Monday, June 08, 2015

Con Recap: TCAF

This year I opted to skip applying to MoCCA-fest and SPX and wanted to focus on a indie comic show that seemed to be more webcomic friendly--Toronto Comics Arts Festivals.  They'd announced that they were making changes in how they determined who got tables--they wanted to start an alternating year system, where creators who had at able a year prior were much less likely to get a table the following year.  I liked the sound of this system.  It meant that more artists could have an opportunity to table at the show, and I'd heard good things about TCAF from other comic artists.  Last year, Hana Doki Kira had it's debut at TCAF, so it seemed like it was a manga-inspired-comics friendly show.

I put in for a half table, and was pretty excited when I got word that I was accepted.  I try to do at least one larger indie con a year (I really can't afford more than one, they get expensive fast), so I figured TCAF would be it for 2015.  I'd never been to Toronto before, but my passport was still good.

In the weeks preceding the con, TCAF sent numerous emails explaining how to table at the show.  They recommended that we mail our books (I highly recommend using media mail, so long as you're JUST mailing books) and not to make ourselves conspicuous going through customs.  I took this to mean 'no banners', a decision I regret as it severely affected my branding.

I didn't really have anyone to ask about preparing for TCAF- the few friends I have that had tabled were able to drive to TCAF, I would have to fly.  I was definitely a little antsy, especially since information was hard to find and a bit cryptic, but fortunately I had some backup flying with me to make the process easier.


Since I knew I had a half table, I planned on my table being pretty standard size- 3' wide by 2' deep, and I did my demo table accordingly.

Nattosoup's Demo Table for TCAF

While it may look like there's a lot of anime con stuff on the table, I also introduced three new minis- Magical Girl March, Artistically Challenged, my 2015 artbook, and reprints of the Japan Trip Book.  All three books are now available in my shop.

Alex and I also experimented with some mini cubes I'd bought awhile back to create a riser system for the mini comics.


We flew to Toronto!  Customs was pretty simple--I had a checked bag, everyone else had two carry ons.  When asked for our reason for going to Toronto, we said we were visiting the University of Toronto, visiting friends, and attending TCAF.  There was no prolonged questioning, and I don't think anyone's bags were searched with an more scrutiny than TSA normally gives.


On Thursday we got up late, had coffee at a local place, and went to do the campus tour of the University of Toronto for Alex.  The tour took several hours, and wasn't really able to answer Alex's questions regarding their graduate program, and by the time the tour was over, I was totally ready for some fun.  We hit up Aboveground Art Supplies, near OCAD, and walked through Chinatown, although we didn't stop for any snacks.  We had to hustle to make it to Little Island Comics before closing, and weren't able to make it to The Beguiling in time.

University of Toronto Campus Tour



Friday was a crazy long day for us.  We were up early to catch Scott McCloud's Keynote speech at TCAF's Librarian and Educator day, and stuck around to attend several other panels.  We took the divide and conquer approach for the majority of the day- Alex and I caught a zine panel that turned into my worst nightmare (group work, ugh), a fantastic shoujo manga introductory panel (Girl Power!), as well as panels focused on getting comics into schools and libraries and panels on diversity in comics.  Our day ended at 3:00PM, and we went back to the hotel room to crash for awhile before heading over to the Reference Library at 9:30 PM (I know right?) for setup.

I'd planned for a standard half table- 3'x2', but was somewhat horrified when I saw what we were getting.  The Kid's Section got reference tables- giant 4'x6' that were a daunting 3' wide by 4' deep when divided.  The 3' was easy, but the 4' was a HUGE gap between comic artist/salesperson and customer, and my setup required rethinking on the fly.  Fortunately, I had another set of hands to help me get everything together, and when we finished setting up around 11:00 PM, we went over to the Sparkler Mixer Party a bit brain-dead after our long day.  I bought over some Sassy Buttons to help break the ice.

Librarian and Educator Day

Friday Night Setup

When we arrived at the Toronto Reference Library, there was already a line of artists with their books getting checked in.  It really didn't take that long to get checked in and get Joseph's press badge.  After getting checked in, we set off to find the Kid's Section and get set up.

Setup Upstairs


Saturday was the first official day of TCAF, and it was another early morning for us.  Since we'd finished setting up the night before, we didn't have to get up TOO early, but we did have to get the entire party over to the Toronto Reference Library by 9:45 AM.  This meant both breakfast and coffee before the show opened, which we had at the cafe attached to the library.  I had really high hopes for both TCAF and being in the children's section, and was pretty nervous Saturday morning.

From the start I decided I would just charge the same in CAD as I was in USD, which meant I was losing money as the exchange rate was $1 USD to $1.21 CAD, but I knew I'd get completely lost if I had to convert every transaction and make change.  My signs were designed for USD, but didn't explicitly state it as such, and I didn't want to alienate potential customers with sudden price hikes.

Rather than go to a bank and ask them to break our $20's into smaller bills, we simply saved up all our $10's, $5's, $2's, and $1's from shopping and eating out.  This worked out well, as we had plenty of change all weekend.

Kids' Section

Setup in the children's section of TCAF

When we arrived, it was mostly just other artists in the building, but it was still pretty packed.  I went on ahead to the table to get settled in and acquainted with my neighbors.  Although it was still early, it was pretty hot in our section, due to the lack of any airflow and the huge glass windows that basically turned the Kids' Section into a bakery for humans.

The crowd seemed really affected by the heat as well.  Customers were sweating heavily, and the combination of the heat and the huge tables made it difficult to engage.  My neighbor, Kean Soo, stood outside the table and a little in front of my half to engage people, and while that seemed to help somewhat, I was trapped behind the table due it being a weird curve in the layout (which meant that only one artist could stand in the gap between tables).  Although I did try to engage and encourage customers to pick up merchandise and ask me questions, it was hard to keep their attention.

There was another issue, possibly the most serious, that I feel really hurt my sales.  This one was two pronged- I was an unknown artist in the Kid's Section, surrounded mostly by artists who were either more established than myself, or had the backing of publishers.  The second part of this issue was a style one- I definitely had the most manga influenced style in the section, a style that usually requires people flipping through my book to understand where I'm going (full watercolor comic, highly inspired by children's book illustration, detailed illustrations).  I honestly feel like, despite not having an actual webcomic, I would've done much better upstairs in the webcomic section, surrounded by people whose work had much in common with mine.

General Con

While I was stuck in the Sauna, Joseph bopped all about TCAF, interviewing artists and taking lots of photos.  While we're still working on getting the interviews edited and uploaded, I can go ahead and share the photos he took here.

TCAF 2015

View of Alex and I from behind.

Saturday Evening

After the show ended on Saturday Evening, we joined the fantastic Comics Embassy at an all you can eat sushi restaurant


I woke up Sunday morning with a terrible migraine, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to sit in that extremely hot kid's section without throwing up if I couldn't get the migraine to subside.  Joseph and I sent Alex on ahead to watch the table, and Joseph went to buy me a bite to eat, so I could take some medicine.  Although the show opened at 10:00 AM, I didn't get there until a little past 11, as that's when my headache finally went away.

When we did get to TCAF, we found that the show was extremely crowded, the exception being the still hot as an oven Kids Section.  This was disheartening, and it seemed like many of my fellow exhibitors were struggling with the unseasonable heat that was magnified by the huge glass windows.  After getting set up and tabling for an hour, business was slow enough that I left Alex in charge again and went to actually check out the convention.  I brought with me lots of money, some of my marker review books, and wooden charms to distribute to artists I'm friends with, or whose work I admire.

Fans from the kids activity section to alleviate some of the heat

Midway through the day, Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman were moved to a less oven-like part of the convention, as the heat was making them sick.  This meant an empty table, so Kean Soo slid over and Alex and I took over the whole of our table. 

Joseph and I headed upstairs, to check out the webcomic section.  This section might have been a better fit for me than the Kid's Section- it had the half tables I had prepared for, rather than the weird HUGE and unwieldy half tables the Kids Section had, it was air conditioned, and I had much more in common stylistically with the artists in the webcomic section than most of the artists in the Kid's Section.  Because the webcomics section was more a more comfortable temperature, people seemed to be hanging around longer, browsing more, and spending more time chatting with the artists.  One of the things I was struggling with downstairs was engagement- it was so hot my brain was melting and I was constantly losing track of what I was saying, my customers were sweating and fatigued, it was just a bad situation.  Upstairs seemed to have a more pleasant arrangement, with air conditioning, fewer windows, and standard size tables.  I also felt more at home upstairs, as I was surrounded by the artists whose work I read, or friends I chatted with online, rather than feeling like a stranger downstairs.

Artist Interviews

As with most conventions we attend together, Joseph spent his time at the con interviewing artists.  This year, I invested in a nicer camcorder and microphone, as sound had been a major issue for us with past conventions.  Joseph managed to interview 10 total creators, with nine interviews, and you can check out the whole playlist here, or just start watching below.  If you're reading this review, I strongly suggest you check out these interviews, as they'll not only introduce you to artists you may not yet know, but Joseph always asks questions regarding the specific convention, as well as general conventions.  If you're thinking about tabling at TCAF, these are an excellent resource!

The Haul

Books bought at TCAF

Books bought at Little Island Comics.

After the Con

Once the convention closed to the public, breakdown began.  We really didn't have a lot of stuff, and we were almost sold out of sassy buttons and charms (the majority of my sales, honestly), so I sent Joseph to stand in line with the other comic artists and try to sell some copies of Kara to The Beguiling.  They offer a buyout program, which is GREAT if you're a big enough artist to be able to fill bulk book orders, and thus have access to lower per-book-purchase prices, much less great if you're like me, and printing through CreateSpace.  Although Joseph originally opted not to accept their offer of $6 per book, I sent him back to accept it, as finding distribution channels is worth the loss to me.

After the show ended and we'd sold some books, we met up with Studio KaiJu (Jen Xu and Kate Rhodes), Sparkler Monthly comic artists, fellow shoujo enthusiasts, and the creators of The Ring of Saturn as well as Mahou Josei Chimaka (two amazing series that were published by Sparkler Monthly and available to read if you purchase a subscription)  for some amazing dumplings at Mother Dumpling in Toronto's Chinatown.  They were also kind enough to allow us to interview them after dinner, which I'll be excited to share with you guys as soon as we've finished editing all the video.

On Monday morning, we had to catch a flight, but first we had to mail back some of my books.  The nearby FedEx was open 24 hours a day, so we scrambled to get there early so I could mail my books back.  Canada does not have media mail, so while it may have cost me $11 to mail 15 copies of 7" Kara, 10 copies of Another Year of Watercolor, and a hefty handful of my marker books, it cost me $50 to mail what I didn't sell back to myself in the States.  These books were marked as a return of merchandise

Hotel, total: $731.00
Flight: $367.47 per person
Food: About $50 per day x 4 days
Table Cost: $197.75 for a half table
Checked Bag: $25 each, $50 total
Mailing Costs: $12 Media Mail from US, $40 return
Total Costs: $1592.22

The Verdict

$400 entire weekend, which is far better than most of the indie cons I've done.  I sold 7 books but the majority of my sales were for charms, copies of Magical Girl March, or other anime-inspired/anime culture merchandise like Kawaiimasks or my coin purses.  While I'm happy to make the additional money, as TCAF was an expensive convention to attend, I sincerely wish my books had sold better, as that's the reason I attended.

I definitely feel like the heat of the Kid's Section (affectionately dubbed the Kid's Sauna by the ever witty Joseph) was a huge issue for me with TCAF.  Not only did the heat keep customers away, but it definitely deterred sales, and customers weren't comfortable hanging out in that room and flipping through new-to-them comics.  Everyone was sweating heavily the duration of the convention, especially during mid-day, when the sun beat through those huge windows, and the air circulation was absolutely nil.  Not only did the heat deter customers from browsing, but several artists, myself included, were suffering the effects of heat exhaustion- forgetting our words mid-sentence, having difficulty doing easy mental math (like transactions), general fatigue.  One of the pictures above showed the kids crafts section had fans, which was towards the end of the kids section, so I don't understand why, for the artists who are basically trapped behind their tables, we couldn't get some as well; especially considering how expensive half and full tables are.  I do understand it's important that the kids don't get overheated, but unlike the artists, they are mobile and can leave at any time without loss of money.  Page & Panel, the TCAF gift shop, did acknowledge the heat problem and gifted ice-cold water canteens for each artist behind a kid's section table Saturday afternoon, a particularly welcoming gesture as I forgot my water bottle and regularly filled the ones they supplied.

Another, far more minor but still important issue, is that there were tables placed across the entrance and exit of the already hard-to-find Kid's Section.  This not only made it difficult to see that there were more tables to visit, but

I'm not a very big artist.  I don't have a popular webcomic, I don't have a company publishing my work for me.  Every choice that gets made by Nattosoup Studio is made by me, and much of the capital I use for printing books, ordering new merchandise, or purchasing convention tables comes from attending and selling at other cons.  Perhaps these factors make conventions like TCAF a poor choice for me, but I also feel like the title 'indie' con is a misnomer.

For artists at my level, there are two reasons to table at a convention- sales or exposure.  If your convention, be it SPX, TCAF, or MoCCA relies on artists being able to afford their tables because they have the backing of a publisher or a dedicated webcomic audience, that isn't so 'indie' anymore.   If artists are losing money just getting to your show, they're already starting the con at a deficit, and that's a heavy weight to have over your head.  And if you can't help new artists get new eyes on their work, then the investment was mostly a waste of money. 

This isn't meant as an insult to those sort of conventions, but more of a warning to artists in my position--the travel, hotel, and table costs are prohibitively high if you don't live in the immediate area, or don't have friends in the immediate area.  Our fellow artists suggest that if we want to sell books, we need to be present at indie cons, but forget that many of us don't live in areas that really embrace comic culture, and that to attend these cons, we have to sacrifice a lot.  This means our stakes our higher- the convention has to count for more, and it also means that anything that goes wrong stings twice as much.  This is part of the reason I'm still doing so many anime conventions- I can almost always make my costs back, even if the con is a bad one.  This isn't true with indie comic cons.


You can see how freakishly large these tables really are.  The table cloth I usually use to go across a 6'-2.5' table (it's 3 yards of fabric) had to be used the long way just to go across the table.

My most loyal customer, obstruction. It was mostly inconsequential, except during the times the kids' section was busy and people would occasionally loiter by the poll, but not browse my table

Bye. I hope you enjoyed the recap. Let me hear your experiences in the comments.