I write & publish fiction for hackers and geeks. I’ve written a novel and two novellas and I have another novel in the works. The baseline genre is cyberpunk/biopunk thriller, although I approach the subject matter in a kind of David Foster Wallace/Pynchonian way. So I’m actually kind of a postmodern metafictiony cyberpunky technothriller novelist. All my books concern hacking of both silicon-based and carbon-based systems.
As I discussed in Adventures in Self-Publishing, there’s no reasonable way for me to get my books into bookstores (all the tech bookstores that used to carry me have gone under). Therefor I have to use other ways to get my books in front of readers. So sometimes I go to places where hackers and geeks and congregate & there set up a table whereupon I put out copies of my books & glowing reviews from geekoid websites & start carnival barking like Billy Mays, selling my books for cash.
I’ve done this for more than ten years.
Does it make any sense to sell books this way? Am I a brilliant self-marketing original or just some crackpot who wrote some crackpot books? I don’t know, but if you read this post I’ll think you’ll have enough info to form your own opinions. (Jane Friedman of Writers’ Digest thinks I’m doing something right, which is some consolation.)
Below, the story of my most recent such gig & biggest one ever, Defcon, Las Vegas, late July/early August 2010. This account includes a rambling disquisition on the whole “hand-selling books on the road” idea in general, with lessons learned from ten years of this idiocy.
(Since Defcon, by the way, I’ve sold the rights to my first novel, Acts of the Apostles. See here for the how and why I sold the rights.)
Me on the Road Selling Books to Geeks
I’ve sold books at USENIX conferences and CloudWorld Expos, at O’Reilly technology conferences and Linux Worlds, at Bar Camps and Geek Fair(e)s, at bioinformatics conferences and trade shows, at street fairs and on street corners. I’ve done it in San Francisco, New York, Vineyard Haven, Santa Clara, Boston, San Jose, Cambridge, San Diego, Tucson and points in between. It’s kind of like being a has-been rock star on the dive-bar circuit, only without out the sex, drugs and rock and roll but with smarter & sometimes less drunk people in the audience. My trip to Defcon this year was Sexy Sadie, the latest and the greatest of them all.
Defcon for dummies
Defcon is an annual tribal convocation of black-hat hackers, crackers & criminals & their white hat adversaries — along with associated geeks, grey hats, poseurs, script-kiddies, Feds, and corporatist & statist agents of control. It’s the largest such gathering in the world. 2010 was Defcon #18. There’s no pre-registration for Defcon & no attendance list. So projecting how many people are going to show up is a guessing game. This year, going in, the organizers expected between five and ten thousand people to show up.
To get a feel for Defcon, check out this photoblog on Wired Threat Level. Wired says there were about 10,000 people at this conference — mind boggling, actually — and pretty much everybody there fell in to my “target demographic.” See also the blog post of Argentine novelist Pola Oloixarac, from which the above photo was lifted.
For years I had wanted to got to Defcon to sell my books, but every year I forgot to apply for a vendor table until it was too late & they were sold out. This year I finally got my act together and got my application in early. Despite getting my application in early I was still wait-listed, and I didn’t know for months whether or not I’d get a table. Finally, sometime in late spring, I got greenlighted: my vendor application had been approved.
But once I had the opportunity, I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not to go. It would cost me money for airfare, money for a hotel, money for food, and money to ship the books to Las Vegas. Plus, the table cost $400. I would have to sell a ton of books just to break even. I had just had a bunch of less-than-spectacular outings schlepping my books to Boston and New York, and I wasn’t sure I was up for the hassle and or the disappointment if I flopped in Las Vegas. Not to mention that I couldn’t afford to lose the money if I failed, and odds of failure were pretty high. I nearly backed out.
At Defcon, the vendor area is open three days: Friday, Saturday, Sunday. If I sold 100 books a day at an average of $10, I would gross $3k and net about $1k. I decided that if I couldn’t sell 100 books a day to a crowd of 10,000 Defcon geeks I might as well hang it up. So I decided to just do the damn thing. On the principle of “in for a dime, in for a dollar”, I bought a plane ticket, reserved a hotel room & ordered an 8-foot long vinyl banner to hang on the wall behind me. Vegas here I come.
Traveling Geek Novelist Modus Operandi
So this is how it goes. I travel to the conference, whatever conference we’re talking about, in the cheapest way possible. I try to arrange a couch to crash on, whether at a friend’s house or with a friend of a friend. (For a long time I had a stash of my books in San Francisco, so if the event was anywhere near there I wouldn’t have to worry about bringing books from Massachusetts.)
Table: I arrange to get a table in the vendor area. I hardly ever pay full price for the table; most often I get it for free by sweet-talking my way into a Starving Artist discount; sometimes a friend does me a favor. (There was no chance of getting a discount at Defcon; I didn’t even ask. In the first place, Defcon’s table prices are cheap. And in the second place, all the Defcon vendors are starving artists.)
Signage: In the past I’ve sometimes made cheesy hand-lettered signs on posterboard to describe my books; recently I’ve gotten a little bit classier and had some small displays made. (You can see pictures in Pola’s blog.)
Propaganda & supplies: I always bring a bunch of photocopies of favorable reviews of my books from geeky websites and of newspaper articles about me & my mad self-publishing career. (For Defcon I brought about fifty copies each of my favorite dozen articles.) And I bring a ton of my glossy two-sided biz cards, and a dozen pens with fat tips, suitable for signing books in a bold hand.
Set up: When the venue opens for vendors to set up, I lug in my supplies—mainly the heavy boxes of books. I unpack my little poster-board signs & I tape them to the table, using little cardboard corner-protectors for braces. I put out piles of my books along with piles of the reviews. All around me other vendors are going through similar rituals.
Billy Mays inhabits my being. I AM Billy Mays.
Eventually the hall opens for regular humans & the long day pitching warez begins. I start addressing passers by, in what I hope is a confident (but not high volume) friendly (but not smarmy) voice:
“Hello. How are you? Come check out my books. Take a look! Do you read fiction? Oh, you don’t read fiction? Well, sorry, nothing for you here.” [That person walks on. Another shows up. I relaunch the spiel.] “I write fiction. These are novels. Yes, I wrote them. This one’s a thriller about about nanomachines and brain hacking. This one’s about a storytelling contest between two AIs–at least, that’s what it pretends to be about. This one’s an illustrated fable that’s kind of George Orwell meets Ronald Reagan. Yes, you can take a review. Take however many you like! Where are you from? Are you having a good conference? Ten bucks a pop, cheap, and I’ll sign ’em for you. Yeah, that’s a real Slashdot review. . .”
Over and over and over and over, all day, with only occasional bathroom breaks, (for which I take all the books off the table and place them behind it, so people don’t think the books are free and help themselves. Every bathroom break is a logistical hassle.)
Depending on the kind of show it is, a reasonable number of people stop to check out my table—and of those who stop, a certain number actually buy books from me. Of course, most people walk on by without stopping. Some say “hello” back to my “hello”, and some just ignore me. A few people make a point of forming a disdainful face, church-lady style, as if I’ve violated their sacred space. (This happens more frequently at gigs that have a corporate feel than at those that have a hacker vibe.)
Of the people who stop at my table, most pick up a book and start reading it someplace in the middle (I cringe when they do that. Why don’t they start on page 1???). Some people start by reading the back cover. Some people read a review first. Some people ask questions.
Every once in a while I meet somebody with an agenda. They want to convince me that my books suck because they’re self-published, or they want me to buy their book, (or sell their book!) or they want to convince me that the moon is made out of green cheese and space aliens control the tides. I’ve had many pleasant conversations. I’ve also run into a fair number of kooks that I could not get to shut up or leave me alone no matter how hard I tried.
When somebody says, “sure, I’ll take one of your books,” I say, “Now you’re talking!” and I grab a pen.
“For whom shall I sign it?”, I ask. With every sale I put one of my cards, which has my email address on it, between the pages of the book.
“Send me a note after you’ve read it. Let me know what you think of it.”
“What if I think it sucks?”
“I don’t care if you don’t like it; I’ve already got your money. I just want to hear from you.”
Everybody promises to write me. Hardly anybody ever does.
Sometimes I meet people who have heard of me; more rarely I meet people who’ve read one of my books or that I’ve met at another conference. Sometimes I meet old friends, people I worked with back in those glorious days when I had a real job.
I meet so many people that I forget who I’ve met and who I haven’t. Sometime I start pitching my book to somebody who just bought three copies and spent fifteen minutes chatting with me. That’s embarrassing.
I take cash only, and I put the bills in my wallet. At the end of the day, I go back to where I’m staying — a friend’s house, a hotel room, a van down by the river–and count the loot. That’s how I figure out how well I’ve done that day. On a good day I’ll sell 100 books & walk out with my wallet fatter by a thousand bucks or more; one time I sold 150 books. On days like that I feel hopeful.
But on a lousy day when nobody’s buying, I sell a couple dozen books or fewer. That means I’ve lost money and wasted my time. Then I feel like Willy Loman, a loser on a pointless mission with no future.
Expenses & the cost/benefit calculus
So let’s recap the expenses for any gig. I have to get myself there and back. I have to get my books and supplies there (sometimes I bring them myself, and sometimes I ship them ahead of me). I have to eat. I have to have photocopies of reviews, and signs for my table. Sometimes I have to pay for the table itself. And, if I don’t manage to sell all the books I’ve brought with me, I have to get them back home–which is easy if I have my car, but an expensive pain in the ass otherwise. It’s easy to lose money selling books on the road, especially if there is air travel or a hotel involved. You have to sell a lot of books to make it worthwhile. I’ve had a bunch of money-losing trips–at least on a cash-accounting basis.
On the other side of the ledger the most obvious benefit is cash. On a successful two-day trip, if I stay with friends and get comp’d a meal ticket at the conference (meaning I spend $0 on food), I can come out nearly two thousand bucks ahead, net.
Over the decade I’ve been doing this, I would guess that I’ve come out slightly ahead. That is to say, in the aggregate, my revenues have exceeded my expenses. But not by a whole lot.
But there’s another part of the calculus, and that’s the serendipity factor. You never know when you’re going to meet somebody who can give you precious publicity, buzz that’s worth all your expenses and then some. Since nobody, not even J.K. Rowling, could ever sell enough books in person to make a sane living, a key idea behind the Billy Mays/”hand selling” thing is to generate buzz, to make serendipitous connections that will launch sales nonlinearly outside of the event itself.
For example, it was at the Geek Pride Festival in 2000 in Boston that I met CmdrTaco and Hemos from Slashdot and Jeffrey Zeldman from Zelman.com. Those encounters led to a couple of glowing reviews of my books on Slashdot and Zeldman.com. Those reviews led directly or indirectly to sales of thousands of copies of my books. I met Cory Doctorow at an O’Reilly conference, and he started mentioning my books on his site boing boing. It would be hard to overstate the value of those connections. I’ve had similar things happen, even if on not quite that scale, at lots of gigs. If I had stayed at home I never would have met those people, I would have sold far fewer books than I have, you wouldn’t be reading this, and I would probably be a very depressed man. In the aggregate, therefore, the road trips have been worthwhile –at least to the extent that my writing career is worthwhile. (See my interview with Jane Friedman of Writer’s Digest for more on this.)
Case Study: Defcon
Once I had taken the decision to go to Defcon, there were logistics to take care of.
Transportation: Books and Me
It would cost too much and take too much time for me to drive out to Las Vegas, which meant that I would have to fly there. The only ticket I could afford would get me into Las Vegas late Thursday night and leave Sunday night. To make matters even more complicated, from Vegas I would be returning not to my home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, but to the family reunion at the beach in New Jersey. So the itinerary: Boat, bus, plane to Vegas; plane, bus, metro, train, bus to the beach. Complicated.
Since I was flying I would have to send the books ahead of time. The only reasonable way to send them is by U.S. mail “media” rate — but that involves a gamble too, since media mail from Massachusetts to Las Vegas can take anywhere from 4 days to three weeks. I would have to send them to the Riviera Hotel business center, where they charge a handling fee for every box. That fee goes way up if the books arrive too early & they have to store them. So the first question is, when do I mail the books? Too early and the handling fees wipe out my profits, too late and I have no books at the show. I decided to ship 9 days before the show. (The books got there in 5 days and there was no surcharge. Score!)
The next question presented itself: how many books to send? If I sent too few, I would run out of them before the conference was over, and then I’d be kicking myself for being too timid & missing a great chance to make money. But if I sent too many books, then I’d have to give them away or send them back, and there was no way I was going to send any back.
How many books to send?
In a carton of Acts of the Apostles there are 28 books. In a carton of Cheap Complex Devices there are 60; for The Pains it’s 72. It costs about $14 to send a box of books, and the handling fee on the other end is almost as much. Let’s say it’s $30 shipping & handling for a box of books. If I sell all books for $10/each, then a box of Acts contains $280 worth of merchandise, a box of Cheap Complex Devices contains $600 worth; for The Pains it’s $720.
At Defcon the vendor area is open for three long days, 10AM to 7PM. I figured that if I got really lucky, I might sell 150 books/day. Selling 450 books is a highly ambitious, insanely optimistic goal. But it’s Vegas, what the heck, and there were supposed to be 10,000 people at Defcon. I decided to go for broke. I sent out 14 cases of books: 10 Acts, and 4 mixed CCD & Pains. About 500 books total.
Yes, this was bit nuts. No, wait. Not “a bit”.
The Riviera, where the Con was to take place, was sold out, but I asked the nice person on the phone there to recommend someplace cheap within walking distance, and that’s how I wound up at the Sahara, which was a jet-setter hot-spot in the 1960’s and is now a giant dive with a tattoo parlor in the smoke-filled lobby. $25/night for the first two nights, $50 the third. Add in taxes & fees and it came to $150. The walk from my hotel to the Con was about half a mile.
Cost of Goods Sold
I paid the bill for printing Acts and CCD years and years ago, so I consider them free goods. The cost of printing The Pains is too painful to think about, so I don’t think about it. I consider them free goods too. You can see why I wasn’t cut out to be an accountant.
It cost me about $350 for shipping & handling of the books. $150 for three nights at the el-cheapo run down Sahara Hotel. $400 for the table at Defcon. $900 transportation, including airfare, shuttles, train, taxis, boats, buses. The banner & shipping cost $100 (but I still have the banner.) Plus a hundred bucks or so for a few days food. I had enough photocopied reviews from earlier events, so that cost, at least, was zero. So what does that come to? Let’s see put down the seven, carry the one, divide by 13, add in the fudge factor. . . let’s say $2,000. That’s a lotta dough for a man in my situation. . .I was going to have to sell a lot of books just to break even . . .
So, how did it go?
The first day I sold 80 books at $10 each. Not bad by my normal scale, but bad by my unrealistic Defcon goal. I was going to have to do better. Next day, I sold about 100 books. Which means, OK, Saturday night I’ve about covered my expenses. But note: I’ve sold 180 books, but I brought close to 500 books with me, leaving 300 unsold. And I’ve got no reasonable way to ship them back home.
So I do the obvious thing: On Sunday, the final day of Defcon, I put signs all around my table. Sale Price! $5/book, or one of each, complete set of my three novels, for $10.
People come streaming into the vendor area on the last day. A nonstop crush, and many of the people have a beer bottle in one hand starting 10:00AM. Vegas rules. “Three books for ten bucks? OK, you got me.”
By 5PM, vendor closing time, I’m down more than 200 books and up more than $1200. I’ve taken in $3000 over three days.
I donate my unsold books to the Defcon “goons” (the volunteer staff that runs the con). Most of them were distributed as free swag at the closing ceremony & the rest were claimed by goons. Or they were trashed. Who knows? I know where at least one of the swag books ended up.
Conclusion: Hand selling doesn’t scale. But nothing does.
So for three days’ work (not counting all the prep work beforehand) I made about $1,000, net of expenses. Which is better than getting punched in the face, but not a great long-term strategy for avoiding homelessness.
Plus, I had fun, and a learned a bit, and I got some nifty snippets and ideas to stick into Creation Science, the novel I’m working on now.
The whole thing of it is, you can’t judge gambles like this Defcon gig on the basis of the one-to-one, “hand” linear sales. It’s the nonlinear effects of meeting somebody like a Zeldman or a Hemos, where one sale means fifty sales, or five hundred, that determine whether the event was worthwhile or not.
I like to think that at some point I’ll reach some critical mass of name recognition and my books will start selling themselves on Amazon and through my site. Kindle sales of Acts and Pains seem to be up a lot lately. Is there any Defcon effect behind that? Who knows?
I do believe that my willingness to go out into the great big world & shamelessly pimp my warez to hackers and geeks & my familiarity with the people who attend Defcons and O’Reilly conferences and so forth helped convince the good people at Underland Press to make me an offer for Acts of the Apostles. So maybe my Defcon outing got me a book deal. (Or not. I don’t know.)
Were there any nonlinear effects from Defcon? I’m disappointed that I’ve heard back from so few people, but there are a few connections that my pan out, a few things in the works, maybe. We’ll see. After all, the great Slashdot review that was my big break appeared in late May, more than six weeks after I gave a copy of Acts to Hemos. Sometimes these things take time. Maybe some influential person I met at Defcon will start talking up my books and it will snowball & I’ll become the next Dan Brown.
On the other hand, these are Defcon people, and in general they’re very privacy/anonymity-obsessed. Many of them are even more technoparanoid than I am, and they would no more leave a trace on a site like, for example, Amazon.com than they would flap their wings and fly to Pluto.
But I like to think that in some secret Defcon-insider irc channel the good word is starting to buzz, and next year in Vegas I’ll sell thousands.