convention tips: don’t just survive, be AWESOME

RT is just under a month away, and I’ve seen a lot of blog posts about “how to survive a con.” Viewing a con as something to survive is looking at it the wrong way. It’s not a white-water rafting trip or a jungle safari or [insert other scary journey here]. It’s a con. A lot of people attend them for FUN, even. Crazy! So don’t just survive. Thrive!

I went to 5 cons last year, which is a lot. Whether you go to one or one dozen each year, I hope you can take something from what I have learned. So, without further ado:

Kate’s Tips for Making Your Con Experience Awesome

1. Tote bag.
Have a bag to put stuff in. Almost every con I have ever been to gives these out when you register, so don’t feel like you have to buy one, but definitely carry one. You can both carry the stuff you need and have a place to put stuff you accumulate throughout the day. This will save you trips back to your hotel room. I always make sure to have: my phone, money, my room key, a little notebook or something to write on, a couple of pens, Chapstick, a snack, emergency flats (see below), a cardigan if I’m not already wearing one (hotels get cold), aspirin or some kind of headache pill, my business cards, and a limited quantity of swag to hand out to people I run into.

2. Attire.
I love the recent JC Penney’s ads that are about finding that piece that fits well and makes you feel good. This is my personal approach to fashion. Now, look, I love clothes. I view conventions as an opportunity to pull some of my funkier pieces out of the closet. I bought a bunch of cute dresses to wear at RT this year. Having one attention-grabbing piece is a great ice breaker because people will walk up to you and tell you they love your dress/shoes/necklace and then you can chat about books/your writing/panels/whatever. But I always feel good about myself when I’ve got my best clothes on.

I get that not everyone is as obsessive about clothes as I am, so here’s my advice: wear clothes that make you feel good. If dresses and bright colors are not your thing, don’t dress that way. If you’ve got pieces in colors you like or that fit very well or that just make you happy, wear those. If you’re happy and comfortable in your attire, you’ll project confidence. That’s a good quality to have in a con. (But do put in a little effort. Particularly if you’re attending as an author, you don’t want to fade into the background.)

Also, I recommend dressing in layers so you can adjust to heat/air-conditioning/surprise snow accordingly.

3. Shoes.
Always carry emergency flats. I keep a pair of reliably comfortable shoes in my con bag at all times. I always hit a point in the day, even in my most comfortable heels, where I just can’t anymore, and having the flats handy is such a relief.

4. Snacks.
Pack something snacky. I like to have granola bars or trail mix handy, or something similarly portable. Sometimes you forget to eat or go a long time between meals or just don’t get enough to eat at a luncheon. If you feel yourself dragging, stop and have a snack.

5. Water.
Carry a water bottle. Nothing will dehydrate you faster than being in a hotel all day.

6. Planning.
Have a rough plan of what you will do before you leave for the con. Look at the agenda or schedule and decide which events you will attend. This will affect what you pack, first of all, especially if there are parties or events with costumes, but also it will give you an idea for what to expect. On the other hand, be open to that plan changing once you’re on the ground. Because it totally will.

7. Free stuff.
You will get a lot of it, especially books. “But I don’t plan to take any…” Doesn’t matter. You will. I swore up and down I would take home zero books from GRL last year and wound up with five. Leave space in your luggage in anticipation of this. You might also bring pre-addressed shipping labels so you can send stuff home. Check with the hotel in advance to see if they will ship things for you. Convention hotels usually do or can direct you to the nearest courier.

8. Socializing.
Cons are one place where it is cool to talk to strangers. We’re all there to meet other members of our tribe. There are definitely going to be people who don’t know anyone or who have never been to a con before and will welcome making friends with similar people. Breeze through the lobby or hotel bar, introduce yourself, talk to people. Talk about books if you need an ice-breaker topic—at a romance or reader con, that’s the thing we all have in common.

And let me just say, it is a great feeling to find people who are just as passionate about your interests as you are.

9. Have fun.
Cons can be stressful when you’re preparing to attend them, but once you’re there, relax and enjoy!

Tips Specific to Authors:

1. Swag.
The late comedian Mitch Hedberg had a bit in his stand-up about people handing out flyers. He viewed someone handing him a flyer as, “Here, you throw this away.” I always think of this when someone hands me swag unsolicited. If we’re talking about your book and I express interest, then sure, hand me a postcard. But if I don’t know you and you hand me something, it’s going in the trash. This is a peeve of mine, because I have so little space in my luggage and I’d really rather not ship stuff home, so I don’t need MORE stuff, you know? Offer swag and have it available for people to take, but don’t make them take it.

Also, don’t feel like you have to break the bank to be impressive with your swag. Work within your budget. If all you can do are postcards with your book covers, that’s a great start—the goal is to spread the word about you as an author and your brand, and you shouldn’t have to spend big money to do that.

One last thing: a lot of cons have a swag room where people can peruse and take stuff. Take a tour yourself and see what great things other people are doing. You might get some ideas for your own swag.

2. Business cards.
All authors should have them. If we meet, I will likely ask you for one. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just give me a way to find you online: your website, your email, and possibly also your social media accounts. Most cons have badge holders with little pockets in the back that are ideal business card holders; I always stuff a bunch of my own in there so I can pull them out on the fly, and I put the ones I get in there, too. Also, don’t make these too glossy; you want something someone can write on. I will sometimes write a note about where I met the person who gave me the card so I can follow up with them later.

3. Don’t limit yourself to your own events.
Go to other author panels/readings/whatever. Take advantage of the opportunities cons present to network and learn things. If there’s a publisher you’re interested in submitting to, attend their spotlight. If there’s a panel on something related to what you write, go attend it. Support your fellow authors.

4. Signings.
Signings are not my favorite thing, honestly. I’m a small fish in a big pond at cons like RT, and when you’re competing for reader attention with Nora Roberts and Sylvia Day, you’re probably going to lose. Still, be friendly to people who stop by. Chat with readers. Smile. Put out some candy to lure people to your table. Have something generic planned to write in books that people ask you to sign. Be prepared for long lulls when you don’t get much activity. Make friends with the writers sitting next to you. Don’t get offended if someone tells you they only read ebooks and so won’t be buying anything. (Readers have apologized to me a lot at signings. “I’m sorry, I only buy ebooks.” Hey, that’s totally cool with me! Help yourself to any of my swag. But the fact that so many readers apologize make me think some authors are dicks about that. Don’t be a dick.)

Actually, “Don’t be a dick,” is good con advice generally.

Do you have other tips for making a convention an awesome experience? Please share them in the comments!