Paper Cuts: Hustling at Horror Cons 101 or: Dispelling the Myth of the Non-Reading Horror Fan


Paper (n): material manufactured in thin sheets from the pulp of wood or other fibrous substances, used for writing, drawing, or printing on.

Cut (v): make (a movie) into a coherent whole by removing parts or placing them in a different order.

Hustling at Horror Cons 101 or: Dispelling the Myth of the Non-Reading Horror Fan

“This is a tough convention,” he says, eyeing our books, picking one up and testing the spine like he’s squeezing an avocado, going to make a little word guac. “It’s especially tough for books. Nobody here reads.”

I don’t know this guy.

Don’t even know him in the sense that I know what it is he does. He could be an indie film actor, a fellow writer, a grey-market DVD vendor. He could be anything that would allow him to be in Worcester, Massachusetts’s DCU Center a half hour before this year’s Rock and Shock convention opens.

Looking back on this interaction now, it’s hard to tell if he was trying to psych us out or if he actually believed that no one who attended the convention read books.

He leaves before I can ask him what it is he does.

Adam Cesare & Matt Serafini (Photo by Jason Harris)

Over the weekend of October 16-18 (last weekend, as I’m writing this), author Matt Serafini and I shared a vendors table at the con.

Despite that mystery guy trying to throw off our game before the doors opened, Matt and I sold a lot of books.

We sold so many books that the only time I was unhappy with our ability to sell books was when there were too many people in front of our table to be able to talk with them one-on-one.

I’ll get to the specifics of how we sold those books in a second. But for right now know that I’m not just bragging for the sake of bragging.

In the days leading up to the convention I was worried that we weren’t going to sell anything. And that worry probably has many different root causes: maybe it was self-confidence issues, doubts about my own work. Or maybe the worry was more external than that. Maybe I had let myself doubt the horror community, maybe I’d started thinking like that dude who’d told us that “nobody here reads.”

Rock and Shock is part traditional horror convention and part music festival. Which means that I think the implication of that guy saying “nobody here reads” was supposed to be that these people are movie and music fans, not readers.

The attendees are coming to the con to rub shoulders with George Romero, Adam Green, and get one of those funny Sleepaway Camp freeze-frame pics with Felissa Rose. And, yes, I’ll admit those experiences are people’s primary motive for attending the show. But that doesn’t mean that these same folks won’t also be browsing the dealers room and open to buying some books.

I’ve got to point out that this is the fifth installment of Paper Cuts and up until this entry I haven’t been using the column as a platform to discuss my fiction. I haven’t mentioned that I have books out at all, really, beyond my bio at the bottom of each post. And I’m not planning on using the column to pimp myself now, but because this is a convention wrap-up and I spent this entire convention trying to rope in passersby and tell them about my books, the topic is going to have to be touched on.

I’ve been attending Rock and Shock, off and on (missed a few since moving to Philly), since 2006. It’s a great convention. Far enough away from Boston that it felt like a proper trip while I was living there. Even if not every band who plays the concert series is my tempo, the music element of the show gives R&S a different flavor from shows like Chiller Theatre and Monster Mania.

That first show was my first time seeing Jeffery Combs and—even more telling, because in my late teens I was a horror movie and fiction fan—it was the first time I got a book signed by Jack Ketchum (the hardback edition of Cover).

Ketchum has attended nearly every year since, and I assume that he does good business. He’s Jack goddamn Ketchum, fer cryin’ out loud. But he’s also had a bunch of his books adapted into films, so it would be entirely possible for the “nobody reads” dude to point to that as a contributing factor to his success.

And yes, I realize that this is becoming a straw-man argument, but the mystery guy’s not the only person I’ve heard voice this “no one reads” sentiment, or a variation of it. I even used to feel a similar way, myself. I used to write essays about the “great divide” in horror fandom, and while I still think I make valid points in that writing, my views on the subject have evolved.

And they underwent that evolution during this weekend: this was my first time in a decade of con attendance that I was coming to Rock and Shock as a vendor instead of purely a fan.

This new perspective made me realize that the problem isn’t with film fans who don’t like to read.

The problem is with horror readers and writers thinking that their literacy puts them in some kind of special club. And it’s that self-separation, that othering, that makes it hard for vendors to sell books at predominantly movie-centric conventions.

There’s nothing inherently superior about someone who reads books. In much the same way that watching a lot of movies doesn’t make you a cineaste.

I met tons of film fans at this show. Let’s face it: everyone walking through those doors was a film fan. And I’m not going to lie and say that there were no instances where I ran into non-readers. There were a few folks honest enough to say simply “I’m not a big reader” (or the stronger variation: “I don’t read”), and wave off my sales pitch. But those were the vast minority of people who came within swinging distance of our table.

authors-boxMy experience at Rock and Shock was overwhelmingly positive. I got a chance to talk with people who shared their horror lit origin stories (one older gentleman who wasn’t a big reader until he read Stephen King’s IT years after he’d finished high school), people who shared their experiences at the con so far (a young woman who straight-up Beatlemania cried upon meeting George Romero), and even met one young reader who’d brought a copy of Tribesmen from home to get signed (you and your awesome mom April made my weekend, Shea!). All of these folks walked away from our table with books, and you’re not going to tell me that they didn’t cut a wide swath through the length and breadth of horror fandom.

This isn’t to say that experiences like Scares That Care—a convention where many of the attendees are there specifically to meet their favorite authors—aren’t awesome. I did Scares That Care in June and plan on doing it next year (in fact, they had a table set up directly across from Matt and I, raising money for a good cause). It’s great to have conventioneers coming in the door specifically looking for their next read.

But there’s something special about selling books at a con that’s 90% catered to movie and TV memorabilia.

Even if folks didn’t seem interested in our books (or books, more broadly), Matt and I still put our game faces on. We went in there and got some blood on our teeth. And here’s where this article takes a hard turn into “how to” territory (a genre of article I usually dislike, especially when it comes in the “writing tips” variety).

Matt and I came to the show with a plan and a feel for our audience. Once we stepped behind that table we dropped all pretensions of being “writers” (because over those three days were weren’t writers, the writing was done and the books were printed and on the table). We became salesmen. Salesmen who were fans of the genre.

Before we get into my “rules” it should be noted that I was so freaking busy at this con, it ended up feeling like I didn’t actually attend the con. The New England Horror Writers had their own table a few rows down from us, as did bizarros (and true-blue weirdo fiction proselytizers) MP Johnson and Christoph Paul. I don’t really know how those authors did as a whole and I’m sure that they would each have their own tips. The only other authors I saw for any real length of time were Bracken MacLeod and Patrick Lacey, but that’s because they hung out at our table and helped me sell my books by being super charming.

So here were our rules. It’s not like we wrote them down or anything, but this is what we learned over the weekend. And everyone likes a good listicle, right?

1) Make your table look good and have an opener.

This rule begins before you even speak to a prospective reader. Matt and I took a run to the store before we arrived at the con and picked up two large bags of candy: Dum Dums and Laffy Taffy. Putting a bowl of sweets on our table got people engaged. We offered them some, drew them over.

After the first few instances where someone said “I don’t take candy from strangers” (which was a line we got a lot), I began spinning my response into: “well, If you heard about my books I wouldn’t be a stranger!”

Corny? For sure. Bribery? Debatable. Did it work? More often than it didn’t.

And if our candy didn’t work our signage would. I had a four foot vinyl banner printed up (much cheaper than you’d think, using Vistaprint) and we also had plastic table stands to hold our prices and some additional signs (a couple bucks for the stands at Staples).

We may not be authors that attendees had heard of, but we did our best to present ourselves like people they should have heard of.

The candy and signage draw people in, but you still have to talk to them. My favorite opener is the most utilitarian: “What kind of horror do you like?”

"The leads are weak? You're weak."
“The leads are weak? You’re weak.”

2) Know your stuff.

In both senses of “knowing your stuff” you should know your stuff.

See someone in a Blood on Satan’s Claw t-shirt? That’s a rarity, that’s someone you (or at least I) want to talk to. So make the effort. Have an earnest talk with a fellow fan. It’s a big part of why you’re here.

If you’re going to comment on someone’s shirt or costume or the DVD they purchased at your neighbor’s stall, be ready to have a for-real conversation about it. Don’t be a phony.

For example: Matt is a fount of information about the Puppet Master movies. I’ve seen most of them, but that was years ago and I’m hardly an expert. If I had to talk to someone about the differences between the second and fourth one? Forget it. I’d look like a poser, reaching at straws to get someone to pick up my books.

Also: know your own work. Know why it’s good and what kind of people like it.

Know how you can best pitch a specific title to a person after only knowing them for 30 seconds. Yes, similar articles will tell you that you have to have an “elevator pitch” for each of your books, but even more ideal would be having multiple versions of each pitch to better tailor it to a specific audience.

It also helps if you can offer people a variety of goods. I’ve got more subtle work (The Summer Job, The First One You Expect) and more gonzo stuff (most everything else I’ve written), and I also brought along material I could afford to part with at a cheaper price point (issues of zines, Matt brought posters). It’s not an option for every author, but it is for most if you really think about the kind of work you want to present.

3) Be alert, not desperate.

Are you sitting down? There’s no sitting down at horror cons! Stand up. You’re not Stephen King, nobody’s going to approach some dude taking a load off behind his stacks of unsold books.

But being alert means more than standing. It means watching the crowd as they turn the corner to walk down your aisle, looking at people’s shirts and costumes.

Be high energy if you can, but target that energy. Don’t flail.

4) Be humble.

This isn’t a “meet and greet” with your adoring fans. You’re just some schmuck nobody here has heard of looking to sell your books. Out of the hundreds of people I talked to last weekend, three of them were familiar with my work.

One of my biggest pet peeves in the way other authors can sometimes present themselves (in person and online) is when someone takes “fake it ’til you make it” way too far and starts acting arrogant.

You shouldn’t devalue your work, but you should also have a healthy amount of self-awareness. No one short of King, Barker, or Rice has any right to assume that people at a show like this know them or should know them. Be a man or woman of the people. No matter how many flattering reviews your aunt has left you on Goodreads.

And the opposite side of this ego coin is: make sure people realize you’re the author.

It seems strange, but Matt and I had full conversations and pitched our books to people who didn’t realize until later that we were the ones who’d written them. Eventually I started introducing myself with “I’m Adam and these are my books.”

5) Have fun and stay caffeinated.

This rule is self-explanatory.

There you go, my five point plan for success selling horror fiction at horror movie cons. And keep in mind that doing this stuff doesn’t make you any more or less of an author. I know plenty of writers who let their work speak for itself.

These tips make you a salesperson. And if you can sell books to movie fans, then in my opinion you’re doing good work. You’re bringing us one step closer to a more unified scene. Horror film fanatics and creepy lit fogies, living together in peace and harmony.

I just hope you (I) sold them some books they end up enjoying.

Adam Cesare is a New Yorker who lives in Philadelphia. He studied English and film at Boston University. His books include Mercy House, Video Night, The Summer Job, and Tribesmen. He has an oft-neglected website and tweets as @Adam_Cesare.

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