The Price of Publicity

I promised myself to work on my blogging skills. It’s a bit like getting back into shape, you know? I’m struggling to get back into a routine, and everyone around me is telling to cut myself a break considering the year I have been facing. The reality is, just like staying in shape, I have to do this. Next year, as many of you know, I will be returning to novel-length fiction with my first mass market paperback novel, Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel. Me. The Kiwi. Steampunk. The cover is just beautiful, I’m telling you. Stay patient and, as soon as we get approval, we will go live with it.

2011 is a big step for me as a writer; and I’m trying to take everything I have learned since 2002 when Morevi first rolled off the presses, and apply it to the now. One of the hardest lessons I learned over this near-decade of writing professionally is just how easy it is to find yourself in the red. Not the red ink of an editor’s pen, mind you, but the financial red of your bank account telling you in so many words that you — the professional author — are flat broke.

With my bank accounts and credit scores all in the green (pardon the pun), I don’t intend to drive myself, Sonic Boom, and Pip into that dark territory. I’m also trying to make sure Pip doesn’t overreach financially, committing herself both in time and money into appearances. I still believe that face time is extremely important to the author, of course. However, it is more important to pay the bills, have a safety net in the bank, and make certain the roof you’re keeping over your head can be fixed at a moment’s notice.

Oh yeah, and writing. Writing is very important to the writer, last time I checked.

Today, I was reminded of just how tough it is to “give the people what they want” as tweets were asking us when we would bring Eliza and Wellington (our heroes from the Ministry) to local bookstores and Science Fiction conventions. These tweets were coming from the west (Oregon), from the south (the Carolinas), and from points south AND west (Texas). Flattered as I was that Pip and I are finding ourselves in demand, I hated coming to grips with the truth. Most likely, we won’t be heading to these friendly fans next year.

Before I continue, let me be clear — in no way is this blogpost meant to be a guilt trip. On the contrary, I want to give authors (and authors-to-be) that are considering the con circuit as a ways and means of promotion a realistic look at how much one Science Fiction convention could cost you. The bills may vary based on who buys you lunch, how many visits you make at the bar, and how many rounds you feel like picking up at said bar. This post is also a gentle (seriously, a very gentle) reminder to any and all of you organizing cons how much making an appearance at your event costs, and sometimes the weekend pass just isn’t enough to justify the trip. (Would you believe some cons won’t comp even that? Now that’s tacky.)

The convention I’m using as the boilerplate is Philcon, Philadelphia’s premier Science Fiction and Fantasy convention held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Why is Philly’s con held Jersey? Probably to bring the cost down which, if memory serves, did quite considerably when the convention was downtown. (Nice hotel back then, but you paid for its convenience.) Here is the breakdown of how much Philcon 2010 cost:

  • Gas: $38.00
  • Tolls: $18.00
  • Hotel: $273.70
  • Food: $283.54
  • Petty Cash: $60.00
  • Grand Total: $673.24

Considering that Pip was along with me, we ate in the hotel, and the hotel itself was more than reasonable ($119/night for a Crowne Plaza), this is a pretty inexpensive weekend. I’m sure we could have shaved off a few dollars here and there, but $600-700 for a con weekend within driving distance sounds about right. Factor in larger events (Balticon and Dragon*Con, for example) and you can easily tack on another $300-400 on that tab. Factor in air fare (Nova Albion, coming up for us in March) which can fluctuate from $225-450 per person, and now we’re doubling (or tripling) the amount.

Yes, I know, it’s a tax deduction…but it was that thinking that pushed me into serious financial trouble. While a book promotion is a deduction, I’m not getting all of it back. Only a piece of it.

Now, for the reality checkbook…

According to the current budget and the Philcon average, Pip and I have enough in the bank to cover four more con appearances. That’s cons within driving distance. Not counting an event in February (where we are being flown in on the host’s dime), we have currently confirmed for 2011:

  • Nova Albion, March 25-27, in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA
  • RavenCon, April 8-10, in Richmond, VA
  • Balticon, May 27-30, in Hunt Valley, MD
  • Renovation (The 69th World Science Fiction Convention), August 17-21, in Reno, NV

We are still waiting to hear from The Steampunk World’s Fair (May 20-22, in Piscataway, NJ) in the hopes we can launch The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences there. If it is a go, that would make it five trips planned for next year. Two of these trips will include cross-country flights.

And we’re not quite done. Along with these trips, Pip and I need to put together a budget for other items such as:

  • A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences trailer (similar to her Geist trailer)
  • A Spectyr trailer (considering the success of the Geist trailer)
  • RockButtons.com (arguably the BEST promotion we had at Worldcon 68: Australia)
  • A MoPO coat of arms, Alex White commissioned for the work
  • Costs involved in a podcast production (a MoPO anthology, another Chronicles of the Order, etc.)
  • Any other promotions we have planned for either Ministry or Spectyr

Sure, we will be adding to our budget as the year progresses, but at the same time we have to make every dollar last.

This is why, if your local con (or if you yourself are a con organizer) contacts us, we will be asking for compensation beyond the weekend registration. For a con to pick up the air fare or hotel room save the author a good amount of change. Speaking from both Pip and my perspectives, it makes us work harder at a con. But what happens when a con comes back with “We can’t afford anything beyond the weekend membership…” as a response? No offense taken. We both know what goes into planning a con as well as how important it is for a con to come into the black. Unless you are a draw, a con wants to know what the Return on Investment (yes, even cons worry about that) will be when picking up a hotel, airfare, or both for a guest. Maybe Pip and I would be a valued investment. Maybe we’re not there yet. Who’s to say? (Well, the con’s Chair, Treasurer, and Programming Director, that’s who.)

When it comes to promotion, whether it is a personal appearance or a podcast, authors must be economical. I look back on my schedule of 2002-2003 and understand why people described it as “aggressive” because a con a month was a gusty, rigorous, and risky move for a new author. I also shake my head because I could have — and should have — managed my finances with more scrutiny so I would have realized sooner rather than later the dangerous gamble I was taking…and losing. It was an education for me, a school of hard knocks that I would prefer not to attend again. So, in 2011, I have to pinch pennies. I have to weigh the benefits. I have to use terms like ROI and USP. I have to stop being the artist and become a businessman. That is what this is, after all. The business of being a writer. Not full time (yet), but still a business.

That doesn’t mean Pip and I won’t be at a con near you. You never know. A convention chair may be a huge fan of podcasting, or have a slight crush on Sorcha Farris; and the numbers for Geist or Phoenix Rising might be enough for a committee to say “How about Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris? Do you think they are available?” And while we might not be able to come out to your part of the country (or the world), you could always brave the airports and come out to an event where we will be in attendance. Something I have noticed about the events we attend is an abundance of good times. So keep checking with us here, or on Facebook; and if fortune (or fandom) favors the steampunks, we might very well find ourselves announcing an update in our travel plans.

See you in the future? Anything’s possible.

20 thoughts on “The Price of Publicity

  1. AS a chair of Dragon*Cant, the Virtual Con, we’d love to have you and Pip attend virtually. It’s practically free and you get all the fun with none of the crud. The Con is set to take place the same weekend as Dragon*Con and will be completely run over the internet.

    We had a wonderful turn out last year and fully expect a better Con this year. We would be very pleased if you choose to join us.

  2. This post makes me feel even luckier I live relatively nearby and get to experience you and Pip more often than yearly or never. Best of luck with the conning and the bookselling and the writing.

  3. Thanks for this great post, Tee. I am coming up on the release of my first book (2012) and I have to consider everything too. I’ve had people tell me I can’t miss World Fantasy Con, and there are several within 12 hours of me (driving) that I’m told I should attend. Unfortunately, the financials don’t support that effort unless I have a lot of luck.

    Good luck in 2011. I will be behind you 100%. If I can get in front of you to shake your hand (and Pip’s) or give you a good luck hug, you better believe I will.

    -Michell

  4. I can relate to this. Going to Balticon this year was a big unplanned cost that upset the finances in our household. That expense, coupled with my wife’s unemployment benefits running out in June really threatened to put us on the ropes.

    Gotta plan those expenses carefully.

    Doc

  5. @Michell The way to look at World Fantasy Convention is that it isn’t a “con” but a real life “convention.” It’s not about the fans but about the BUSINESS. Oh you can have fun and hang with the authors and all, but it is more of wheel-and-deal and less of a “have fun while networking” kind of convention.

  6. Great post, and it highlights an important question that I failed to ask myself over years of comic book conventions:

    Is this book WORTH promoting at a convention?

    In comics you know weather a book is going to be a hit, a sleeper hit, or a dud pretty early on in the life of the project. Kidding yourself into thinking you can make it work, and promoting an unprofitable project at a convention is an unsustainable activity, and a good way to end up pissed off and broke. Investing resources in creating the next project is a better way to leverage limited resources like TIME and MONEY.

    It only took me 10 years to figure that one out.

  7. @Indy If I could make it work, I would. It’s a good time, and ConCarolinas is always a great weekend. But yes, the timing and the finances are hard to pull off. If something dramatic changes (i.e. GoH offer, NYT runaway bestseller, etc.) then yes, of course. Until then…budget and plan…

    @Daniel If you are networking, yes, it is more than worth it. I toured the con circuit for years and I learned a lot in that time, met a lot of incredible people, and two of those heavy-hitters (who wound up being really nice people) agreed to blurb Ministry. One of those heavy hitters gave me some great advice: “There’s no other reason to attend a con unless you have something to promote. If it is five years later and you are still promoting the same title, you become THAT GUY going to the cons.” He wasn’t being harsh. He was being straight-up. I’ve seen authors promoting stuff they wrote the first time I met them, and many of them resorting to “the same old schtick” on panels. I do think the con circuit is still a worthwhile avenue, so long as you are smart about it.

  8. Great post Tee. I’ve only ever attended Balticon and it’s been a blast both times. I hope to be attending Balticon again this year as something other than a fan (though that might not be possible). I really want to do multiple cons in 2012 to promote the bejeezus out of Flagship and whatever else we have that’s gone live by that point. But no matter whether you’re attending as a fan, a writer, or a publisher these are wise words.

  9. It’s a times like this, I’m glad I live near the centre of a small island, where a 120 mile trip to Brighton (on the south coast of England) seems like a big deal!

    So far I’ve gotten a lot of benefit out of networking at cons (like getting to submit chapters to a top indie publisher, even though I don’t have an agent!), so it’s been a good investment. And as I’m still working the day job, expense isn’t a major issue – but if I ever am in the position to go full-time, things will definitely change. As you say, it’s a business these days, being a writer, not just an art.

  10. No worries about not making it to Texas. Armadillocon can wait. 😉 Not saying y’all won’t be missed, but I totally understand about the need for restraint.

  11. @Ms Piggy Ah, New Zealand…

    New Zealand is put in an entirely different class than others. Why? Well…

    1. It’s Pip’s home turf. This means we have more than just book signings to do while there.
    2. One of the Ministry’s characters is from New Zealand, so there is that angle to play up.
    3. Harper Voyager (our publisher) has distribution in New Zealand so it may be very possible (if they sign with us) to get our book easily there.

    While the cost to get us there would be an investment, Reason #1 is a major motivator. So yes, Aotearoa is in a class all its own.

  12. Since I don’t ever make it out back east for Balti or Dragon (must look into Dragon*Can’t…) I think I can add Renovation to the list. It’s within driving distance or a short flight AND right around my birthday! 🙂 Expect a tackle (and one for Pip too)

    Hope they start paying you one of these days to show up at the Cons.

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