When G. Willow Wilson is on the convention circuit in the coming months, there will be huge, passionate fandoms who know her characters inside and out waiting for the merest hints about Wilson’s plans. The hard part will be getting those people to read her next book.
Wilson, a longtime comics creator who won a Hugo for Ms. Marvel and whose first Wonder Woman arc launches in November, is tasked with luring comics readers to cross over for another strong woman fighting a host of enemies: the heroine of her novel The Bird King (Grove, Mar. 2019). After the release of her first novel, 2013’s Alif the Unseen, she observed that going to San Diego Comic-Con and other major events “is quite different” as a novelist.
“Will they follow you from one medium to another?” Wilson asks. “The answer is not always yes. The real trick, if you can figure it out, is enticing those readers who’ve come along with you on your comics journey to pick up a book that they’re buying from a different place, with a different community, without a backstory. There’s a lower threshold for comics, whereas you have to do the legwork for each novel.”
For authors without Wilson’s broad readership, the convention circuit presents an even more complex balance of challenges and opportunities, and publishers have developed a range of strategies to launch new works, cement relationships with readers, and get books directly into people’s hands.
Harper Voyager treats cons as the intersection of a core group of fans, “who might not specifically think of themselves as readers,” and “power readers,” who come to meet authors. James S. Murray (The Brink, June 2019), R.A. Salvatore (Timeless, out now), and J. Michael Straczynski (Becoming Superman, July 2019) will all launch books before the end of 2019, and “we specifically planned around certain cons, knowing these are people who are able to connect with readers on a one-to-one level,” says Harper Voyager executive editor David Pomerico.
Del Rey editorial director Tricia Narwani cites a few factors Del Rey considers when taking titles to conventions, including geography (“We want to cover the whole country”) and publishing schedules, which are sometimes built to capitalize on the convention circuit.
Narwani’s personal launch into the con circuit came when she was working on a manga list for Random House and attended Anime Expo in Anaheim, Calif. That’s where she started learning the rules of success at the mushrooming list of cons that invite publishers to exhibit each year. For instance, she says, “Give the first in a series away. Give incentives to review. Have activities to connect fans to the right book. And give them a chance to meet their favorite author.” Also, pair newcomers at dual signings with established authors who write similar books, to maximize the chance of discovery. And focus on freshly launched books.
Anne Sowards, executive editor at Ace, has attended SDCC since 2004 and would add “have a breathtaking cover” to that list. “You want to give people a reason to buy at a con—they have to carry it around,” she says, noting that a high-investment cover signals that a house really believes in the book. “When a friend recommends it, the cover is less important, because you have that recommendation, but if you’re looking for a book to buy yourself, the cover’s important.”
Sowards also thinks about which titles are the best use of precious booth space, which has bled into the imprint’s acquisitions strategy: “Books with a high concept, books you can describe in one line, and books that are being made into TV shows or movies. Alice by Christina Henry (2015), a dark reimagining of the Alice in Wonderland tale, almost sells itself.”
One other critical piece of strategy? Setting priorities in order to deal with the sheer number of conventions.
Adrienne Procaccini, senior editor at Amazon Publishing’s 47North and Skyscape imprints, has an insider’s grasp of passionate fandoms: “In her spare time,” according to her bio, “she performs as a Jedi with an international lightsaber choreography troupe to support a wide range of charities.”
Despite the retail giant’s storied data collection and analysis, Procaccini says, participation in specific conventions is more a matter of editorial judgment than a data-driven sales strategy. New York Comic Con, she says, is especially valuable, because the city is “publishing forward,” so face time with readers and showcasing authors on panels has a strong payoff.
There’s one more reason that cons won’t be leaving the publishing calendar anytime soon. “We hear from fans who met one of our authors and got a free book,” Narwani says. “They come back a year later and say, ‘It’s now my favorite author and series, and I’ve read everything!’ I love to see those beautiful moments like that.”