Published on October 23rd, 2015 | by Ian Goodwillie0
Are Cons Worth the Work?
We talk to some creators who set up at cons to learn about out the pros and cons of cons for independent artists and creators.
The popularity of comic cons and fan expos keep growing, becoming a focal point for pop culture around the world. People get the chance to interact with the actors, writers, and artists on a direct level. How direct a level this turns out to be varies on the event and the type of experiences that event offers.
Beyond the celebrity area, every expo has rows upon rows of vendors and artists set up to show off their wares. This can be anything from homemade Super Mario Bros. necklaces and independent comics to comic shops and major publishers. Well, sometimes when it comes to major publishers. You get to the bigger events in major cities and you start seeing the presence of big publishers, video game developers, and film producers. Cons and expos overall are huge business, and massive promotional opportunities
But what about the independent artists and creators? What are these cons and expos like for them?
As much of a promotional opportunity as cons and expos offer, they’re not cheap to set up shop at. Table prices vary based on the size of the event. Travel costs including food and accommodations are also sizable if the event isn’t in your hometown. And there’s also the constant temptation of spending money at the event.
To explore what it takes to be an independent vendor at cons and expos, The Feedback Society posed a few questions to con veterans, all three of whom have been vendors at several events including the Calgary Expo, Edmonton Expo, and the recent Saskatoon Expo as well as events in the US and the UK.
- Cuckoo’s Nest Press – An independent comic book publisher possibly best known for the graphic novel edition of Elaine Will’s Look Straight Ahead.
- Don Sparrow Illustration – Don Sparrow is an independent artist and illustrator who has worked in a variety of mediums. Don sells prints and t-shirts of his works as well as live drawing and commissions.
- Stitched Pixels – An artist and vendor selling cross stitch of various characters from video games, animation, and more. Finished pieces, commissions, and do-it-yourself kits are available.
TFS: Why do you set up at comic cons, aka fan expos?
CNP: To reach a slightly different audience than I might otherwise online. Although several of my comics are available for free online, there are many more which are not. I’ve also found that it’s important to engage with fans in person. If someone is meeting me for the first time and has a good experience, there’s a good chance they’re going to be more invested once they get around to reading my work in print, than if they had just stumbled across it online.
DSI: My reasons have changed over the years. When I first started, I think my main focus was on getting ‘discovered’ or making contacts, drumming up business, etc. Now that I have a family, my focus has gotten a bit more serious, and shifted to earning as much as I can, through sales of my artwork. Seeing friends, and taking in the con are all great perks, but if I have to be away from my family at a show, I need to be earning money as I do it. Thankfully, it’s thrilling to be able to earn money doing something creative, something I love doing.
SP: I setup at comic conventions / fan expos to display my work and make it more available to those who would want to buy it. I have an online store but I prefer to setup at conventions since photos don’t always do justice for my work. It’s really fun being able to see people’s reactions to my work.
TFS: Is there a purpose in having a table at a con beyond the retail aspects?
CNP: Meeting and engaging with other creators, of course! Sometimes I get to meet people in person I’ve only spoken with online, while other times I meet and make totally new friends whose work I might never have come across otherwise.
DSI: It’s always great to see old friends and familiar faces, and every now and then a show will have a guest or an artist of great meaning to me, personally, so it’s a treat to meet those people. You can also use the show to promote your work, or meet other creators, with whom you could potentially collaborate someday.
SP: I started going to comic conventions about four years before I started selling at them. I enjoy meeting web comic artists, buying too many prints from artist alley, and getting photos with media guests. I spend most of my time at the table but always make sure I can walk around for a while to experience other parts of the convention.
TFS: What changes have you seen in cons over the years?
CNP: These days I try to avoid the larger conventions with too much of a focus on celebrity guests. I went to Emerald City in 2011 as an attendee and was really impressed with the size and focus on comic creators. I returned to table in 2013, only to find it had swelled to three times its original size – not only that, but Artist Alley was, for some reason, split into two separate halls on opposite sides of the convention centre! It was just too big for me to get noticed. I had a similar problem at the Calgary Expo in 2012. Next time I go I’ll find a fellow creator to split a Small Press table with.
DSI: The size and scale seems to increase every year, so the crowds are increasingly large. The tension between comics and pop culture is always there, with pop culture coming to the fore more than the books themselves. There is an increased focus on cosplay and dressing up, as well, which has been a mixed blessing. It’s always exciting to see an engaged audience, and the creativity these costumers and models show is really inspiring to me. On the negative side, though, cosplay is often the main thing that gets covered in the media after a show, which isn’t always the most complete picture of everything a convention offers.
SP: The three main expos (Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon) keep growing a lot each year. I find that this works well for me since the more people that come through, the more chances at sales I have. It really makes it worthwhile for me to vend at these shows, plus it usually encourages the show to bring in bigger guests. I have also found that there has been a lot more focus by the expos to promote a harassment-free environment for attendees, which is great since it should be an accepting place.
TFS: How have you adapted your approach to selling at cons each time you go?
CNP: Well, I’m still figuring this out, to be honest. “Sitting isn’t selling” is one piece of advice I’ve heard, but I’ve personally found it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference in my sales whether I’m sitting or standing. I’ve gotten reasonably okay at reading people and figuring out who’s interested in hearing a pitch and who’s going to bolt as soon as I launch into one. Sometimes I’ll say “feel free to page through anything” because some people are shy and feel a need to be invited to do so.
DSI: Every show presents an opportunity to learn something new, and do things better. I’m always tweaking things, whether it’s making my display more eye-catching, or easier to transport, or adding new artwork for sale. Hopefully the live drawings get better with each show, as I grow more comfortable with the pressure of creating something on the spot — there’s no teacher like practice, and I’m thankful that the shows so far this year have offered me that opportunity.
SP: Trying to broaden my range of products to cover a good range of products for the most people. I have tried to cover a good range of prices as well, so as long as I have something they like, there is an option for them.
TFS: And finally, if you were going to give one piece of advice to someone setting up for the first time, what would it be?
CNP: Look friendly and welcoming. I’d say sketching at your table is actually not a good idea unless you’re working on commissions for people at the convention or other paid work — having your head buried in your sketchbook actually makes you look pretty unapproachable. I know others may disagree. Another piece of advice I once heard was, “if you’re not busy with customers, pretend to look busy by visiting with your tablemates, rearranging your display, or sketching out your next project.” Unfortunately, there’s a VERY fine line between looking busy enough to be popular and looking so busy that you don’t have time to engage with anyone. So, do a bit of both — sketch if you must, but make sure that you’re looking.
DSI: To try to determine your goals before a show, and stick to that purpose, whatever that is, and make that your measure of success. If you’re just there to ‘get your name out’, and make contacts — great. If you’re there to earn money, then make sure you’re creating your best work, and do everything you can to make that happen. Or even if you’re just there to get admission and take photos with cosplayers, that’s fine, too, so long as you’re clear about your purpose for the show.
SP: Greet attendees. It’s easy to setup your table and then start working away on some art. But attendees can miss you amongst the sea of artist alley tables. Just a quick “Hello” can be enough to draw them to your table and at least take a look instead of walking by. If you need to work at your table, it helps to have an assistant who can do the greeting for you.