Whit and Wisdom: 10 Tips for Your First Con

I went to my first comic con in 2008 when I was living in Los Angeles. After a rather raucous Halloween party the night before, I somehow managed to make a trip to the Alternative Press Expo (APE) in San Francisco. I had JUST started making mini comics and had no intention to sell because I really didn’t know what the deal was going to be. Instead, I just went to check it out. A year after that, I had my first table. You will learn something new each time you exhibit, but I want to focus more on your first time and what to prepare for.  Here are 10 things to consider for your first con.

1) Pick Your Con
There are a lot of cons out there, and this is especially true in the last few years, as we have seen a proliferation of new ones all over the country and world. Decide what type of thing you are looking for, taking genre, size, and location into consideration.  Are you looking for more of a “mainstream” convention or small press one? Big conventions like New York Comic Con or small ones like the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE)? Are you willing to fly out to San Diego for the mother of all conventions or do you want to start small at a local one? 

It may be a bit of a guessing game because you haven’t been to one yet and have no frame of reference, but if you know the type of work you are looking for, do your research, as you want to make the most out of your experience and determine if this is the type of place you’d want to sell at in the future.

2) Check it Out, No Strings Attached
Instead of jumping into being an exhibitor, I’d definitely recommend going to a comic con as a spectator first. Again, this will help you determine if the con is the right fit for you. It also clues you in to how exhibiting works and allows you the opportunity to talk to exhibitors about their experiences. Also, given that you are not exhibiting, it allows you more time to take advantage of perks such as panels and signings.

If you’re comfortable with it, bring some comics to trade or give away. There is usually a table with free stuff such as flyers, minis and stickers to which you can contribute. Or you can go up to exhibitors and see if they are willing to trade or just take your comic. When I went to APE, I brought a backpack of my first minis and handed them out to some cartoonists that I admired. Now I am wincing at the thought of them, but it was good practice in putting my name out there and getting to know other cartoonists.

3) Why Sell?
So you had a good time at the con and you are considering exhibiting next year.  I’m totally a fan of just signing up/applying and seeing what happens, but at the same time it’s good to consider what your goals are and where you are as a cartoonist. Do you feel comfortable sharing your work as it is? Standing by your work is crucial in successfully promoting yourself. Are you expecting to make bank? To be honest, unless you are some up and coming hotshot, your first con will not be the most lucrative and you may lose money. Are you planning on meeting other artists and people in the industry? This is probably the most valuable reason to go. In reality, your first con will most likely not be what you expected, but it is good to consider these questions before you commit.

4) Figure Out the Financials
This is three-fold. The first concerns participation expenses. How much does the table cost? Full or half? I recommend starting off with half, as it looks way better to have a fuller half table than a sparse full one…and it’s cheaper. What about travel and lodging? For instance, if you are going to SPX and are from out of town, you will have to pay for two or so nights at the Marriott (unless you choose to stay elsewhere, but staying there is highly recommended), plus transportation (car, bus, plane, train and/or public transit). Then there is food and drink. And anything related to table set up, such as display racks, signs, etc.

Next comes the printing. How many comics to bring? If you are not making your own, but rather having them printed, you will need to be extra mindful of budget (unless you are rich, and come on, how many of us cartoonists fit that bill?). Again, unless you are some sort of wunderkind, I’d recommend starting off on the smaller side with printing, especially for anything in color, as it adds up. 

The last thing to consider is purchasing other comics. I’d highly suggest setting a budget, because before you know it, things can get out of hand and you can blow through your money early in the show. Yes, you will probably pick up things that you did not expect, but set a rough spending limit if you can (more on this later).

5) Consider Your Table Setup
The great part of checking out a con before you decide to sell is that you can scope out other cartoonists’ table setups. Table set up is super important and can really influence your sales and approachability. There’s no one way to do it, but think about what you intend to sell and how that can most effectively be arranged in your space. As for things to bring I’d suggest: tablecloth (sometimes they’re supplied by the venue, but don’t count on it), signage with your name/business, display stands/racks if needed, business cards, price list/signs, petty cash (to make change),  sketch book and pens to occupy your time, and random things like tape and scissors. Oh, and for your first time especially, get there early to set up. You don’t want to be scrambling last minute, especially since everything is unfamiliar.

6) Get to Know Your Neighbors
Forging a respectful and friendly relationship with your neighbors is super important. Why? Several reasons. First, you’re going to be there for a while, so why not have someone to talk to? Second, especially if you are selling on your own, it’s good to have someone who is willing to watch your table while you run to the bathroom or look around.  Third, if you’re a newbie, you can learn a lot from more seasoned exhibitors. Also, I think this is one of the cases where you should be especially open to trading comics of equal value, as it is a courtesy.

One more note: As a new exhibitor, it’s likely that a more established neighbor of yours will make more sales or have more visitors. Do not get discouraged by this or think it reflects on you. It takes time to build a fan base and make friends at these things. If you return each year, it will most likely get easier, as more people will recognize you and your work.

7) Have a Floor Strategy
Make sure to get away from your table for a little bit to see what’s out there, but be smart about it to maximize your time. Especially if you go to a large show, the floor can be overwhelming. I recommend getting the program guide and prioritizing a handful of tables to visit first, with an openness to wander around and see what else peaks your interest. If you already have in mind works that you MUST buy then go ahead, especially if you think something will sell out. Going back to the budgeting issue though, I think it’s best to walk around the entire floor(s) before making too many purchases. It’ll give you a better sense of what is out there, prevent impulse buys, and help you be more thoughtful about your purchases.

8) Perfect Your Pitch
I don’t know if you can ever ‘perfect’ your pitch, as it implies that everyone will want to buy your comic based on what you tell them. But try to make it as appealing and dynamic as possible. One way to get better is to listen to other peoples’ pitches and see what calls out to you. Sometimes it’s just an issue of subject matter and aesthetics, which are personal preferences, but I guarantee you that a lot of sales are based on your pitch delivery. This includes projecting confidence, having positive body language, and not putting pressure, overt or covert, on people to buy. But it’s also in your words and luckily, based on peoples’ responses, you can modify it as needed. 

For instance, what sounds better: “This is a story about going to high school” or “My comic is a coming of age story about a wacky group of misfits who navigate high school in the late 90s. If you like Freaks and Geeks and/or Daria, this might be for you.” Trust me, I’m still learning, but it gets easier with time.

9) Meet Other people
Again, just like the neighbor thing, get to know other exhibitors. Make an effort to go up to their tables, introduce yourself and chat. Don’t be ashamed to admit that it’s your first time and ask for advice. Be kind and sociable with people who come up to your table, even if they don’t buy from you. Comic cons are not just about the merch. They are about building relationships over a shared passion. That’s pretty exciting stuff.

10) Have Fun
Your first con (or subsequent ones) will never go as expected and that’s ok. Remember how I went to APE with a backpack of comics? Well day one it rained and I couldn’t find a ride back to my buddy’s house which caused me to freak out. I desperately tried to hail taxis to no avail and my backpack got soaked, wrinkling my comics and making me CRY. 

The year later I had some personal setbacks right before selling at my first con and went under less than ideal circumstances. The person who was supposed to help me sell ditched me to go hang out with friends in the city and I felt deflated because some press person told me that my table set up sucked. 

These two experiences made me wonder if I was cut out for this. I realized though that I was focusing too much on the negative. The first year opened me up to a new world that was brimming with opportunity as a comics fan and budding cartoonist. And the second year made me realize what to strive for. I still keep in touch with many of those people from my first con, both professionally and personally. So things might not work out as planned, but focus on what you gained and continue to build on it each year. And pat yourself on the back that you took the chance to put yourself out there.