Thursday, August 09, 2018

How You'll Know It's Time To Pull The Plug on Conventions

I always said I would stop doing conventions by 30.  I figured that was plenty of time to build an audience, to prove I'm capable of fulfilling promises, to earn a little money, to pay my dues.  From twenty-five to thirty, five years of doing seven to ten conventions a year, of varying sizes, should be enough, and by thirty, I would have a publishing deal, right?  Or at least, steady work.

I turned 32 in March.  This year, I've done at least five shows, haven't been home longer than four days in two months, and honestly, this is me trying to cut back.   I did MTAC in March, Imaginacon in May, ALAAC in June, Destrehan Comic Con and Mechacon in July.  I've gone from Nashville to New Orleans to Nashville to New Orleans and back again, and spend what little downtime I have trying to play catch up on my real life.

Some years, I do a show a month during the summer months.  Some years, I do a show a week during the summer, and a show a month the rest of the year.  I've done conventions across the US, from SPX to APE, from Otakon to Anime Expo.  I've met thousands of people, filled hundreds of commissions.  I've sold hundreds of books, and have led dozens of workshops.  I've even celebrated the four year anniversary of How to Be a Con Artist.  And looking back, I have very little to show for my time.

I never wanted conventions to become my full-time job.  But somewhere in 2015, I became increasingly reliant on them.  My freelance dried up.  Anthology gigs became more competitive.  I had a self-published book out, and I justified living on the road as promoting the comic.  I needed the money, and I thought doing more conventions would help me impress art directors looking to hire. I thought putting myself out there would help me find a more permanent job.

Anime conventions, at least on the East Coast, and certainly in the South, do not lead to paying job opportunities.

But the money was decent.  I was at the $1.5k a show range, for larger shows, and as long as I drove and did room shares, the profits were equitable with the work.

Until my convention partners moved away, and I stopped making the drive.  I started flying for shows and paying family to help assist- which is never the price of one person, but the price of three for the work of one.  And by 2016, convention profits had massively dipped, while the price of everything continued to rise.

The money just wasn't right, but I blamed myself.  Just not drawing the right things.  Just not advertising enough.  If I just tried harder and hit upon the right combination, things were sure to look up.

So I continued doing conventions and continued to feel more run down and confused.  I took on more commissions than I wanted to handle, topping out at 40 mail-in's in 2017.  This took me six months to complete and completely wrecked my Volume 2 schedule.  And the money was gone in a flash- vet bills, car insurance, the cost to attend a friend's wedding more than consumed what I'd sold- there was nothing for savings.

But some losses hit harder than financial woes.  And some sacrifices sting for years to come.

Constantly chasing my own tail, skipping out on sleep, self-care, and self-worth, took a toll on my mental health.  Conventions have a way of making odd ducks feel never quite good enough, and years of this grind hit me hard in 2016.  I spiraled into depression hard, and it manifested not only with suicidal ideation (I just wanted to not exist) but constantly fantasizing about being anyone else but Becca Hillburn/Nattosoup.  I tried to scramble for a better work situation- sending out portfolios to literary agents (most of whom were not interested in handling graphic novels at that time and were certainly not interested in representing my art style), filling out job applications for anything in Nashville that might be suitable.  Unfortunately, the self-employed, convention artist, customer service rep life doesn't leave much of a traceable work history, and when filling out applications online, you may find it difficult to get callbacks for even entry-level CSR positions.  Who knew working yourself to the bone could leave you with no real work history?

I often think about all I have missed out on, living on the road.  Weddings.  Birthdays.  Anniversaries.  I missed my own 9 year anniversary this year, because I was in Louisiana, miserable at Mechacon.  When you're young, you think its ok to miss one or two- there'll be plenty more to come, but they add up.  I have only spent four of the nine anniversaries I've shared with Joseph actually WITH Joseph- most were spent with strangers at conventions, trying to make a sale.  And as I prepare to move on to the next phase of my life, I absolutely refuse to do this to a child. 

To an extent, I even feel conventions have been antithetical to my goals.  It's hard to paint comic pages when you're in and out of your home studio, hard to prioritize time when you're always distracted, stressed out, tired, and just trying to get your life back together.  Travel for conventions is disruptive, and living paycheck to paycheck via small commissions makes it impossible to plan for larger things.  For a time, too long a time, I thought conventions were necessary- I lack the online presence and personality to really make a name for myself- but now I know I'm just another nameless vendor, a pencil for hire indistinguishable from the other pencils for hire.  The time spent at conventions would have been better spent on comic pages- at least I would have something to show for it.

And in a way, that's ok.  It's disappointing to have sunk so many years into chasing an audience that never materialized, into chasing a dollar that never paid rent, but this realization gives me permission to stop.  I've done my time, and if conventions don't help me pursue my goals OR pay my rent, it's time to stop.

Most longterm convention artists speak only fondly of their experiences, at least in public.  They talk about the friends they've made, the lifelong customers they've impressed, maybe the audience they've built.  They joke about the bad cons, and are quietly proud of the good, but rarely do they caution other artists not to follow in their footsteps.  Why should they- we equate ability with financial success in this industry, and if you admit that conventions aren't worthwhile, that the con life isn't fulfilling, other artists immediately assume you're doing something, maybe everything, wrong.  After all, if you were any good, you'd be making bank, right? 

For younger artists to admit that perhaps this life holds unexpected quirks, deep disappointments, and often financial failure means to admit they don't have control over every aspect of their career.  TO acknowledge that audience can be fickle, the economy can be against you, and that you might have every skill someone could possibly want, and still be found lacking, is to admit that the odds ar against them.  And few artists really want to face the odds, especially not young, inexperienced artists who don't even know what the odds are.  It's easier to just assume the artist who admits failure and defeat IS a failure- is lacking in every way you aren't- so you can pursue your dreams with the necessary hubris.

But I at least want to put out a warning- that eventually the convention life loses it's freshness, becomes wearisome, and you really need to have something else planned or prepared for that time.  There's a reason you see few older women selling art at anime conventions, and it's not because they quit drawing.  It's because the convention life wears you out, eats you up, uses you, and if you can't keep it in moderation, it will eventually force you to quit.

This isn't the death warrant on conventions, as much as it sounds like a damning condemnation.  As long as I'm self-published, conventions are the best method for promoting and selling my book to new readers.  It's only a warning that conventions will not solve your artistic woes longterm- it's not a permanent solution to a bad situation.  Conventions might help sell your books, but they won't make it easy to draw them.  Conventions might help you meet new people, but its no easier to grow an audience through conventions than it is to grow one online.  And conventions might be work, but the opportunities that seem to appear at the show often wither quickly afterwards.  Basically, consider conventions as a tool, not as a solution, and don't become reliant on the income.