Some Thoughts as SPX Announces Its Table Plans for 2014

The Small Press Expo announced its Table Plans for 2014, striving to get ahead of an issue that plagued them in 2013 by forming a solution that keeps the spirit of the open show alive while dealing with the start reality of overwhelming popularity.

In a posting to their Tumblr tonight, the Expo explained that despite their desire to keep the show as open as possible to all, the sheer volume of requests--which crashed their online attempt in 2013 and created a huge backlash that only expanding the size of the show (one heck of a gambit) could mollify.

The plan worked out fine, but if SPX decides to stay in its Bethesda location (which I am not convinced is their best move, long-term) they simply cannot expand further. They've taken up all the available space without asking the hotel to let them suspend tables from the ceilings or evict the overpriced Starbucks. If demand grows again--and I bet it will--there's just no way that the free-for-all nature of the tabling rules could continue.

SPX's solution is one that I suggested, and frankly, am surprised they haven't been doing for years. They're going with right of first refusal for repeat creators and small publishers, and reserving the rest of the space for a lottery, so that now, access to a postal service or a delay in your internet connection won't prevent you from joining the tabling at SPX in 2014.

From the post:
Here’s a crazy notion: SPX has literally doubled in size since 2011. We are now able to accommodate a larger and more diverse group of creators than ever before.  And we’re committed to keeping SPX open to all, whether you’re just starting out or have been honing your craft for years. Moving to a table Lottery allows us to meet these goals while removing the potential for unfairness and unquestionable inconvenience that had crept into our ”first come, first serve” process.  
Going forward there will be total transparency to how people get their tables and how the wait list works. We’ll have a simple initial registration and a lengthy window of registration so you won’t be dealing with website crashes. This will be a truly random and fair process to reserve your tables.
As the post goes on to talk about, there's always been a bit of the dreaded "C-word" (curating) because when you have special guests, they need table space, so that's always been reserved. Similarly, if you're making a big deal about cartoonists from the other side of the world, you can be sure that others from that location are going to get some table time.

Now that's out in the open, along with an acknowledgement that SPX just isn't the show it is without certain exhibitors. Image a show with no Fantagraphics serving as an anchor to bring in casual fans that linger and buy from smaller pubs, like Retrofit. Similarly, smaller creators who are an SPX institution, like the DC Conspiracy collective or Noah Van Sciver or Anne Thalheimer should always have a table waiting for them, as long as they want to participate in the show.

For me, and I know I'm not the only one, SPX is like a family reunion. I *want* to see new faces, yes, but I also want to go--especially now, since going means spending like $500 on travel and lodging--knowing that I'll see the people I go to the show for.

This process, while it does involve a bit of screening, makes sure that's going to happen. Obviously, SPX isn't going to talk about how they pick the invitations, but I have a feeling a lot will do with how many shows a creator has made, not how many sales they make or which publisher they're attached to.

The other half of this is how much better it will be to get a table for those who are new. Sure, losing out on a lottery sucks, but that means it's merely chance that blocks you from going as an exhibitor, not your internet connection or a postmark. If you're going to be sore because you're a new person and you're not being given the same treatment as NBM Publishing, well, maybe SPX isn't the show for you. Because I can tell you right now that no matter how big it's gotten (and SPX reports they've doubled in size since 2011, to say nothing of prior years), no show will do more to help new creators than SPX.

Even this is done with helping bring new talent in, year in and year out. Frankly, after a few comments, no one would have begrudged SPX for going full-on curated, even if that meant changing the spirit of the show. By splitting things up between old friends and new, SPX is showing they're committed to growing the small comics community, and that's a fact.

The only question that lingers for me is attendance. Sure, SPX did enough that they were able to take the entire hotel again for 2014. That's absolutely awesome. But I can't help but wonder about the attendance numbers. Can SPX keep pulling creator rabbits out of its hat to goose attendance to a place that's a destination, not a foot traffic spot? Or are there only so many times that Adrian Tomine will help with drawing fans in?

I love that SPX has grown, because it's still my favorite show and possibly always will be, even though I'm unlikely to make it again until their 20th anniversary. But that growth in the community also needs a growth in people willing to spend money. SPX seems to have fixed the tabling problem, but there are still challenges afoot as the show moves on. I only hope they meet them as successfully as they did their registration issues.