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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

OPINION - What is killing comic book conventions?

Yesterday, Denise Dorman, the wife of illustrator Dave Dorman posted a rather scathing review of recent convention experiences and the inability for artists to recoup the costs of attending conventions.  She reported on shows that used to be very profitable that no longer are…and then she blamed cosplayers.  You can read her entire post here.  You can read my thoughts below.

In the last few years, cosplayers have become a larger and larger part of the convention scene.  There are now “celebrity cosplayers” whose hard work is so incredible that they become attractions unto themselves at conventions.  This rubs a lot of people the same way.  As one friend of mine put it, “costumes don’t have pockets”—in other words, cosplayers in general do not spend money at conventions.  And this, in my experience, is true.  But I wholeheartedly disagree that cosplayers are the reason artists can’t make money at conventions.  There are a lot of other factors and I’d like to break down a few that I’ve noticed in my 8 years attending conventions, 4 of which have been spent as a “pro” behind the table.

PROBLEM:  The two conventions that Mrs. Dorman specifically singles out are Comic Con International/San Diego Comic Con and Wizard World Chicago.  I’ve been very vocal on Twitter regarding my issues with Wizard World’s anti-comic stance at their supposed “comic cons,” but let’s face it, SDCC and Wizard World are no longer comic book friendly shows.  San Diego is a launching pad for media franchises and Wizard shows are where you go to get C-list celebrity autographs.  Both shows are plagued with high table costs for artists, inflated hotel prices, and often ridiculous travel costs.  When I attended Wizard World Chicago as a pro in 2012, I split a table with a friend and jammed as many people in my hotel room as possible.  Between may table fee ($400/2—which has gone up since then—my hotel costs, food, and gas to drive in from Iowa, the show was easily a $600 investment on my part.  All of this to sell my $5 self-published comic book collection.

SOLUTION: If you are a pro, don’t go to these shows.  The audience is no longer interested in spending money on comic books.  They want to meet Jonathan Frakes, not Jonathon Hickman, let alone Johnny Small Press.  Wizard World  is no longer comic book community friendly.  San Diego hasn’t been in over a decade.  If you want to make memories, go to these shows and try to enjoy yourself.  If you want to make money, simply do not go.  There are plenty of large regional conventions (Planet Comic Con in Kansas City, Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle, etc) and even smaller regional conventions where you can make a killing from fans that want to attend a comic book show.  Know your audience and go where they are.

PROBLEM: While I can’t say that this is Dorman’s problem, as I have never met Dave or Denise, but I have attended enough conventions to let you know a huge issue with guests not making money lies solely with the guests.  Unless you are a big name creator working on a high profile book at that moment, chances are you won’t have a line in front of your booth.  You just have to accept that and find a way to work around that.  Too many creators are just a bit too focused on completing that commission, working on a page around deadline time, or too busy talking to their friends and neighbors to focus on potential customers.  You are there to sell comics and art, but if you are not actively selling comics and art, you cannot complain when you don’t make money.

SOLUTION:  At a convention a few  years ago, I was accused by one of my table neighbors of being a “carnival barker” at my table because I actively engaged people walking by.  At the end of the day, I had one of my biggest sales days ever and this person, whose nose was stuffed in his iPad the entire show, sold literally one book.  Every single person that walks by their booth is a potential fan and a fan is a potential customer.  Talk to people as they walk by your booth and invite them to check out your wares.  I have sold more comics because I commented on the tshirt a passerby was wearing than I have by people who randomly meandered their way to my table.  I find some way to connect with people and because of that, I do pretty well at conventions.  If I have a friend sitting at my table with me, I try not to cause our conversations to prohibit people from approaching my table.  If anything, I use those conversations to bring new fans in.  If someone is “just chatting” in front of my table, I’ll politely ask them to stand to the side so I’m still open to people who want to flip through my comics.  If a cosplayer is drawing a crowd in front of my table, I politely ask them to make room for people to come by (and I usually snap a picture, because I love cosplayers!).  You are not entitled to the money of convention goers—you have to earn it and you cannot do that if you won’t engage them.

PROBLEM: Personal responsibility for comic book creators is huge when it comes to making money at conventions, but it isn’t everything.  Some responsibility falls upon the convention organizers.  Prohibitive ticket costs will keep attendees from spending money in Artist Alley.  Poor layouts could mean that some creators are completely missed.  Scheduling your convention against another convention or a major local event will mean low attendance.  And promotion? You damn well better have promoted your comic book show or no one is going to show up.  Even the greatest creators ever will not make any money if they are guests at a poorly run convention.

SOLUTION: If you are running a comic book convention, keep these things in mind.  Make sure that your ticket prices will cover your expenses and keep your expenses relatively low, especially in your early years.  If you are charging Wizard World prices for your convention that only has 20 guests, you won’t make any money and neither will the creators.  Likewise, if you have 100 creators and you are charging hotel ballroom convention ticket prices, you won’t make enough money to continue throwing conventions.  If you place the biggest name at the show in the middle of the aisle, their line will keep the people next to them from making any money.  Don’t put comic creators next to the bathroom or in the darkest corner of the hall.  Make sure you promote your comic show at local colleges and comic book shops.  Do you r research by attending other more successful comic book conventions and emulate what makes them successful.

There you have it, three major problems with comic book conventions that are preventing creators from making money.  These are important things to keep in mind when choosing what conventions you attend as a pro, how you conduct yourself at those shows, and whether or not you return to those shows in the future.  You will notice that none of these items have much of anything to do with cosplayers.

What your thoughts?  Post in the comments below, find me on Twitter, or shoot me an email.


  1. Wonderfully said. I've just started selling at cons, both handmade products and more recently, my artwork and prints and I agree with everything you say here. I became infamous with my neighbors for my Carnival Barker ways (To the extent that I may actually get a top hat and tails in red for my next cons...) but despite being a total noob, we have yet to not make money AFTER expenses and cost of goods at every show we've done. Not a lot of money in some cases, but still.

    I don't think cosplayers are the problem (Though I love the no pockets crack) We actually invite them over to the table to take pictures of our products and art if they match up with the costume. Doing so draws attention to our stuff and the cosplayer is almost always a good sport. (Check out our Facebook page for some great ones from our last con - Actually, the most profitable cons I've been to were some anime cons where the focus was 80% cosplay.

    And man, I agree with the comments about big cons 110%. Our least successful con so far for the money and attendance was Salt Lake Comic Con, where, due to some truly horrendous management on the con's part, most guests were late for panels, spent the whole day in line to get in or to see a celeb, and didn't really have time to navigate the crowds to find tables to spend money on. It was a con to enjoy the spectacle, not make money of any kind. I'm planning on trying a few of the Wizard World cons, but I'm far more excited about the smaller cons like Rocky Mountain Comic Con, where the focus is comics, creators and general love of the form, not celebs and movie announcements.

  2. Denise never blamed cosplayers. If you read carefully she said that shows moving the focus to cosplayers and away from comics and creators was the problem. I misinterpreted it the first time I read it. She has gone on to clarify what she meant. I hate to think a poor choice of words on a blog post results in her being vilified on social media.

  3. Agreed with all you points. I think Denise was trying to say and it has validity is many cons are getting more social (cosplay being part of that) and less of the traditional commerce model. As many cons as I have been to think it times the organizer try and help build up the artist and artwork again instead of treating it like a flea market/craft fair. Your right SDCC and some of the other big ones are just a hurricane of crazy at this point with cost that run wild to get there. We been to DragonCon the last few years and I felt guilty not spending enough on artist but our hotel was was way too high just to be near the event. The sad part is the Michigan con she mentions, which I believe was fairly new is in Grand Rapids home to Art Prize one of the premier art events in the country. So it definetly a art appreciate town. But like you said many of these artist are not always want to be "salesman" or think outside the box to bring in customer. Heck if the con had just did a contest with Star Wars cosplay and him I am sure it would have generate some interest.

  4. Great article. I am doing a fair sized show next year, and for the most part go out of my way to accommodate comic book creators. They are my favorite part of the show.

  5. I make more at smaller niche cons, but I still need a presence at larger ones to grow audience and maintain visibility. This article highlights current problems accurately and offers suggestions!

  6. Cons have always been social.
    San Diego evolved from the SF con model, and always has been multi-media.

    First and foremost, you need to be a businessman.
    Know your market.
    Is the return on investment worth the cost involved?

    "Kick start" your con appearance by using social media to pre-sell commissions. You can work on them in advance, then hand them to the purchaser at the con. It's possible you pay for most of your expenses before the show!

    Want to grab people's attention? Buy some sketch-cover variants of DC and Marvel, and do a cover. It doesn't violate copyright (it's original artwork), and maybe someone sees what you can do.

    Of course, your share everything you do online!

    Also have a variety of price points available! Buttons and stickers for 50 cents or a dollar. Books. Sketch cards for $5. Sketch comics for $25 (or whatever the market will demand).

    Sometimes, you can stand in front of the table and accost passersby.
    A cup of individually wrapped candy is another attention-grabbing ploy, especially with young kids!

    Also... about those cosplayers? Sometimes they come back in their secret identities and buy stuff!
    Oh, and if you take their pictures, hand them your business card, and let them know you'll be posting pics later in the week! Web traffic! Social networking! Free advertising!

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  8. Hey Ryan! I think you've really nailed it here. Great write up! I particularly like how you present it in a problem/solution format.

    I do STAPLE! the indie con in Austin (11th annual show next march) which i started in part as a reaction to the way the big cons are run, and how AA folks were treated. It does seem they are becoming more focused on celebrity, film and tv - which is fine, but it's not my thing and doesn't help the indie comics peeps any. I do also recommend folks look for smaller, more comics oriented cons to set up at - they are tons of great ones out there and they're usually less expensive and a better return. If you want to come to Austin I know of a good one here ;)