28Nov

Conventioneering Tips

I’ve been attending comic book conventions, zine fairs and other trade events for the better part of 20 years.

Over that time, I’ve determined what to do and (more often than not) what NOT to do, through trial and error. It’s difficult to prepare for conventions because no two events are alike, so you need to be able to adapt your table to suit the crowd that shows up on the day.

What I mean by that, is that the commercial interests of the punters can vary from show to show.

  • some are there to buy comics
  • some are there to buy prints
  • some are there to buy sketches and original art

and

  • some are NOT interested in buying local product whatsoever.

The last one is something you have to become comfortable with, but many creators struggle to come to terms with. You can have the best display and high-quality product at the show, but if the customer is only there to get their photo taken with a TV star of their favourite show – you’re not going to interest them.

The sooner you accept that, the happier you will be.

THE BASIC CONVENTION KIT

Here’s some of the essential items I have as part of my convention kit (which all fit snugly into a bit of tupperware!):

  • velcro dots
  • double-sided tape
  • black table sheet
  • anti-bacterial foam dispenser (an essential to avoid con-flu)
  • rubber bands (for rolling up prints)
  • resealable A3 plastic bags (for thicker prints)
  • wire display stands
  • sketchpad
  • pens, pencils and markers
  • pre-printed signage
  • price stickers
  • bum-bag
  • Square reader
  • change (coins and notes)
SQUARE READER

One of the real essentials is the Square reader, a small tap’n’go device you can get at Officeworks for about $60. You can easily add all your products through the website, and then connect via your phone with bluetooth to accept credit card payments.

It’s essential because we are increasingly living in a cashless society – the last few conventions I’ve been to I would say more than half of all customers would rather tap their card than pay with cash. The alternative is to direct them to the nearest ATM, after which there’s no guarantee they’re coming back to you to buy – more often than not you’ve just lost a sale.

Something I also consider an essential is some pre-printed signage. I’ll generally create some new signage before each convention (to suit my current stock levels) and then tape it to the table, for the stock to sit on top of. I feel this looks a lot more professional than hand-written signs, but that’s what suits MY books – if your image and branding is more along the lines of a rougher edge or a more organic home-made style, hand-written signs might be a better fit for you.

If your signage is unlikely to change from show to show, laminating it is a good idea for ease of re-use each time to avoid wear and damage.

THE PITCH

One of the most common questions you’ll be asked by a potential customer, is something along the lines of:

“So what’s this about?”

You need to have a simple answer to that question, in no more than two sentences you need to get across the main theme of your story and character, and what makes that an interesting story. And then you need to memorise it, so you can answer them without much hesitation or nervousness in your voice.

I must admit, I’m still working to perfect mine!

Once you’ve finished the pitch, immediately refer the customer to their best “jumping-on” product – in the case of Killeroo it’s his origin book, SCARS. I will typically then pick up that book and hand it to the customer to start looking through immediately – doing so provides a direct connection from the product to the customer, and tactile contact is a very powerful thing in helping them to make a decision to buy.

A particularly good method is to relate your product to something the customer has already heard of.

For example, if you described your book as something like “Robocop meets The Walking Dead” – this immediately gives the customer a context on how to view the product, based on their prior experience/knowledge of those existing properties. See if you can come up with something like that for your book – you’d be surprised how well it works.

I’ll give them a moment to digest that, and not pressure them any further until they’re done looking at it. It’s then that I’ll mention the price, and then suggest an upsell bundle that gets them both the book they’ve just looked through, and the following issue – in this case the first issue of the GANGWARS series.

I’ve now communicated how much for them to try the book, and if they like what they see they might want more and consider this “starter pack” bundle.

At this point I will leave them be, unless they ask a further question or make a comment. I’ve given them the pitch, now it’s up to them to make a decision. If they show further interest I might suggest the GANGWARS bundle pack of all 5 books, and outline the savings to be had there. If they look like they’re seriously considering that for a moment, I will offer to throw in a print of their choice – to try and close the sale with additional value.

But I’m very careful not to be too pushy at any point during this interaction – some people just want to browse the books in peace, so I won’t scare them away. The most I’ll say is a greeting like “how’s it going, enjoying the show?” or something along those lines.

A lot of customers are timid, and you’re often dealing with people who don’t get out of the house much or have great communication skills. So pick your targets when it comes to a sales pitch – I’ve had people that have browsed through the whole range of books silently, and then buy every one of them. They didn’t necessarily want to interact with me, they just decided they wanted to buy the books and move on.

COMICS

I have bundle packs, poly-bagged single issues, and loose sample copies (and trade paperbacks SOON!).

Loose sample copies are very important. The customer needs to be able to hold the book and flip through the pages, and get a sense of what the book is about and whether they’d like to read it. I avoid writing SAMPLE across the front though, as the customer will often try to buy the sample copy – they’ve established a connection with that book, which I think SAMPLE will disrupt somewhat. You can always direct them to grab one of the poly-bagged copies underneath instead.

A sample copy is one you have essentially sacrificed the sale of, for the benefit of your table. Unless it’s the only copy you have left, you should avoid selling it. But also don’t pick a particularly damaged copy for your sample either, for the same reasons as I stated before about writing SAMPLE on it.

The price should be clearly marked on every item. Don’t assume that people will ask you the price (they likely won’t), as doing so they might feel obligated to buy. By not making your merchandise clearly priced, you are putting up a barrier to them deciding to buy. And don’t assume that they will read a pricelist next to the items, or on the wall behind you. Price EVERY SINGLE ITEM.

BUNDLES

Bundle deals are a particularly great sales method for upselling if you have more than one book to sell. Some customers might be considering buying the whole run of books but just need a nudge to commit to that – bundling them all together and giving a considerable discount for it will often push them over the line.

For example, I have 5 issues of the GANGWARS mini-series available for sale for $12 each. By offering a bundle pack of all 5 issues for $50, they’re getting a $10 discount for taking the plunge – and my sales to this customer just jumped by over 400%. I will often add additional bonuses to customers like this on the fly – such as “please take a free print of your choice” as thanks for them in upping their expected spend.

Make your customers feel special, and express gratitude for their patronage. You feel good, and they feel good for their purchase.

You should also prepare your display on both a horizontal and vertical level.

While it’s fine and good to have your books sitting on their backs on the table for people to see once they’re at your table – you need to attract them from a distance as well. Having display stands is important to do that effectively. It also gives a nice variation in your display layout – and can also allow you to showcase more product than would otherwise fit on the table!

You can get display stands fairly cheaply at $2 shops, and some nicer (and pricier) ones at places like Officeworks.

PRINTS

As I mentioned, not everyone who goes to conventions is interested in buying comics. Some people much prefer finding stuff that they can put on their wall, so you should definitely have some prints of your work available for sale.

As far as sizing goes, A3 seems to be the most popular option, although a lot of people have great success with postcards too. This is also easiest for transporting from show to show – an A3 presentation folder that people can flip through is a good option, and also keeps your prints in good condition.

Where possible – let your customers touch the print stock. If it is nicer stock than the average print (something like matte-cello glaze or an archival paper stock), the tactile feel will be a major factor in their decision to buy or not.

As far as pricing goes, that largely depends on what the prints cost you to make. Some paper stocks are more expensive than others, but also have a nicer tactile feel and can be more durable than regular gloss stock. Shop around and get samples to find what works best for you.

Generally the best way to go with pricing is to offer a price for 1, with a discount price for 3. For example, I use this model for my Killeroo prints:

  • ONE print for $10, or
  • THREE prints for $20

People love a bargain, so if you can upsell with a definitive extra value for spending a little more, you’d be surprised how many will jump at it without needing to prompt them.

Prints are also great to display on the back wall, which I will go into more detail later.

TO FANART, OR NOT TO FANART?

That is the question that most artists are faced with for conventions.

It can be very disheartening when the table next to you is making money hand over fist selling Spider-man prints, and no-one is buying your own characters’ prints or comic books. It’s easy to think that it would be so much simpler to sell merchandise that you do not own the rights to – after all, there doesn’t seem to be any penalty for doing so, from either the corporations that own those properties, or from convention organisers either.

I’m not going to lie to you – you will most likely make more money at these shows selling fanart. The customer recognises and loves those characters, and they usually don’t care if you don’t have the right to do so – they just want to buy it. I’ve seen many creators go down this path – they give in to the economic reality and largely abandon their own creations. It’s certainly a lot easier to make your money back on the table and travel costs if you do.

But frankly, it doesn’t feel very good.

I’ve sold fanart prints before, and I’ve done pretty well when I did. But I knew what I was doing was violating copyright, and it also put me right back into the sea of fanart that punters could get at almost every table. I wasn’t something different, I was just more of the same. And a lot of the other fan artists were better at drawing that stuff than I was, so my work is now being compared to theirs and the customer is making a decision on which is better – this Darth Maul picture or that Darth Maul picture?

And I have to tell you – there’s no better feeling in the world when you sell a print of YOUR character. It might be only 1 in 10 customers or even 1 in 20 or more that will choose to buy your print over a fanart print by someone else. But that sale is very good for your confidence, far more than a Spider-man print sale can ever be.

And if you need another reason not to do fanart – here’s one for you:

The big publishing companies can crack down on fanart at ANY TIME.

There are artists that have made fanart the entire focus of their convention appearances, and the minute that Disney or others start sending out cease and desist letters – their product line is down to ZERO.

And if you think those corporations will go after you individually, they’re more likely to go after the convention organisers – who will then quickly issue a zero tolerance policy on fanart, to avoid getting sued themselves.

This could happen tomorrow, make no mistake about it.

Build your own brand and tell your own stories, and NO-ONE can ever take that away from you.

SKETCH MODE

It’s not often, but occasionally a convention crowd will come along that is all about the con sketches.

When that happens, it’s important to make the most of it (if you like doing con sketches) and adapt your display along those lines:

You can see here that while I’m still showcasing my comics and prints, I’ve also put a sign about sketches at the front, and I’ve backed that up by displaying a series of pre-prepared sketches as well. I’ve also brought along a selection of blank variant comics, with prices not just for me to sketch on them, but also to purchase by itself. I know I’m not one of the most sought-out artists at these shows, so I’m happy for them to buy a cover from me and then have another artist sketch on it – it’s just another product you can make some money on.

I know I talked a bit about fanart prints before, so maybe this seems a bit hypocritical – but to me I don’t see a problem with producing one-off pieces of artwork with characters that I do not own. I’m not mass-producing these works, it’s a unique piece of art. Maybe that’s splitting hairs and you may not agree – but that’s my stance on it.

For most two-day conventions, the second day is generally a bit more quiet, so I regularly shift gears into sketch mode for Sundays. You’d be surprised how many people that will come over simply to watch you draw – you can gently nudge them towards a purchase as you draw!

I’ve found that part of the appeal to many customers is to watch me drawing the sketch for them – so I sell a lot more custom sketches on the day than I do of the pre-drawn stuff. I’ve been to a few furry conventions and I sell very few comics there – that crowd is generally ALL about the con sketches.

Be prepared to adapt your display to suit the audience.

THE BACK WALL

One of the most important aspects of any convention display is the back wall (when you’ve got one) – it’s the primary vertical display of your table. You want to draw people’s attention from 10-20 metres away, especially when you’re surrounded by other creators’ displays – how do you stand out from the crowd?

GO BIG OR GO HOME

You really want a really big wall banner that’s not too busy, and communicates exactly what you’re about. These can be a bit expensive and bulky, but they’re worth every cent. You also want to get value for money, so get something durable like vinyl, which won’t get damaged easily and you can reuse it for many events.

Also popular is the pull-up banner, which is particularly handy for when the event does not include a back wall. Keep in mind also that the bottom 1/3 of the sign is going to be obscured by the table in front of it – so make sure all the important stuff like your name and the main focus of the image is at the top.

The back wall is also ideal to showcase your prints, either by directly sticking velcro dots on the back of a print, or getting a clear presentation display to put them into (but these can be a bit pricey). Your best bet if you have a consistent range of prints, is to get one of each print laminated – this will protect the print over many conventions, keep it nice and slick and easier to transport.

You should also include some signage on the back, detailing the prices of the prints next to it, and any particular specials you would like to draw customers’ attention to. But as I stated before – don’t assume they WILL read it.

A HELPING HAND / PARTNERSHIP

It’s always handy to have someone to help out at a convention, if only for a few hours a day. Not just to watch your table when you need to take a break, but to help serve customers as well.

If you’re a great salesman and you relegate the cashier duties to your friend, you can speak to more customers at a time and close more sales – particularly handy when you’ve got a crowd of people waiting to buy.

If you’re doing convention sketches, you have to focus on the drawing rather than engage with potential customers – which is where a helper can take over that side of things for you. That way you’re not missing out on book and print sales while you’re working on a drawing. In this scenario you can even take over the cashier duties if required.

Marty and Jamie

The best convention partnership I’ve ever seen is Martin Abel and Jamie Beloved, from Tasmania. Jamie is a very smart businesswoman that essentially runs the show, from marketing and design to logistics and managing production. This really enables Marty to focus solely on producing the artwork, and the results are pretty spectacular.

Their table display reflects that, from the red velvet tablecloth, the variety of prints and sketchbooks, and it’s all very meticulously presented with great care. I’ve tabled next to them, and one year they even had an ornate picture frame for a special print, which really elevated the piece (and sold for a very nice price!). Everything is very clearly marked, with a range of products that accommodates all budgets.

Martin and Jamie also don’t rely only on comic-based events, they’ve done extremely well by diversifying their audience with tattoo conventions as well. They’re also extremely good at customer service, which keeps the punters coming back again and again.

They’re a dynamite team with a shared vision and goal. That goes a LONG way.

GET SHARED TABLE SPACE WHERE POSSIBLE

If you don’t have a helper or partner, the next best thing is to share a table with another creator (or if you need a full table, try to get the con organisers to put your tables next to each other).

It’s the next best thing, and not only can you spend the weekend with a friend (those quiet moments can be longer than you’d like), and you can help each other out in the same manner. It does make a big difference, particularly in sharing table costs can make it easier to break even on your upfront costs.

SHRINKAGE

Not that kind of shrinkage.

If your product is good, chances are good that someone will try and steal it.

It’s more likely to happen when there’s a crowd of people around your table. Someone will pick up a copy and start reading it, and when you start engaging with another customer they’ll start to walk away without paying for it.

In this instance, don’t outright accuse them of stealing, just call out to them and say “hey mate, that book is $12 bucks if you want it” or something like that. They’ll generally slink back and put it back on the table, and possibly apologise and say they thought it was free or something like that. I’ll generally let them off and say something like “no harm, no foul mate, cheers”.

Because in some cases, they might actually be innocent and not realise. But they’re not likely to run off and try to get away with it, the public shame will generally be all that’s needed.

Another trick some people will try is to put their bag on your table, and then as they pick it up they’ll also grab the item underneath. You can just ask people not to put their bags on the table, as it’s kinda rude for them to do so anyway.

And sometimes they’ll get away with it.

Any retailer will tell you that shrinkage is part of their business that they have to adsorb as one of their costs, so it’s a risk you take every time you exhibit your work. I tend to think it’s not that terrible a price to pay – I’d rather my book was being read by a thief, than sitting on a shelf in my office gathering dust.

“Yeah, but what if someone steals your cash tin?”

Cash tins are a bad idea unless they are essentially tethered to someone at your table, and should never be placed on top of your display table. If you must have one, keep it on the chair behind the table where it’s out of reach for someone to grab, and make sure it’s never unattended (and kept out of sight where possible).

Personally, I have a good old-fashioned bum-bag as part of my convention kit. I keep my notes in one compartment, and all my coin change in the other. When there gets to be too much money in there, I’ll transfer some of that into my wallet which I keep in my pocket.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, as they say.

COSPLAYERS DON’T SPEND

There are a few exceptions to this rule, but not many. Cosplayers are largely there to take photos of one another, and that’s perfectly fine. In my experience, the few that do stop by to take a look at the Killeroo table will literally say to me “these look great, but I didn’t bring any money”.

Some of them will have a tendency to take photos of themselves in front of your table. For a few moments that’s fine, but if they start to linger and continue to block access and visibility of your table, don’t be afraid to ask them to politely move along.

But most important of all – if your book isn’t selling well, it is NOT the fault of cosplayers.

ADDITIONAL SALES TIPS

KEEP YOUR TABLE NEAT, BUT NOT TOO NEAT.

As customers come up to the table and start picking up books, your table display can get a bit messy. I’ll generally neaten up the display every now and then, but I take care not to be TOO precise. If everything is rigidly placed with hospital corners, then it starts to look less inviting for the customer to pick up your book – they don’t want to disturb your display by touching it.

There’s no point having a meticulous table if it means no-one is going to buy anything.

BE AFFORDABLE

Try to have a good range of prices for your comics and merchandise, anything from $3-5 dollars up to $50 or more. Each customer has a different budget for trying something new, so if you have a low-price item available, that could be the difference between them spending with you or not spending with you.

Personally, I like to go one step further and have a bunch of business-card size Killeroo trading cards. If a customer seems to have liked what they saw but are starting to move away, I’ll hand them a card and thank them for their time. It has all my social media and online store links on it, so maybe they’ll consider ordering something in future.

SCARCITY

Never have more than three copies of each book on the table at one time. Keep your remaining stock behind the table and out of sight, and don’t immediately replenish your stock after you make a sale. Let them run down to the last copy, and when you sell that one, only then put another three copies in its place.

Customers don’t want to miss out, so if it looks like you don’t have much more of the thing they want, they’re more likely to buy it NOW while they can.

Conversely, if you have a stack of books 30cm high – there’s no sense of urgency engendered. Clearly you’re not going to sell them all in a hurry, so they can maybe come back later to buy one (and usually forget to) without missing out.

GIVE THEM A CHANCE TO MISS YOU

If you’ve attended the same conventions for several years, to the customer you’ve become part of the furniture – you’re always going to be there, so if they don’t buy from you today – they know in their mind that they can at the next show.

This is especially the case if you don’t have a lot of new product.

“Oh there’s Darren again, I wonder if he’s got any new Killeroo comics. Ah, just the new GANGWARS – I’ll check again at the next convention.”

But what does the dialogue become when I’m not there at the next convention? They’ll either think I’ve stopped publishing, or that I’m not doing shows this year. Bugger.

But when they see me again the following year, their perspective changes:

“Oh there’s Killeroo, he’s back this year! Let’s take a look… ooh new books, awesome! Have to get these now, he might not be here next show!”

Granted, that’s maybe the most optimistic dialogue I could have used to demonstrate, but you get my point. Not being there every time means there’s a renewed interest when you come back.

HAVE FUN AND STAY POSITIVE!

You’re not always going to have a great financial result at these events, so it’s important to frame your perspective to something other than sales.

If you’re purely focussed on sales and you’re not making many – you’re going to be miserable. Customers can see that in your demeanour and body language, and it doesn’t motivate them to talk to you. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of misery, and you only have yourself to blame.

If you make your focus more about catching up with fellow creators and meeting new people, and even just getting yourself and your books out to a new audience – you can’t be miserable, because you’ve already achieved all 3!

—–

I hope at least some of this has been helpful to you, and that it helps you to enjoy your conventioneering a bit more. Please let me know if you think I’ve missed anything – maybe you can teach me a thing or two!

Thanks for reading.

Darren Close is an Australian comics creator. He has primarily self-published comics about his character Killeroo for the last 20 years, most recently the GANGWARS series. He also founded the OzComics website, which later became a weekly drawing challenge on Facebook. He's currently the Managing Editor of AustralianComicsJournal.com

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