Monday, November 2, 2009

Webcomics at Comic Conventions

  I have a huge knowledge gap about comic conventions. Sure, I've been, but never as a vendor, and being a curious fellow, I want to learn more.

  I asked Kez, creator of the webcomic War of Winds, to tell me more about her forays into the world of conventions, since she's got lots to report and is enthusiastic about her progress. By some standards, she's a total beginner, and by others, including my own, she is far along. I thought it might provide a good point of entry for many readers, somewhere in between the experts and the ignorant (like me), and possibly help fill a gap.

Kez, by Kez

Q: I wanted to speak with webcomics creators who have established themselves but are still growing -- people who are roughly a few years along. Could you give us the skinny on your webcomic, from both a business and creative perspective?

A: My webcomic is 5.5 years old now, and this past year I've seen a lot of increased activity on the site, forum and commenting areas, which is very encouraging. I started out in webcomics with absolutely no experience, stumbling in the dark as it were, and I think finally I've found my stride. Took long enough, right? I completed one short 54-page comic as a printed side-story, which has sold well. While I didn't start out with that story from a business stand-point, I ENDED that way. Out of the 50 copies I had printed, I have sold 42, gave away 2, have 3 left to sell, and 3 that were mis-printed. I bought each for about 7 dollars, sold them for $10 each, and made a profit of over $100. I will be printing more books shortly, as books sell the best at conventions. I've got 2 more comics in pre-production, these two made with print and ad revenue foremost in mind.

In November 2008 I started displaying ads on my site. Since then I have made a total of $230 from Burst Media, a couple hundred from ADSDAQ (before they kicked most webcomics out), and under $50 from Adtegrity. I make about $50/month in ad revenue, which I hope to increase dramatically with the two comics I am currently working on apart from my main comic. By far, conventions have made the most money in the least amount of time. People are much more willing to buy in person the exact same merchandise you have up for sale in your online store. Ads are a long-term revenue source for me, just pocket change so far. Donations for extra pages also worked well for my side-story comic, especially since they were priced at only $15/page. I made $100 doing that over a few months.

All of this is better than nothing, but still ALMOST nothing in the long run.

Q: I haven't been to a con in years. Tell me what it's like.

A: Conventions are a wonderful experience IF you come prepared with things to sell, the confidence to sell them, and especially, good company. The first convention I went to was Tora-Con in April 2006. I had been working on my comic for 2 years, had a few prints that were sellable, but I went about it ALL WRONG. Now I deeply consider the demographic attending a convention, and tailor merchandise to suit it. But as for the atmosphere, it's a bunch of young to middle-aged people who come with small bills ready to buy anything that catches their eye. It's loud, noisy, full of laughter and questions, lots of compliments and/or noses in the air, lots of crowds. Depending on where you are [selling things] you can be in a booth or a table, in a large room or a hallway.

I've always found fellow sellers amenable, helpful, and willing to trade swag. I often find convention-goers rude and obnoxious, but like with any seller, it all depends on how you react to these kinds of situations. If you wilt in the face of someone taking a mere moment to glance over all your goods you spent hours agonizing over, a convention is not the place for you. If you have nothing to say (or too much) when someone asks the inevitable, "so, what's your comic about" question, a convention is not the place for you. If you have the ability to withstand disinterest, and the ability to pitch your comic to complete strangers, foist a business card on them, and ask if they are interested in any merchandise, a convention IS the place for you... especially if you can attend a convention with someone you know or someone you've wanted to meet.

Q: Why go to conventions at all, and spend time displaying and laying out money for a booth and food, not to mention your time?

A: Because it's instant return on a project. If I spend $30 at Office Max to get 20 nice color prints on photopaper and sell just THREE at $10 a piece, I've broken even on that investment. Odds are, I will sell more than 3 at a normal-size convention, especially if the image suits the demographic attending. If I have extra prints, that just more I can bring to the next convention after already breaking even or even making a return. When this is applied to more merchandise that SELLS WELL, it is possible to make hundreds in a few hours. I have to say, after months and months of making pocket-change via ad revenue, it is liberating to make a hundred bucks selling comic books, the very thing I slaved over for hours, in just one day. For once, I'm selling what I make, as opposed to selling the traffic generated BY the pages that I make. It feels good, you know? Of course, one bad convention experience can ruin it forever, as my first convention in 2006 nearly did for me.

Also, it's really great to connect with people who have the same interest as you. Now, personally, I have ZILCH interest in attending conventions as just an attendee. Admittedly, I find most people who attend conventions to be of an annoying sort. But fellow comic creators are really cool. It's great to talk webcomic craft in PERSON for once, to make face-to-face business contacts, or take face-to-face commission projects. I've been approached multiple times for business offers as well.

Q: What sorts of things are you selling at conventions, and do they make a profit?

A: Books are big. People are willing to buy your comic book/floppy if they've never read your work before, whereas they may not buy merchandise with your characters on it if they have not read the comic. I make $3 per each book that I sell. To make a return, it's important that you can purchase your product at a reasonable price and then can sell it for a higher one (with a few dollars return on EACH sell). I don't recommend investing in anything where this is not possible the majority of the time. Few people at conventions will buy any one item priced over $15 in my experience UNLESS it's a one-of-a-kind, original item (or conversely, vintage). This is where marketing/targeting come in. With prints that I have, no one needs to recognize my characters to think it's cool. They see action, blood, muscles, tails. Without reading the comic, they like the print, and so the print sells. If the print is not marketable to people who do not read your work, it will not sell.

Other than prints or books, I also sell T-shirts. My first time printing the shirts, I had a wide-range of people targeted with four designs. Only one design sold well (sold OUT actually), so I will be capitalizing on that print with similar designs, and will do another print run. I will not run any of the three designs that did not sell well.

Next I want to try dog tags imprinted with a design, sweatbands, and beer-cozies.

Q: I've got you pegged as an extrovert. Is that accurate? And do you think cons work better for that type of personality?

A: Really? Me? An extrovert? HA. No, quite the opposite, unless I'm defending my own work. At the conventions/festival I've been too, I've been the odd man (woman?) out. At the art festival, I was the first person in the history of the festival to sell comics. At the conventions, I've been the one NOT drawing in an Asian style and/or the only woman in attendance. To me, this is a source of pride. It means I step up to the plate and prove to everyone who goes by my table that I can hold my own.

At conventions, I have to constantly remind myself to smile, to say hello, to be out-going. Really, all it takes is a simple, "hello," or "can I help you with anything," to get people to pause at your table. Eye-contact is key. After an hour of crowds, I start to look for quiet, dark corners, so it's a bit of a trial for me not to lapse into introvert mode. So, to answer your last question, yes, extroverts DEFINITELY sell more. People who don't look up, or just draw the whole time, or who look emo/moody/uninterested do not attract people to stick around, and only people who stick around actually buy merchandise.

Q: Do you actively try to recruit new readers?

A: At conventions I'm more interested in selling things than recruiting readers, but it's still a priority. The biggest thing that I do is always, always mention my comic is available online for free, and then make sure people who pause long enough to look pick up a business card, which of course has my URL. I usually have a small sign that points to my card, reiterating the comic is free online in case someone doesn't want to pause to talk. A lot of people never even talk to you, just grab what's free and move on. Business cards are free, mine personally are shiny, dark and pretty, and LOTS of people grab them. If one in 10 come to my site, I'm happy.

It might also good to try and find spots on posters/prints to have an unobtrusive URL, but I personally don't do that. I hate URLs/large signatures on pieces. Flyers are another thing to try. The biggest thing is definitely talking with people who pause to chat with you though. If you are friendly and speak well, it makes an impact, and people remember to check you out.

Q: One person remarked to me that they dislike cons because they don't enjoy being stared at. Your thoughts?

A: My guess is this person only stared back, creating that long, awkward moment, culminating in the fear of breaking eye contact first. If you catch someone staring, smile and invite them over. Show them your stuff, try to sell what you have. Talk, even it's mostly one-sided. That's all it takes. I've never been stared at except by kids who want a free sketch, and I find that horribly flattering. I usually give them something for making me feel good about myself.

Q: Didn't your con appearance lead to an article in your local paper?

A: My appearance at Corn Hill in July snagged me a spot in my hometown's major newspaper, yes. It was quite amusing how it all came about. Whoever said blogging is worthless, well... lied! I wrote an article at Winged Wolf about being excited and nervous about attending an art festival as the first person in the history of that festival selling comics. I guess the Corn Hill organizers checked their referrals and found my site, and suggested to the newspaper that they interview me. Lo and behold, one phone interview and one photo op later, I find myself--and Ravar, a character in my story--on the front page spread. For two days, I had people coming up to me at the festival saying how excited they were I was attending, that they came ONLY to see me, that they wanted me to check out their art portfolios... it was a great experience. The Democrat and Chronicle no longer allows the article to be viewed for free, but my parents went out and bought 10 copies of that day's paper, so if anyone wants a photocopy, I can oblige. Here is my post about the whole experience.

Q: I know you are in graduate school and manage a heavy schedule. Do you think the larger con circuit is in your future?

A: Yes. Even though grad school is very time-intensive, I've had such a good experience with my two conventions this year I'm committing to three more already: Steel City Comic Con, Penguicon, and Tora-Con. I just make sure to schedule these far in advance so that if I have any academic responsibilities, I can plan ahead.

Q: Any advice for someone doing their first con?

A: If someone is attending their con as a trial con, getting their toes wet, not necessarily to make money, be sure to be able answer the following questions before going:

1) What is your comic about? (2 sentences, MAX!)
2) Can you draw me something for free? (I recommend, NO, but hey, it's up to you!)
3) What is a webcomic?
4) Who is that? *points to character*
5) Why do you make comics?

If someone is doing their first con in an attempt to make money, ALSO be able to answer the following before you go:

1) What kind of fans attend, and therefore, what type of merchandise will sell well?
2) Do you have anything that will appeal to the demographic in answer one? No? Then adapt your work to suit. Adaption does not involve selling out (which I never recommend), only making your work appeal to the largest common denominator through themes rather than details, the latter of which can only appeal to readers of your own comic.

Good things to have:

1) a vinyl banner is a one-time purchase and is extremely eye-catching. This is great advertising from all the way across the con.
2) Business cards!
3) Price markers (ex, index cards, etc). If you forget the price of one item and tell two people two different things... you will get flak.
4) Water bottle and snacks
5) Extra paper, pencils and pens.
6) Bags for goods! When people buy things, they like to have something to hold them in.
7) A friend. Having to pee really bad, and having no one to watch your table, is a horrible experience. If this is your first con, either as a visitor or a seller, drag along a friend.

Random: I don't recommend printing more than 10 of each print design, maybe even 3-5 for starting out, to find out for yourself what sells. Of course, you may get lucky by printing 50 of something that sells like hotcakes! It's always a risk-benefit. For T-shirts, print a variety of sizes. Dark colors seem to sell better, and everything sells better than a white-T. Try to keep all pricing under $20, and keep prices even (you WILL have to break larger bills, so have small bills of your own.) Never EVER slap your logo or title or character on a T-shirt and expect it to sell. IT WON'T.

Q: Any tips on finding smaller, local cons to keep costs low and start gradually?

A: Stop in at your local comic book store! They have the scoop on everything, and may even offer you a free table.

Editor's note: Comments are off. Anyone with personal con experiences to report is welcome to email it to me and it I get some that fit well with past coverage, I'll post a batch of them together, crediting you. You can contact Kez directly via the links above. Many thanks to her for pitching in yet again.