“I swear I’ve been writing.”
–Benjamin Hewett (or maybe Patrick Rothfuss)
For a long time now I’ve been secretly plotting to culture my kids. It’s a sinister job, but one that parents are obliged to do. Imagine me sitting in a dark, cold basement, dry-washing my hands while scheming up ways to trick them into liking opera music before the age of 40.
Okay, so Houston doesn’t have basements.
Or cold places.*
But I was scheming.
And while I was scheming in my office after normal work hours, I came across a promising flyer from the Houston Symphony: “HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN™ IN CONCERT.”
They’ll never know this is culture, I thought.
I prepared carefully. I introduced the topic of attending the symphony nonchalantly at dinner. When they groaned, I mentioned it was a “Harry Potter 3” concert. Groans dissipated to mild disinterest. As we talked about appropriate symphony dress and behavior, they gave appropriately irritated responses, but said nothing truly alarming.
So I purchased “affordable” tickets. We arrived Friday night, dressed to kill, black ties and button ups, or black skirts and high-heels, as appropriate. And the first thing we see getting out of the car? Professor McGonagall. Not making this up. Seems like everyone at the Houston Symphony is in full fantasy getup, except us. My son turns to me and says something like, “Wait, why are we all dressed up, again?”
I’m not complaining. They enjoyed the program and only teased me a little about having left the Draco, Hermione, and Luna costumes at home. We’re getting up to leave, snapping some shots in our overdressed state, and I hear a voice behind me:
“When’s the next book coming out?”
Just like that. Almost no preamble.
Besides hanging out with my kids, that was the highlight of my evening. When a friend I haven’t seen in ages asks me to account for my writing activities and then posts my response on Facebook to all his friends, that lights a fire.
This post is for you Viddy. I swear I’ve been writing:
Activity Report Spring/Summer 2018
Traveled to France for work. Did off-hours research for Shadowcloaks.
Joined a writing group.
Retro-outlined Plaguerunners per writing group’s recommendation.
Began cutting and restructuring Plaguerunners based on consistent advice from two very talented agents.
Finished drafting Shadowcloaks.
Finished second draft of Shadowcloaks. (Almost.)
Wrote statement of work and bid out cover and concept art.
Visited family and friends in Seattle and Utah. Worked more on Shadowcloaks.
All this time, I’ve been getting better. I think you’re going to like the results. #December2018
*My office in Houston is cold. Deathly cold. Deathly Hallows cold. (Remember that part where Harry’s trapped under the ice in nothing but his boxer shorts?) That cold. In fact, to celebrate the similarities, I’ll ship my personal copy of RINGS–complete with marginal notations and edits–to the person who posts the best caption for the photo above in the comments. There may also be consolation prizes. Let the contest begin!
My son found them in my closet, stashed behind my least favorite dress shirts.
I knew, because I caught him trying to sneak them out.
“Those are mine,” I said.
“I just want to read them.”
“I know. That’s why I hid them in my closet.”
This is the kid who—as a six-year-old—singlehandedly loved my entire Calvin and Hobbes collection into oblivion. There’s a reason six-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good readers. The parts of the books that eventually made it back to the bookshelf were only spared the rubbish pile because I couldn’t afford to replace them, and because a house without a Calvin and Hobbes book (or scrap pile, as case may be) is a house not worth living in.
So it was normal for me to hide my newly-purchased Schlock Mercenary books in the master closet. A guy should be able to read a book at least once before the cover falls off. And my plan would have worked if the meddling kid hadn’t noticed the mailer-receipt I’d carelessly abandoned on the kitchen counter. After the hunt began, no room was sacred.
I’m not a big connoisseur of comics, but this one has stuck with me. I’ve followed the online iteration for several years now. Schlock Mercenary delivers a sci-fi punch line in every strip, and it’s written and drawn by one of the smartest people I know. And I work at NASA.
Incidentally, I got to sit with Howard Tayler and his chief of staff Sandra for an hour at LTUE in February and plug them about the do’s and don’ts of quitting your day job. They gave me some good advice, signed the previously-mentioned closet copies, and told me random stories about bog butter and what it takes to maintain the creative genius under duress.
Interviewing Howard and Sandra Tayler was definitely in my top three for the LTUE conference. (Getting there in a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr ranks fourth.)
So there’s the setup. I have a box of funny books in my closet from a funny cartoonist. I also now have a funny thirteen-year-old in my closet reading through the 700+ page collection because I told him the books don’t leave my closet until I’ve read them all. And while I still have a full-time job, he only leaves the closet to forage for Cheez-Its.
If you like medium-hard (yes, I made that up) science fiction / space opera humor, check out Schlock Mercenary. The early cartoon drawings are “rudimentary,” Howard insists, but that makes them even funnier in my opinion, because I’m super mature.
“Oh. You.” her eyes say as she looks me over carelessly. “Go stand over there.”
For a moment, I wonder if she’s going to do me like airport security, who didn’t actually frisk me, but made me feel naked just the same. Makes a guy want another layer of protection for his next flight , like maybe some stretchy pants.
And the stretchy would double-up for warmth. It’s like -40 degrees in SLC, and I’m layered to the gills and still freezing.
My body’s gone soft, because there’s no such thing as winter in Houston, and now I’m in the middle of the Rocky Mountains with an improvised winter ensemble.
Dang it! Where is the Enterprise Attendant? She’s been gone for two minutes, and the people standing in the line behind me are all getting in their cars and driving away. They probably pulled me from the line because I rented the cheapest compact car available, and because I also fantasized about renting from Alamo. And because I’m attending a writing conference instead of writing my next book.
And then she’s appears out of nowhere like some parking garage opera phantom, scaring the imaginary stretchy pants off me and waving a pair of key fobs in my face. “Would you like a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr?”
“ I got you a free upgrade.”
I still don’t know what she’s talking about, but I like the sound of an upgrade, especially one that’s free.”
“That sounds great! Thanks”
And then she’s gone again, gesturing vaguely into the parking garage. “It’s just over there . . .”
It takes five minutes to figure out what a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr is, because some idiot keeps pressing the unlock button on a black sports car three cars up and to my left, which distracts me from finding my own car. I don’t have time for this. I’ve got another hour to drive, an 8:00 am lecture to deliver to a class of graduate students, and a full day of writing panels to attend and interviews to conduct. I’m tired and I’m cold. In desperation I pop the trunk to my invisible vehicle, since the fob beeper system doesn’t seem to work.
The black V8 Hemi nods at me. “Maybe, ‘upgrade’ wasn’t the right word,” I think to my phantom fairy godmother.
And I can’t stop the wicked grin from spreading all over my face, across my neck, and into my hands and chest and feet. It’s going to be a great weekend.
“Good marketing makes the company look smart. Great marketing makes the customer feel smart.”
I woke up to my predicament, palms sweating, at 9:30am when the customers and crafting ladies started rolling in. My book table was half-buried in the forest of more conventional booths: crocheted “Minion” hats, fleece blankets with tied fringes, hand-carved wooden crosses, and an assortment of other craft fair products. The vendor to my right was selling custom herbal tea blends and the vendor to my left, homemade jewelry. I could almost hear my fifth grade teacher humming, “One of these things is not like the other…”
That’s what I get for having bright ideas.
The itch started a few weeks ago. I must have been looking for a break from the daily slog of work, parenting, and grinding out edits on Plague Runners , because I actually read the craft fair email advertisement before deleting it: “JSC Annual Holiday Bazaar,” it said.
Hmm… I’m not really the crafty sort.Delete.
Sometime in the next 24 hours, the itch got worse. I like to write, but I like to meet and talk to people as well, and cloistering myself to get another writing project done was killing me. So what if the only escape nearby was a certified craft fair? I could go as a vendor. Surely there would be some poor fellow there looking for an oasis of fantasy in that ocean of knick-knacks and Scentsy candles?
So I did the essential research:
Buy-In Cost: $55 Estimated potential customers: 200-300 Demographic: Middle-age craft fair enthusiasts, family members, and assorted NASA employees Competing Products: ~70 booths, only two selling books, none selling fantasy / sword-and-sorcery Reference Case: If you ask nicely. . . Likelihood of Breaking Even: ???
I contacted the reference case to get perspective on whether or not the buy-in price made sense for the type of sales I could expect. The reference case vendor was very encouraging once he heard about my books. “You should give this venue a shot.” (I didn’t realize at the time that he was a fantasy enthusiast as well, and would end up buying both my books. . .)
I mulled it over. It would be a low risk opportunity to get real-time sales experience. Even better, the mix of vendors didn’t threaten to crowd out an up-and-coming fantasy/sci-fi author. And, sheesh, if I couldn’t sell a few books to whichever coworkers happened to wander past, then I’d never amount to anything, anyways.
I bought in, excited at the prospect of sharing DARTS and RINGS with potential new fans and publicizing the upcoming release of SWORDS.
Still, I’m not a fan of cold calls. I dislike being approached by salespeople, and consequently feel very self-conscious about doing the same. And what if my work friends thought my book was silly? What if nobody showed up? What if the people who came to the craft fair actually did only want to buy crafts?
I’d be out $55 and a fair bit of self-respect, that’s what. The thought didn’t thrill me. Why was I going to a craft fair? What else could I do to help cover the costs of the table, some diversification more relevant to a NASA holiday craft fair?
Well? I like making snowflakes. And I’m pretty good at it, too. Eight-points. Six-points. Spider-web. Eagle Feather. Something for everyone. So I made a few at home. My wife suggested that they were elegant, but looked a bit plain for the likes of a craft fair, so I took a few out back and spray-painted them. Then I made a more snowflakes from the black butcher paper used to catch paint. (The “shadow-flake” has overlapping patterns of paint and darkness, and is quite striking.) Even if I didn’t sell any books, I ‘d be able to sell enough of these beauties to offset the cost of the booth.
Wrong again. Sitting at my booth, it quickly obvious that most people don’t consider snowflakes a worthy investment. But I watched their hungry eyes and slowing steps of the ladies as they passed, trying to puzzle out how these beautiful snowflakes came into existence without incurring this particular booth’s sales job.
Ahh. So crafting people aren’t so different than me? Who wants to be sold to? So I pivoted.
Me: “Would you like to know how to do it?” [With no hint of ulterior motive.] Craft Lady: “Actually, yes.”
I spent the whole day helping people make their own. I’d planned to do a mini-course (mostly for friends, family, and bkhewett.com enthusiasts), but everyone else seemed interested in the hands-on too.
Pretty soon I had a swarm of people around my booth, including the other vendors. Lucky thing I brought an extra pair of scissors and some paper. We laughed and joked. They smiled and expressed their own creativity, and occasionally appreciated mine. More people came to see what the commotion was about and started making snowflakes of their own. And once my new friends finished making snowflakes, many of them friends wanted signed books. Others offered one-dollar tips for the holiday craft lesson and promised to look my books up once they got home.
It was fun. It broke the ice. I provided people with an opportunity to express themselves creatively. I didn’t have to awkwardly pressure anyone into buying a book they didn’t want. They could see the books on the table and ask questions in their own time-frame. The hardest part of the whole day was making sure I gave each person in the crowd proper attention.
I didn’t go out thinking about how I was going to stop traffic at my booth, teach a new skill, engage the creative brain, and then sell books. I started with the question of how I could cover the cost of the booth if my books didn’t sell. That idea morphed through the day into something that made the venue more enjoyable for others and made the sales experience more enjoyable. What’s more, selling books and meeting new fans put fire back into my cloister efforts, and I’ve been twice as productive over the last two weeks.
What’s my main point here? Be flexible. Pivot. Run with that crazy idea for a bit. It may be the first step in an even better idea.
ESSENTIALS FOR RUNNING A BOOTH
Merchandise (including an accurate book count)
Cashbox (with change, and a starting till count)
Patch Kit (Scissors, Tape, Pens and Pencils)
Mailing List Sign-Up
Business Cards or Book Marks
iPhone Credit Card reader (if you’re that kind of person…)
An event-appropriate talent/activity to share with potential customers
PROBLEM SOLVING SUMMARY
Identify Need: Change of scenery. Inventory collecting dust.
Identify Solution: Holiday Craft Fair
Calculate Benefits: New Fans, Change of Scenery, Professional Contacts, Potential Profit
Postulate Risks: I might look silly selling books at a craft fair, waste my writing time, and not cover costs.
Identify Mitigations: Take a secondary product such as snowflakes.
Flex and Pivot: Use the snowflakes as a conversation starter and bonus for book purchases.