Conventions: Worth the Cost?

One of my least favorite questions asked at cons is: Do you actually make money at this?

This question almost always causes me to cringe, usually due to the manner in which its asked.  There are a few occasions where I'll gladly and honestly answer, but first, I have to figure out your motives.

My mother taught me that it was rude to ask a stranger or a casual acquaintance about money, but if you're a fellow artist and you want the skinny for your own notes, introduce yourself and then ask me how the con is going.  If you're an aspiring artist thinking of doing cons, make sure you tell me that too, and I'll be happy to fill you in.  If you're neither, it's none of your business.  

Conventions are a tricky business, as fickle as the weather.  I've been attending cons as an artist for about 3 years, and though I've attended a wide variety of cons, I still feel like I have a lot to learn.  Each con is an opportunity- I meet other artists, make new fans/friends, buy lots of comics, and sometimes I even make money.  I don't currently have a publisher distributing my books, so conventions provide a chance to gain exposure and sell books in person.  Unfortunately, I live in an area that doesn't yet have much to offer an emerging comic artist, so if I want to sell COMICS, I have to travel.  And of course, as a comic artist, that's what I hope sells the most.

I offer a lot of things, and vary my offerings by the type of con I'm attending.  If you follow this blog, you'll note that I list or photograph what I intend to sell at each con, and then I usually discuss what actually sold.  This variety is important, different cons call for different wares.  While I wish my kids' comic, 7" Kara, sold at EVERY con, I am realistic.  Comics, especially kids comics, don't usually sell well at anime or superhero cons.  $5 sketches, which are a major source of con income at anime cons, don't sell at indie cons.  Stickers and charms sold well at FWA, but nothing else moved.

The type and attendance of each con greatly affects whether I make money.  Too many people and no one is buying because they can't see what's on the tables (see my SPX post or my recent MoCCA-fest post).  Too few people and sales stagnate (see my Interventioncon post).  Indie cons promote the sales of comics, but may offer some artists more social media exposure than others.  As these cons become more popular and cheaper to attend, more attendees come to buy from a handful of artists before leaving, and many don't stick around to check out new artists.  If you've only recently entered the comics scene, this may be problematic for you, and will cause a loss of sales.

So if I often don't turn a profit, why do I keep doing conventions?  Am I stupid? A glutton for punishment?

Maybe a bit of both, but honestly, even with my social anxieties, I love people.  I make comics because I wanted to give people a gift, and attending cons allows me to interact with these people.  I love the look on the face of customers who love a commission I've completed for them, and I love talking about comics with young readers.  I like meeting other artists and commiserating with them, I like buying comics from artists I've never met before.  Cons are an opportunity to see distant friends in person, and a chance to contribute to the comics community in a positive way.  I'm able to review conventions, share selling strategies, and post artist interviews, all positive contributions that are independent on my popularity as an artist.

A good convention allows me to expand my audience, and helps me connect with the people who become loyal supporters of my work, things that wouldn't happen if I pinched my pennies and stayed at home.

But even with these rewarding benefits, conventions can be expensive.  There've been many 'good cons' where I sold enough to cover my table costs and some of my hotel, but not my food, transportation, cost of production, or even an hourly wage.  What do you do if you want to do conventions, but you're on a budget?

There are a variety of ways to cut convention costs, particularly if you have useful skills.

  • Donating art assets to the convention itself may result in a comped Artist Alley table
  • Donating experience and expertise by hosting panels and workshops can earn you a comped table at many anime cons.
  • Volunteering your time as convention staff can gain you admission to the convention, and some conventions may be willing to negotiate table costs.
  • Sharing a hotel room with friends reduces costs.
  • If you're in the market for a car, picking an energy efficient vehicle (I drive a Jetta TDI- Diesel injection, meaning I get crazy good gas mileage) can really help cut down on long-term convention costs.
  • Sticking to local cons definitely helps reduce costs and keeps your profits high- No hotel, meals eaten at home, reduced transportation costs all mean more money in your pocket.


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