by Fenny Lin
Last week, Denise Dorman wrote a blog post, “The Hidden TRUTH About Comic Book Convention Earnings: For Creators, Have Comic Book Conventions JUMPED THE SHARK?” that got cosplayers and con-goers fired up. Since the post came out, there has been a lot of discussions on various boards and FB pages, rebuttals, and voices of support. Because this is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, I have to jump into the fray and add my two cents as well.
To start off, some background on me: I’ve been a vendor at various east coast cons (usually in Artist Alley, but a few times on the main exhibitor’s hall) with my BFF for the past 4 years. Prior to that, I’ve cosplayed for about 6 years, and I’ve been an generally nerdy attendee for the last 20 years. Basically, I’ve seen the shift that Dorman talks about in her post, and I am honestly and truly sympathetic. I think that while Dorman is correct that *some* artists are no longer making money at cons because of the new “social” aspects of conventions (although, I don’t know about you, but I’ve always attended conventions to hang out and meet nerds who love what I love), I think that she missed the point. The problem isn’t cosplayers, nor Instagram, and to a certain extent, not even the rising costs of conventions. To me, the problem is that these wonderful and brilliant creators and artists are *not adapting* to the new world.
Yes, conventions have changed drastically since the 70’s…and this is a good thing! Cons are growing! With the popularity of the Marvel and DC movies, more and more people are coming to conventions, sometimes for the first time. This is good…because the more attendees show up…the more money an artist can potentially make. I dance a little dance of joy whenever I hear that a Big Name is going to show up, because that means at least for that day, the con is going to be crowded. I am elated when a show coincides with a release of a major comic movie, because I know that there will be a ton of first time attendees; people who have not seen my stuff and will be interested in diving into our little subculture.
However, this doesn’t mean that I’m going to just sit on my butt and wait for sales to drop in my lap. I means that in the weeks leading up to a show, I use twitter, FB and yes – IG…especially IG – to let people know what is my booth number, what I’m going to be bringing to the show, what I’m going to wear, and just how honestly excited I am to see everyone. It’s called marketing and advertising. Unless you’re Stan Lee or some other huge name…you’re going to need to advertise. Hell, even the new Marvel movies that everyone is dying to see, advertises. Everyone advertises…and IG, FB and twitter are all free! Leverage it – don’t hate it.
But then this leads to the day of the show, and I’ve noticed a few things about the tables in Artist Alley and why some artists don’t make any sales:
1) The old method of sitting at a table, with your head down and drawing doesn’t work anymore. Back in the day, when there weren’t so many indie artists with their own table at a show, this might work because there wasn’t as much competition. But now, with so many talented artists self-publishing or doing web-comics, no one is willing to line up to see the top of your head. This means, that you’re going to need to look up and start engaging your fans.
During a convention, my BFF and I almost never sit down. We’re standing up so we can make eye contact, and we’re always smiling and we use our assets (no, this does not mean our bodies). I have a loud voice, so I use that like a carnival barker. My BFF is incredibly friendly, so she makes sure that she is always engaging. We have quick little stories and speeches prepared about all our products and what we’ve been doing, so we can give a quick pitch that isn’t too salesy…more like a fun little conversation starters. We don’t just talk about our stuff, but we are actively listening and excited about a fan’s favorite fandom (hey, it’s how I discovered “Welcome to Night Vale”). In a way, I treat everyone who comes up to us like I’m on a job interview – because this is what it is. It’s an interview to get this person to think: “oh hey, I like you, I like your story, and most of all, I like your product because now I’m emotionally engaged with you”.
Yes, people CAN (and do) come up to artists who have their heads bent down, but those people are the ones that are determined to get your attention and there just aren’t that many of them. Just picture yourself walking down an aisle of a convention, with 20 artists lined up before you. All the art is amazing, and you know you want to buy something…but you’re not sure what. Are you going to stop off at the table of the guy who looks super busy (and then you’re going to feel like a dick for interrupting him and potentially not buying something), or are you going to stop off at the table where there is someone standing up, making eye contact (note: in a friendly, non-aggressive manner) and smiling?
Plus, as I mentioned before, a lot of con-goers may be newbies. They don’t know the protocols, and most people are too polite to bother someone when they look busy. That means, if your head-down in your sketchbook, this first time customer is not going to stop and talk to you and buy something from you. They are going to move on to the table that is open and engaging and excited to see them.
2) Treat your table like it’s part of your art…because it is. This is often a person’s first impression of you and your work. We make sure that everything is displayed in a way that can catch the eye (invest in some stands – it’ll pay for itself in the long run), and we have prices on EVERYTHING – because it’ll save us from having to have that awkward discussion about money and prices. It’s right there. Before anyone rolls their eyes at me – just picture going to Target and trying to shop WITHOUT ANY PRICES. You’re not going to buy anything, because you don’t know if it’s worth it, right? Yes, the economy sucks – but this means that you need to work that much harder to help customers get the most bang for their buck!
When I have a break to walk around the show, I will often walk past some pretty well known artists…not because I don’t love them, but because their tables are such a mess that I don’t even notice them. Everything is laid out in stacks where I can’t see anything, or there aren’t any prices anywhere. I don’t want to get up to a table, ask about the price and then have to awkwardly tell the artist that I can’t afford it. It’s embarrassing to me (for being so broke), and it’s a humiliating to the artist to hear that their work isn’t worth the last of your moneys. Bypass all that awkwardness and have prices. Big. Bold. Easy to understand. THEN you can use your time to engage the customer on a more personal level and not in a terrible used-car-salesman pitch.
3) The products. This is huge because I know not everyone will agree with me, but hear me out. We have very strategically thought about every single one of our products. If you ever stop off at our table, you’ll see a huge range of items with a huge range of prices. This means having buttons for $1 for the 14 year old who wants something from our table, but doesn’t have any money left…to having a nice $20 item that will make a great gift for the friend that couldn’t make it to the show…to having the ultra-deluxe items for the collector who wants to splurge. We have things in different sizes and mediums so that the buyer has options. This doesn’t meant that everyone should start making mini-top hats and painting their art on reclaimed wood to get the hipster dollar, but it means having your work in different, easy to consume sizes.
During our last show, the table next to us was selling their indy published GN for $30 or $40…and some original art (for around the same price). Unless they got lucky and got a ton of customer who were ready to drop $40 on this unknown, they were NOT going to recoup their table and travel fee.
On the flipside, there was a lady that we met at last year’s BCC who was running her own table for the first time. Last year, she took notes on how we ran our table, and asked us about our pricing and our products (BTW, we share all of this freely – none of this is secret…hell, all of it is common sense), and she took those lessons to heart. She had things in all price ranges, and she not only made enough to cover her table and travel fees…but she made enough to pay next month’s rent! And this is from a FIRST TIME artist. Who didn’t have a fan following and was definitely an unknown.
Think of it this way – as you’re walking down that aisle during a convention, you want to discover new art and new books, right? But your funds are limited…so are you going to blow all your money at one table buying ONE gigantic graphic novel magnum opus omnibus…or would you rather drop $4 here and there, and pick up a bunch of one issues and smaller prints? It doesn’t mean that you need to start selling everything under the sun, but if you have prints, have them in different sizes, because the customer might not be looking for a gigantic poster, they may want something small that they can hang in their cube at work. If you have a book, that’s awesome, but have cheaper options, like ashcans or one issue teasers to get the customer to come back and say “yes, I need to know more about this great story you wrote!”. Have stuff for the 14 year old newbie as well as the 41 year old collector.
Now a word about cosplayers. I know people hate on cosplayers for a myriad of reasons, but perhaps it’s because I’m a cosplayer myself that I see this differently. I LOVE LOVE LOVE it when a “famous” cosplayer shows up…you know why? It means MORE ATTENDEES! More attendees equal more customers which equal more potential sales! Also, I support and love my cosplayers, and they love and support me back. I can’t count the NUMBER of customers during BCC that came to my table because they were sent there by cosplayers who stopped by my table and bought something that they could incorporate into their costume. I make my cosplayer customers my street team! Word of mouth is the MOST effective advertising there is!
There are so many ways to get cosplayers to help you. If you’re a Star Wars artist, like Dorman’s husband, then reach out to the SW cosplay community and see if any of them will stand at your booth or hand out flyers as they roam the convention. Know a bunch of cosplay friends? Ask some of them to dress up as your characters and when people ask who they are supposed to be, they can point to your book/booth/website. The cosplay community is huge and almost everyone is friendly and they dress up because they love it. Use that love to your advantage!
I know that the #1 complaint by vendors is that cosplayers hog up the aisle space. They stop in front of your table and suddenly there are 183293292902 people taking photos and you feel like you’re not getting any sales because they are all focused on the cosplayer and blocking your table. While this is true, I also work this in my favor. I LOVE LOVE LOVE it when there is photog crowd in front of my table because that’s when I get a huge rush of sales. Again, as long as your table is well displayed, and you are engaging and friendly (and NOT aggressive), after fans have taken their photos, they are going to turn around…and there I am. With lots of cool stuff. Most people will at least look over my table, and about 60% of the time, I get sales out of it.
And the times I don’t get a sale? I’m still not upset, because my banner and products will show up in the photo (I’m in the background after all) and I can’t tell you the number of times I see my table show up on some cosplayer or photogs IG or FB…then I’ll tag myself and I’ll usually get a few sales from that too.
Now, let me address the issue about Wizard World and San Diego Comic Con. I think that everyone knows that different conventions have different “feel” about them. This is why everyone has a different “favorite” con. Some cons are artist friendly (i.e. Heroescon, BCC), some are huge cosplaying cons (i.e. DragonCon), and others are just fun because you can putz around and just be a nerd (i.e. ECCC, Allcon). So as a vendor, you need to think about this before signing up to a show: is the audience at this show looking to cosplay, putz around, or stand in line for 23893902902 hours for panels and show-exclusives?
Yes, SDCC has become a hollywood shit show…and I still want to go – as an attendee, but never as a vendor. Why? Because I know that the majority of the attendees that go are going for show exclusives and the panels and not to buy random stuff. Which means that despite the huge attendee numbers, this is not the show for a small indy gal like me. This is a great place to get my hot on for Benedict Cumberbatch…but it’s not going to be where I’m going to be able to pay my bills. So why would anyone go to SDCC and expect to make money…I just…don’t…know. It’s nothing against SDCC – they are serving a niche and a purpose – but the niche and the purpose is not for the small indy artist.
But then we have shows like BCC and Heroes which are HUGELY artist friendly and it means that I have a fighting chance of making a decent number of sales. So this where I’m focused. But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to just rest on my laurels, throw my wares on the table, put on a hoodie and then expect to make my money back. I still have to work at it, and leverage all the tools that I’ve been given.
As my BFF said, you can adapt or you can die. I am truly sympathetic to the artists that aren’t making as much money as they used to during these shows, because yes, times ARE tough, but at the same time, to me the complaining sounds a little entitled. I’m sorry that money isn’t just being dropped at your table, but at the same time, have you leveraged the new tools and new environment to get sales? Can you imagine a company not having a website or email in this day and age? Wouldn’t your first reaction be “holy crap, what dinosaurs! Are they Luddites? Do they not care about getting my business?!?” That is exactly my reaction when I see artists sitting with their heads down in their sketchbooks and not engaging customers. That is exactly my reaction when I see artists eschew social media and complaining about “selfies” (BTW, you’re using that term wrong) and Instagram. When people take photos of me, my booth or my product, I encourage them to tag me! All of this helps get the word out about me and my table…and all of it is for free. Why would I ever complain about free advertising????
My dad has owned his own small business for over 25 years. For years and years I told him to get a website and have an online presence. For years he kept resisting because he thought it was silliness, and it was a fad, and he wasn’t going to resort to such tactics, and that his customers will always be loyal to him because he’s been loyal to them. All that is great…but then profits started dropping and these loyal customers found other, more convenient companies to do business with. After a lot of thinking and talking to other businesses, my dad finally got a website, an email address, and an automated ordering system. Yes it was hard for him, and he’s still confused by the technology (he thinks his email address is his home address…we’re still working on this)…but within months, the business picked back up, he has a glorious 4.5 stars on Yelp, and his business is easily found online (thank you for all the SEO blogs that helped me with this), and all of this cost him pennies! Adapt or die.