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Sales at Australian cons

Over the last year or more, I've publicly campaigned passionately for respect and better deals for hucksters and hucksters rooms at cons in Australia. At Swancon, the Perth con, we have all but lost an actual room for hucksters in the current venue. This year we were allotted the landing upstairs. The year before we had the space in front of the two main panel rooms. A space which we were constantly being told to be quiet but also which people felt uncomfortable loitering in. In both cases we have needed to pack up our tables at the end of the day and were expected to be set up for trading again by 9am - an increasingly harder thing to do as the con (and hangovers and tiredness) progresses.

At other cons, hucksters rooms have been in lockable rooms, removing the need to pack up and set back up. But often I've found the price of a dealers table to be more than one small press can afford. Some cons have had dealers membership pricing which made a big difference, but others have charged a hucksters table charge on top of the con membership. When a table at a hucksters room comes to be about $150-$200 for the weekend, it's beyond the viability of a small press. I remember for one con asking if I qualified for a fan rate, to which I was told decidedly no, yet I also noticed that paying the full dealer membership did not entitle me to the same privileges as others.

Book launches seem to be going through a lull at the moment at Aussie cons - at least since I have been on the scene. Most people don't seem interested in attending them, they get shunted off into poor locations in small rooms off the beaten path or into crap time slots on the programme (seriously noone attends book launches instead of lunch or dinner). Launching books that form the main Aussie scene to empty-ish rooms is kind of depressing. I've tried to liven these up - we launched 2012 in the underground carpark at Swancon. I've baked all kinds of small cupcakes and put on all kinds of spreads of food and alcochol. I even conned my friends into dressing up for New Ceres Nights and reading excerpts to a crowd sitting in a mock up of a New Ceres coffee house (and I HATE dressing up).

A while ago, during one of my rants, I got into a discussion with a friend of mine about hucksters' rooms at cons. It was a lively discussion and I got stumped by her question, in relation to hucksters rooms location and table pricing: "Forgive me if I'm seeing this too simplistically, I've never looked closely at the inner workings of small press, but what is it if not a business?"

She stumped me and I didn't answer her - the email has sat in my inbox for months. What are we if we aren't a business? I wanted to argue my point further but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that she's right, we are a business. And if we're a business, and we go to cons and get charged ridiculous prices to sit at small trestle tables in rooms too far away from the con to ever get enough traffic to trade our wares or if we're located in the middle of a throughway where people don't feel comfortable enough to browse, or get book launch time slots that mean the catering ends up costing more than the book sales you made or people don't buy books then: as a business owner, don't you decide to cut your losses? If cons just aren't worth trading at because the price and location of the trading spot doesn't work with the number of sales made, as a business, don't you make the decision to stop trading at those events?

After waging a very passionate plea against canning the hucksters room at Swancon this year, I started to take much more notice of my experiences and sales at cons as a huckster. I attended 4 cons this year - Swancon, Conjecture, Continuum 5 and Conflux 6. Last year I attended 3 cons (2 in Perth) - Swancon, Conflux 5 and Wastelands II (where I was local GoH).

Across these cons, I launched one new book at each, except Conflux 6. So by Conflux 6, I had 5 book titles to trade. I've just sat down and looked at the total number of books I've sold at each of these cons, bearing in mind that I gradually increased the titles, it's interesting that the number of books sold has stayed about the same (Conjecture anomaly is Horn):

Swancon (Natcon): 36
Wastelands II: 20
Conflux 5: 39

Swancon: 34
Conjecture (Natcon): 53
Continuum 5: 27
Conflux 6: 22

In terms of being a business, selling indie press at cons is not really the highlight. If a table costs $200, I might only just cover the cost of the table from book sales after a weekend of trading. Small presses tend to share tables because otherwise why would you bother at all? But seems to me that if the outlay to sell only allows me to recoup that outlay, I might not have bothered at all and been in the same financial position, in the end.

My sales this year have made me think hard about how I will approach cons in the future. I had a lot of other reasons to attend cons - catch up with friends, give Twelfth Planet Press visibility, meet fans who are not aware of us via online presence. I had meetings with authors of upcoming TPP projects at each con. I also was able to talk about the industry, find out what was going on, get tips and feedback and critiques of what I am doing, have ideas be pitched at me, pitch ideas at people. Network. Make new friends. Catch up with old friends.

There are lots of reasons to go to cons but I think as time moves on, if nothing really much changes, less and less presses will opt for taking spots in the hucksters room.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 5th, 2009 07:52 am (UTC)
I presume that having a huxter's table also makes it much easier to claim your Con membership and travel etc as a tax deduction as well, though.

You could probably do the same thing if you didn't have the stand, but the tax loss argument would be much stronger if you did, presumably.
Dec. 6th, 2009 04:12 am (UTC)
I suppose that's true. Depending if I had meetings with authors etc, I might be able to claim it as a tax deduction anyway?

I feel like if the ATO looked and saw that I spent so much money getting to a place and staying there and sold so few books, they'd judge the poor business decision :)

Dec. 5th, 2009 08:39 am (UTC)
Well. you'll be familiar with the economics now you are running a con. If the price is close to covering the hire cost of the room, then small press think it costs too much (justifiably so if they are comparing it to sales income). If you try for cheaper options, either they usually end up kind of sucking (like vendor tables you need to tear down/set up every day), or the con ends up subsidizing. It is a no win situation for the con, really.

I've come around to your point of view that the Swancon trend against dealer rooms is a bad thing, and that a solid, all con long, dealer room, even if it might be a small one, is a great assett to a con, and highly desirable. But the Swancon trend isn't really Swancons natural inclination, rather Swancon finding itself trapped in a choice for several years where the only venue that seemed to fit us was just that one room too small to do all the things we wanted to do (a collective we, I was only involved in one of several cons that made the same decision). Of course we want to dealers room - but we also want a gaming room, and 3 programming rooms seems barely enough, often not enough, and we want an art show, and you have to block out programming rooms for other purposes like social events and... something has to give, and Swancon has trended to make that be the dealers room. While I have changed from seeing the absence of a proper dealers room as not an issue, to seeing it as a real lack, I am still unsure if there is anything I want to cut instead. I definitely think Swancon would be better with a proper dealers room - but I also think it would be worse without an art show, or with 25% or so less good program space, or without a dedicated gaming room. Ultimately, it is a question for each con com, but I currently find myself wanting a dedicated dealers room, but finding it hard to justify cutting something else to fit one into the regular hotel.

Of course, there is an obvious solution - get a bigger hotel. if we can't fit a proper Swancon into the current one, then we need a bigger one. And, of course, this means finding a bigger venue, which means more money, which means more attendees, etc. I am convinced the ultimate answer here is for Swancon to aim higher, and expand the attendance, and then get into a bigger venue. Which is a bigger, and separate, issue than just dealer rooms. But I think a good dealer room is probably a very important part of broadening our appeal. The only problem with this is that trying to broaden our appeal has been a part of the WASFF/Swancon discussion for at least a decade without big results so far, and instead Swancon has been boxed into the same 'just not quite big enough, but it is the best option we can find' compromise hotel for several year. I hope 2011 will be the con to break that cycle.

Oh, and I personally hate the term hucksters. It is both fan jargon, AND insulting to the dealers. I much prefer dealers room, market room, etc.

Dec. 5th, 2009 09:05 am (UTC)
Yep, on it. Done, even.
Dec. 5th, 2009 09:20 am (UTC)
yeah, someone had to bite the bullet properly, I had figured 2011 would be the right committee to give it a try.

It was frustrating to realise after Swancon 07 that if we had gone for a bigger venue in the first place, we could have justified it financially on numbers and avoided some very painful function space shortage related headaches (mostly my headaches) - but then, we didn't find a suitable venue candidate we liked anyway.
Dec. 6th, 2009 03:40 am (UTC)
Hopefully we can pull it off and see where that takes us.
Dec. 5th, 2009 08:44 am (UTC)
time slots
As far as book launch time slots - speaking as a con programmer, book launch time slots immediately pre-lunch or pre-dinner are regarded as prime spots for things like book launches. It is a time when people are happy for an item that kind of slides gracefully into general socialising, which is particularly great if your launch goes really well, and it allows for book launches to go under time or over time without it being an issue for anybody. Of course, you are right that the following time slot, actually during lunch/dinner breaks, is a bad idea, as launches might provide snacks but few are willing to provide enough to substitute for a meal, but that one hour difference is a big one, and most con programmers wouldn't put a book launch in a meal slot by preference.

If you are prepared to shell out for catering/booze, immediately pre-dinner is the best slot, IMO, as it makes your launch an integral part of the social side of the con, and has the best chance of getting a receptive audience.
Dec. 6th, 2009 03:10 am (UTC)
Re: time slots
I agree with you. The trouble is when you can't get access to that timeslot.
Dec. 5th, 2009 09:04 am (UTC)
business or hobby?
Most small press (and I'm not going to judge TPP specifically here, you know its finances and I don't, and my personal experience with Borderlands is obviously smaller scale) is that most small presses are hobbies that operate as a business in order to make it sustainable, but can't actually justify themselves as a business (except perhaps in the aspirational sense of hoping to one day expand to the point where they can).

In other words, I know there are plenty of small presses that break even, and perhaps make a profit - but the important point is not so much whether it is being run to gain profit, but whether it depends on the labor of the operators essentially being supplied free, or at a small rate per hour insufficient to live on. If it does depend on labor donated free/super-cheap to be profitable, it is not being operated for reasons of profit, and so it isn't a 'real' business (business being pretty much defined by being operated to obtain profit). Of course, nothing wrong with running a business at a loss to build the business to the point where can be run for profit, but I don't think many small presses are consciously aiming at that point - most are just trying to produce things they think should exist because they have various reasons for doing so (including their pleasure in production), and trying not to lose money on the deal, without attempting to justify their time on an hourly basis.

I don't think this is a bad thing, necessarily - huge sectors of society are operated for reasons other than profit, including a lot of important areas like civic governance, activism, a lot of the arts, etc - but ultimately, it can become unsustainable, and people are forced to choose between what they want to do, and what they can justify doing financially. And this is why we have arts grants.
Dec. 6th, 2009 04:50 am (UTC)
Re: business or hobby?
I'm not really sure of the point of this comment. Most businesses operate at a loss in the first few years even if they intend to run at a profit. I am saying that if I am being treated as a business in terms of being in the dealers room, and I am in terms of cost, then as a business I need to decide whether trading is a wise business decision. In other words, if being charged dealers rates means that the trading I do on a weekend only just covers what I am being charged, then its not a wise business decision.

Small press don't get charged fan rates, as far as I know. Or else my small/indie press is being treated differently. Which is fine, except for the not being able to launch my books at the con.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )