Here's a curious revelation that came in the wake of me looking at the stats logs for my site from earlier in the week. The number of people who stopped by my site in one week and looked at the pages for my books (and downloaded the samples for same) easily exceeded the number of people who stopped at my sales table during AnimeFest. And despite the fact that samples for the books are freely available, I made zero sales during that period.
However, at AnimeFest, I sold a good half of the stock of everything I brought, and completely sold out of all of Tokyo Inferno. Why?
A couple of things come to mind. The first is something I guess you could call the Economy of Tangible Effort. It takes very little effort, in most people's minds, to put up a website, upload stuff to it and offer stuff for sale through it. It doesn't have the same impact as someone renting a sales table that takes up a certain number of cubic feet of meatspace and selling a piece of bound and printed matter from it. Any idiot can make a website. In fact, most idiots do.
The evidence of physical effort is more immediately impressive to people. You have a sales table, a professional-looking product, and you pitch your work pretty competently to boot (at least, I think I do). You must mean business; ergo, my money is probably well spent with you. And so a sale is made, a book is signed, and next year — one hopes — a fan comes back to find you've got another book out. The wheel's turning.
The other thing is an extension of something I chewed over with my friend Michael Morris when we talked about the same issue a couple of years back: face-to-face presence and word-of-mouth are the two biggest and most powerful marketing tools you will ever have. Mike had tried everything else he could think of — leafleting, postcards, direct-mail campaigns, ad banners on websites, everything short of painting himself blue and streaking down Main Street. The only things that worked — and worked consistently — were talking to people face to face to sell your product to them, and having friends recommend you to other friends.
I'd wager that conventioneering works as well as it does is because of the atmosphere. Not just that you're in among like-minded folks, but you've set up camp in the middle of a whole bunch of people who by dint of physically being there are tacitly allowing you to market your work to them. They have, as they say in marketing parlance, opted in.
I don't know of any online arrangement that can take the place of this sort of thing, and I'm not sure one could exist for a long time to come. Nothing beats having a lot of warm bodies in the same room, and not just for the way it drives sales.