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[GUEST POST] Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. on Being A Steampunk Guerrilla at Comic-Con

Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is a science fiction writer who loves the zeitgeist of steampunk. Although he grew up in both the United States and Canada he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders is the first installment in his new steampunk series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. Richard has also written for film and television. He currently resides in California. Find him online at his webiste, on Twitter as @RichardEPreston, and Facebook.

A Steampunk Guerrilla At Comic-Con

By Richard Ellis Preston, Jr.

One might easily think that a titanic undertaking like Comic-Con San Diego, with its industry A-List Game of Thrones and Enders Game panels in the gargantuan Hall H is unfriendly to the little guy sleeping in the line on the sidewalk. But it is not. Yes, the big industry professionals and corporations dominate the landscape. It is difficult to focus in the exhibit halls, there is so much dazzle. You pretty much have to develop tunnel vision-lock your eyes onto the booth you want to visit and slowly navigate a shifting labyrinth of human walls to reach it. Traversing the Comic-Con floor is similar in sensation to being trapped in the Death Star trash compactor-but with about a thousand more people (many apparently unwashed) dropped in for company. Yet the original independent spirit still courses through the veins of the great, slouching, multicolored-ink-stained beast; there is a place for the little guy (or girl) if they choose to make it, because so much of what happens here is face-to-face-in person.

(San Diego Comic-Con was founded by three comic book guys: artist and letterer Shel Dorf, store owner Richard Alf and publisher Ken Krueger. The first event was called the Golden State Comic Book Convention and it was held in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel from Aug 1-3, 1970. The first guests included Jack Kirby, A. E. van Vogt and Ray Bradbury. About 300 people attended.)

In this tradition of the showing-up-in-the-flesh spirit, I entered Comic-Con with my first 4 day Pro Pass, a stack of my new steampunk novels in a backpack and a determination to introduce myself and my book to as many like-minded people as I could. What follows is how it all turned out.

I’d like to make it clear at the start that I am not an indie author. I have a two-book deal with 47North, Amazon’s new science fiction and fantasy imprint, for the first two installments in my steampunk adventure series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. The first book, Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders, was released on July 2nd. The second book, Romulus Buckle and the Engines of War, releases on November 19th. But since I am a first-time author and the City of the Founders had only been out a few weeks before, I was entering Comic-Con without anyone there having heard of me or my book.

(The 6th SDCC in 1976, with a growing capacity of 3000, hosted its first Hollywood panel-about a little sci-fi movie called Star Wars-where the film’s marketing director, Charles Lippencott, hosted with a slide show. It is reported that only a handful of attendees showed up.)

WEDNESDAY PREVIEW NIGHT: I headed into San Diego with my family (we didn’t want to pay the insane price for a downtown hotel so we stayed at the Hilton in Rancho Bernardo, about 20 miles north.) At the convention center we entered a long but fast-moving line to register and receive passes. Almost immediately afterward my youngest daughter melted down like the bad guy at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Eyeballs and everything. We returned to the hotel.

THURSDAY: my wife dropped me off in front of the convention center early and I joined in the lemming migration while she took the kids to the zoo. Lots of costumes. Lots of photo ops. But I was looking for steampunks. I started at the “Witty Women of Steampunk” panel and introduced myself to a few of the panelists as they milled about before their program. I offered my book and they smiled, looking a bit miffed. Too direct, perhaps? Andrew Fogel from the L.E.A.G.U.E. of Steam asked me to drop one off at their booth later, which I did (I gave it to Robin Blackburn, who was quite nice about it). I realized two things quickly: first, do not bother panelists before a panel-they are nervous and charging up and don’t need the distraction; secondly, don’t try to hawk your wares with the sellers at their booths-they paid a lot of money to be able to have their product there for sale-they don’t need you waving your crap in front of them and blocking potential customers. As it was, a well-dressed steampunk fan who was conversing with the panelists asked for a book and I signed one for him (I think I remember his name and I think he may have given me a glowing review on Amazon). Once inside the conference room I managed to hand out four signed books to quietly enthusiastic attendees sitting near me in the audience before the panel got through its introductions. After the panel I managed to pin down Jaymee Goh and got her to take one. The “Witty Women of Steampunk” panel was one of the smartest and best organized I saw at Comic-Con, by the way. I worked the floor for the rest of the day. I won’t bore you with any more details but needless to say I spent a lot of my time at the Con taking pictures of well-attired steampunks and giving them signed copies of my book afterwards. No one turned it down, at least.

(Comic Con sold out for the first time just in 2008. It feels like it’s been sold out forever.)

FRIDAY: Sea World and breakfast with Shamu. I knew that would not be able to stomach battling my way into Comic-Con every day, so Friday was the family day off.

SATURDAY: more steampunk pictures taken, signed books given and a few smaller panels attended. I started to get more specific in my movements, picking locations off of the kiosk maps and traveling to them with intent even if I was half-lost most of the time. The whole thing is just too big and too bloated to wander around in aimless currents of bodies all day. I did notice a strange phenomenon which I term “the wow costume effect”: there are a lot of great getups at Comic-Con but then there are the awesome ones, the wow ones. The people wearing the wow costumes always seem to have a magic-induced corridor open up ahead of them as they stride through the mob, like the Red Sea parting for Moses. All heads turn to them and all eyes stare, awed, covetous, vulture-like. And as long as the wow costume person keeps moving it appears that the crowd will hold back. But every twenty yards or so there is always that guy or girl, never costumed themselves but clutching an iphone or camera, who bulls forward and stops them. The crowd surges in immediately, forming an instinctively polite, semi-circular line as they wait their turn to snap a photo of the stalled wow costumer. How these wonderfully-cloaked people eventually extricate themselves I do not know. It must take them two hours to get to a bathroom. They have to expect it-they have worked a long time to make themselves as pretty as they are. Such is the price of wow costume fame.

Artist’s Alley has a more low-budget, grassroots feel to it and tends to be less crowded than the exhibit hall. I got to meet some fun sci-fi people there, such as Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett of Boilerplate. The fanboy in me ran rampant at the Lantern City booth nearby — Lantern City is the name of Bruce Boxleitner’s hopefully-soon-to-air steampunk television series — and I was able to say hello to Bruce (Bring “Em Back Alive!) and get a poster signed by him and the Lantern City creative squad.

(Comic-Con generates an estimated $165 million in revenue for the city of San Diego every year, but the expanding convention is now limited by the capacity of the downtown facility. Anaheim, Los Angeles and Las Vegas have all bid to host the event after Comic-Con’s lease with the city of San Diego ends in 2015.)

SUNDAY: books gone and exhausted by the crowds, I took the family to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park (what a fabulous exhibit!) and then we drove home to Los Angeles.

Verdict: I would not recommend my guerilla-style marketing approach to fledgling authors unless they are prepared to enjoy Comic-Con as well as work it. The return on your time and dollars spent is impossibly low as far as any tangential sales you might expect to garner from the effort, but that isn’t the point. Comic-Con is, in a world so splintered by the ease, speed and anonymity of internet interaction, a place to meet and live a bit of life with your peers face-to-face. The human connection still matters. I think it matters even more now than it used to. Some of the people I gave my book to are probably lining their cat boxes with it right now. That’s okay. But some of them, I’ll bet, are reading it. I know that I would get a little charge from an author handing me his or her book, especially if I was immersed enough in the steampunk subculture to put together a kick-ass costume. Maybe I’ll gain a few readers for the series. Also, a convention is a superb place to network. I made contact with the L.E.A.G.U.E. of Steam (I would love to drink odd beers with them on their excellent podcast), Gaslight Gathering and Condor. My agent and publisher are in New York and Seattle-far from Los Angeles where I live-and I was able to have coffee with my first agent, who introduced me to author Kevin J. Anderson (a real nice guy), and I had breakfast with one of the editors at my publishing house. It is such a blast to meet people in real life whom you have grown to like on social media despite only having seen their Twitter avatars.

Will I attend Comic-Con next year? Probably (if I can get a ticket). Will I guerilla market my backpack of books again? I don’t know. But the internet has already put me in contact with a lot of readers who have read and liked my first novel and I assume of few of them will make their way to the convention. I’d like to meet them and shake their hands-in person.

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