So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #008: Indie Comic Book Publishing 101 Part 8

This past weekend, Unshaven Comics attended a bad comic convention. I’ll unpack that a bit in a few moments, but for now, just go on the ride with me. Comic conventions are a mandatory element of our industry. Conventions are the live events that draws together the widest breadth of potential customers to the budding indie creator. From behind an eight-foot table, a would-be artist can get answers to nearly every single burning question they’ll wind up having throughout their comics career. In short? The comic con is a living breathing microcosm of the industry writ large. So pay attention, because:

The Con can make or break you.

Let’s start with this past weekend to provide us a dead body to dissect. I’ll opt not to name the convention where my Unshaven lads and I failed to succeed… because pointing a finger of shame/blame is not only unprofessional, it’s wholly unnecessary. And to boot, the coordinator of the Artist Alley was fantastic to us, and our load in and load out of the show was smooth as silk (once we got our table assignment).

So why did it suck?

In short: The fans didn’t show up. And those who did, were not in the mood to buy. It happens. And when it does, we need to look at the data, the anecdotal evidence, and extrapolate our conclusions. 

One of the big ideas my studio has adopted over our decade in the con-trenches, is to let the data drive our decisions. The biggest metric we track in a given weekend is our pitch to close ratio; the rate by which we open our mouths, extol the virtues of The Samurnauts, and ask our only question (“So, would you like to give it a try?”). Our average is around 40% — where we pitch, and they purchase a book. The show data for this weekend held that average in check. So, we know that it wasn’t that The Samurnauts wasn’t hitting the right notes for the fans to open their wallets. But the total number of pitches was, in fact, significantly down in comparison to similarly sized shows — or compared to previous years we’d be tabling at the same show. In short: the data doesn’t lie. Less warm bodies stopped to listen to us shill. And that led to less sales. Less sales means less profit. Less profit means a less-than-stellar show for your boys. Ya dig?

The big question then, is why. Well, we found out through the grapevine that several big names attached to the show (in the autograph pavilion) had to cancel. The date of the show itself fell close to the start of school — which could mean that college kids have left their nests and weren’t able to hoof it in, and parents were less likely to schedule a family outing with academia on their minds. And the show itself is spread out over 4 days, which may be pushing content and the ability to enjoy it, to the limit of those in attendance. Friends of ours who came out to the show told us that the artist alley was “explorable in under 2 hours… even with lollygagging”. So, with fewer booths to peruse, and a plethora of time to meander among them? The data doesn’t lie. Less butts in the building, and those butts weren’t farting cash.

So, what does a budding indie creator do when a show under-performs? It’s a complicated answer that sadly will be shades of grey versus a stark black-and-white “if-then” statement. In the past, I’ve long held the belief that even bad shows can be made good through networking, research, experimentation, and the commitment to the grind. And there lays our remaining roads to dawdle down.

I’ve talked before about the power of networking. Essentially, when a show-floor is deader-than-a-doornail, it’s an opportune time to walk the floor yourself and commiserate with your brethren in the alley. Check out their work. Ask them about their process. Ask about who their vendors are, and if they’d recommend them. Look over their displays and see if anything could apply to your own table-scape. Compare war stories, and helpful notes. In doing so, you’ll wind up with a potential well of knowledge from which to dip into. And that well? Well worth a day of less-than-great sales! Double points for the homonyms.

And what of research. When a show slows down to a crawl, it’s a good time to perform a bit of market research, my friend! When people did take a chance to stop and hear our pitch, I was sure to ask a bit more than “hey, wanna buy my stuff?”. I asked how their show was going. What they were checking out. What they liked, and were looking forward to elsewhere on the show-floor. In doing so, we learned that many attendees came out specifically for expensive autographs and photo ops. The Artist Alley was merely a timewaster. Armed with that knowledge, we know now that shows with a lengthy list of photo-ops and autograph seekers may not be the best cons for us to table at in the future. Research leads to better planning!

And of course, when the chips are down, it’s never a bad time for experimentation, no? For my good friend Dan Dougherty, at this past show, he took an opportunity to showcase some older prints he’d had stored away. As he saw it, the show-floor boasted far more fan art and prints being moved than original (and awesome) comics. So, out came his Winnie the Pooh mashups, and out came the wallets. Unshaven Comics, for whatever it was worth, experimented a tad with our layout; however our lack of any new material to test on passersby meant that at best we concluded that if no one is buying original art or commissions, changing where on the table one shows the sign will not conclude in an uptick of business. Not the best experiment results, but they were results nonetheless.

After one networks, researches, and experiments to pass the time… comes the most important lesson of the day. Working a comic con is an absolute grind. And nothing beats honest salesmanship and working the crowd. We were lucky to be sat next to the legendary Bob Camp — co-creator of Ren and Stimpy, you eeeediot. Towards the end of Sunday, as the waning crowd began to file out towards daylight, Mr. Camp turned to us with a smile. “Boys, I gotta tell you… You really got something going there with your schtick. The way you just put your book in their hands, tell em what it is, and ask if they want to buy it? Boy, I watched it all weekend, and I have to say… it’s something! It works!” We beamed ear to ear for the validation. And therein lay the point. At the end of the long convention days… you are only as good as the money you walk out with. And the only way you’ll get any of it is to work your arse off to earn it.

Combine the meager till numbers with your life-lessons, and anecdotes… Dust yourself off… put all the data into your spreadsheets… And commit to doing it all again next time. That’s the life of an indie creator, kiddo. So, are your ready to get your con on?

Next week? Building a thick skin.