Small Fish in a Big Con, Part 2: Swimming With the Big Fish
Read Part 1 if you haven’t yet!
Now that I’d earned a spot at my biggest con yet, MSPSpringCon , I knew I needed to up my game, to shift my normal con plans. Part of this change was pretty obvious. I had to make sure I had enough product for the bigger crowd, so I ordered extra copies of each of my graphic novels. And then, thinking about it some more, I ordered more extra copies. I figured that I’d always be able to sell the extras later–if I had any extras–but that I didn’t want to run out on the first day of the con when I was in a different state.
Some of these changes were still obvious, but ones I’d been putting off. Before this point, I’d used a big piece of paper as my “tablecloth”, a piece of paper that I’d written my name and company on in marker. Talk about professional. I knew I needed something classier (and more durable) than that, so I ordered a table cloth. Weirdly, the first cloth they sent had my logo on it, just printed upside down. Luckily, they comped me a second cloth that was printed correctly. I didn’t know it at the time, but I could use the bad version for covering my table overnight at multiple day cons.
I also needed a better display (given that I’d only displayed my books laying down on the table, spread out like a fan). When I was at a comic signing for Free Comic Book Day, someone who was in marketing told me that I should have my comics displayed vertically, displayed in a better way for the customer to see it. This, again, seems obvious, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time as a writer and self-publisher, it’s that sometimes I need to make mistakes and then correct them with a solution that in hindsight seems obvious. Like any new trade, skill, or job, we can be overwhelmed when we start it and miss the fixes staring us right in our faces. At that FCBD, I’d luckily had a plastic shelving unit, one where the shelves pulled out of the frame, so I used those as containers holding my graphic novels then and figured it would be good enough to use at the con.
Finally, I printed out some new signs; at previous Mighty Cons, many creators told me that I was selling my graphic novels at too cheap a price. And they were right–I was selling the first trade for $5 and the second for $10, when the cover prices on both of those were $15. With those discount prices, I needed to sell about 50 copies to barely make a profit at the Mighty Cons, to cover the table cost, printing costs of the graphic novel, transportation, and then still only make a few extra dollars. They also rightly pointed out that I could charge even more than cover price, given that they were getting a signature and personalized message. I still don’t feel comfortable charging more than cover price, but I decided to charge cover price with one exception: the old edition of Act 1 would be $10 instead of $15. I figured that it would help to have a discount option, especially in the face of stiffer competition at the bigger MSPSpringCon.
Finally, I figured out lodging. I grew up right outside Minneapolis, and my family still lives there, so I was fortunate enough to have a rent-free place to lay my head. And, since the table at MSPSpringCon was free (a rarity at cons, something that happens because they vet the creators they want there instead of just selling the spaces), my whole trip would be pure profit (well, minus the cost of gas for driving). Still, most cons don’t come with that small of overhead.
All that was left was the waiting. And the Tweeting. And the Instagramming. These were things I would do anyway, but MCBA (the Midwest Comic Book Association, the organization sponsoring the con) wanted me to do this too.
The weekend of the con approached, and I drove to Minneapolis that Friday, the day before the con started, to set up. Compared to other tables, I didn’t have much to set up, but I still wanted to do it early and lay that worry to rest. When I was done setting up, there was one comparison to other tables that couldn’t escape my notice: they all used tablecloths to cover their wares overnight. I’d written earlier that I could use the first, misprinted tablecloth in this manner, but I didn’t know that until this moment. And I’d left that tablecloth at home. Still, like everything, I learned how to better myself and what to do next time for a stronger show.
I fitfully slept through the night and woke up so early that I decide to head to the con (at the MN State Fairgronds) about an hour earlier than I’d planned. Once I got there, I didn’t do much other than the last minute setting up that left me with still about an hour before the doors opened. Knowing that I don’t stray from my table much once the con starts, I took that opportunity to buy a few trades and–more importantly–scope out the competition/friendly family of creators. I had a good small conversation with Peter Krause, praising his work on Irredeemable (being a stereotypical rookie gushing praise, of course), meeting Karl Kesel, and seeing the booth for Dan Jurgens empty (the big names did seem to cut it close to opening time, but I suppose that’s the way I’ll eventually be too, once cons become less exciting and new).
Since it was pretty bad weather–overcast and going to rain the rest of the weekend–the con opened early so that customers didn’t have to stand outside and possibly get drenched. And, even with the rain, this con had a bigger crowd than any I’d seen so far as a creator. Of course, this was because the venue was bigger, the location was a denser city than Madison, and (most importantly) there were bigger names from the industry here than at Mighty Con.
Despite the big crowd, though, I wasn’t doing any better than at Mighty Con in terms of sales. I was doing much worse, in fact. It took me about three hours to make my first sale; at Mighty Con, I would’ve probably sold 10 trades in that time, partly because of the limited competition, partly because I was a true local author at those cons, and (possibly) partly because of the reduced prices. By the end of the day, I’d sold four trades, and my spirits had sunk. I had brought 200 trades with me to the con, and it was clear that I only needed a sliver of that amount.
There were still a few good things to say about that day, though. First, MCBA knows how to treat their creators. They gave us a free lunch, one that had a lot of variety and tasted pretty good, especially for mass-produced meals. They also–after the con ended that day–had a free steak dinner social. While the food there was a little lackluster (steak especially suffers from being mass-produced), I got to meet a lot of fellow creators and see that my experience wasn’t too different from other small publishers and independent creators.
They too only sold a handful of trades but were able to look on it in a bright light. They talked about the exposure, something that was true: while only a few attendees purchased Rebirth of the Gangster, I talked to more people about my work that day than probably all of my cons added up to that point. And, you know what they say, sometimes it takes seven exposures to something to remember it, let alone buy something. I even think back to some of my favorite comics and other media, and I realize that it often takes me about a half year from the first time I hear about something to actually buy it, read it, play it, or watch it. So, trying to join the other creators, I focused on that silver lining.
And, speaking of fellow creators, one of the best parts of the con (that Saturday and Sunday too) was meeting and talking to the other creator at my table, Jet Falco. He was friendly, knowledgeable (having been to more cons than I had), relaxed–something I needed, because I was getting more and more anxious as the day went on and my sales sputtered out–and he also had a pretty cool concept for his work, Dreamers Echo. His work is about a world where dreams have somehow disappeared, until the main character starts to be the first to dream in ages. I may even write a short story to contribute to his next volume: a cool way to keep building my writing chops, pay him back for his advice, and widen my audience.
The next day rolled around, and I slept more soundly. I was still nervous in the sense that I wanted to sell more trades, but I think having a quiet Saturday actually calmed my nerves in general. I didn’t have much to worry about, because I didn’t have to think about running out of trades, being so busy I couldn’t eat the free lunch, etc… And, maybe because of that relative relaxation, Sunday was a better day.
I was more personable, I was having more fun, and–from a business standpoint–I was selling more comics. Part of those sales were from attendees I saw the first day. They had to look around and really decide what was worth spending their hard-earned cash on, what fit in their budget and what didn’t. But some of these sales were from attendees who hadn’t heard my pitch before, and their immediate interest relaxed me even more. At the end of the day, while the con hadn’t met my original sales expectations, I was still pretty happy. Yeah, at this point, being a big fish in a big con might be more financially lucrative, but I had learned one thing. I was still a small fish in a big con, but I had proved I can swim with the big fish, even if they had bigger fins…for now.
CJ Standal is a writer and self-publisher. He is co-creator of Rebirth of the Gangster, which has been featured in Alterna Comics’ 2017 IF Anthology; he has lettered the webcomic Henshin Man; and he has written for online sites like Graphic Policy and the now-defunct Slant. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@cj_standal), Facebook, and visit his website: cjstandalproductions.com.