Behind The Convention Table

by Lee French

It’s 9:54 on a Saturday morning. I’m standing in front of a table laden with books. A third of the books have my name on the cover. Another third have the name of the guy sitting behind the table, Jeff. The rest are anthologies and books by our friends. In the midst of all these tomes of assorted size and thickness resting in stands, on a bookshelf, or lying flat, we keep a pet dragon. Dwago the clockwork dragon is our mascot and conversation piece.

Dwago, performing a quality control test by taste.

Jeff notices the time before I do because I’m straightening books. I like my table tidy. Everything else in my life is messy and I don’t care. The table, though, must be tidy or everyone will die in horrible, screeching agony.

He puts on his hat. I notice and mumble something about hat time. We wear embellished hats. It’s a thing we do to make us easier to remember and recognize in these venues.

A voice from above, or maybe the other side of the room, announces the doors are open. It’s 10am.

I keep straightening. I can stop any time, I swear. As I shift the books, I choose one title to deliberately leave askew. It’s a book that, for reasons beyond the ken of mere mortals, gets little to no attention at conventions. Maybe it’s the color scheme, or maybe it whispers darkness into the ear of anyone who dares to glance at its cover with the intent to read it.

People filter through the room. Some wear t-shirts announcing their fandom of choice. Others wander in costume. Still others seem slightly dazed and a bit confused about how they wound up inside a fantasy and science fiction convention. Like they tripped and accidentally paid admission, or were forced at lightsaber-point.

Passersby drift past without looking at our table. Or they take a quick look and jerk their head away. Don’t make eye contact with the wild authors. They might scent the money in your wallet and try to talk to you about books.

Jeff sits. He has knee problems bad enough that he needs a cane to walk. I stand, sit, even kneel on my chair, because staying still drives me bananas. There’s a banana in my bag. I brought it to have for lunch with a granola bar, a room-temperature stick of string cheese, and whatever random pre-packaged thing I snagged from the stash for my kids’ lunchboxes. Sometimes I get Pirate Booty. Other times, I get a second granola bar or a pouch of applesauce.

Someone approaches our table with a big smile. “Books! I love books!”

“We have lots of books!” One of us says. It’s usually Jeff. He’s more of a people-person than me and quicker on the verbal draw.

He unfurls our basic spiel and susses out their preferences while I watch for other unwary souls lured by our array of colors and clever titles.

The customer buys a book or two. I handle the money. Jeff continues to pay attention to the person who may dump our books onto a giant To Be Read pile unless we continue to make an impression. Jeff is better at that than me.

We talk to the people at the next table on both sides, and across from us, and any other authors we can find. The jokes flow freely. Everyone wants to know how everyone else is doing. Does attendance seem lower this year? Sales? How was your drive? Did you do this other show? How was it? Wasn’t that other show horrible? Can you believe that guy at WhateverCon did that thing? Did you hear about this anthology? What are you doing for dinner tonight?

Everyone wants to talk about politics, and no one wants to talk about politics.

Something bad happens, because something bad always happens. It doesn’t stop the convention or destroy any merchandise, but everyone grumbles about it for the rest of the show. Until we start saying we think they built this hotel on a Hellmouth. Or maybe it’s designed so if you walk the hallways in a particular order, you summon an elder god.

“Hey,” another person says, “didn’t I see you at WhateverCon?”

“Yes,” we say. This is what we do more weekends than not. If you think we were there, we were there.

We sign books as we sell them. On request, we personalize them with the person’s name. There are a lot of ways to spell a lot of different names. I manage to mess up someone’s name and laugh as I tell them there’s a reason I type my books. It’s called crappy handwriting.

Between customers, I get onto the floor and pull out back stock from the plastic bins hidden by our tablecloth. Jeff can’t do this because of his knees. He also has no sense of graphic design and no ability to lay out the table so it looks nice with 30+ books across it. That’s my job.

I replace sold books and straighten the rest. I can stop anytime.

We take turns getting up during the lulls to walk around, use the bathroom, refill water bottles, or eat. Sometimes we sit and chat about our various in-process projects, bounce ideas off each other, or crack jokes. Working a table by myself is one long, boring stretch punctuated with short flurries of excitement. Working a table with Jeff is a collection of in-jokes and writing ideas punctuated by short flurries of excitement.

“I love books, but I have too many!”

We smile and nod, pretending like no one has ever said that to us before.

Time flows in fits and starts. I check my phone–it’s noon, which explains why I’m hungry. The next time I check, it’s three in the afternoon. Then it’s 3:15. 3:31. 3:37. 3:42. 3:45. 3:50. This day will never end. Suddenly, it’s five. An hour to go.

“Which book is your favorite?”

We both cringe inside. There are over thirty books on the table, and they cover multiple subgenres. Just because I like book A the best doesn’t mean a random person reads superhero fiction. Instead of answering, I pretend the question is the same as asking which child is my favorite and ask what they like to read. We don’t have any werewolf cyberpunk romance, but that author across the room does, and they’re awesome, so go talk to them.

Behind their back, we snigger about the idea of werewolf cyberpunk romance. Five minutes later, we both have ideas for writing a werewolf cyberpunk romance, but won’t because we each have five thousand other ideas in our respective queues already.

Ten minutes to go. I yawn. This is hard work and I’m hungry.

“What do you like to read?” Jeff asks a customer who apparently has no idea the room closes at six.


“We have some of that.” Jeff proceeds to deliver the quickie pitch for every series on the table. The room closes halfway through, but he keeps going. I keep smiling and pointing at the books he can’t reach. We all keep talking.

Five minutes after six, the person buys a book. They walk away. We take off our hats and feel ten pounds lighter. I say something surly or snarky because I can finally stop being a salesperson. Jeff laughs. The people at the nearby tables laugh.

We hide everything that’s easy to walk off with. Some folks cover their wares with tablecloths, but our setup makes that impractical.

I don’t straighten the books.

That’s a lie, because I nudge one. I can stop anytime.

Dragon in one hand and cashbox in the other, we go forage for dinner. Because we have to do this all over again tomorrow.

Lee French has written a bunch of fantasy and science fiction stories and routinely sells them at conventions, fairs, and festivals. Her next convention is Miyakocon in Salem, WA, and her latest book is Darkside Seattle: Mechanic, which released yesterday, January 30. Find all her work here.

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