Heroes Con 2014. Photo taken by Alex Añé
Heroes Con 2014. Photo taken by Alex Añé

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.

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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.

15 COMMENTS

  1. “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….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.”

    That’s it in a nutshell.

    Know your audience, know your market, always be hustling, and pay attention to your ROIs–And *don’t blame potential customers if you’re not making money.*

  2. There is also the issue of the amount of money that conventions are charging for tables. $200 for artist alley and $400 on up for exhibitor tables for a small con with maybe 10k attendees? Double those prices for larger cons. Kinda tough to make a go of it as a creator (especially a new creator) when you add those costs on to food, travel, and accommodation.

  3. THANK YOU for spelling this out.

    And these are great questions to ponder. Every creator should know their market. Iv’e been learning these lessons the hard way. However, there is something to be said for the creator who works (and pays) hard to build a new audience from the unexpected crowd. This is what I would call putting money in yourself. It’s money burned, I admit. It’s a loss leader. It is a hard role to play. I don’t recommend it — however, there are some who do it — and in weird small ways they build their name and make connections that others with a narrow focus would miss.

    There is no magic bullet with a one-size fits all. I’ve spent thousands of dollars. I don’t mean just a couple of thousand, I mean like seriously large numbers. As a self-employed business I can write some of these things off (for so many years), so on one hand it pays (in the long run) to invest in yourself. However, it is an expensive game to play. There are some high rollers who pay for their next year table on the last day of the convention. I never had power like that. But don’t get me wrong, I LOVE going to conventions. Small ones, big ones, whatever. But.. as noted above, today is a different world for comic conventions. Folks need to pick their battles.

  4. i no longer go to the Chicago show due to the overcrowded conditions. Alspy paying for photos and greets are just a cattle call rip off. Keep in mind due to the time lag the stars can not sign the just taken up charged for phot. Also you get 60 seconds with the stars.
    Just moo and oink

  5. I think #3 and #4 have the potential to cancel each other out. It’s true that there really are too many conventions now. The market is saturated and what tends to happen is that we get the same people showing up every year. If Dave Dorman (used because it’s his story that kicked this whole thing off) goes to Wizard World Chicago every year because it’s near his home, he’s trying to sell the same product to virtually the same audience every year.

    But too many conventions also creates opportunity for creators to meet new fans in new locations who haven’t had the opportunity to buy their work before. There are fans who travel to cons but for the most part, I think we tend to stick with the cons in our regions, especially in this economy. Making yourself less available, increases the desire people have to meet you and buy your work. Even though Chicago might be just a few miles away, setting up a table there every year isn’t doing you any favors. There are so many cons now, that you can travel to pretty much any part of the country to meet and make new fans.

  6. This is a great breakdown of the various issues that can and should be part and parcel of this discussion. I confess that of these, I’m very curious about #2. The idea that what convention-goers want to get out of convention-going has shifted is fascinating, and certainly dovetails with a lot of thinking in the world today about “experiential entertainment.” Also, #2 is the aspect that seems to most directly speak to convention-goers’ (i.e. customers’) wants, which strikes me as fundamental insight to be gained. I wish there were some good data around what con-goers *do* at a convention to help scratch into that aspect. But regardless, identifying all these sub-issues to the conversation is a great thing.

  7. All these points are valid and in a way, no brainers really. I mean, if your work caters to a superhero audience you’d probably do better at a con that uses superhero character images in their promos and adverts rather than an SPX or MOCCA which caters to a more personal/independent (for want of a better word) audience. I mean, much like most things in life, it just comes down to common sense.And speaking of common sense…

    If this piece was sparked by the recent article by Dorman I would like to address the Cosplay aspect which you touch upon. I was at a small show outside Philadelphia this weekend (Retro Con) visiting some artist friends who were exhibiting their work. Now this was a tiny show but I saw three instances with a 15 minute time span where cosplayers would stop in the middle of aisles, clogging up the traffic, blocking booths, to pose for pictures. Now, common sense would say, if you want to pose for pictures or take pictures, wouldn’t it serve everyone better if you’d move out of the aisle, go over against a wall well out of traffic and pose for as many pics as possible?

    Too many people it seems are so caught up in their world, their sense of entitlement that they either don’t bother thinking of others in the show or just don’t care. It’s the rudeness of some that have painted a bad image of others.

  8. Then perhaps… the best solution is for the pro artists to dress up in cosplay and get the attention of those people in the aisles. Haha! It might get to the point where “con wars” are less about competition among events and more of a war *within* the event among the attendees. Battle Royal in Artist Alley, hahah!

  9. I’ve been going to cons since 1980, so I’ve seen it all. It is true that many CCINO are catering to media guests and their fans. It’s true that there are more cosplayers than ever, but there were always cosplayers. It’s also a factor that as a creator ages and/or their property/title ages or goes out of print, they will simply draw less people. I’ve seen it happen over and over again, before the Hollywoodization of comic cons ever happened. I think cons will, hopefully, fall into two different tracks. One track will be the media event and the other will be the (smaller) comics event. As creators, we need to recognize the changes and go with the flow to help this two-track system to flourish and grow. As long as some cons don’t become too hungry for media event attendance, we can do this. We are an inclusive group of weirdos who should band together and welcome all sorts. That’s the bottom line. And creators need to pick and choose; that’s the bottom line for them.

  10. FWIW, I go down to New Orleans Comic Con. I want to dig through cheap comics boxes (which arguably I had a harder time finding last year) and look for some comics art but I also want to get my picture taken with Stephen Amell (“Arrow”). Neither would be enough to get me to drive down on its own, only the opportunity to do all of those in the same weekend. I would suggest that the events (media and comics) could be separated but I’m not sure which would get the cosplayers, since they are usually dressed as comics characters…

  11. I’m not sure why anyone would complain about the growth of the cons. It creates more opportunities to find new fans, it gives you more choices of where to spend your travel dollars, and you get to choose where you will go. The fans all dream of San Diego or now, New York, Atlanta, Seattle and they may actually make the trek once in their life time. But to have a smaller regional show within an hour or two drive is a lot more realistic. This past weekend I did a workshop at the Wildcat Comic Con here in Williamsport PA and talked with fans who have mapped out their plans for the next year to hit shows in Baltimore, Philly, Penn State…all of them seemed to have at least 4 shows on their agenda.
    If you are afraid of losing money on table space then bust your ass and promote your work. Use social media to let people know where you are headed in 6 weeks, 4 weeks, next week. Self promotion is a huge necessity. More cons mean more artists for you to compete with and it also means more opportunities.
    So fret not over the growing number of cons dear friend, fret instead over your marketing efforts!

  12. Comic Con could be more event oriented. When we went to Wizard con in Chicago they screen the pilot for Gotham, and we did some speed dating. At San Diego comic con we saw panels promoting movies and the trailers to go with them. I think that is the essence of Comic Con, there is all sorts of stuff there, it’s not a flea market.

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