So you want to Convention?
At my last convention I attended I was asked about writing a blog post about how I prepare for shows and the essentials I bring with me. Since I have been thinking of writing a post on this very topic for a while I thought that this was the kick in the pants I needed to finally start writing. So much work goes into planning a convention, it only makes sense that exhibitors and attendees put in a lot of prep work as well. This is my third year attending and exhibiting at shows, my second year exhibiting full time as my primary source of income. Over those three years and almost 30 shows I have exhibited at I have learned a lot about booth setup, packaging, and selling and interacting with customers; and I want to share with you those insights I have learned through trial and error so you wont make those same early mis-steps and hopefully help you have the best show you can.
First things first, you decide to test out selling at comic conventions and you are like "San Diego Comic Con here I come!" Hold your horses there brother; I like many artists strongly recommend starting with your local shows, its hard enough making money at your first show, you don't want to add to that by having to pay for travel and hotel costs as well. If you are lucky like me and have several friends and family scattered around the country offering a free couch to sleep on it certainly makes things easier, thought that airfare is still pretty killer (baggage fees grrr). Make things easy for yourself start local and expand out from there.
So you signed up for your local show, now what? First and most importantly if you are an artist in artist alley you are going to need prints of your work. At shows and online I often get asked where I get my prints from, or if I print myself from home (hell no!!). Having good prints is really important, it doesn't matter how good your image looks on a computer screen, if it doesn't look good as a print nobody will buy it. I get my prints from El-Co Colorlabs in NJ (dont worry non New Jersians they ship anywhere) The prints are more expensive than other places, though I will argue those cheaper prints do not come close to matching the quality of el-co, and I will happily pay a little more for that higher quality. (I challenge anyone to find a place that has better quality at a cheaper price)
If you are looking to start out slow before splurging on more expensive prints and save a few bucks at the start I know several people get prints from MGX copy and have had pretty good results. They are a great beginner bang for your buck printer.
The next big thing you will need is some sort of backdrop. From experience a lot of the people walking around shows do not look down at the tables, they are all looking up looking for something to catch their eye. It is really important to have your work up high so people can see it, and to see it from far away. Every show I have people come up to me saying “OMG I saw your work from way down there and I just had to come over”
For my backdrop I use a photo backdrop display. When looking for displays there are a bunch that are cheap and affordable, I strongly recommend getting the most expensive display you can afford. Those cheap light weight displays are on the flimsy side and may not support your work, try to find one that looks like it is made out of a thicker sturdier metal and preferably says it can support 30-40lbs before bowing. This is the display I have
This is is a similar setup to mine, sturdy enough to hold your prints and also easy to travel with
Now that you have your display you need something to drape over it and a way to hang your prints. At my very first show my booth neighbor and super awesome and fellow dragon aficionado Tyler Walpole had a very similar setup to this. It looked so easy for him to set up/tear down his display, the display also went up high so people could see it from across the hall. Watching him pull customers in and rake in sales I decided then and there to follow in his footsteps. (note, walk around the show when you can, taking notes on other artists setups and ask them questions, everyone I have met has been happy to answer questions and give helpful advice, you can learn a TON from from your fellow exhibiting artists)
What I do is drape a large sheet of felt fabric (Joe Ann’s) over the display and use clamps to hold it in place. To attach the prints to the fabric I tape the edges of my prints to a backing board and then place velcro to the back of the backing board, the backing board and the print then “sticks” to the fabric and hangs in place.
I do recommend having larger prints behind you so it is easier for people to see, these larger prints are my fancy 18X24 limited edition prints. I use these both as large display prints and also as a higher premium item for customers. If someone loves your work and has cash to spend and you only have $20 prints then all you are going to get from that customer is $20.
Okay, now that the backdrop is taken care of now I need a way to display my prints on my table. First I have some black fabric (Also from Joe Ann’s) draped over the table to make it look all fancy. I then lay out these foldable display stands, one for each print. Have as many of your prints out on the table as possible. From experience it is hard to convince people to flip through a print bin/book, so the more stuff you have out on the table the easier it is for people to see and look at.
If you cant fit everything on the table a good solution for a print bin I have found is this foldable bin I found at Target. Its the perfect size to hold 11X17 or my 12X18 prints, and its light weight for easy storage and transport.
For the display prints on the table you need some way to protect them and make them stand up. I currently bag and back all of my prints. I get re-sealable bags from clearbags.com and the backing boards from Uline (if you don't want 400 backing boards to start you can find them on amazon and elsewhere in packages of 20 or so) To start out you really only need the backing boards for the display prints; later on as you get busier and want to save precious time during the checkout process you can pre bag all of your prints before the show. Dont skimp on the bags though, you need some sort of protective bag for people who purchase prints, otherwise they may not buy for fear of damaging them.
In addition to my prints I also sell tabletop gaming playmats or otherwise known as gigantic mouse pads of my work. If you are a fantasy artist like me this is a great product to have, gamers love collecting mats that have cool art on them. Also it helps me stand out from everyone else at the Con, I am usually the only one who has them and its a great option for people who have run out of wall space with all of their prints. You have no idea how many times at a show I get “holy crap, he has game mats…I need a game mat” Just beware, these things are super heavy and add a lot of weight to your setup. If yo are interested in trying out some game mats I strongly recommend Drew Baker, I and many of my friends use him for his mats.
Okay now that you have your super awesome setup, you just sit back and watch people start flooding to your table buying up everything you have….right? Unfortunately not quite. No matter how good your work is you still need to sell it to people. Over the course of a weekend I maybe get 3 or 4 people total that just walk up and say “I need to buy this, how much” every other person that buys from me I have to sell my work to them in some way. I have seen several artists at shows sit back with their arms folded looking down because sales aren't as good as they hoped. Trust me, you don't want to be that guy.
The thing is nobody wants to approach you when you are down in the dumps, at that point it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy where you are bummed you aren't doing well and people aren't approaching you because you are bummed, thus making you even more bummed.
The best way to break through that cycle is to put on a “Con face” be happy and engaging, say hi to as many people as you can. No matter how bad a day/week you are having you cannot let it show while you are behind that table. Smile, be upbeat, say “Hey hows it going” try to get them to stop and start a conversation, and then lead that conversation towards you and your work. (in my opinion standing behind a table not talking to anyone for 8 hours is boring, if I am not making any money I mine as well have fun talking to people) No matter how bad the day is going you CANNOT let people know, you gotta be happy and engaging the entire time. There is plenty of time to vent at the bar after the show talking with your neighbors and fellow artists.
The selling thing is really what is going to make or break your experience at a show. No matter how nice your display is, no matter how good your work is, if you do not have the confidence in yourself and your work to tell people they should buy this, conventions will be a struggle.
That being said, my final bit of advice for first time con goers is to just have fun. Chasing sales throughout a weekend is a stressful endeavor, dont get bummed if you only make back the table cost. There are a lot of up front costs associated with exhibiting at shows, so if you dont earn a profit at your first show, do not despair and give up (I did not make back the costs of my first show, these things take time to build up). Have fun, work on your sales pitch, talk to your booth neighbors and ask them lots of questions, and scope out ideas for a better/improved booth setup. Use the show as a learning experience to apply to future shows and you will have a good time, and the knowledge of this show will make the next one even better.
Finally, if you are looking for more information and knowledge about conventions and selling and running a booth I highly recommend checking out 1 fantastic week. These guys host a weekly webshow going over not only conventions but how to earn a living as an artist (useful topic dont you say), I learned a lot about selling at conventions and running my business from them and I cannot recommend them enough.