For this first installment of my “How to promote…” series I’ll be addressing one of the most common (and most misunderstood) aspects of the promotion game –conventions. With any luck I’ll help you not only get the most out of your convention experience, but also make it profitable. Yes, profitable. There is no reason conventions have to be a monetary sinkhole that creators must toss money into to get noticed. If you are willing to put in the work (and do a little math) you can almost always leave the convention hall with more money than you arrived with. For those who have not read it yet, this is a follow-up to my previous article, “So You Want To Publish A Graphic novel…” which you can read here: http://joshfinney.com/so-you-want-to-publish-a-graphic-novel/
Before I proceed, though, I need to give credit where credit is due. Much of (if not most of) the economic info in this article was supplied by Kat Rocha, my lovely partner in crime. She is definitely the financial mind between us, and deserves the credit for making our convention tours financially successful.
Why exhibit at a convention?
It’s amazing how many creators dive into the convention experience without first asking themselves this question. If you don’t have a focused goal of what you want out of a con, the odds you’ll achieve anything (aside from hanging out and having a good time) is pretty slim. Here are my top three reasons for exhibiting:
1. Reaching new readers.
2. Networking with fans, friends, and professionals.
If none of these are important to you, stop reading now. There is nothing in this article for you to benefit from. On the other hand, if these three points do interest you, here’s what you need to know…
Venue is everything.
Above all, your success hinges on choosing the right convention for you. I cannot stress this enough. You can do absolutely everything else right, but if you set up shop in the wrong venue, you will fail. Miserably. A great example of this is when Kat and I exhibited at Super Show 2011. On the surface this con had everything going for it –great press, great fan support, major talent in attendance to increase the draw. The con even had the biggest comic podcast at the time talking almost daily about it. Sadly, Super Show was less than super. In fact, it sucked dead horse cock. What went wrong? Location. Location. Location. The inbred locals of Redding, PA didn’t take kindly to us freaks and geeks rolling into their quite little town. Even worse, the convention center had scheduled a gun show that same weekend. Talk about a bad mix! All weekend hairy gun toting Neanderthals with teeth like Indian corn were harassing the shit out of kids headed to Supershow, going so far as chasing con-goers out of the parking lot, telling people the show had been canceled, even ripping down the signs for Super Show. Oh yeah, they also didn’t take kindly to anyone of a darker skin color. Clearly Redding, PA is NOT a friendly venue for reading audiences. Nor is it a good place to hold a comics convention. Conversely, San Francisco’s WonderCon and Anime Expo in Los Angeles have both been consistently great shows for Kat and I.
The first step to picking a good con is to be acutely aware of who your potential audience is. Once you have an idea of who would be interested in your book, you can start seeking out conventions that draw that particular crowd. Conventions (and cities) have their own individual flavor. A convention in LA is going to be very high-energy, with a lot of focus on flashy art and movie cross-over potential, where as a New York con is going to attract more of a story-hungry audience. If you haven’t attended many conventions, you may want to spend a year hitting the con circuit as a visitor first to get a feel for which ones are best for you. Also, TALK to fellow creators. Share information. Frankly, it shocks me that new talent needs to be told this, but apparently you do. So take from me, the grumpy veteran writer guy, start fucking talking to fellow creators, damn it! Do it now! This is one of your best resources.
And since we’re on the subject of talking…
If you want to succeed at a convention, you’re going to have to TALK to people. I’m sorry if you’re shy, modest, moody, or are like me and just hate everyone…there’s no way around this. The whole point of the convention environment is to bring masses of people together for the purposes of exposure, sales, and socializing. All too often I see creators behind their booths, there noses pushed into a sketch book with that “I’m too cool to talk to the likes of you” emo art school vibe going. If that’s you, change your tune. Now. Seriously. Lighten up, or I will come to your booth and personally smack the twenty piercing off your smug face. People come to a con for a good time, damn it. If you look unapproachable, trust me, no one will approach you. There’s kind of a simple logic there, if you think about it. But even worse than the art school snob, is the “buy something or I’ll starve” routine. Or its more pathetic permutation, the “kicked puppy” routine. Both make people extremely uncomfortable and are sure fire ways to make them avoid you.
Like I said, people generally come to a convention to have a good time. At your booth you need to be upbeat, interesting, approachable, and polite…although, my own con behavior tends to challenge that last one a bit. When a potential reader comes to your table you need to be the author/artist/creative genius who created that graphic novel they’re interested in. Show that you are passionate about your work. Be willing to talk about how you created the book, or what drove you to write that story. Every person who flips through your stuff is a potential fan. Treat them as such. And even if they don’t buy the book, you are still making an impression. The more people who know about you and your work, the more people will continue to talk about you and what you do.
While you’re at your booth remember the following:
1) Make eye contact with everyone who approaches you.
2) Be approachable. Smile.
3) Invite people to pick up your book and flip through it. It’s amazing how many people won’t actually look at a book unless you tell them it’s okay first.
4) Don’t be pushy. No one likes the feeling that they are being pushed into buying something. Sure, being pushy can result in a bump in short-term sales. But it will hurt your good will with fans in the long term.
Now I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Yeah, this sounds nice, but we all know the truth. Some cons are festering stink pits crawling with asshole fanboys who live to make your life hell.” True. That’s why I live by Dalton’s Rule: “Be nice. Be nice until it’s time not to be nice.” Ask around. There’s enough stories floating around the internet about when Josh Finney told somebody to “Eat a dick.”
Probably the most elusive aspect of con culture is the art of presentation. How do you present yourself? How do you present you booth? How do you present you book? Ultimately these are questions only you can answer, but here’s what I can offer to help you along the way…
Whenever you enter a convention environment as a professional you need to project that image at all times. Even if you are not exhibiting this matters. Every person you meet could be a potential fan, fellow creator, or even job opportunity waiting to happen. You need to dress the part, act the part, and most importantly, live the part. You absolutely DO NOT want to be just another slob in a t-shirt and jeans with a portfolio under your arm. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, wants to talk to that guy. That said, that doesn’t mean dress stiff or wear a suit…unless that’s the image you’re going for. Whether you’re the edgy, hard drinking bad ass covered in tattoos, or the aging Harry Potter look-a-like, what matters is you present yourself to others as a creator. Just don’t dress as Pikachu and expect to be taken seriously.
This one is going to be a bit more difficult. Expect a lot of trial and error before hiting on a booth presentation that works for you. Ideally you want to present your booth in a manner that is easily accessible and pleasing to the eye. You want people to know exactly what it is you are promoting on sight. If they have to stop and ponder what you’re all about, you’ve failed. It’s also best to avoid clutter. If your booth/table even remotely looks like a flea market people will assume you are a vendor and not talent. Also a good display is vital. It can be a hanging sign or a PVC back drop, either works. What is important though is that it bares a striking image that can be seen from a distance. You want something that will make your booth stand out from the barrage of images that blast con goes as they walk the aisles. Another item to invest in is professional-style display stands for your book This goes a long way in giving people the impression that you are serious.
Pricing & Selling Product.
Okay. So you’ve got a soon-to-be-fan at your booth, they love your book, and it’s time to make a sell. So how much should you charge? The obvious answer is, “A reasonable price that allows you to still make a profit.” Ideally, you want your sell price to be at least three times the manufacturing cost. So if your graphic novel costs $5 per unit to produce, you sell it for $15. Sometimes markets and manufacturing costs do not allow for this price point, so adjust accordingly. But as a rule of thumb, never price an item lower than less than double the manufacturing cost. If the gross profits for your book are not at least two-to-one against the printing costs, then consider a new means of manufacturing. Otherwise you are not going to make a sustainable profit.
Yet that is only half the equation. Nothing kills a con sale faster than a ridiculously priced book. If the average price of a 120 page B&W graphic novel is $12 (which it is), it’ll be a cold day in hell before you sell yours for $25. Yet artist alley is plagued with young creators expecting people to pay two to three time the average price for their a crappy little Kinkos photocopied book. Keep in mind that until you are a known quantity, people are taking a risk on you. Respect your audience and their wallet. If you’re asking for $25, they better get $25 worth of content. How do you get books printed at a reasonable price? Give it time. I’ll do an article on it. For now I’m still talking about making conventions profitable. Speaking of which…
Overall Cost vs. Profit
Of all the things creators overlook when exibiting this is by far the worst offense. This is why you hear so many of them complain, “There’s no money in this” or “It’s an expensive hobby, not a real job.” I call bullshit. For these people it is an expensive hobby because they don’t treat it as a real job. If you want to make money at a convention you’ve got to run it like a real business and that means weighing the overall cost vs. potential profit. And yes, I’m sorry, but this does require delving in to such “dreaded hells” as basic math and record keeping. Deal with it.
So, when considering a convention you need to determine how much its cost overall will be. This includes…
* Travel (plane, gas, parking, car rental)
* Table/booth fee
* Shipping of product/materials
All of this needs to be factored in. Figure out how much will this con cost you. Be aware of how many sales you need to make to break even. Then set a goal. For example, lets say you do a three day show that is close enough to your house that you can drive there, but too far away for you to sleep at home. This means you need a hotel ($250) and gas($30). Luckily your hotel provides free parking and it’s close enough that you can walk to the convention every day. You paid $200 for your table for the weekend and you found a local grocery store so that saved you money on food ($150). This brings your total cost of the show to $630. This means you must make at least $630 in order for you to break even and start making money. Next question, do you even have enough product to make $630 worth of sales? If not, you need to either print more books, or broaden your range of products. Or perhaps you can cut cost by sharing a booth with a friend. This is often helpful because it gives you an opportunity to meet their fans and make further sales. Another way is by beefing up your sales numbers with ancillary merchandise to go along with your book. Stickers, print arts, magnets, and t-shirts are all quite common. The production cost versus sale price stuff mentioned above for books applies to these in the same way.
READ IT FREE! You can read a rough version of Utopiates free online here: [Link]
Or read it on the iPad here: [link]