When I agreed to run a vendor booth at the Watch City Steampunk Festival for the Small Publishing in a Big Universe Marketplace, I was hopeful that several authors might also attend to help set up and sell books. It sounded like several authors had expressed interest. But, as the event approached, it became apparent I was going to be on my own. The day before, my wife took pity on me and agreed to go with me to the event to keep me company and, at least, make sure I could go to the bathroom when necessary.

Since I normally get up pretty early anyway, I had been planning to leave early the morning of the event. But my wife suggested we travel the night before and stay in a hotel so we could have a more leisurely time. She tracked down a room for us and made reservations, so — after my last class on Friday — we hopped in the car and drove to Waltham. There was a restaurant across the street from the hotel that had an outdoor patio and a good beer selection, so we had a pleasant evening.

The morning of the event, we drove to the common where the festival was getting set up and, after checking in, found a place to park where I could leave the car that wasn’t too far from where our booth was located. Waltham doesn’t allow vehicles on the common, so we had to move everything from the car about 200 yards. It took about 45 minutes to schlep everything over and then an hour to set up the tent and table, hang the banner and flags, set out the books, and get price tags on everything. But we were easily ready by the time the festival began.

The festival was well attended. There were thousands of people of all ages, many wearing steampunky costumes: top hats with goggles and fascinators; elaborate steampunky backpacks, carts, and gear; dresses with hoop skirts and bustles; and pseudo-victorian clothing. Kevin Harkins of Kevin Harkins Photography shared a gallery of imagery that includes a lot of nice pictures of people’s costumes.I wore my straw fedora with steampunky goggles and my maroon paisley smoking jacket over a t-shirt with the Water Dragon logo. A number of people commented positively on my suitable attire.

Initially, there had been a prediction of rain. In the end, the weather was cloudy but fair. It was a bit cool — not too breezy — with the sun peeking through in the afternoon. If it had been 10 degrees warmer, it would have been perfect.

I developed a pitch to welcome people to the table: “We’re Small Publishing in a Big Universe — a cooperative of independent authors and small presses that have collaborated to stock a table for you. I’m an author with Water Dragon Publishing and, since I’m here, my books are in the middle.” Then I would describe my two books and introduce the books by the other authors. Finally, I would invite them to pick up the books to learn more about them and not hesitate to ask me questions.

We sold a fair number of books. My books sold best: about half the sales were Revin’s Heart followed by Better Angels: Tour de Force and Snail’s Pace (the other fairly steampunky book). I sold two hardcovers, which kind of surprised me and made me glad I’d brought a few. I was disappointed to not be able to sell more books by the other authors. A lot of people took business cards: both SPBU’s and mine.

At the end of the festival, we had to pack everything up and schlep it back to the car. Our feet were pretty sore by this time. Once we finally had everything in the car, we drove to Dirigible Brewing, which was on the way home to have dinner and a well-earned beer.

For my wife and I, the trip was a bit nostalgic because it hearkened back to the time before I went to graduate school when we spent a year on the road together doing educational assemblies. Every morning, we drove to an elementary school unpacked and set up a portable planetarium, did shows, then packed up and headed to the next school. It was a fun time of our lives.

Several people asked if we’d be back next year and I indicated I thought we probably would. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. And it’s always nice to sell some books.

Trying to publicize your books is hard. It’s one of the things that you don’t think much about until you try to transition from “writer” to “author.” At least I didn’t. But I had seen enough authors talking about the need to do publicity that I had some idea what I was getting myself into. What I didn’t know anything about, however, was advertising.

Last summer, I saw a Facebook group that was going to offer a free starter class for people who wanted to learn about advertising using ads at Amazon. I decided to spend a little money up front just trying out the advertising system. I first tried letting Amazon construct the ad (basically just showing a book among search results, I think). But I think I clicked something wrong and it didn’t work at all. It didn’t cost anything because nobody clicked on it — whatever it was (I couldn’t figure out how to get it to show me what the ad was that it was even showing). But it tried again and got some tiny number of clicks. But it was clear that a lot more fine tuning was required. So I tried the class.

The class was based around long screencasts. I quickly found I couldn’t stand to watch the screencasts at all. But accompanying the screencasts were click-by-click directions for the activities. This I could do, so I set up a handful of experimental ads like they recommended. The results were quite discouraging. I didn’t get any sales (as far as I could tell) and, when I spoke with another author who had taken a similar (but more advanced class), he indicated that you needed to get orders of magnitude larger responses in order actually see appreciable sales. And he had decided it wasn’t worth it.

Several people said that Facebook ads were a better fit, so I decided to hold my nose and give those a try. I truly and wholeheartedly despise Facebook. But I gave them some money to “boost” a post I had already written to promote Better Angels: Tour de Force. The interface was less complicated and it seemed like I got better results. So, after that ad finished, I decided to run another. When I did, however, I discovered how enshittified the Facebook ad system is.

The first ad you buy has reasonable defaults that make sense: it defaults to $14 for a week with a goal of getting people to click on your link. But when you try to do the next one, it dicks with the defaults. It tries to get you to spend $42 or $56 or some much larger amount. And it defaults to other weird goals like “get more engagement” or “get more messages via Facebook Messenger”. And it tries to get you link Instagram and What’s App accounts with your Facebook account. Ugh. I feel so unclean.

Since I’ve been playing around with my book promotion posts already, I will probably continue to purchase ads at some low level. Since it does seem to actually put my ad in front of people who do, at some level, click through to the book page. And maybe some of them actually buy a book. If nothing else, it gives me some additional metrics on which book promotion posts are more effective.

It still feels a lot like just rolling the dice.

I’ve been rather surprised to discover that I seem to be pretty good at selling books. It doesn’t hurt, of course, to have books that people want to read. But a huge part of successful selling is to have a pitch that lands with the prospective buyer. And that’s what I seem to be good at.

I think it derives from the years I spent doing educational assemblies. To make those performances work, you need to hone a series of stories and statements so that the wording and timing resonate with the audience and they get caught up in the performance. When it works best, the audience will play along and you can hear them respond and engage with what you’re saying. It’s not a conversation, but you can hear through their laughter or groans when they’ve understood something or gotten the silly joke you were trying to tell.

The first step is judging when to engage with someone approaching or at the table. Some people stand back or refuse to make eye-contact. Or are clearly focused on looking at the books themselves. I usually just offer a quiet “Hello.” Or “Can I help you with anything?” Or, if they seem unsure, I might ask, “Would you like a tour?” Or, occasionally, “What do you like to read?” I’d rather not ask that, because I want to steer them to what I want them to read.

When I’m selling Revin’s Heart, I often begin by pointing at the Airship Pirate ribbon and asking, “Would you like to be an airship pirate?” Most people at science fiction conventions would like to be an airship pirate, although there are exceptions. The ribbon is particularly good because its instantly recognizable to LGBTQIA+ folks who can tell immediately that the book might appeal to them.

I leave a beat while they consider the ribbon and then, as they take it, I say, “It’s for my steampunky fantasy adventure with pirates and airships and a trans protagonist.” I usually tick off on my fingers as list the items.

I leave another beat and say, “It was serialized as seven novelettes. They’re five dollars each, but — if you buy all seven as a bundle — you can get them for $25… [beat] which is like two free!”

If they express interest in the first one, I point at the Third Time’s the Charm and say, “Pro tip: don’t name the first book in a series ‘the third’ something.” This almost always generates a smile, if not a laugh.

At this point, I generally point to Better Angels and say, “This is my newest book. It’s about a group of non-human biological androids [beat] that look like pre-teen girls [beat] and serve as magical girl singing-and-dancing idols [beat] but they can change up their programming [beat] and become a covert military force.” Usually, by this point, people are totally caught up in the pitch and are expressing wonderment or laughing. When I did this pitch at the Steampunk Isn’t Dead panel at Arisia2024, I had been honing it all weekend, the audience responded, as I performed it, with a rising volume of amazement, “aaaaaAAAAAAH!” ending in laughter and applause.

I’ve got a few other pitches. I learned an effective one for the Grimaulkin series from the author. And for two of the Water Dragon anthologies, I will say. “The Future’s So Bright is the bright, hopeful, optimistic stuff while Corporate Catharsis is all the dark stuff you wish you could do to your boss.” This usually generates a laugh and immediately helps the prospective buyer situate those books in their mind.

After making the pitch, there are plenty of other things I can tell buyers about the books. But I’ve realized that having an effective pitch that’s delivered as a performance, sets the stage for everything that follows.

Wizard Island at Crater Lake National Park

I generally had a good year writing. But I was hospitalized for 12 days in early 2023, which caused me to miss being a participant at Boskone and required much of the spring to convalesce before I was really back to normal. In spite of that, I had many significant writing accomplishments.

I only made 17 fiction submissions, most of which are the previous stories that still haven’t sold. I’ve given up on several manuscripts that I will either need to abandon or rework significantly.

During the first half of 2023, the final two novelettes of Revin’s Heart were released: In March, Then They Fight You and in June, Rewriting the Rules.

I wrote two pieces of flash fiction for Valentines Day on the Truck Stop: The Better Angels and the Super Sticky Situation and The Better Angels and Lambda and Tau. I think Super Sticky Situation may be the best piece of flash fiction I’ve written so far. (Both of these are included in the Better Angels: Tour de Force, described below.)

I gave several readings. I was selected for the Straw Dog Writers Guild January Author Showcase for 2022 and gave a reading from Crossing the Streams. I did a reading at Arisia with James Cambias and A.J. Murphy. And, in April, an hour long reading at an online convention.

While at Arisia, I also served on a panel about Gender and Sexual Identity in Media. I also was the primary organizer of the Water Dragon Publishing dealer table. After that positive experience, I was well prepped to sell books at Baycon.

I had been hospitalized and was convalescing during the time participants were being selected for Baycon so I didn’t make it onto the program there. But ultimately I decided to attend attend anyway and drove to California with my younger son. We had an epic road trip and I was available to help support the dealer table at Baycon, where I sold out of copies of Revin’s Heart.

These bookselling successes, prepped me to get a tent and table to set up a dealer table at the Amherst Farmer’s Market Artisan’s Alley. They were pleased to have another draw and I was welcomed with open arms. I sold books there a couple of times at the end of the summer and also ran a booth at the Mill District Holiday Arts Market.

As a guest interviewer, I interviewed Kathy Sullivan for Small Publishing in a Big Universe. I had met her at Arisia and thought she had a lot of insight about the relation between fandom and authors that I wanted to learn more about. Our conversation did not disappoint.

I had hoped to get back to writing The Ground Never Lies but ended up spending most of my time writing Better Angels stories which will appear on December in Better Angels: Tour de Force, which includes 17 stories (including the original Better Angels story plus 16 more, including the flash fiction stories from Valentines day.)

While I was working on Better Angels stories, I hit on the idea of a group of cooking girls on Volpex who sometimes get mixed up with the Better Angels called the Butter Angels. I’ve got this story mostly finished, along with a piece of flash fiction. I also wrote a flash fiction story for Christmas on the Truck Stop called Just One Question.

I’ve also been working on two new Revin’s Heart novellas, Devishire! and Campshire! plus a new Revin’s Heart series, that begins with Lady Cecelia’s Flowers. These have not been accepted for publication. Yet.

In the fall, I established Straw Dog Writes for the Straw Dog Writers’ Guild. It’s a program modeled on the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers Association Writing Date. I’ve gotten about 20 participants (about half of whom might show up on any particular week). And about half are pre-existing members, half new members (who’ve signed up to participate), and a handful of people who are not yet members but who are considering it. This has been about as good as I could possibly have hope.

I’m looking forward to 2024 with plans to attend Arisia, Boskone, Norwescon, and Worldcon in Glasgow. And writing, of course: lots and lots of writing.

On Sunday, Nov 19, 2023, I set up a vendor table for Water Dragon Publishing to sell books. The event had originally been scheduled for the day before but the weather looked iffy, so they exercised their rain date for the following day. There were some 50 vendors there selling different arts and crafts.

I was in the second group to set up and arrived around 9am. I’m starting to get the hang of setting up and running a vendor table, but it’s still a lot of work to do by myself and I have recognized the need to set up a checklist to make sure I get everything and do everything in the right order. But I was easily set up well in advance of when the public began to arrive.

The occupant of the booth next to mine was a woman I had met earlier in the week via a Zoom meeting because she also teaches a course for the Honors College at UMass. She was as surprised to find that I was an author as I was to learn she was a potter. It was nice to have a friendly face nearby and we found several moments to exchange pleasant conversation over the course of the day.

Revin’s Heart once again sold extremely well. I didn’t sell out, but sold nearly half of the books I had received from my publisher. And a handful of other books, including a book of haiku. I had hoped to have Better Angels: Tour de Force ready, but we just couldn’t make it happen. The woman commented that she was impressed at how well Revin’s Heart sold and said that my pitch was very effective. From a strictly monetary perspective, I shouldn’t quit my day job. But it’s fun to meet with the public and talk about my writing.

In the morning, the weather was sunny and it was very comfortable. But by noon, the weather turned cloudy and a cold breeze started up. I nearly lost the canopy of my tent and had to take down the Water Dragon banner because it was like a sail blowing the tent around. I will need to get some weights to hold down the tent going forward — another thing to add to my checklist.

By the end of the day, I was utterly exhausted. Loading the car, setting up, spending a whole day interacting with people, and battling the wind had left me totally beat. I came home, just left everything in the car, fixed a strong cocktail, and then went to bed by 7:30pm. But I had mostly recovered by the next morning.

Overall, it was a very successful day. And I look forward to doing more of these events in the coming weeks.