heavily to this article.

Note: There were some lovely comments made on the original post; sadly, moving this to its own page means losing those comments. :(  My apologies!


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