Wednesday, September 08, 2010

DragonCon 2010: The Mardi Gras of Middle Earth

This past weekend was Dragon*Con, that annual event where tens of thousands of attendees, many of them in costume, descend on downtown Atlanta for four days of genre mania each Labor Day weekend. Last year, I attended Dragon*Con as a guest and was blown away by what a book-friendly, age-diverse audience it was, as well as by the staggering number of authors, editors, and publishers also in attendance. Based on that impression, I returned to Dragon*Con this year as an Exhibitor and roped in my Director of Publicity, Jill Maxick, my slush reader Rene Sears, and NINE of our authors.

Sans Instructions!
I arrived late Wednesday night, in order to be on sight to set up our booth bright and early Thursday morning. We had a corner table in room 1601 of the Marriott Marquis' Imperial Ballroom, which was a tremendous location (and put us across the aisle from the very cool guys working the Utilikilt booth. I admit I was tempted, but didn't succumb. Maybe next year).  The Pyr booth itself hasn't been used since the 2005 San Diego Comic Con. It's a very cool design, a wireframe scaffolding that accordians up from a tightly packed container-friendly size, held in place by segmented bars which are themselves lined with magnetic strips to hold the velcro-friendly walls of the booth. The whole thing fits in an oval shaped black box that doubles as a display stand. Of course, the packaging comes without any instructions of any kind, so assembling it on my lonesome Thursday morning, with only vague memories of having done this with help in 2005, had a fair share of "what the hell am I supposed to do with this?" moments. I admit, though, that it was sort of a fun puzzle-challenge, and the whole set up (including book display) only took from about 10am to 4:20 pm. (Only!)

The Pyr booth, before opening.
Thursday night itself was a rewarding meal (serving as both my lunch and dinner) at Max Lager's with Sam Sykes, Clay and Susan Griffith, John Picacio, and Jill Maxick. This was my first time meeting Sam, Clay and Susan, and I was delighted to discover they are all wonderful people (I already knew this about John and Jill). Then Friday morning, Jill and I returned to the Exhibitor Hall where she proceeded to build the artfully arranged stack of Pyr Sampler Books (we had 1046 in all) and we made final preparations for the imminent crowd.

The Electric Boogaloo.
Straight up: It was a grueling con, from running a booth for four days (1pm to 7pm on Friday, 10am to 7pm on Sat and Sunday, 10am to 5pm on Monday) while also participating in programming, and still trying to get face time in with my people (six of whom I was meeting for the first time in the flesh). It was a slog to drive down late Wednesday night and then work the show until Monday night. Probably one of the hardest shows I've worked, and I did it with just three hours sleep most nights. And it was hard on my long-suffering family to be without me for so long. So, was it worth it?

Middle Earth Mardi Gras
The convention was incredible!!! It has to be seen to be believed. The number of attendees I heard floating around was 65,000 and I could believe that or more. It comprises five hotels, with attendees staying in another five or so official overflow hotels, and quite a few other hotels in the neighborhood or thereabouts. I know they had 32,000 preregistered attendees as of last year's con, and that the registration lines for on-site registration were over THREE HOURS LONG. The only real way to describe Dragon*Con is like Spring Break in a Fantasy World or some sort of Middle Earth Mardi Gras. The hotels are jammed packed, particularly in the evening, where the lobbies of all the hotels are just unnavigable seas of bodies, many of them wearing little more than furs and duct tape.

Yep yep yep...uh huh uh huh!
But unlike the San Diego Comic Con, which is much more of an Expo for Big Media Movies and Games, and whose value (at least for me) lies in the business meetings you can take with your opposite numbers in sister industries in the bars and restaurants across the street, Dragon*Con has much more of the feel of a fan-run convention that has simply grown to ginormous proportions, which it is. What I discovered last year and had confirmed this year is that there is a HUGE & RECEPTIVE BOOK AUDIENCE at this convention, and one that spans a broad age spectrum. (I shared an elevator with a young girl dressed as Alice who was panicking that she was late, late - for a very important date? irony lost on her - for the fantasy LITERATURE panel. Not the manga panel or the Warcraft panel but the literature panel! She was not atypical in this interest for her age range at the show.)

You will buy my book
As aforementioned, we had made special for the con a Pyr Sampler Book, as well as a limited edition lapel pin celebrating our 5th anniversary. We gave out all 1046 of the Pyr Sampler Books. In fact, they had disappeared by Saturday morning, in no small part due to the efforts of Sam Sykes, who fostered them on people in a manner which was described by James Enge as Sykes "free from any sense of mercy, compelled people to take the free stuff. In compensation, he let them buy a book every once in a while." We have also gone through all but about 250 of our 2000 Pyr 5th Anniversary Lapel Pins by Monday afternoon. We introduced the Pyr brand to thousands of people. And we sold a hell of a lot of books.
Monday Morning - not even over!

One of the most amazing things to me personally was how effective the Pyr Sampler Book was. Most of them disappeared on Friday, and Saturday morning, literally scores of people came up to us (that day and all the other days too actually) saying they'd read the Sampler Book and they wanted to pick up this book or that book. I was astounded. We assumed people would take these things home to peruse them at their leisure. But they read them Friday night? "Weren't you out there drinking with the 65,000 other people?" I asked one young guy, who didn't seem like the type to pass on this Toklienesque Fort Lauderdale. "Yeah, man," he replied. "I drank till 3:30am, then came back drunk and read your book until 5am. Can I get Tome of the Undergates?

Mars Attacks!
Friday night at 7pm we had a Pyr Books Presents panel, complete with all nine attending authors: Mike Resnick, Jon Sprunk, Sam Sykes, Clay and Susan Griffith, James Enge, Erin Hoffman, Andrew Mayer, and Ari Marmell. Given how many there were of us, they each got 4 minutes thirty seconds to talk about their books while I flashed the cover image on a screen. Even this rigid time constraint took most of the hour, but left about 10 minutes for audience questions. We heard all weekend how great the panel was, and lots of people who came to the booth on Saturday, Sunday and Monday said they came because of this (and the two art panels I did, both of which also featured Dragon*Con special guest John Picacio).

Dinner with the Winner!
In celebration of our fifth birthday (March of this year), we had previously held a "Pyr and Dragons Adventure Contest," for which fans were invited to submit a short essay on the theme Five Reasons Why Science Fiction And Fantasy Is Important To You." First prize was a trip for two to Dragon*Con and dinner with a group of Pyr authors (as well as myself and Jill). Lisa Iriarte won the contest - you can read her essay here. Lisa teaches seventh-grade language arts and has recently written what she hopes will become her first published novel, Assassin's Nightmare. She and her husband Joe joined myself, Jill Maxick, Mike Resnick, his wife Carol, James Enge (and daughter), Jon Sprunk, and Sam Sykes for dinner at Sear in the Marriott. Lisa and Joe were both very nice. Really sweet people, both with aspirations of writing, and Mike Resnick's unending font of amusing anecdotes about the business was spot on for the makings of a special evening.

The Amazing Clay and Susan Griffith.
We sold out of limited number of copies of Mark Hodders' The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack we had with us very early on, as well as all the copies of Jasper Kent's Twelve, and the 100 Free ARCs of The Greyfriar (Vampire Empire Book One) were a hot ticket item on Saturday. I don't think we could have had too many copies of these book on hand for this show, where steampunk and vampires are so very king. And The Society of Steam stickers that Andrew Mayer himself made in promotion of his May 2011 title also proved to be EXTREMELY popular.

"I know this music."
Saturday night, a group of us, which included Tor art director Irene Gallo, stayed up entirely entirely too late. Too late is defined as 2:15am when one has to get up three hours later at 5:15am for the Live Hugo Awards Breakfast. Organized by Stu Segal, the breakfast featured "LOU ANDERS (4 time Hugo Nominated editor), KATE BAKER (podcast director for the twice nominated Clarkesworld), EUGIE FOSTER (Nebula Award Winner), MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL (Campbell Award winner), FARAH MENDLESOHN (Hugo winner, and current nominee), JOHN PICACIO (Winner of the World Fantasy, Chesley and Int'l Horror Guild Awards and 6-time Hugo nominee) and STEPHEN H. SEGAL (Hugo winner, and current nominee)." I'm enormously touched by those few fans who braved the early morning hours to watch all but Kate Baker lose in real time! (Also touched by Robert J Sawyer, who came by later to bring me the Hugo Voting Report, so I could see that I was first in nominations, and second place in the final round!) This was followed by Stu's Stroll with the Stars, a leisurely one hour walk around the neighborhood. Sunday morning's stroll was "Pyr themed", though at least two of our authors overslept, including one who had buggered off from the bar before the rest of us despite not having to get up at 5am. At any rate, Sam, you know who the real man is.

Sprunk, Anders, Sykes.
Having authors in the booth made a huge difference. Sam Sykes had sold out all copies of Tome of the Undergates by Sunday morning. (I say "Sam had sold" not "we had sold" because Sam has a very healthy sense of competition and was determined to insure by any means necessary that he sold out first. See James Enge's aforementioned comment about Sykes and mercy.) Jon Sprunk was right behind him though, despite a much more understated presence. In fact, I sold a lot of Shadow's Son on Monday, after Sprunk had left, to people who told me they were buying the book because they'd talked to Jon over the weekend and "he was just such a nice guy" that they wanted to. James Enge was also a tremendously nice guy. So nice that he spent more time recommending other authors' Pyr books in favor of his own, but we still managed to sell out of his WFC award nominated Blood of Ambrose by end of day Monday.

James Enge wants you.
Clay and Susan Griffith were invaluable. They are former booksellers who volunteered their time and expertise. They brought us food, they worked the booth, they hand sold, and they helped with take down in the evenings. They were incredible. I'd also asked my slush reader/editorial assistant Rene Sears to help out "just for a few hours when I'm on panels." Instead, when we got there and saw what a madhouse it was, we ended up leaning on her heavily. She worked the booth for most of the con, right up until Midday Monday. I cannot stress how amazing she was. Nor how impossible the weekend would have been without her.

Sunday night was another dinner at Max Lager's, where I got to sit down and spend real time with James Enge, and then it was off to the Marriott first and then the Hyatt for more beer. I ended the evening sitting between Mike Resnick on my right and Todd Lockwood on my left. Mike was giving agent advice to my friend David Alastair Hayden and Todd was giving artistic advice to Randall Ian Mackey,  my friend and cousin's husband, who is looking to launch a career in concept illustration. It was really gratifying to just sit there and watch my friends help my friends.

Cooper, a trooper.
I was amazed to see that the crowd, although a little thinner than on the weekend, hadn't thinned out appreciably on Monday, which proved to be a really strong sales day. Jill had flown back the previous evening, so it was myself, Rene Sears, and Clay and Susan Griffith working the booth. And my good friends, the aforementioned David Alastair Hayden and his wife Cooper Chun were there as well. Cooper took our bowl of 5th Anniversary Lapel Pins and stood in the aisle a little ways away from the booth, offering people the pins, explaining to them what the pins were for, and directing them our way. She stood there all afternoon, giving a perfect sales pitch. (David calls her his Pepper Potts. And it's no insult. When the rest of us were staring at the scaffolding of the booth, wondering how to disassemble it, she stepped forward, studied it for two minutes with hands on hips, and then said, "you just press here" and then the whole thing accordioned down to the floor. Cooper makes things work.) We had five people in addition to myself helping with take down and reboxing, and what took me six and a half hours plus to do on my own took well under 2 hours with their help.
Bats and Cats

And that really characterized the convention for me. With a "Little Help From My Friends" could have been the theme song. I had never met Sprunk, Sykes, the Griffiths, Marmell, or Enge before and now they are all fast friends. Clay remarked one evening when I thanked him for all the help in the booth "We felt like we were part of the Marvel Bullpen during the high Silver Age!" We learned a lot, and we could run an even better booth next year based on these learnings, but what I really learned was that we have the greatest authors and friends in the whole wide world. And that, as long as they are there with you, the Mardis Gras of Middle Earth is a great place to be.


ces said...

A big congratulations! It sounds like you not only packed work in your trip, but you also packed fun too! Now you can sleep at your desk for a week!

so. what are you going to do with the leftover anniversary pins? I'd love to have one!

Lou Anders said...

I'm thinking about sending them to a couple conventions to hand out. Maybe Capclave since they asked us for the sampler books if we had any left (we didn't).

Lou Anders said...

Email me through the contact form on my personal site.

Anonymous said...

The booth was really engaging! All this stuff going on, all these people hanging out, all these scheduled events, so much to see and do in one corner of the huge vendor room. All those beautiful books laid out ever'place, each one saying "I'm the most exciting book EVAH!" made it impossible to not come back by several times through the weekend. Every time we came by, there was a new author there to sign and chat. I can't tell you what a delightful treat that is, to be able to meet those authors. I am 100% positive that I wouldn't have bought Sam Sykes' book if he hadn't handsold it to me. And, of course, having the Editorial Director there, standing behind all this bookage...Yes, the booth was very well done! -Elizabeth Campbell

Lou Anders said...

Thank you so much Elizabeth. That is so good to hear. We really really had a good time, despite how hard it was to pull off, and we are already talking about next year. A few more authors who wanted to be there this year and couldn't are saying they'll come!

Sam said...

I sure hope that's a good thing, Elizabeth!

Anonymous said...

"You just press here", huh? Cooper FTW. Glad to see y'all had a fun and successful time. Looking forward to the discussion of "Swords and Dark Magic" Thursday.

Lou Anders said...