Wow, so much has happened since my last post mortem!
Major life updates: I went home to Nova Scotia for Christmas with my family. I usually do this in November so I can do shows like Turner’s, and then I just stay for the month. Well, Dave decided to surprise me just before Christmas and flew down to spend the holidays with me and my family. Everyone knew EXCEPT me!!
And well besides that, while he was there, he gave me a very special present. We got engaged!
We’ve been together for nearly nine years now so it’s not like this is completely out of the blue, but it was very special nonetheless. No concrete plans or dates yet, as we are so busy with our careers!
Now that we have a house, it is only right that we fill it with kitties. Meet Pinecone and Pavlova, the two street urchins who have joined our family. They are sisters and Perfect Kitties in every way! They are five months now, they’ve grown so much since we brought them home! They are the best and also they love each other.
Three years ago, I committed to doing 10+ shows a year. Enacting this commitment and improving how I show up with the brand has taken my business to another level. Now, I’m making a different kind of commitment: improving my online presence. This will be rolled out in stages (as there are so many aspects) and I’m going to blog about it as well. For now though, some new things that I’ve done since my last post-mortem:
- New website design! I’ve been slowly working on it for over a year but I prioritized it and got it out just before Calgary Expo.
- Weekly fantasy serial! Wingtorn is a fantasy story, in text and audio (podcast) formats. A new chapter will be released every week on Thursday. I’ve already got the first book written (about 12-13 chapters) and I’m currently batching the recording and editing sessions (so it’s not a mad dash each week to get up new content).
- No More New Clients! I made a rule at the end of 2018. No more new freelance clients. (I edit and lay out books, do website design/development, and podcast editing). But I’m hoping to shift away from freelance work within the next 1-2 years. Or sooner? In 2018, my revenue from book sales and freelancing was a near 50-50 split. In 2017, it was 70% freelance and 30% book sales. I had a 30% growth in revenue in 2018. Remember though, book publishing is an expensive business. I reprinted my entire catalogue in 2018 because of my growth, and levelled up the inventory minimum I keep on hand (500-1000 instead of 250-400). My newest goal is increase book revenue from non-convention sources, aka, grow the website revenue.
So, that’s the recap of the “in-between” time from November to now.
April is one of my busiest months, historically. So not only was I busy putting together Wingtorn for launch, launching a new website design, but I was balancing my client work AND getting ready for the show AND preparing for Best Friend Sam’s arrival! She stayed with me for a week and it was a grand time.
Load-in was really easy. My table was by the loading dock so once I tracked down the check-in desk (not labeled, had to ask around as usual), it was straight forward.
The biggest difference between last year and this year is table size. Informa bought Calgary Expo and Edmonton Expo a few years ago and now they’ve fazed out the previous table/booth options. Before, I had a “small press” space: an 8ft table with pipe and drape, which cost about $450 CAD for the weekend. That’s gone now and it’s only 6ft artist alley tables with no pipe and drape (~$375 CAD) or end caps and booths ($850+ CAD).
So I downgraded to an artist alley table and lost 2ft of space and my pipe and drape. I enjoy having the drape—it adds an air of credibility and it’s also something I can hang a banner on. But, you make do with what you have.
It’s VERY obvious that this is the last year I can get away with 6ft of space. I mean, I can do it, but I can only build so high before I disappear behind the stacks!
When I look at last year’s display, I am so embarrassed. The table runner and multiple banners bring everything together in a much more cohesive way. Several weeks before the show, I ordered two new banners: the Gear and Sea banner and my Sparkstone Saga banner. I brought all banners with me, hoping I’d find a creative way to find them all in, to no avail. It was just too cramped.
Not only that, but there was basically no room in behind the banners to get in and out. I had to walk through my neighbour’s display to get out. Gone are the days of me crawling beneath my table—because I have SO MANY BOXIES packed there, full and empty!
With a new book comes a new challenge: how do I display this in a way that makes sense to my audience? For now I’m happy to devote a decent portion of the table to it, since it can be read as a stand-alone that’s part of a bigger world. With the banner backing it up, it REALLY attracted sales.
So if you’re wondering, should I get a banner? The answer is definitely yes, do it. I use Eprintfast.com for mine, they’re around $130 each plus shipping (but watch for sales!), and they’re printed/made in Canada. They’re sturdy and easy to set up and take down—I can do it on my own in about a minute, and I’m not that tall!
Many vendors I talked to had a down year. There was something in the air this year, that’s for sure.
Thursday was fine. Friday was fine. Saturday was great.
And then Saturday evening, there was a BLIZZARD!
People cleared out on Saturday at 5pm when the snow got really bad. Just walking from the Big Four Building to the train, which is a three minute walk at best, we were drenched with wet snow. Visibility was zero.
Fortunately, the next morning, the snow had stopped but it had stayed. The roads were awful. We didn’t have our winter tires on (did anyone?) so driving to the train station was pretty terrifying. Roads in Calgary are rarely plowed.
Sunday was still busy—people came out, despite the weather, and the snow began to melt. It wasn’t quite as busy as expected. Would I have done better if there hadn’t been a blizzard? Perhaps. But like I said earlier—you make do with what you have.
Many people were on cash budgets. AND people resisted my upsells! Most of the time, when I mention there’s a 2 for $30 deal at checkout and they’re only buying one book, they’ll opt to buy two for $30 instead. Not so this time! I felt like I only converted half of my customers from individual books to one of my bundles.
I also felt a little rusty at times and unsure of myself. Could I have pushed a little harder with that person? That person looked interested, but I didn’t pursue them. I think they would have bought if I had only done XYZ. It’s futile and frustrating, really, and I shouldn’t rent space in my brain to these thoughts, especially when I’m in the middle of selling to people who really do want my things!
I had a LOT of return customers this year. This is my fifth Calgary Expo and my readers showed up in a big way! THANK YOU!
I had a reasonable ideal goal for this convention that I didn’t meet, but I did beat last year’s sales…by about $18. Essentially, I held the line. This was due to my return customers, buying sequels and new books—and I also played with my pricing structure, so individual books and certain bundles were $1 to $5 more. Every dollar goes a long way. And since I paid less for my spot this year, I actually made more of a profit, so that’s always nice.
My bestseller this weekend was Gear and Sea by far. At $15, it’s hard to beat. Stars In Her Eyes was a surprising second in terms of individual book sales. The Violet Fox sales were still strong, but usually it is #1 or on even ground. This might have to do with my price re-jigging. I also sold a ton of 2 for $30 deals.
Oh, and one more thing. It’s worth mentioning that in addition to my catalogue postcards (which continue to be an important part of my sales strategy), I made Wingtorn postcards as well. I made it a point to tell everyone who stopped by about my new serial and handed them the postcard. And you know what? I discovered that Wingtorn solves for an important problem my potential customers have: “I don’t have any money right now.” No money, no problem. Listen to Wingtorn for free forever.
I can already hear your questions. But Clare, why are you giving this away for free? Short answer is, I’m employing a particular strategy here that I hope to talk about in the future. And when the book has run its course, it will be available as a paid eBook for download on Amazon, etc. Also, it’s been really fun to make!
Remember, it’s not the customer’s fault if they aren’t buying. You have to show up in a way that speaks to your audience to earn their trust and their hard-earned dollars. “Down” years are a test for your brand. Can you hold up in environments where you don’t control all the factors?
Gear and Sea – A Mini Post-Mortem of the Creative Progress
Introducing my newest book: GEAR AND SEA!
I know, I’ve been quiet and somewhat mysterious about this title. This title was published by Good Machine, a publishing brand created by my friends Justin Currie (Chasing Artwork) and Gregory Chomichuk (GMB Chomichuk). Gear and Sea is a contribution to their Silent Guardians world – the same universe where their children’s books/graphic novels Cassie and Tonk and Rust and Water exist. They approached me at Edmonton Expo 2017 initially with a collaboration proposal: write a book set in their universe for the YA market. We were already friends and they knew I had an audience. They also knew I could market and sell the book at conventions, as they were doing with their book and art projects.
In truth, I’m hesitant when presented with new work. In my ten years as a freelance publishing professional, projects don’t become real to me until a contract is issued or money has exchanged hands. More often than not, ideas die when the conversation about them dries up. So, I expressed interest and waited to see if they would make any further moves to pursue the idea.
Fortunately, the idea of me doing a book for them didn’t die – it continued throughout Winter 2017. We had some preliminary discussions about plot and characters and how they wanted the story to fit in their future book plans. At Calgary Expo 2018, I signed a contract to write a then-untitled 50K-ish word young adult novel set in Silent Guardians universe.
Between then and me sitting down to write, I had a few conversations with Justin, where I pitched him different versions of the book. Ultimately, he didn’t want any characters from Cassie and Tonk to be in my book – perhaps they will meet up in the future? He also sent me a brief of the world, including plot outlines for future Cassie and Tonk novels, and overall themes of the universe. One of the recurring themes in the universe is the idea of robot evolution: bots who evolve to do more than what they were initially programmed to do (blue robots) and red robots (rends), who fail to evolve and become trapped by their baser desires (eat and destroy). This intrigued me greatly as an idea as I saw the parallels in a coming of age story: the protagonist evolves and finds their greater purpose in their world while fear and destruction (internal or personified as the antagonist) stands in the way of their goal. It also speaks to the spectrum of “good” and “evil” that I enjoy exploring in Faery Ink Press titles.
Armed with the base themes, I watched and re-watched some of the movies in the kid-befriends-robot genre. Iron Giant, Big Hero 6, Next Gen, etc. All of these stories are the same. Kid meets robot. Kid hides robot. Robot learns about humanity and makes a sacrifice to prove he has a soul. I started thinking, what can I do that adds to this genre – that sets it apart from this storyline?
From there, I wrote character outlines. I knew it would be about two best friends and their relationship would be central to the story. I met with Justin in Toronto at Fan Expo Canada and he loved the idea of two girls, one who befriends the robot and has a piece of a blue heart – and another, who has a piece of a red heart, and becomes progressively angrier and dangerous throughout the story. These two girls would become Ty and Raleigh respectively.
I’ve explored angry/jealous girls to death in past books – Ellie in Within, Misty in the Sparkstone Saga, and Kiera in The Violet Fox Series is an angry girl too. I feel I’m accessing something from my childhood here. I grew up around girls who were constrained by strict rules or the limits of their surroundings, girls that believed strength came from yelling at their friends and bullying their enemies and running into the woods for a forbidden smoke. While I was a well-behaved kid, I have that anger too—the anger of limitations placed on me by nature of where I grew up, which limited access to education and resources. (For the record, very proud to be from rural Nova Scotia, but it’s like living in another country compared to bustling Calgary).
Anyway. All of this is to say that I wrote the book to thoughtfully explore the arc of a kid-meets-robot story from the point of view of a girl trying to manage a crew of orphans, while trying to understand why her best friend is so angry, so she can learn that anger itself isn’t bad, change is inevitable and scary, and the deep bonds of friendship can be transformative, whether they be with humans or robots.
I wrote the book, start to finish, in the span of two months. I worked closely with my best friend Sam, who was Gregory and Justin’s studio manager. I approached this book differently than my regular projects. I wrote each chapter in order and sent it to Sam as it was completed so she could perform all editorial duties and make suggestions. This kept my head in the game. I also came up with the title, keeping with prior title conventions in the universe.
It’s a good one-off story that could be expanded into a series within the universe, and I think it packs a lot of punch. When Gregory read the first chapter freshly in from Sam’s inbox, he reportedly said that it made him excited as a reader. Justin apparently said the ending made him cry.
When the manuscript was completed, Justin created the cover art in an intense overnight session. Sam placed the typography and together we made adjustments for maximum impact. She also put together the back-cover copy, the book layout, and the cover flat for production, and I created the eBook.
And then it went to print!
It was very exciting when my copies arrived. I bought into the 2,000 copy print run and received my 500 copies just before Calgary Expo – the slated release for the book! The kittens were very curious about these new, heavy boxies and their contents.
Since Gregory and Justin (and their book publishing imprint, Good Machine) don’t have traditional distribution, the three of us are instrumental in promoting and selling the book on our respective convention tables. This means explaining the book to the customer—Gregory reported many people asking why a book I wrote was on his table. The two of them sold a decent number without a lot of accompanying visual branding for Good Machine, and readers sought me out afterwards to get it signed! Which was very cool. And yes, I get a royalty for all copies they sell!
This project was an experiment as much for me as it was for them. They are artists who have created and sold only their own work, and until now, they’ve branded as Chasing Artwork and GMB Chomichuk, separately. This is the first time they’ve brought someone into their joint sandbox, the brand Good Machine. They’ve had success selling their own titles in the past, but it will be interesting to see how they continue to sell my book without me present. They’re still developing their publishing arm, so my educated guess is their book sales will improve as they strengthen that aspect of their business, in terms of branding and adding additional products set in their Silent Guardians world. After all, nothing sells a book like neighbouring book—coupled with strong visual language that speaks to the target audience.
There will be a launch at McNally Robinson when I am in Winnipeg as a FanQuest author guest. The three of us together did a book signing at Chapters Chinook that went really well – Gear and Sea attracts the eye, especially with the banner present.
Will I do another book with them? The idea has been floated and there are stories to tell in the world. At the time of writing, no deals have been formally made, and sales will be the ultimate factor.
I will likely sell my batch of 500 by the end of the year if not by next April. I have three big Christmas shows this year and I know that audience will be hungry for this title. So if an Iron Giant meets Peter Pan story sounds awesome to you, or if you’ve been inspired by this journey, get your copy now.
Guys, thank you for all the compliments on my make-up this weekend!
The reason I’ve taken a deep dive into the make-up game is, after years of staring at pictures of myself in these post-mortems, I noticed how washed-out and bland my face looked under the bad convention lighting. Hey, I know I’m a looker—makeup is about accentuating what I’ve got going on. Facially speaking, of course.
So last fall, I went from having only Clinique make-up my mom gifted to me over multiple Christmases to over $250 worth of eyeshadow pallets, foundation, primer, lipsticks, and setting spray. My focus is on bold, full-coverage makeup that will last for twelve or more hours under less-than-ideal lighting. Everything I’ve learned so far about make-up I picked up from watching YouTube videos, jotting down recommended drugstore and Sephora products, and paying attention to how the product was applied.
I know it seems silly, and Teen Clare would have rolled her eyes, but doing my make-up for a show feels like I’m putting my best face forward in a way that best represents me and my brand. And it’s SO MUCH FUN! To wind down in the evening, I would think about what colour combinations I wanted to do, in relation to the books I wanted to promote.
For the record, the eyeshadow I played with for the weekend was the Violet Voss Rainbow Pallet. You can get it at Sephora! It’s my favourite right now, very blendable and versatile for the kind of environment I frequent.
I had many return customers this year – THANK YOU!
- Thank you to the fifteen-year-old who told me that my books had a big impact on her childhood (upon which I realized, I’ve been publishing for eight years, so such a statement CAN exist!).
- Thank you to all the families who searched for me on the convention floor and gathered around to speak to me – I am so humbled and excited to be part of your expo experience!
- Thank you to all the people who told me that they devoured my books like no other books before, to one person who made a SONG based on the Sparkstone Saga, and other niceties that my brain is always stunned and humbled to hear.
- Also, big thanks to my cosplayer, who returned for a third time! She dressed her daughter in the finished Violet Fox outfit, and it looked SO GOOD AHH!
And a final thank you to all my friends who stopped by to say hi! 🙂
I am humbled by your praise and attention. There’s part of me that doesn’t believe any of this is happening but goes along for the ride anyway.
There’s always something.
A woman and presumably her daughter walk into my aisle. The girl looks to be about twelve. She’s holding hands with her mother. The girl looks to my books and starts coming towards them, interested. She says, “Books! Books!”
I greet her and start to hold out The Violet Fox.
The mother turns, frowns at my products, and pulls her daughter away, saying, “Oh, I don’t think that’s your thing.”
And then the WEIRDEST by far: an elderly man comes to the table. With no preamble or introduction, he holds out his phone and asks me, “Have you ever seen a cat with two faces?”
Believing this is the beginning of a joke and simultaneously fearing I’m about to look at something sad and terrible, I reply, “No, I haven’t.”
He brings up a picture on his phone. It’s a black cat, lying down, and on its back are white fur patches that sort of resemble a face.
He proceeded to explain to me that in utero, a kitten might push its face into another kitten’s back. It might leave an imprint of its face on the other kitten or it might somehow transfer its face onto the other kitten, and this magical second back-face can also meow and see (sometimes).
“Okay,” I said, fairly certain that the image he had shown me was just a black cat with white spots.
After this explanation he wished me a good day and left—but he made the rounds to other young women as well, including Sam. She called him out on it, saying, “Oh, you mean a Janus cat?”
He did not know what that meant, became flustered, and left.
Will I Go Back?
A lot of vendors I talked to said they were on the fence about returning. On one hand, I get it: conventions are only getting more expensive and as an artist, you have to make new things each year for your customers. On the other hand, for me, this is a local show and I can maximize my profits here. I’ve put in to upgrade my artist alley table to an end cap or double my space. Double the money, yes, but (potentially) increased visibility. It’s worth trying, especially since I may have 11 (eep!) books by April 2020.
On top of that, there’s the looming question of the inherent sustainability of convention culture. Remember: Game of Thrones is ending. Avengers has reached its peak. As far as nerd culture goes, I think we’ve maxed the saturation—it can’t get any more mainstream. So I think we might see a regression, where meetups and conventions get smaller (but still concentrated with dedicated fans). With smaller events come fewer celebrity draws, which means fewer people coming out.
Like I’ve mentioned a few times in these post mortems, putting all of your eggs in the convention basket isn’t a good strategy—but conventions are useful for meeting your audience in person, getting real-time feedback you can use in your business, and getting paid for doing your creative work (so long as enough people are buying). I’m still slated for 10 shows this year, though after doing 3 years of 10+ shows, I feel like I’m nearing the “I’m as good as I’m ever going to be at this” line. There’s still revenue potential as I move into bigger spaces and bigger, better shows (there’s only so many of those though!) and add new products on the table, but as I improve my online presence and strengthen my sales strategy as a whole, the more conventions will become one branch on the Faery Ink Press revenue tree.
Anyway, that’s all for now! I’m in the middle of preparing for Ottawa Comiccon, which happens in just a few days. See you there! Until then!