OK, comicsphere, we need to talk about conventions. This convention hubbub that’s flared up in the last week or so is a fairly complex one. Just for the sake of the arguments that are still going on, let’s break this down into the individual issues that are affecting creators that are exhibiting at comics shows.
Issue #1 – CCINO
Yes, I’m borrowing from political rhetoric. “Comic Conventions In Name Only.” Ever been to an alleged comic convention that had little-to-zero comics programming, few (if any) comics publishers exhibiting and pretty much all the comics content was artists alley and anyone selling comics in the dealers area?
Alas, I’m old enough to have gone to the old Chicago Comicon prior to Wizard buying it. I’ve seen it go from a comics-first show that would have the odd (and quite popular) Babylon 5 or Kevin Smith panel to the current celebrity autograph show-driven event. I never attended a Creation convention, but based on how people described those, I’m tempted to call Wizard’s Chicago edition a Creation show with an artists’ alley. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your perspective. That Wizard show in Chicago looked viable under the heavy autograph emphasis the last time I was at one, but that’s been three or four years back.
If you are an artist exhibiting at a convention (or a writer, for that matter), it is not a horrible idea to have some product that ties in with the theme of the headliners. If it’s Star Trek and Doctor Who as the top billed guests, you’re probably going to have a lot of people shuffling through looking for Star Trek, Doctor Who and perhaps some general science fiction/fantasy material.
Oh, you’ll still get a few people showing up for comics specifically, but I’m under the (third-hand) impression that number is starting to drop off as the prices go up.
If this sort of a “comic convention” isn’t working out for you, there’s no law that says you need to go to this type of convention. Certainly there are enough of them out there. Some people do quite well at this sort of show.
I was on a comics trivia panel at the Chicago convention (that Wizard bought) from either ’96 or ’97 until something like 2009. I think we were the last comics panel towards the end and every year, we weren’t sure if the panel was going to be accepted. We moved it over to C2E2, a more comics-centric show, when it showed up in 2010 and I don’t recall hearing about Wizard asking to bring an edition back.
There’s nothing wrong with picking and choosing which convention you get a table at based on programming and the crowd attending.
Issue #2 – Conventions as a Social Event vs. Buying Event
This one’s also been brewing for a while, but whereas it used to be conventions were the easiest place to pick up your back issues, mail order has come a loooooooooong way since e-Commerce kicked in. The thing is if you’ve picked your convention right, that social component ought to include connecting with creators. For the dealer room, well… you better have a good sense for what that crowd is looking to buy.
Are there more cosplayers than there used to be? Probably. The average costume is definitely better than it used to be. Is there a certain percentage of cosplayers who show up so they can be seen in costume and that’s the primary reason they’re there? Yes. Not all of them, but a few. This is part of the shift towards conventions as more of a social experience. And guess what? They paid their money and they get to come to the show.
The cosplayers aren’t the only people who come to the show for social reasons, though. They’re just a type of attendee that’s easier to spot. Plenty of people in street clothes are there to take in the sights and buying something isn’t necessarily their first priority.
Issue #3 – Are there too many conventions?
Again, that depends on your definition and whether you want to be emulating the schedule of a band on tour. There’s more comic-labelled conventions than there ever have been before. Last Sunday in Iowa, you could go to a small show in Iowa City and see Phil Hester or go to a small show in Davenport and see Mike Grell. The two shows were roughly an hour’s drive apart, with a combined population in the metro areas of just a shade over 700,000. Now, we’re talking very small shows here, but that’s the extent to which the convention space is getting over-crowded and regional shows are popping up all over the place.
This gives the creators a choice of where they want to go. You don’t have to go to every show and you have the option of trying to be the big fish in the small pond or hitting a larger show. A lot of people swear by the smaller, regional shows as a better way to get noticed. Then again, you do need a certain baseline level of attendance.
It does mean there’s room for regional conventions to develop a personality. MOCCA, SPX and Heroes Con are all cons that come to mind as having a personality, where you might know whether you fit the demographics or not.
I don’t have evidence, but I suspect a CCINO in a region with no other conventions is going to get the comics exhibitor a better response than a CCINO in a region that has a more comics-centric show.
Again, this falls under the category of know where you’re going. However, since there’s so many conventions, everybody can’t be at all the medium-sized shows and there absolutely is opportunity in spreading it around a little.
Issue #4 – What have you been doing lately?
OK, this is a touchy subject. If you’re not currently working, that raises a couple questions from a convention exhibition standpoint. First off, what do you have to sell that an existing fan doesn’t already have? Particularly something with a moderate price point. Original art is a little too expensive to be an impulse buy like a comic, tpb or print can be. What’s your name recognition level at right now? If it’s dipping, you’re going to have to work a little harder.
Let’s be honest. Comics as an industry has a problem with sending creators out to pasture at early ages. After a couple years out of the spotlight, it’s not always as easy sailing at conventions. It’s probably a good idea to be working on something new or new-ish you can show off. It’s not that difficult to have some comics online and Print On Demand is getting better all the time. If you have the mailing list/social media followers, Kickstarter works for a lot of people. Don’t be a slave to publishers when it comes to your own profile, take ownership.
Issue #5 – Table factors
There are some things you can’t control. Is your booth/table in a prime spot? A spot with low traffic or in a place where people are walking through primarily on their way somewhere else and not interested in stopping can be a killer. Is your table next to the obnoxious or creepy guy people are veering out of their way to avoid? Not much you can do about those things. You can, however, work on your display and your interaction skills. And if you’re not a name talent, that display and your interactions are what are going to make or break the show for you, more than anything else.
In any given instance, you could have all five issues in play at the same time. I’d say a lot of conversation is about knowing your audience and figuring out which show they’re going to be at.
The thing that’s confounding people about all the media guests is a two-edged sword. Media guests absolutely do draw a wider range of people. It gets the guest count up for the show and it sells tickets. We probably wouldn’t have as many regional shows if it weren’t for the media guests. That draw is factor and it’s unlikely to go away any time soon.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.