The so-called “Con Season” (which seems to get longer and longer each year) is already underway. And while I’m heading into year number five of actively tabling at shows, every year plenty of independent creators take the plunge and enter the wild, wacky world of comic book conventioning.
So once again, I’m going to share some thoughts on tackling your first convention. While it can be a little intimidating at first, conventions are one of the fun part about being a comics creator. Hopefully this article will convince you of that, and give you some tips to make your first con a successful one.
Why Go to a Comic Book Convention?
The reasons people go to comic book conventions are as varied as the people who attend them. Some go to meet their favorite comic creators to get books signed, or to order commissions. Some go for the incredible deals they can get on comics and are looking to buy, buy, buy. Some are just looking for a place to walk around in their Chewbacca costume. And some are there to check out the independent comics scene and look for cool new comics from independent talent. These, my friends, are your people.
If you have any aspirations of creating comics, even if you’ve yet to take the leap and actually start creating your books, you should certainly attend a convention. For a usually small price of admission, you can get an idea of what it’s like to work the convention circuit. You can talk to comics professionals, everyone from industry vets to the guy who is doing his first show. Many shows also have panels that cover topics like breaking into the industry that are worth attending. But if you’re considering getting a table at a convention, know that there are three main reasons to do so. They are to promote, to network, and to sell, sell, sell. Let’s look at each one for a moment.
Comic conventions are a great place to promote your comic and yourself. Now, if it’s your first show, you might feel a bit like a pretender. You may find yourself in a small, unimpressive table at the show with a few copies of a mini-comic ashcan preview you had run at Kinkos, and the next table over is a guy who drew six issues of X-Men last year. You might feel like small potatoes. But that’s okay. Everyone starts somewhere, and here’s the cool thing…the comic fan attending the show isn’t necessarily going to see it that way. More likely, he sees you as a guy behind the table. Maybe he doesn’t even read X-men. You’ve got a table, you’ve got a comic book. That simple fact makes you a lot more of a pro than 99% the people walking the aisles. So, roll with it. It’s a great place to let people know about the work you’re doing, regardless of level at which you’re doing it. And if you are friendly and approachable, you’ll be promoting yourself as a cool person to talk to at shows now and in the future.
Cons are also a great place to network with other creators. Creating comics is often a lonely man’s game, as you’ll have to log long hours in front of a computer screen banging out scripts or back aching hours slaving away at the art table to produce your sequential gems. Cons are a great place to break out of the isolation booth and meet other pros and aspiring pros who are passionate about comics just like you. You’ll find you’ll get a ton of ideas about what’s working and what’s not, where people are getting books printed, industry gossip and other tidbits worth hearing. The fact is, creating comics at the professional level is usually a highly collaborative process. Meeting someone face to face and discussing the possibility of working together on a project is going to trump internet talent searching every time. And there’s no better place to do it than at a convention.
The final reason (and for many the most important) to attend a con is to sell, sell, sell. Sure, most of us would make comics regardless of whether or not we’d ever see a dime from our efforts. But the fact remains, we all like money, and if we’re doing quality work, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see some financial return on our investment into our books. Conventions offer independent creators one of the BEST ways to monetize our work, as they give us direct access to a large group of people crazy about comics who have brought money to spend.
When Does Getting a Table at a Con Makes Sense?
As I said before, even if you have only the smallest inkling of the desire to create comics, you should go to a con. It’ll give you a chance to learn the environment, attend panels, and talk to creators. You may even find that a trip to a convention will provide precisely the inspiration and motivation you need to get started achieving your comic creating goals. However, if you’re going to actually get a table at the show and set up a display, you should have two things in place.
Have something to promote. As wonderful a person as you probably are, people aren’t coming to the show to see you. They’re coming for the comics. So, until you have a comic book that exists as more than an idea in your head, it’s probably not worth getting a table. After all, it’s pretty hard to see ideas. What people want to see is art. On the other hand, if you have a webcomic that’s up and running and you can direct fans to, or have some promotional art for an upcoming comic series that you can at least get people excited about, you might want to get a table as a good way to start building awareness. Just know that at conventions, you’re going to be competing for attention with many established comic properties. So you probably want to wait until you have something tangible for fans to sink their teeth into. And if it’s tangible, that means you probably…
Have something to sell. Tables at conventions cost money. Getting a table in artists’ alley can run you anywhere from $15 at a small show to $500 at some of the bigger conventions. Unless you’ve got money to burn (and if that’s the case I have a few comic properties looking for an angel investor I’d like to talk to you about) you probably don’t want to buy table space unless you have a way of recouping some of that cost. Now, I’ve certainly learned this the hard way. I’ve attended shows where it was mathematically impossible (based on the amount of merchandise I brought and the price at which I was selling it) for me to break even at a convention. Besides the table cost, there’s parking, printing/production cost, the opportunity cost of spending the whole day at the table, and the allure of overpriced con food. Conventions aren’t cheap. What you want to do is go in with a plan so that the possibility of at least breaking even is there. Now, this might mean you’re selling a combination of comics, prints, original art, on-demand sketches, or more. You may want to hold off on your first con until you have enough material on hand to make the trip worth your time and energy.
Tips for Your First Show
- Make it Small, Make it Local. You probably don’t want to make your tabling debut at San Diego Comic Con. Besides the financial costs, your head might explode from the sensory overload. No, you’re looking for shows that are small and local to do your first convention. The cost to table at a show like this is very reasonable. While the foot traffic will be significantly less than at the mega-shows, you need to sell less merchandise to break even. If it’s your first show, that means you are a still small fish in the vast ocean of the comics world. But at a local show, you’ll be a small fish in a relatively small pond. Also, the more intimate setting will give you a better opportunity to interact with fans and really get the chance to let them know who you are and what your work is all about. Use the Comic Convention Calendar at ConventionScene.com to find comic conventions in your area.To find a show near you, your best bet is www.conventionscene.com. They have the most accurate and complete listing of shows on the internet.
- Don’t Over-Do it. The list of things you can do to prepare for a con is endless. You can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on merchandise to sell and banners and promotional stands without trying too hard. I suggest you go small and start slow for your first show. Do a small print run of books. Try to make them as professional looking as possible, and I suggest using a POD service like Ka-Blam. Make a few prints. If you want to bring a small promotional banner with your name on it, that’s fine too. But again, don’t do too much. Instead, start small, and make it a point to be very observant of what other creators are doing for their displays. I try to add one new element or promotional trick to my presentation at each show. This way, I’m splitting the cost of displaying up over the year. If you’re attending shows, plan on being in this for the long haul. No need to go to great expense for just your first tabling experience.
- Get Out From Behind the Table. As I said earlier, networking is a major plus of cons. Especially if you’re attending a small local show, it’s perhaps the best opportunity you’ll get to meet the folks in your area who are as crazy about comics as you are. You never know what kind of friendships you’ll make or what opportunities will arise from a few friendly conversations. I’ve had pin-ups done for my characters from artists I’ve met at shows, and I have done work for other creators. Definitely take the time to meet your peers.
- Practice Your Pitch Beforehand. Here’s the challenge: A comic fan is walking past your table. You make eye contact and have about three seconds to say something that may encourage him to take a closer look at your work. So, whatcha gonna say? What you want to do is come up with an easily articulated sentence or two that will encourage attendees to give your stuff a looksy. My first book, Super Seed, for all its flaws, always pitched incredibly well. I would say, “Hey, check out my comic, Super Seed. It’s about the world’s first super powered fertility clinic.” Pause. Watch their eyes as I see the concept registering in their brain. And 9 times out of 10, the reaction is positive. Now, they don’t all buy books, but they do all acknowledge it, and most will take a closer look.
- Have Something Free to Hand Out. Really, this works best when incorporated with your pitch. I like to give out high quality (and low cost thanks to gotprint.net) postcards. As a fan walks buy, I’d hand out a postcard and deliver my Super Seed line. It’s funny, but an innate human psychological response is to take something handed to us. Just that act gives you the time you need to deliver your pitch and get some consideration. Again, this won’t always lead to sales, but they may check out your work later online if you hand them something with a url printed on it, and you might get a new online reader and make a sale next time.
- Business Cards are a Must. You’re behind the table. That makes you a comics professional now. So act like one. Have a business card printed up for you and your comic creating endeavors. Now, while there are some great places to get incredible deals on mass printing of biz cards, this, I actually don’t recommend. At the early stages of your comics career, you may find it’ll take a while to nail your business card. The last thing you want to do is have 10,000 copies of a business card with links to a webcomic you abandoned after two months in favor of something else.
I hope these tips are helpful. Again, the important thing is that you just do it. It’ll be a great learning experience, and as long as you keep costs down and manageable, you’re sure to have a good time with it. And the great thing about conventions is you never know who you’re going to meet or what’s going to happen. I want to illustrate with a story from my first comic convention.
It was Sunday, the second day of the two day Boston Zine Fair, a super small press show, full of mini-comics and zine makers. I believe the show only cost me $15 for a table for the two days, which was a great deal. I had two issues of Super Seed to sell and brought a portfolio of my art, and that was about it. Given that it was my first show, I was still thrilled (and somewhat surprised) whenever anyone purchased one of my books. Still after selling about ten books on Saturday, on Sunday and I’d only sold four or so. It was getting late in the afternoon and I was considering packing up, when a gentleman approached. I gave him my Super Seed pitch and he was immediately amused and interested. He started looking through my original art and asked a ton of questions. He asked so many questions that I was initially a little weirded out by him. I mean, I like my book and all, but he was REALLY into it. As it turned out, he was the director of a local fertility clinic! (Thus the interest in Super Seed.) He said they give out quirky stuff to their clients all the time, and perhaps my book would be a good fit. He went on to buy three copies of each issue, several prints, and about $75 in original art. Just goes to show you, you never know who you’re going to meet at a show.
That’s the magic of the con.
Category: Comix Counsel