SPX 2013 Recap

 My First Year at the Small Press Expo

This year was my first year attending the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD.  I was pretty excited about the trip- I'd heard excellent things about SPX from years prior, was really impressed by how the staff handled this year's site meltdown, and was REALLY impressed by how egalitarian SPX was about giving exposure to attending artists.  Their Twitter and Tumblr worked overtime, retweeting and reblogging all artists who mentioned attending the con.  I even saw a few retweets and retumbles myself, particularly when I was canvassing for artists to interview at the con. I've never encountered a convention so democratic about providing exposure, nor a staff so eager to help answer questions in the weeks preceding the con.

Prior to SPX, I'd attended Mechacon in New Orleans, La.  I'd spent a lot of time juggling preparing for Mechacon with freelance work and 7" Kara, so I hadn't had the time to finish Chapter 3..  I'd hoped to finish it just in time for it to debut at the con, since SPX had a special debuts section intended to help artists promote their new works.  I also wanted to have a special Sampler published featuring my work alongside three other comic artist friends, but unfortunately we didn't have enough time to get it published prior to the convention.  Instead of debuting new comics, I was able to debut my new double sided acrylic charms printed by InkIt, and decided to reduce all comics that weren't 7" Kara to a dollar.  I also offered $5 sketches and watercolor commissions, but given the constraints of a two day convention, all my watercolor commissions were advertised as 'take home'.

Packing for the Convention

Packing for SPX was no easy feat.  Although I was sharing a table with Emily Kluwin, and wouldn't have space to display everything, it was still a bit of a struggle to get everything within my large checked bag, and more of a struggle to get the entire weight under 50lb.  A few months ago, I invested in a luggage scale, since I travel so much, and it's certainly seen a lot of use lately.  In the near future, I think I'd like to switch my large bag out for a lighter weight bag. For smaller, heavier items, I utilized my carry-on, since they don't weigh those. 

For this convention, I brought:

  • My tablecloth
  • My charms
  • An acrylic display for my charms
  • A cakestand (part of the display)
  • A few mini watercolors (to promote my watercolor commissions)
  • My $5 sketch and mini watercolors signs in sign holders
  • A locker riser (folds down easily, but can provide height to a set up)
  • Two wooden bookstands for Chapters 1 and 2 of 7" Kara
  • My portfolio containing what I had finished of Chapter 3, as well as the 6 page anthology (not displayed on table)
  • My smaller banner
  • My easel to display the banner
  • My buttons
  • 7" Kara Chapter 1
  • 7" Kara Chapter 2
  • Dollar comics- When I was 13- I Rediscovered Cartoons, Chat, Ahoy
  • Wire display baskets for said dollar comics

Not on active display:

  • My file box which I use for organizing comics and commission materials
  • Small bottle of hand sanitizer to fight the con crud
  • Calculator
  • My Square
  • My iPhone
  • My inventory book
  • My 'coupon organizer' (small expanding file folder) that I use for sorting cash
  • My sketchbook and sketch materials
  • My 3DS (which never even got pulled out, haha)

As well as general clothing and personal items.

Getting to the Convention


I've been trying to make an effort to drive to more conventions, since I don't have a lot of disposable income.  Joseph has made the argument that my time is worth money, and the time spent driving does cost me, but at this point in my career, I can't really afford the difference in cost between flying and driving.  With that said, I did opt to fly to SPX, since Bethesda, Maryland is a long drive to make.  I ended up paying $350 per ticket, which is a bit outrageous,  setting a high standard if I hoped to make my convention costs back.  Something that helped me save money was the fact that the friend who booked the room allowed me to pay for my share in printed and pressed buttons, approximately 120 1.5" buttons.  I also opted not to print new copies of existing comics, instead using older stock or what I had left over from other cons this year. I was also fortunate in that instead of having to rent a car, or hire a taxi to get from Dulles to Bethesda, I had a friend willing to pick me up on his way into town.
I had hoped to move a lot of comics, since this is a mini comics convention, and figured I'd sell quite a few buttons and charms as well.  SPX promised to really promote kid-friendly and kid comic artists this year, as they were expecting to see a lot of librarians and parents, and since everything on my half of the table was kid friendly or actually written for children, I had some hopes of doing well.  I may not do much to actively promote 7" Kara online (since I'm not ready to release it as a webcomic until it's entirely finished), but I'm pretty proud of the work I'd put into it, and hoped to entice some new readers.  I figured I would see similar or better sales than what I've seen at MoCCA in the past two years, especially since so many artists had good luck at SPX in years past.

SPX Experience:  Behind the table; artist

Indie comic-cons are a very different experience for me than anime cons.  Despite obvious sales and demographics difference, my approach changes depending on the con.  For indie-cons, I usually bring Joseph Coco as my assistant.  Joseph has done a variety of cons with me, and greatly prefers indie cons to superhero or anime.  As an assistant, he doesn't spend much time behind the table helping with sales, instead I utilize his outgoing personality and send him to take photos and do artist interviews.  Because Joseph isn't constantly immersed in comic culture, he's able to talk to artists I would be too shy to approach.  Our tastes also differ greatly, so while I do provide a list of artists I'd like him to buy from and interview, I also try to leave him with the freedom to interview and purchase from artists who strike his fancy.  I hope that the combination results in a more unbiased blog experience.

Unfortunately, my camera equipment is somewhat limited.  I recently invested in a decent second hand DSLR, but my camcorder has trouble picking up audio for interviews, particularly if the convention itself is loud.  Unfortunately, I just can't justify investing in more expensive equipment at this time.  Joseph interviews artists at their tables, since it adds context to the interview and allows the artist to promote works of their choice.

For me, while I appreciate Joseph doing interviews, this renders him near useless as an actual table-assistant.  Toward the end of the con, I desperately wanted the chance to get up and walk around, and I found it nearly impossible to flag him down so he could watch my half of the table.  In an ideal world where I actually made money at indie cons, I would bring my anime convention assistant, Alex Hoffman, to help me with the table itself, and bring Joseph as my blog assistant.

I've noticed a recent, unfortunate, trend in my comic sales.  From  MoCCA 2012 onward, I've sold fewer and fewer comics.  SPX 2013 marked a low point in comics sales for me, as I only sold 2 comics- chapter 1 and 2 of 7" Kara to a mother of two little girls.  I price my comics at a variety of points because I want to get my work into as many hands as  possible, and while the Kara comics are rather pricy as they're large, full color garage prints on nice stock, I offer a good deal on chapters 1 and 2 when purchased together.  I'm hoping when I release a 4 chapter perfect bound edition at a lower price point, I'll see an increase in sales.

My theory is that with the rise of print on demand printing services, consumers are less eager to spend money on garage prints unless there's a special reason to do so.  Heidi and I offer the Friendly Book of Monsters with a block printed, stab bound special edition cover (I should know, I printed and bound those suckers), but I didn't see particularly exciting sales for that book.

I had a difficult time getting people to actually pick up my comics and look at them, even with encouragement.  I'm not sure what exactly went on in other areas of the con, but more than one attendee informed me that they were actively discouraged from reading with the intention of browsing by other artists tabling at the con. This is unfortunate, as it's much harder to make a sale with a product that's sight-unseen, particularly to parents who are looking for comics for their children.

Compared to the rest of the con floor, the A-island didn't see much business.  We were as far away from the entrance as possible, as with no big-name comics celebrities near us, there wasn't much external stimulus to draw crowds toward our block.  By the time they made it through the crowd, their money and energy were already spent.  I would expect this sort of treatment at a large con like New York Comic Con, but was a little disappointed that it happened at an indie con.  In addition, the con was so crowded that even if artists weren't seeing great sales, they were still afraid to leave their tables and peruse, meaning I saw fewer trades and lower sales.  I think opening up the con floor on Friday for setup, trades, and artist sales might help solve that problem.  In addition, because I had a corner seat, myself and Heidi (at the other corner table) were expected to physically occupy the same 4' square feet.  I've been informed that in years past, SPX staff had solved that problem, and provided the hotel with a layout that would prevent that from happening, but that the hotel failed to set the tables up properly.  To add insult to injury, other artists in our block decided to use the marginal space between our tables as an exit, constantly pushing past us.  By noon Saturday, I was basically sitting in Emily's lap.  Because space was so tight, Heidi and I could not set up our banners behind the table, and received permission from a member of SPX's staff to utilize the empty space by our tables to set up.  Almost immediately after that gentleman walked away, another SPX staff member approached us demanding that we take it down.  In his attempt to 'aid' us in dismantling, he knocked the banner over onto me, sending my coffee splashing all over the table.  He was too concerned with the banner 'still' being up to notice.  Nearly immediately after HIM, another staff member approached and told us our banners were ok. Other than that one unpleasant fellow, I had nothing but positive interactions with SPX's staff.

The majority of sales were small items such as charms and the occasional button, and a few commissions on Saturday.  Because SPX is such a short con and table space was very limited, I couldn't afford to offer at-con watercolor commissions, an item that sells extremely well at other conventions I've tabled at. 

SPX Experience:  Attendee (Joseph Coco)

The artists were friendly and approachable. I met more people at SPX than any other convention and it's likely that because of that I bought more comics. If I liked someone I spent more time looking through their comics to find one I was interested in--and I did buy a few because I liked the artist and wasn't necessarily interested in the comics, but I have been pleasantly surprised so far. Everyone was open and excited about their background and comics, though I did sometimes feel awkward occasionally when I flipped through people's comics which very frankly and sometimes graphically explored the author's sexuality and experiences.

The convention center was large because there were so many artists. There was a steady stream of people constantly filling the room, but I was told it wasn't nearly as congested as previous years and I rarely had to walk around anyone. Luckily there were virtually no cosplayers getting their pictures taken in the middle of the room.
With that size comes some comic stars. They were indie comic stars, but notorious at the convention nonetheless. Though there was constant buzz around them, they felt approachable and I feel I could have casually chatted with Jeff Smith or Gene Yang and I did talk to Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman. I even bought some books from people I didn't realized were such accomplished artists.

The panels were well orchestrated. It was far enough off the convention floor that it wasn't competing with the constant murmur of excited fans, but it was close enough that it wasn't an ordeal to go. I enjoyed the two I attended and even asked some creators how they responded when children tell them they love their work so much that they want to create comics for a living as well.

I enjoyed the afterparties put on and got to meet some great people, but they were in smaller rooms so many people seemed to break away to have less chaotic conversation. The food was a bit picked over when I got there, but considering the amount of people and how long they lasted I wasn't surprised.

The entire experience was convenient. Getting in, buying comics (everyone seemed to take credit card though I generally used cash), grabbing lunch, finding booths and events, and exploring.

Photos from the Con 

(Taken by Joseph, presented in no particular order.  If you see yourself, let me know which photo, and I'll add your name and a link!)

Hey!  It's me!  The Precocious banner is Chris's, it's kinda a shame it looks like I'm part of his collective, haha.

Heidi Black

Chris Paulsen and Volumes 1 and 2 of Precocious

From left to right: Jon Mosley, Eric Lide, and Jon Griffiths

My table again.

The comic haul.  Joseph spent around $350, I spent about $100 during the 10 minutes I managed to walk around before the con closed.

The Good:

-SPX is held in the same hotel most artist attendees are staying at.  This makes it easy to hold parties, meet new people, and arrange plans.  We spent a lot of time hanging out with our New York Friends
-SPX Staff (in general) were fantastic and helpful.  They were really interested in the interviews Joseph was doing, and did their best to promote his work.
-meeting other artists.  Always a pleasure, sincerely.
-how many artists were willing to talk to Joseph and were happy to be interviewed, even with no prior knowledge of the blog.  You guys are amazing, thank you so much for your time.  I wish we could afford better equipment, you deserve good sound quality.

The Bad:
-the crowd.  The front of the room was claustrophically packed, but the A island was at the very end of the con.  A lot of attendees were visibly fatigued by the time they reached our area.
-no visible designation for artists producing kid friendly work, and those artists listed didn't have to prove that their work was indeed kid-friendly.  I have a lot of parents tell me they were burnt in the past by artists who produced cartoony work, claimed it was kid friendly, and it was very much not.
-the cost.  Flying in wasn't cheap, and it made it much harder to recoup costs.
-my sales.  Not even going to lie.  Much worse than either MoCCA-fest, worse than many anime cons I've done, possibly worse than my first Heroescon.  I made slightly over my share of the table, and that was entirely through charms, buttons, and a couple commissions.  I sold a total of, get this, four comics, none of which were dollar comics.  I made $180 dollars that weekend.
-According to Joseph, a lot of artists were familiar with my blog, and at least one even copped to applying advice I've given.  I would sincerely love it if any of you guys would make the trek to say 'hi'.  I feel like I'm writing in a vacuum.  It'd also be nice if you guys bought my comics, since that money goes right back into buying supplies to test, or attending conventions which I'll later write about. 

My suggestions:

-create a kid-friendly or kids' lit island.  It will help us meet each other, aid parents in finding us, and it means the kids can browse freely.
-provide a visible designator to help parents find us.  SPX provided balloons for Ignatz nominees, I would gladly 'donate' five bucks more for a similar signal.
-special focus on crowd control.  Consider breaking attendees purchasing badges into several lines, each line gets a seperate entrance. It's really tough being the table at the far side of a large con.
-local outreach advertising to the Bethesda community.  Comic artists are very much aware of SPX, but are local parents, teachers, librarians?
-consider making SPX a three day convention, with Friday being open for setup and purchasing from other artists. 
-encourage attendees to flip through display books and ask questions of the artists.
-Heidi attended the Tumblr meetup and said it was small, but nice.  I opted not to go, as I'm better known on Twitter.  Perhaps a general social network meetup on Friday evening, rather than Sunday morning?
-Stay open a little later on Saturday.  I like that SPX doesn't start too early- for many of us, this is a rare opportunity to see friends, and we can't really chit chat if we're stuck at our tables, so it's nice to get to visit in the evenings and sleep in.  However, the short con hours mean a lot of us may be missing out on sales.


I really enjoyed SPX.  Bethesda is much cheaper to stay in (and eat in) than New York, and organizing events with friends also staying in the hotel makes things much easier.  The staff was fantastic, and there were a lot of interesting events organized


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