Guest Post! Chris Paulsen: How to Survive Your First Con as a Dealer
Hello, my name is Chrispy and I just got back from my first ever con as a dealer - and first con I've attended in well over a decade! Obviously, I wasn't the con type... but I'm doing what I can to mold myself into a lean, mean con-rocking machine!
It's really intimidating to take that leap and try to sell your craft at a convention. There's so much to prepare for and you really want to do it correctly. Well, guess what? You won't do it correctly the first time unless you are super on the ball and perfect. In that case, I resent you - but it also means you probably should have been conning a lot earlier, so I also pity you for lost funds. Anyway, the goal for first cons is SURVIVAL. Can you get in and get out without it being a disaster - maybe even making some money in the process? I can help! Let's look at my experience and learn from what I did right and what I did wrong.
Talk to other dealers beforehand!
Attending a con and selling at a con are very different things. You need insight from veteran con sellers more than anything. They've done it before and have learned through trial and error. Their advice can save a lot of headaches. Since I was so incredibly new with this con concept, I relied heavily on my friends with con experience. Much of what I'm writing in this post originated from our blog host, Becca, and the team from Code Name: Hunter. If you're polite, you can even get advice from those you don't know. For my con, I managed to start up a friendship with Rachel from Last Res0rt by sending her a note about how amazing her convention set-up was. She was wonderful to me! Now, don't expect every veteran to take you under their wing - they have their own pre-con stresses - but the kind ones should be able to offer small chunks of helpful advice
Learn what to sell
My first convention was Furry Weekend Atlanta. The comic I draw, Precocious, is populated by cute animal children and that, of course, soon got the fandom's attention. Over Precocious' three years of existence, I've become more familiar and friendly with the furry community and artists, but I had never really made any strides to join in with them until now. Having no prior furry con experience, I knew I needed help in figuring out what I could provide.
One thing was clear: I couldn't exactly sell on brand name alone. For starters, I had no merchandise! Asking around let me know that my main sales would come from art commissions, so I had to focus on those. I bought some art supplies and did some practice pieces that eventually made up my art portfolio. Furries want you to draw their characters, not yours, so you need to be ready for anything! I tried to use this to my advantage. A lot of furry artists all draw towards the same furry standard, but my style is far more to the cute side of things. I wanted to play that up and make my look seem unique. It's kinda cool to see one's characters drawn in a variety of styles, so my specific look could be a benefit. I also tried to sneak some Precocious into the mix by creating a series of buttons that used my characters in ways that would be appealing to those who hadn't read the comic before.
Have promotional material
If it's your first con, you likely don't have much of a presence in the community. Fix that! Business cards or promotional postcards are vital. You want to have something for people to take away and remember you by. You should be focusing on creating a brand for yourself, and these cards are a great way to start. You don't have to invest in a giant banner with your logo quite yet - I'll talk more on that below - but your brand should be present. It's not expensive to get a hundred one-sided business cards printed up over at PrintRunner, so do it!
Here is where advice from con vets comes in handy. There are some necessities that aren't obvious - or are blindingly obvious but easily overlooked to a rookie. You might know enough to bring a tablecloth - while FWA was nicely set up with clothes on the tables already, many cons aren't so kind - but the pros know you bring two: One for the table and one to cover your wares if you have to leave the table for a break. Dealers tend to be stuck at their tables, so don't forget to bring food and drink (and napkins and utensils) for yourself! (Also, to the con attendees out there, bringing food to your favorite dealer is a good thing!) Always make sure you bring proper art supplies. I planned to do art on index cards, and only found out the ones I bought were largely worthless when I got to the con. Finally, remember all the helpful things that can save a life. Tape of all kinds, scissors, x-acto blades and cutting mats, metal rulers, clips and safety pins never seem to be there when you need them. I left my safety pins sitting on my table when I left for the con. That caused some trouble down the road.
And here we get to my biggest rookie mistake! I don't own a rolling suitcase. Did you know that, as a dealer, you'll be hauling your wares and supplies to and from the hotel every day? Did you know that you often won't be staying at the same hotel as the convention? Did you know that sometimes the walk to the con is several blocks up and down large hills? I though I would be fine tossing my art supplies into a handy bin and just taking what I needed with me in a backpack. Only my backpack was actually just an art bag that could, in theory, be worn over the shoulder. The result: A giant, painful bruise all across my shoulder, because the bag was overloaded and the straps were not padded. On the last day, due to more poor planning on the part of everyone involved, I had to haul the bin from the hotel to the con. An extremely overloaded bin. After crumpling to the ground several times along the way, I finally reached the con space with my arms completely torn up. I strained myself so much I could barely lift a pencil for the first hour, and I was so sore the next day from overexertion it was all I could do to get out of bed.
What you pack is pretty vital. Don't bring more stuff than you need, because you have to haul it around - but it's even more important to bring all that stuff IN THE PROPER BAGS.
When you're in the dealer's room or artist alley at a convention, you're competing with a lot of people for attention. You've got to stand out and attract attention. Here, height is might. Every veteran I talked with told me this was vital and I followed their advice. Now, I don't have one of those big 80-inch-tall banners to sit beside me yet - I will for my next con, however - but there are other ways to go vertical. I bought some of those storage cubes you can assemble (which are extremely useful in many ways, so invest in them) and made myself a nice tower. On top of the tower, I placed some improvised Precocious banners. I didn't have a giant banner, but I *did* have access to a large-format printer. What I did was print 11x17 portraits of my main Precocious characters and a large logo image, mount them all on foam core and place them on and around my cube tower. I got the height to attract attention and I was able to show off what I do best in a relatively cheap fashion. No, it wasn't the classiest setup, but it did it's job and won me some praise for smart first con thinking.
Engage with people, but don't scare them off
There's no set rule on how to deal with con-goers because everyone reacts differently. A warm smile and eye contact got some to smile back and walk over, got others to turn away and run off, and even got one guy to chastise me because he didn't like to feel pressured to buy things by attentive dealers. (This guy is what is known as a jerk. Dealers are there TO SELL, so of course they should try to do that!) You can't be expected to properly read potential buyers at your first con, so focus on the basics. Be nice, be engaging and be prepared to talk. Yes, that can mean having some lines, like you're some pick-up artist!
Since this was a furry con, the first thing I did when a person walked up was take a quick glance at their badges, which featured their character. If it was interesting, I'd comment on it and try to find out the artist who did it. I generally took a mellow approach, since some people are skittish. I'd work on some art (whether someone was paying me for it or not) and let people do their thing without the pressure of being stared down by the vendor. If they lingered a bit when flipping through my comic pages, I would jump in and ask if they'd read Precocious before. If not, I had a simple summary of the comment ready to go. (The "elevator pitch." Make sure, if you have a project, that you can successfully explain it in a few sentences.)
Talk with other dealers, but don't get in the way
If you intend to stick with selling at conventions, it's a good idea to do some networking. I'm pretty shy, so I didn't do well here, but I encourage you to do better than me! If it's during setup or breakdown times, or during a noticeable lull, you can break away from your table (covering your stuff with that spare tablecloth, or having a tablemate/neighbor look after your stuff) and engage with other dealers. You're all in the same situation, so bond over it! Just remember that the main goal of a dealer is to sell. When someone comes up to the table, move aside and let the dealer work his or her charm. Dealers should all know the plan here, so it's not rude at all to turn your attention away from a conversation to chat with a potential buyer. I had a long talk with a fellow dealer on Sunday. When someone came up to my table, he knew to be quiet as soon as I turned my head to greet them. After my interaction with the con-goer was over, I'd turn back and he'd continue his thought mid-sentence.
It should go without saying to be respectful to your fellow dealers. Don't interrupt a potential sale. Don't make too much noise. (Just because you're allowed to play music at your table doesn't mean you should. We had raver across from us at FWA. While she was pretty cool and I didn't mind her, every other dealer around me had a celebration when she left early and took her tunes with her.) Don't poach clients. It's one thing to do what you can to attract attention, but when it comes at the expense of other dealers, they won't be happy.
Watch the free stuff
I've heard it said that you should have a bowl of candy at the table to attract people. I've also heard that it backfires more than it works. Some con-goers are lacking in social graces and they'll abuse your kindness. Even those who are more socialized will end up leaving candy wrappers around and on your table. You should definitely have business cards or postcards out there for people, but don't go crazy with freebies. People will grab anything that's on the front of your table whether they intent to look you up or not. Some folks will also try to wrestle some free art out of you. Just say no.
Be able to adapt
The first con is a learning process. It may take some trial and error before you hit upon proper pricing. It may look better if you print up a pricing sheet beforehand, but odds are that pretty sheet would end up modified by the and of the con anyway. I found it better to write my prices in my portfolio on tape that could be peeled up and replaced. Pricing signs were made of poster board and post-it notes, so they could be drawn and changed on the fly. This isn't all about lowering prices to market level either. My tablemate and I found we were both underselling our badges, so we raised our rates. (The first clue was when clients began offering us more than we'd asked for.)
It's common for dealers to have Sunday sales, with discounts on items so they don't have to carry everything home with them. It's best to only do this on items you really don't want to haul back or are date-specific. For example: If you did art themed to the specific con, or you know you won't be back to a con for a long time and want to unload your items. In my case, my merchandise was lightweight, compact and could be held on until my next convention, so I didn't discount anything. (Well, I offered discounts for buying buttons in bulk, but that's not the same.) My tablemate, however, wasn't planning on going to a furry con again for a long while and discounted her stickers to move as many as possible.
Despite this post being far longer than planned, these are just a few tips to get your started. I'm sure I've forgotten some vital stuff. That's why you have to ask around. Everyone who's done this before can help. I am definitely not yet the grand master of cons myself. Note that I never said that my con attempt was actually successful. That's the last sobering tip: Your first time can be rough even if you do it kinda right. I ended up falling just short of breaking even for my first try, but it's not so bad when you factor in that I had to buy all my con table supplies this time. Most of it will be reused at future cons, and my reputation will have grown by then. Things will get better, and I will be more prepared!
I started as a complete con idiot and I survived! You're almost certainly better off than I was, so you can survive the dealer thing too!