(This is the Yerba Buena Convention Center, photo by Eric Fischer. We haven’t ever gone to a convention here, possibly because it doesn’t really look big enough to have a reasonably-sized convention in it unless maybe there’s a significant space underground.)
Conventions are great!
We love going to them and getting to meet new people — artists and writers and teachers and booksellers and librarians and media — and seeing our fellow publishers and getting a first look at new and exciting books and hearing interesting people in the comics industry talk about interesting comics things.
Also, there are typically book and comics readers there, and who doesn’t love meeting them? We spend all our time here in the office making books for readers, and conventions are the only chance we actually get to interact with those people in person. So: exciting!
All that being said, most of the conventions we go to are industry conferences — shows where we’re directly reaching out to teachers, librarians, booksellers, and comic booksellers rather than to consumers. That’s really important to us because those are the first people that we need to convince about a book — and once they’re convinced, they’ll often do the work for us of convincing those consumers. (Thanks, teachers, librarians, and booksellers! We appreciate it.)
We go to (sometimes with our parent company) about eleven conventions a year (ALA MW, Winter Institute, ComicsPro, TLA, IRA, BEA, ALA Annual, NCTE, ALAN, AASL, and PLA).
Consumer shows? We do three — and two of them are local. Here’s the list: MoCCA, SDCC, and NYCC.
That’s not to say that we don’t participate in a lot of consumer-facing shows with author spotlights! This year we’ll have creators at the LA Times Book Festival, the Rochester Book Festival, the Gaithersburg Book Festival, the Decatur Book Festival, the Brooklyn Book Festival, Litquake, Wordstock, the Miami Book Festival, Books by the Banks, the Southern Festival of Books, the Sheboygan Book Festival, the West Hollywood Book Festival, and a few other book festivals I’m sure I’m forgetting, as well as TCAF, MECAF, CAKE, SPX, Stumptown, and APE. But we don’t exhibit at those shows — we just send authors.
So, why don’t we go to all those shows and exhibit at them? I mean, wouldn’t it be great for all the people who go to those festivals and conventions — hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people — to get a close-up look at First Second Books being awesome?
Indeed it would! But there are two factors that make it very difficult — time commitment and cost.
Time commitment: our minimum convention staff team is two people — and that’s half of our employees (yes, we do only employ four people). If you add up all those festivals, there are seventeen of them (and there are another dozen or so beyond that we aren’t participating in this year that we do work with every so often). Even if those festivals are each only two days long and we don’t factor in any time for travel, that’s over thirty days — an entire month — that this would mean half of the First Second staff would be out of the office. And that’s in addition to the other month that we’re out of the office at the conventions that we go to already.
Because our staff is so small, we all have a lot on our plates already. Sacrificing a whole month to go to more conventions means that there’s an entire month of editing, or designing, or marketing and publicity that just wouldn’t get done. That’s 8% fewer books that would get edited or designed or marketed that year. And — as anyone who’s ever planned a large-scale event that includes inter-state travel and interacting with thousands of people knows — what’s involved with conventions isn’t just those two days of talking to consumers and buying books. It’s also a year-long process of lead-in, talking to the convention about programming and space and off-the-floor opportunities and promotional materials and show debuts and featured guests, and talking to authors about events and signings and dinners, and talking to media about any show coverage.
And the time we spend doing all that — a process leading to more interaction directly with the consumers — means that we have less time to spend interacting directly with teachers, librarians, and booksellers. So if we did make the choice to do a more extensive convention schedule, we’d be choosing to do more consumer-facing outreach — but simultaneously be giving the people who sell, lend, or teach books fewer tools to sell, lend, or teach the books to consumers.
Second, there’s the cost involved.
But publishers make money at conventions, don’t they?
Well — yes. But we track our convention book sales just like regular sales — part of the money goes back in to author royalties, part of the money goes back into the production costs, part of the money goes towards the book shipping, and part of the money goes towards company overhead. That means it’s all allocated even before we get to the convention. And while it’s great that we’re selling more books — yay that! — we’re also not making money that goes exclusively back into paying for the booth space, travel, and hotel expenses involved in convention-ing.
Generally what happens when we’re thinking about a convention and we add up all those costs is that we then go, ‘Really what we want to do is to feature AUTHOR X at this convention. Maybe we can just send her!’ And then we work with programming / the CBLDF / local bookstores or libraries / etc. to feature the author through an association or retailer we support who will be at the show.
So that’s why you won’t see us at every show on the block. We’re sorry — we’d love to have the time, energy, staff, and money to travel around the US and talk to all the book and comics fans who enjoy our books. But unfortunately, that’s just not possible now.