You Don't Need Art School- Convention Planning 101

This post is brought to you buy Heidi Black's welovefine Marvel Villains entry.

Planning for Your First Convention

Me at Sequential Art's Mini Comics Expo.  The table space was about 3'x3', which is an unusual size, as half tables usually run 3'x2'.

The Sequential Art department here at SCAD teaches students many valuable skills, from perspective to composition. Unfortunately one thing SEQA glosses over are conventions and convention planning. We all know we should be attending them, determining which conventions work best for you, creating a body of work, and branding yourself and your product are all processes that take time and improve with practice.

Long term readers know I've been attending convention bootcamp for the past year and a half, and blogging about my experiences (scroll down to the convention reviews, they're all there). A glutton for punishment, I share the good and the bad, in hopes that my empty pockets can bring you profit in the future. Attending all these conventions has taught me a lot, and although experience is the best teacher of all, a little knowledge ahead of time can save you time and money.

Try Before You Buy:  Attend a Couple Comic Conventions as a Regular Attendee Before Committing to an Artist Alley Table

Before jumping head first into the world of comic conventions and artist alley tables, a little planning is in order.  If you've never attended a comic convention before, you should probably attend a couple to get a feel for the atmosphere.  Talk to the artists tabling there, find out what sells and what doesn't, take note of the set ups that generate the most attention and the artists who garner the most sales.  Take photos for reference and collect business cards so you can check out what sort of web presence your favorite artists have developed.  This is a great opportunity to do a little networking, and you can never do wrong with bringing business cards and some mini comics to trade.  A good rule of thumb I've found is that artists are more than grateful if you buy some of their wares after picking their brains.  A post-con follow up of "it was nice meeting you" via the social networking site of your choice isn't a bad idea either.

I acknowledge that if you're shy (like me)  this is a daunting task.  My advice here probably isn't the best, but something is better than nothing.  I travel in a pack, either with braver friends or with my boyfriend, I find it easier to talk to other artists when I'm not the only one initiating conversation.  Friends will encourage you to talk to artists who would otherwise intimidate you.

Finding a Convention

My table at my first con, Heroescon, in Charlotte, NC.   My set up has changed a lot since then.

So after casually attending a couple conventions and getting a feel for what's involved with tabling, it's time to find a convention and take the plunge.  Ideally, your first convention would be one that's suited to your style and the sort of merchandise you'd like tot sell, in addition to being conveniently located and at a time that's right for you.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the reality.  My first convention was a super hero convention located four hours away the day after my finals (Oh hey, I happened to write about it here!) .  I had just about nothing prepared, hadn't been to a convention in several years, and had been assured that my horribly inadequate setup would be just fine, although the people I went with had all had plenty of time to prepare and had ordered banners.   Had I researched ahead of time, I would have not found myself in that position.  Even if your first convention isn't under the most ideal circumstances, a little research can teach you a lot.

A great online resource for finding conventions (as well as a calendar of events) is Convention Scene.
Their calendar is well organized and easy to follow.  Other useful resources include crowdsourcing (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr), but this is only useful if you follow other comic fans.

 For example, the convention you could get away with preparing the least for would be a superhero comic convention, as a lot of sales are commission based.  As long as you bring decent sketching materials, nice paper to sketch on, and a couple inking tools, you should be fine.  You'll be asked to draw a lot of fan art, but the majority of your customers will bring their own reference.   At some larger mainstream conventions like San Diego Comic Con and New York Comic con, you may have the opportunity to get your portfolio reviewed by editors at major comic publishing operations.  If this is the case, invest in a nice portfolio to present your pieces, demonstrate some judgement in selecting the pieces you want to show (no more than 8!), and please dress professionally.

Itoya portfolios are a good, fairly inexpensive, beginner's portfolio that doesn't cost much and keeps your originals safe.

An anime convention brings a lot of print sales, but not many commissions, and those commissioners you do get probably didn't bring reference.   Anime conventions tend to bring a lot of impulse sales, as opposed to mainstream comic conventions, where your audience may be debating purchasing from you all weekend.   I tend to sell a lot of cheap, small items.  A good rule of thumb for selling at anime cons is that you'll probably only make one sale per person, so you need to make it count.  A smart phone is handy in this sort of situation, or you can offer 'take home commissions', where you finish the piece at home.  (Otakon, Anime South East)

A mini comic convention (like MoCCA or Fluke) is all about just that- mini comics, and a lot of trading happens between artists. This is a fantastic convention to network at if you find yourself in that gray zone between mainstream and anime.    This may also be a good opportunity to network with non-mainstream editors like :01 Second and Archaia, but they don't usually offer portfolio reviews at these sorts of conventions.

All of these conventions utilize different types of setups and promotional material, attract different crowds, and require different sales strategies.   When gathering research, consider crowd sources on sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and don't let one bad convention get you down.

In the not so distant past, I did a presentation for Anthony Fisher's Self Publishing Class about the various types of comic conventions that may prove helpful in preparing for your first convention.   I've also done a post about the little things that go into prepping for a convention that often get overlooked.

Creating a Timeline

So now that you've decided on your first convention, you need to create a timeline.  Timelines are useful, particularly for disorganized people like myself, because it allows me to break large tasks into reasonable chunks, and ensures that I can get most of the things I want to accomplish done before the convention.  If you've done your research, you know that many convention artist alleys sell out fast.  Don't sit around and wait to apply for your table, apply as soon as possible.  For anime artists, this often means camping the Artist Alley registration page pressing F5 feverishly.  A lot of conventions have tried to democratize the process by making their artist alleys 'juried'.  This means that you submit a digital portfolio (or your blog, tumblr, website, or Deviantart) and the convention staff determines who makes it in and who doesn't.  This has become the de- facto for anime cons prohibiting  the sale of fan art in the artist alley.   A quick sell out isn't just the domain of anime conventions,   SPX sold out within the first week this year, and tables at San Diego Comic Con are sold years in advance.

Heidi and I make convention plans months in advance, and are usually open to exploring new convention possibilities, so we tend to have a list of conventions we'd like to attend.   This allows us to quickly organize convention plans as soon as the Artist Alley registration is announced.  If you're planning conventions within a large group, you may consider utilizing Google Calendars shared across user profiles, Facebook events, or even organizing a Facebook group to help keep members informed of changes.  Another useful feature that Google offers are their spreadsheets, which function a lot like Excel and can be shared between users.  These are great for keeping track of expenses.

A general timeline would be:

6-4 Months Before Convention

Buy table and convention registration
Find hotel
Decide on/ book travel
Find travel/booth mate

4-1 Months Before Convention
Prepare Wares
Continue Travel Preparation
Prepare Booth Setup 
If not printing local- format your work, get printed
Order business cards other promotional material if you don't already have it
Publicize on convention's forums, your Twitter, blog, and Tumblr that you'll be attending this convention
Arrange meet ups with other artists attending same con

2 Weeks/Week Of Convention
Format for printing
If printing local, get printed
Practice packing goods to make sure they fit your travel restrictions

After I've made a timeline, I can start making weekly lists of goals that need accomplishing.  I have a few Knock Knock organizers that really come in handy for making impossible tasks possible.

Making lists feels both soothing AND productive!

Traveling for Conventions

Comic convention travel is a little different than vacation travel, as you've got all your comic convention gear in tow.  I've never travelled outside of the US to sell at a convention, but there are restrictions to selling outside the country, which you should look into before booking a trip to TCAF or any other out of country convention that you plan on tabling at.

There are three major modes of transportation to consider when you're travelling for a convention, each with various pros and cons.

  • Airplane
  • Car
  • Train

Travelling by airplane is the fastest, possibly the most comfortable way to get to a convention.  Because your travel time is shorter, you can arrive refreshed and ready to go.  For cons across the country, flying may be your only choice.  Although flying is comfortable and quick, it's also expensive and you are limited in what you can bring with you, from table set up to wares.  For people who utilize pipe construction setups or those who utilize those wire mesh cubes, flying isn't really an option, as the weight adds up fast.  When travelling by plane, you should take into consideration that you'll have to find transportation to get to your hotel, to get food,  and to get around the city during your stay.  When I went to MoCCA, I solved my storage problem by purchasing the largest rolling suitcase I could, packing my convention stuff in that, stuffing my shoes around those, and then packing my clothes in a smaller suitcase.  Many airlines limit what you can bring and how much it can weigh, so make sure you  familiarize yourself with the airline's policy beforehand.

Driving to a convention 9 hours away is very draining.  By the time you get there, you're ready to pass  out.  This can be rough if you aren't planning on taking off a couple extra days to allow for travel.  In addition, if you have a lot of travel mates carrying a lot of equipment, travelling by car may not be a viable option.  Travelling by car does allow you to carry more luggage and larger supplies than you would be able to bring if you took a plane or a train, and gives you the freedom to explore the city you're staying in if you desire.

Travelling by train has been largely an unpleasant experience for me.  Our studio took the train to Baltimore last year when we attended Otakon, and found it damp, cramped, cold, slow, and expensive.  Our travel time was about the same as if we had driven, with far less ability to make decisions regarding our comfort, and we paid more than we would've had we flown.  Amtrak train food is awful- microwave hotdogs, soggy hamburgers, and refrigerated finger foods, and unless you bring your own, that's all you get.  Riding the rails cost as much roundtrip as flying the skies would've (more, actually, careful planning can score cheap seats on a plane) and the luggage restrictions are the same.

Planning Your Wares

What works is different not only at every comic convention, but for every person.  When it comes to planning what you'll be selling, you should make the decision for yourself, and not just because that's what's popular.   Right now, my biggest sellers are impulse purchases- buttons and charms- because my setup is pretty low to the table.  For some, prints are all they pack, because it's well suited to their vertical setup.

When planning your wares, take into consideration the sort of art you enjoy making.  Do you crank out fan art at a frantic pace?  Your best bet may be prints.  Do you draw a lot of mini comics?  Garage print mini comics sold cheaply may do really well for you (just not at an anime con).  Do you have a popular webcomic?  Buttons, prints, charms, and mini comics may all be moneymakers.

Take your style into consideration as well, because some styles are better suited to certain pieces of merchandise.  Simple styles are often considered iconic (like Hello Kitty) and make great buttons and charms- these pieces stand alone and don't need explaination.  More detailed styles may sell better as prints, but beware- if you have to explain your piece and your character's intricate backstory, you may be better off just making a comic.

If you can avoid directly competing with your tablemate, it's for the best.  You want to eliminate any question from your customer's mind that he or she wants to buy your stuff. 

A professional button making machine is a huge investment for a first time con-tabler.

Once you've decided what sort of stuff you want to sell, you need to go about creating it.  Research your options, particularly if you want to make buttons, charms, or get your prints printed out of town.  If you're not planning on purchasing a laser cutter for your charms,  Printcess makes excellent acrylic charms (the charms I sell are printed and laser cut by them) and they've recently started offering a finishing service.  Printcess takes about a month to print and ship, and that needs to be accounted for when you're planning on ordering charms.  If you're planning on making buttons, you could purchase a button maker  (I have a umakebuttons machine in 1.5" that I'm very satisfied with), rent a button making machine,  or you could find a button making service (there are several on Etsy, and I offer one as well).  If you go with the button making service, you should contact the maker with a run down of what you have in mind to get an estimate on how long it'll take to make and ship.

If you're planning on selling mini comics, I highly recommend having your content ready BEFORE you start planning for the convention, as a good mini comic needs time to create.  Once you have your comic ready, it needs to be formatted for printing.  You have several options available, including Print On Demand (like Lulu and Kablam) and garage printing.  Garage printing can including printing your comic out from your home computer or taking it to a Kinkos or Office Max for printing.  No matter your choice, you should make sure your comic is properly formatted for printing and assembly (tutorial coming soon).  This sort of printing can be done in a single afternoon, and the assembly is fairly straightforward- fold and staple, unless your books have a complicated design (like an origami insert, or are pop up books).  It only takes a couple days to get through 40 mini comics.

If you can foresee getting into garage printing, you might consider buying a paper cutter and a long arm stapler.  Papercutters come in a variety of types, the most effective being guillotine, but a simple (and cheaper) blade style papercutter works just fine.

Long armed staplers allow you to effectively staple in the middle of the page.
A good paper cutter cuts several sheets of paper (depending on the weight) at once, and the guide ruler aids in making uniform cuts.

Other options include bookmarks (you'll want to go with a fairly high quality print for these, and should consider having them laminated), prints (which can be done at home, at an Office Max/Kinkos, or online from a service like Fireball), and commissions, including sketch and take-home. 

Booth Setup

Your booth setup is your storefront, and should not only reflect the nature of your wares, but your personality as well.  Your set up should vary from convention to convention to suit the needs of that particular con, but there'll be certain constants, including:

Some display materials

I've found that easily edited signage works well for me.  I use small chalkboards and liquid chalk, and can easily update my prices and specials as the convention progresses.  In the past, I have utilized vertical banners, and while I feel like they're necessary for attracting attention at larger anime conventions and super hero comic cons, I really dislike them in combination with my current convention aesthetic, and I'm currently researching other options.

I've recently switched out my tablecloth from the green and white patterned cotton that's visable in most of my convention photos to a plain green cloth.  Hopefully it'll be less distracting for my customers.

I'm very unusual when it comes to my convention setup, particularly when attending anime conventions, as I have a mostly horizontal layout.  This works well for me at indie cons, but I feel like it really puts a damper on my sales at anime conventions, and in the near future, I'm going to try and introduce more vertical elements to my layout.

Setting Reasonable Expectations

Even the best convention experience can feel like  a disaster if your expectations are unreasonable.  One of my professors gave me a piece of advice that I found very helpful

"Consider yourself lucky if you sell enough to pay off the cost of the table"

Conventions are really about networking and building an audience.  You attend conventions to gain exposure.  I consider a convention the most successful when I've given away all the business cards I'd brought with me and made several new friends.  By that account, MoCCA was my most successful convention to date, networking wise AND financially.  If you find a convention that works for you,stick with it.   If a con didn't work for you, you can try again, OR you can use those resources to attend a completely different type of convention and expand your knowledge and influence.

If you're just starting comics, conventions, and networking, any sale is a big deal.  You have convinced someone to invest in your work, which is a big deal when you're an unknown.  You are not entitled to sales, and you'll have to endure a lot of nibbles before you get your first bite.

If you're looking for a taste of what to expect, I found this archived /cgl/ thread to be extremely useful, both in terms of dealing with customers, what sort of displays are prevalent, and what sells well.


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