What I Learned in Comics: Rethinking Conventions
(Pledgemaster Tony D pimping Super Frat at Chicago Wizard World)
Hey Factory Fans!
Welcome to a new semi-regular column here at the factory where we share some of the wisdom we’ve accumulated over the years in the comic book/webcomic biz. For this column, I’d like to talk to you about comic book conventions.
Yours truly was quite the con participant over the last 15 years or so. At my peak, I did 35 conventions and/or appearances in a year. That’s about 3 a month, although it felt like every other day! (I missed a lot of Simpsons episodes that year. Thank God for Hulu!)
Most conventions are a blast. Even the weakest ones that don’t have a party will at least have a get-together with fellow creators. It’s an opportunity to network, catch up, exchange war stories or just geek-out with the like-minded. Over the years, I had worked my ass off to sell my self-published comics along with whatever my current publisher was trying to sell. I’d make some money, but as a writer, not much, and I’d count breaking even as a victory for my comic’s exposure and that of my illustrious writing career.
As I made the transition from print to webcomics, I began to notice the inevitable. Fans didn’t need conventions for the same reasons anymore. Before the Internet, conventions were the only way a fan could interact with you face to face. But with the advent of message boards, emails and comments sections of the blog, interaction could be daily and up-to-the-minute.
The Fan Quote
One fan’s comment had always stuck with me back in my print days. I was at a convention, a pretty good one for me. There were enough comics in the room to bring in comic fans, but I was one of only a handful of creators with serious-looking product. But it had been the fourth or fifth time I had done this show and I couldn’t understand why the local comic shops still didn’t carry my book. Then I started asking fans, “Hey, where do you buy my comic?” One of the fans got this incredulous look on his face, like I was asking a weird question and he responded. “You. I buy them from you.” When I prodded further and said something like, “Wouldn’t it be easier for you to buy them at a shop?” He shook his head and said, “No, I don’t go to those places. I know you’re here every year.”
That was the beginning of the end of me doing every convention within driving distance. I realized then that doing a convention once might be worth it, but twice, not really.
Things really came into focus at this year’s NYCC. I got a badge, but not a table. A friend of mine was having a wedding reception in New York, so I decided to forgo the con table and just swing by with my pro badge and network a little. In the 15 or so years I had been doing conventions, I never really attended one on the other side of the table.
The different perspective threw me somewhat. As the world’s most impatient human being, the displays in artists’ alley were jumbled. I was there to buy comics for my monthly review column and too many of the attendees were artists with little or no product or just guys offering to do sketches for money.
The place was packed so tight, I could barely move. And when I got to a crowded table, I tended to avoid it. I told myself I’d comeback, but I didn’t really have the time or a sharp enough memory to remember each table that was packed. So a thought occurred to me:
A convention of that size could never be financially viable for a small publisher like myself. I crunched the numbers in my head like this:
With the press of people in NYCC, you’d be lucky to talk and sell to a fan in under three minutes. Very lucky. Let’s say I am amazing and I can do just that. Add up all the hours over three days and you get 22 hours. One fan every three minutes is 20 an hour or 440 fans IF I’m lucky.
But realistically, I have to eat lunch and go to the bathroom at some point. So on two of the big days, I’d have to carve out a total of maybe an hour. that’s 420 fans. Some fans like to talk and talk and if they’re your fan, you can’t just brush them off. So let’s average out the 3 minutes to five. That’s 12 an hour times 21 hours is 252. The last two hours of the show, people start to pack up and if I’m in a row and everyone around me leaves, that really slow things down, so eliminate the last two hours. That’s 228 fans. And the mornings are slow too. Even in a place like the Javitz Center, it will take the fans a while to make it to Artists Alley and most will just look in the first half hour. That drops it to about 210 fans. And then you have “fans” who aren’t really your fan. Maybe your pitch sounded good initially, but they change their mind and leave your table promising to come back. Let’s just call it an even 200.
(Tony D signing books at the San Diego Comicon)
So if I do a big convention in New York, about the best I can hope for is to sell to 200 fans. At $5 a pop, that’s $1000. I have done this exactly ONCE in my 15 or so years selling comics. (Chicago Wizard World 2009 and that’s with some product that wasn’t even mine.) My second best show was Pittsburgh, 1999 I think. New Dimension Comics bought out my table at the end of the show. Back then, my comics were more like $2 and $3 and, of course, they got a discount on the 100 or so books they bought. Combine that with the books I sold to fans over three days and it was about 200 books total. Cashwise, it worked out to something like $375 gross.
But those numbers were gross profits. I had to get a plane ticket to Chicago ($400 because I booked late), ship the books via UPS (around $110), hotel for three days ($325 or so), food ($150) and incidentals. Plus, I had to split some of that money with my publisher and other creators. After that, it was all gone.
“Goodbye money!! Nice knowing you!” (Tony D on the con floor.)
Pittsburgh was even worse because back then I had a rule that I bought artists food too. So my food costs were double, but then reduced slightly because Pittsburgh buys you lunch. Instead of a plane ticket, I drove or rented a car or rode with an artist. Either way, I was on the hook for gas. Bottom line, all the money was gone before I even got home. My two best conventions, selling 200 books both times, and I still can’t really point to a significant profit. Meaning all the other comic book conventions were a loss financially.
But what about the exposure?
Sure, in Chicago I got exposure to the 200 fans that purchased and maybe another 50 or so that didn’t. In Pittsburgh, same deal and I networked a contact at New Dimension. At all these conventions I achieved some level of exposure depending on the fan turnout and my shining personality.
But as I stood in NYCC crunching the numbers in my head I thought, “What if I DIDN’T blow $500 to $1000 doing a convention and selling books? What if I put that money into my website?”
Let’s face it factory fans, if you’re going to build a webcomic, you have to promote and a comic book convention is a place to do that. But before you blow your wad on a fun-filled weekend of meeting fans, imagine what you can do with that money if you just spent it on Banner ads.
Hell, Project Wonderful ads are usually so cheap, I could buy an ad on the most popular webcomic out there, Questionable Content, for $150 a day for the top banner. That’s three to six days at the top. If I buy the side ad on the right, currently at $3, I could buy it for the year! QC gets hits in the 150K to 350K range. I’d only need 1/100th of the fans to get FIVE TIMES the amount of exposure I’d get a convention.
Plus I get to stay home and work on more comics.
The Changing Fan Base
This year I did a convention that I like. I won’t mention the name. It’s a great show, run by great people and attended by great fans. The only problem is, no one bought comics. The fans mostly bought original art from artists. When they got to a table like mine, most of them asked, “Do you have a website?” They’d take a flyer and go. That was it. No sale. I wasn’t even offsetting the costs. I could’ve mailed the flyers out and saved myself $500 bucks and a whole lot of effort.
Even better, I could’ve bought an ad in the convention program book. For $500 I get a full color ad in a guide that everyone who attends the convention sees, plus they will probably take it home and it will have my website address. That’s probably going to reach more than 200 fans. I won’t have the sales, but I won’t have the other expenses either.
Smaller Cons are Better
I came to the conclusion that there is no point in me doing a big convention like NYCC. None. I can’t get the exposure unless I’m at a booth, which I won’t get until I’m famous enough that they’ll either give me one or wealthy enough to buy one and hire a small staff to man it.
I could usually reach about 10% of the fans in a smaller con, so to reach about 200, all I need to do is to attended cons that attract about 2000 or so fans. Additionally, if I go to a smaller con, my expenses tend to be lower. Lower hotel bill, cheaper sections of town mean lower food bill and probably it will be closer to my house, so cheaper gas and no plane ride.
And Hell, if all I’m doing at conventions is passing out my flyer with the URL, all that needs to happen is to get my flyer to all the big conventions. That $500 can be invested into printing nice, glossy, color postcards which can then be mailed to conventions. They get put out on the freebie table and the table does my job for me.
“My God, I’m at home getting work done and I don’ t have to lift any stupid heavy boxes of comics! Thank you banner ads!”
Comic Book Conventions may be going the way of the dodo, Factory Fans, at least for yours truly. Until the big conventions roll out free hotel, table, travel and food for me, I’ll probably be better off spending my money on banner ads, program adverts and flyers sent directly to the freebie table. 2011 looks like the Year of Staying Home. Hmmm, I’ll miss you fanboys, but at least I won’t miss the Simpsons.