Saturday, September 11, 2010

convention withdrawal

I'm going through SPX withdrawal symptoms today. The anxious feeling that I'm missing out on something important,  the feeling that "something's happening and I don't know what it is", missing out on an important fall ritual, the annual gathering of the east-coast alt-comics family that SPX is.  I didn't have the $300-$400 table fee when it was due this year, so I'm sitting this one out. It's driving me crazy.
But the skies are blue and it's a beautiful country day in upstate New York and when I really begin to think it over, I'm probably better off where I am rather than at the Bethesda Marriot at $150. a night.

The truth of it is--SPX--and every con I've ever done(solo) for that matter, has never made any economic sense. At the best of times, I've (just) covered my (1/2) table fee--but I've never made enough to cover hotel expenses, plus meals, plus display costs, plus, etc. Never even come close. Never. 
and I've been doing it on and off since 1997.  I've had 1/2 tables, full tables, no displays, big displays, sold $3.00 books for $1.00, $10.00 books for $5.00, buy one get one free, buy one get two free, given books away, stood in the aisles and flagged people down, stood behind my table and said nothing, engaged customers in happy patter, sat quietly and drawn; you name it, in the name of salesmanship I've done it.  None of my strategical variations seem to impact the economic bottom line.  Every year I tell myself it'll be different....
"This year I'd better bring a full box--100 books."
I've never sold more than 20 of a single title over two or three days. Never. Usually it's much less. But I still bring the full boxes. Just in case. You never know.

So I don't make money. So what? There's always the possibility of exposure, right? We all want to sell some books, get noticed, have the opportunity to create a career(of a kind) in this medium we love so much.
Certainly one of the reasons we all cite for exhibiting at SPX or one of the other alt-cons is the opportunity for exposure-to fans, to pros, to other creators. But the reality of it is, very few of the more than several hundred exhibitors will be noticed, whether by press or publishers.  The same few creators make the post con reports-- every now and again there's a new face, but for the most part the hierarchy is an established one. (compare one and two)
And the big gun publishers are way too busy trying to sell their own books to notice the hapless masses surrounding them.  I'll admit it, I've gone to cons over and over again hoping to "be noticed".  Never happened. Again --no matter how much noise I make behind my table--or how good I think my new book is--never happened. Once in awhile maybe you connect with someone "important" in the industry, (by connect I mean have a conversation)but over the course of my experiences I can't really claim that I was ever noticed by industry professionals to any significant degree.

Disappointed on those two fronts, finally, SPX and other similar cons do offer  the sense of community. The sense that you belong to this great big family we call independent or alternative comics--and the idea that we've come together to celebrate our medium and our collective endeavors. And that, ultimately, is the real benefit from shows like SPX.  The sense that you, the creator, working isolated and alone throughout the year and bereft of human connection  (except for The Comics Reporter or Journalista or Robot6)--can feel part of something larger than yourself.  I have certainly made some nice acquaintances over the years and had some very nice conversations. At the same time, (and I know I'm not the only one who experiences this), I always have the feeling that I'm crashing the cool kids' party.*   And  many of the other creators I've spoken with over the years have expressed the same observation--cliques aren't just a high school thing. On Sunday when it's all over,  as I'm wheeling my suitcase and a stack of unsold books back to the car, I invariably feel more distant from the community I love so much than I do when I'm at the computer screen reading the blogs days later.
Ok. OK. But what about the medium? What about finding new books at the shows? New stuff that knocks your socks off?  Yes--that has happened to me a couple of times over the years. I have stumbled across a book or two that I would never have heard of and I fell in love with.(look out J.T. Dockery!)
But truthfully, most of the time I come home with a bag of books that I flip through once and then put in the closet to look over "...some time in the future, when I have more time".
Hey, my stuff has ended up in someone else's bag in the closet too.
Because I'm trying to sell stuff, I rarely have time to go shopping or really pay attention to shopping. I might make my way over to the Fanta table, or D&Q--like everyone else at these shows--they have the new stuff I really want to see( or rather-- I've already heard of and am prepped to go seek out)--and on my limited budget I might be able to buy one book, "so what will it be"?
In the end, while Fanta & D&Q, are really big draws at these shows and must be responsible for at least half(maybe more) of the attendance, they are also "really big draws" at these shows and whatever expendable cash the attendees might have goes to those tables first. For those of us trying to sell our own stuff, their presence is a double-edged sword. And as a customer, I'm just as guilty as everyone else.
There's a lot of work that goes into preparing for a con. A lot of excitement, hope and expectation. But after reviewing the facts, I really know I'm better off looking out at this clear blue sky today.
But still---part of me(a big part) really wants to be in Bethesda.  Perverse, isn't it?


  1. Geoff!

    Hang in there and stick with it!

    I know dragging sales can get you down but at least you're putting yourself out there and selling something, right?

    Not everyone can say that!


  2. Should have tried selling $3 books for $3!

  3. Geoff,

    I agree with 100% of EVERYTHING you wrote! Great post.

    I've done SPX many times, MOCCA, and a few others (my worst experience was at APE) Never made nearly enough to cover expenses (though I travel alone and buy a full table, so my expenses are generally a little more than most).

    Is my work good enough? Who knows. I've been a professional artist for over 25 years, have made a good enough living to own a house, car, etc... but making any kind of splash in this comics community? Not so much.

    I also agree completely with your conclusions about the "clique community" at shows like SPX. Sometimes it feels worse than my old high school days. Maybe my age difference has a lot to do with it, but I've never felt welcome at these shows from both fellow artists and especially the comics press.

    Will I ever return to do these shows, like SPX (haven't been back in three years), who knows.
    Though I do miss all those great restaurants in Bethesda!

  4. 20 copies is pretty respectable number for a weekend at SPX, Geoff, isn't that the ceiling for this kind of show? I agree that most of the money spent goes to D&Q or Fanta or maybe buying a sketch off Jaime Hernandez - it is a weird show. I agree with most of what you write - I'm frustrated with the show a bit. But you missed a good one this year. It's way better than MoCCA - cheaper too - and smaller than TCAF. It's fandom, essentially, right? We pay to hangout and talk comics.

  5. Thank you for this I can totally relate. Ultimately you should go just to see other creators because comics is a lonely business and you need your friends.

    I do think there are two kinds of cartoonists though there is one who is the traditional introverted scribbler who grew up on comics and really deeply cares for the medium and works for decades to hone their craft. then there is the light hearted "I can do anything" artist who dabbles in comics and usually puts forth naive but fun work that does not challenge and it is this second group that I find does far better at convention in meeting fans, creators and publishers. they usually drop the comics after a few years to move on to something else. Oh how I loathe them.

  6. Yes! Say it with me, brother. Ahem, sorry, let me enthusiasm get away from me.

    I first wrote about similar thoughts after exhibiting at SPX '05 and '06 and APE '06 and '07. Never again. A consolidated version of my own thinking on this matter is online at

  7. I've exhibited at several conventions and have had similar feelings. It's always boggled my mind that so many people could afford to do these shows and not make any money doing it. Especially with tables now at $400.
    Ultimately I've come to my own personal conclusion that, so far, my work simply isn't good enough. I've rarely if ever seen a mini-comic at a convention that was excellent and didn't get attention or notice at some future time. The community and the industry, I feel, do have an excellent eye for talent, and the truly unique meaningful work, gets noticed. I've found it's only helpful to concern myself with my art, to improve the art, not necessarily the sales. I trust that improving one, will improve the other.
    Let me also just say, that I understand that sales isn't a concern about making money, as it's a desire to have people see your work. It seems like that point can get lost in these types of discussions.

  8. Hi Everyone! I was away from my computer yesterday, sorry I couldn't chime in sooner. I've always loved the vibe at SPX, even though I'm perpetually "outside" to some degree.(like a lot of folks, apparently)
    Just seeing all those comics creators and a room full of readers who are interested in what we "alternatives" do is a terrific buzz.

    When I was younger that might have been enough.

    But(like a lot of folks)I have a mortgage on an old house that needs constant repair, a barn roof that had to be replaced this summer,property taxes, credit cards,etc.,etc.
    $400. a table(plus,plus,plus) is a little steep to pay for good vibes. (And at that price, how does any of us afford to do 2 or 3-or more- shows a year? and travel to them? We're artists, dammit!)

    At this point in the journey I have two over-riding goals: to establish an audience(however small) that makes the work viable, and make enough cash to print the next book. My experience at cons like SPX indicates you can make some inroad to the former-but at the expense of the latter.
    (at least at $400. per table.
    But-- I notice that there's a new indy con in Boston( that if I remember correctly was less than $100. per table. Now that goes a way towards making some kind of economic sense. *too late*-tables are sold out)

    Jeff-As honest as I can be--as to the quality of the work, I don't really know that it has much of an impact on books sold. I sold as many of my early lousy books as I do of my latter stuff, and I'd put my new stuff up against anything.
    (plug time:

    I've had to cajole convention customers into picking up the new, good stuff, just the same as for the bad stuff.
    My wife's been in retail a long time. She can tell you that on any given day you never know what's gonna sell. But there's an old adage:-you're likely going to sell to at least 1% of the total # of customers in the room. So if attendance is 2000, you'll probably sell 20 of something--no matter what you have!
    (& as to the stuff that gets noticed--there's no guarantee in this life that quality automatically rises to the top. This is America, gosh darn it!)

  9. Is it worth it? I don't know. Missed you this year, Geoff, and I almost didn't go myself. Thanks for the nod; the feeling's mutual.

  10. "In Tongues" was one of the best things I ever came across at SPX, JT! Astounding piece of work.

  11. Frank, you know? That would be such an interesting thread to dissect. I would LOVE to hear some actual numbers.

    I would've thought that 20 copies would be considered some kind of failure perhaps, as I have sold around that amount at SPX previously and only felt slightly ok, as it was better than I did at a previous convention.

    But I think real numbers would be so interesting and helpful to hear.

    Like comparing "known" folks who get press like the Wertz/Bell/Davis/Glidden crew to nobodies like me :-) to see what we should be aiming for or at least expecting at these things.

    Do the popular folks tend to make a profit, or just hope to break even like some of us schmucks. Do any of these folks make some or most of their living with indie comix? What's the percentage of folks who have dayjobs who exhibit at the con?

    C. Spike Trotman is someone who is interestingly business minded. Like when I approached her booth, she said she sold 100 books but she wanted more, and I bought one. But that book was a $12 trade. So could she be one of the most profitable people there?

    Dunno, I'd actually love to hear more about the business side of this stuff. I know we're supposed to be in it for "the art", but the commerce seems intriguing to me.