MeCAF 2014 con report! & what I learned as a first-time exhibitor
Brief con report!
MeCAF 2014 was absolutely wonderful. I can’t say enough good things about the whole experience – I am still just filled with happy feelings from it. (I already can’t wait for next year.) MeCAF was in a new venue this year, and the con really benefited from this venue change. Everyone was in the same space and it was really energizing to be a part of it. I didn’t get to participate in the programming, given I had to be at my table, but it sounded really fantastic. And it has to be said that MeCAF brings in some really top-notch guests, which helps draw in the crowds.
There’s a really wide variety of comic artists that show at MeCAF, there really is something for everyone here. Webcomics, zines, superhero stories, horror, romance, autobiographical, historical, fantasy, scifi… as an attendee last year I really wanted to Buy All The Things and found this year I had the same temptation!
A huge congratulations and an even huger THANK YOU to Rick Lowell and the Casablanca Comics team in Portland, Maine for putting together such a smoothly run and organized show with such healthy turnout. They really care about comics and the comics community and it shows in everything they do. I’ve got happy warm fuzzies AND tons of motivation from Sunday.
And now, on to the bit about stuff that I learned!
What I learned as a first-time convention exhibitor (a.k.a. first time in artist’s alley!)
Blog-spammy alternate title: Nine Things I Learned From Working an Artist Alley Table For The First Time (oh boy, that’s inelegant)
This year’s MeCAF was *also* my first time exhibiting at a convention, so it was a serious learning experience for me, a classic “drinking out of a firehose” scenario. I have done booth duty at MANY a tradeshow in my life, and I’ve also been going to anime and comic cons for more than a decade, so I figured I’d sort of have an idea of how it’d all go? Wrong. I was so wrong. I took furious notes during the day but I’ll try to distill it all down.
1) Make use of vertical space — up AND down
This is classic advice you see a lot for first-time exhibitors, and it usually means “build up a skyscraper of prints over your table and crowd out everyone else.” I’ve always thought that is kind of overkill, but there’s certainly no harm in having vertical displays. I didn’t have much this year, partly because I didn’t want to invest too much in displays just yet.
But to me vertical space ALSO means taking advantage of the drapery in front of your table. Especially at a convention where you have a lot of kids walking around, it’s good to keep in mind that the drop cloth in front of your table is eye-height for those guys! So if you’re targeting them, it might be worth giving some thought to what you drape down in front of your table.
And for everyone else, going vertical on top of your table is a good way to go — I made the mistake of using sign holders that kept items purely perpendicular to the table, and not slightly angled. This made it hard to read (glare was also a concern). I was facing a window so this made it harder for people to glance at what I had on offer. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to browse and see what you’re doing, so I will definitely work on my display more for my next con.
2) Refine your elevator pitch, and then refine it some more
When someone asks “so what is _____ about?”, you’d better be able to describe it in a sentence, otherwise you’re going to lose people. The elevator pitch question is terrifying, but it’s also a huge opportunity! So I had worked on my pitch, and I was feeling good about it going in to the con, but I found out quickly that it wasn’t resonating with people. Ack! I kept adapting it, trying new ones. I’m not sure I’ve landed on something that’s rock-solid, but definitely make sure you’re going in with SOMETHING, and don’t be afraid to tweak it. I got some AWESOME feedback from people when I was trying my elevator pitch — folks reacted to what was working or what wasn’t. It’s information I never would have received if I hadn’t tabled at a con. That alone made the entire experience worth it for me.
3) Not everyone’s going to dig your work, and that’s okay
This one’s just a hard one that everyone learns eventually. Intellectually, you can go in to a con knowing that this is just a fact of life. But somehow having it happen to you over and over and over really drives it home. It’s not pleasant, but really almost nothing is universally appealing. So when someone sees your work, says, hello, and then keeps moving on, try your best to not let it get you down (much easier said than done). Honestly – a lot of people weren’t interested in my work. The cover has a woman in space looking at Earth — and while it’s a human interest story, it takes place in space for the most part and that alone is enough to turn a lot of people off. You can’t appeal to everyone. I really wish I could, but I know it’s not possible.
4) People don’t want to bother an artist who looks glum
If you look like someone just ran over your puppy, folks are going to avoid you. Sure, if you want to be more salesy and smile, smile, smile, it doesn’t hurt. But even if that’s not your style, definitely don’t sit there looking sour. You emit a really negative vibe and people are subconsciously going to avoid you. (Would YOU want to talk to someone who looks like they’re on the verge of ripping your head off? Didn’t think so.) It’s insanely hard to keep your spirits up when the con has been going on for a few hours and you’re tired AND feeling lousy because you haven’t sold anything. I know it is. I don’t have any advice on how to keep going aside from just try your best — if you need to, take a break, grab a water, try to push those negative feelings aside — it ain’t over ’til it’s over!
4a) Stand up as much as you can. I found that it was easy to feel glum when I was sitting down, so standing up forced me to be and FEEL more engaged. (This is why at business tradeshows you will never ever see any staff ever sitting down — you have to stand all day, for several days in a row — it just forces you to keep that energy up and engage with folks. It is exhausting, but it really does work!)
5) Make no assumptions about what is going to sell
I figured going into a dedicated Comic Arts Festival, especially one with such a well-known comics-friendly reputation like MeCAF, that I would have an easy time of selling my comic book. On a whim last week though, I made some quick prints of some illustrations I did, at the very least as a measure to make my table not look so empty. To my complete and utter surprise, while I did sell some of my comic book (yay!), my prints were quite popular! I sold more prints than I did comic books — at a comic book convention! Not at all what I expected! I am so glad I brought prints with me, though I certainly didn’t expect any of them to sell.
6) Make no assumptions about who is going to buy
Related to the above — I figured I knew who might be interested in my work. Know your target audience and all that. And, yes, I was roughly correct (which is nice, I guess), but I really could not make any assumption about who would buy. Some folks were more receptive to a hard sell than others, and some folks really, really, really, REALLY seemed interested and talked to me for a while, flipped through my work, even picked up a comic book and read it! They seemed like a sure thing! — aaaaaaaaand still they walked away. It happened a number of times. You can just never be sure.
7) If you can, try to make sure everyone leaves your table with something in their hands
Obviously, the ideal situation is that they leave your table with an item they purchased. Because, hooray! You’ve made a sale! But that’s not always possible, of course. I came to MeCAF with a ton of printed postcards with a few samples of my work as well as my social media, contact info, and my website. It’s a nice way for people to remember some of my work, or at least establish my name in their head. I probably handed out at least 100 of them just in one day alone. Most of them are going to get thrown out. And that’s okay. Generally, you an expect less than 2% of people to actually engage and follow-up with you, very roughly — but hey, that means 2 more people now know who I am than did before the con. You have to be willing to play the numbers game.
There are some old sales tricks that a lot of us know, like putting the product in the person’s hand will greatly increase the chance that they will buy it. So you have a reading copy of the book, or maybe you handed the book to the person so they can flip through. There are still no guarantees that the person will buy the book! You can be the greatest saleswoman/man in the world… sometimes people aren’t going to buy. But at least make sure they leave with a postcard or business card!
8) People are funny
Some folks will stand there for a solid 10 minutes, read your comic book from cover to cover, really enjoy it, and then when you ask if they’d like to buy it, they say no and walk away. Well, at least they enjoyed your work, right? Some folks are going to treat the convention like a library or a Book-Off, and there’s really not a ton you can do about it. (I suppose you could try to stop them mid-way between your book, but I really wouldn’t!)
I’ll tell you a little anecdote. I was the table RIGHT next to the amazingly delicious food stand at MeCAF. All day long I smelled some truly fantastic grilled cheese sandwiches being made, and the lines were often quite long. (I’m still not sure if being so close to the food helped me or hurt me — jury’s out on that one!) The price for one of those amazing sandwiches was $6. I priced my comic book at $5, which to me is about the going rate for a short-run indie comic about the length and quality of what I made.
Those sandwiches took maybe under 5 minutes to cook and cost a dollar more than my comic book, which took me months of very, very hard work. Granted, you can’t eat my comic book, or at least I don’t recommend it. But the value of a work that took months to create was a harder sell with some people than an admittedly-delicious sandwich. At its core, people expect comics to be suuuper cheap and for the most part, you have to really demonstrate the value of what you’ve done…. otherwise, you’re essentially competing with a grilled cheese sandwich.
You can’t take personally when someone would see my work and go “I don’t have the money for this” and then get in line for food. People need to eat! And, honestly, I’ve been there. If you’re not convinced the book is really for you, you’re just not, that’s okay. I either haven’t done my job in selling it to you (that means I have more work to do) or it’s not your thing, and see point number three.
9) Celebrate. Every. Win.
Talked to someone? That’s a win. Got a postcard into someone’s hands? That’s a win. Made a sale!?! That’s a SUPER win!
It would be really easy to not see the forest through the trees — oh, I didn’t sell X amount of something, or I didn’t do as well as I thought on Y, or nobody asked me about Z. Because I definitely went in to the con with goals like that in my head (I tried not to… but I really think it’s human nature). We all want to know at the end of a con: How did I do? Did I succeed? There’s a time and place for that kind of thinking, but I firmly believe that is NOT when you are just starting out! You have to be a bit pollyanna at this stage. Every new interaction is a win. Every time you get your name out there, there’s a chance that person will remember you next year, spread the word, get you some new fans, etc etc.
Everything helps everything. When you go home from the con, you can feel good knowing that more people know about you now than did before the con, and that’s really what you want.
MeCAF was awesome for so many reasons, but the fact that I was sharing a table with the absolutely amazing Scott Springer of Angry Faerie and that I got to see a lot of friends in the comics world — and make new ones!! — is really what it’s all about.
Were you at MeCAF? Did we meet? I’d love to hear from you!
Would love to hear your thoughts on my first-timer observations – especially from those of you who have done many cons before.
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