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An Author’s Guide to Comic Conventions

This may be useful for anyone interested in selling their work at comic conventions, but today we’ll be focusing on authors. If you haven’t yet, check out The Con Game article for more on why I focus my book sales on comic conventions.

First Things First
Let me explain some stuff about my work so you know right where I’m coming from. Conventions may not be a good fit for everyone but if you’re looking for a new way to sell your stories and meet new fans, I think they’re pretty great.

• My books are Middle Grade. If you’re selling original work in a world of super heroes and movie stars, it’s best to know your audience. Comic conventions are full of kids and adults who refuse to grow up, so it’s a good fit for me. If you’re writing fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or super hero stories, you’re sure to find an audience here.

• I’ve got years of experience in customer service. From my days of popcorn slanging in a movie theater to my time of handing out bullets at Gander Mountain, handling a crowd is no problem for me. A big comic convention is like working the holiday rush in retail, except it’s up to you to make the sale instead of the Black Friday doorbuster ad in the newspaper.

• I draw. My books are illustrated, about one picture per ten pages. I have built up a lot of work to add to the visual appeal of my table. While this all isn’t necessary, it does help a lot to make you stand out in the sea of awesomeness that is the Artist Alley. If you aren’t able to produce your own visual supplements to your books, check out my Eye Candy article for some ideas.

Why an Author Should Consider Comic Conventions
Most of the words of wisdom out there for indie publishing focus on getting things going on Amazon. Not today, my fellow scribe!

The internet is hard. In 2014, I totally owned the Scary Stories category during the week of Halloween with my book, Monsters Around the Campfire. Despite a bunch of online promotions I had done, after Halloween, it was back to the crickets I was used to hearing. This was a real bummer because I had released the book only on Kindle. I was broke at the time with one ISBN left (those things are stupid expensive) so I decided to try my hand at a non-print release. I failed.

But now, I’ve got Monsters in print, and just as I’ve been doing since 2010, selling paperbacks is no problemo. But why is it that I can move more books in print at $10 than I can a 99 cent eBook?

Awareness.

There’s so much online and so many people that are good at doing that internet thing, why not narrow down the playing field? While there is plenty of competition at live shows, they give you a chance to meet and talk to your future fans. The people who have bought my books at shows are people that I talked with and got to know, even if for just a couple minutes.

And if you have always focused on online sales, many of the basics still apply here. For example, everyone that buys a book from me, and some that don’t, I get to sign up for the email list so they can get free goodies and I can let them know when the next book is out. See. That’s the con behind conventions. It isn’t to try and make a living by what you earn at shows. It’s to connect directly with your readers and to become an author whose work they look forward to reading. Just like how we do on the internet but I’m willing to bet any reader out there is going to have a fonder memory of the author they met in person over the one who turned up in their “Also Boughts”.

Let’s Get Started
Hmm. This article is looking longer than I had expected to be what with the ramblings and such. So here are some links instead of me adding more to this monstrosity.

Start Small, Start Local

Setting the Stage

Eye Candy

I’m planning on posting some more of these over time because, you know, the internet. If you want to keep an eye on things, sign up for the mailing list. It’s mostly geared toward my fiction audience, but any big news on this other weird stuff will also be coming from there… for now.

Authors! Want to shiny up your display at live events? Check out Ratatat Graphics for custom illustration. See your characters brought to life in the glorious Second Dimension!!!

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Start Small, Start Local

One of the reasons I do well at the big comic conventions is that I get a lot of time to practice. During the summer, I have a booth at the Kenosha Harbor Market, an outdoor market with produce, arts, crafts, and a taste of the local flavor. This takes place every Saturday, and while it isn’t exactly the comic con crowd, I’ve carved out a nice little niche for myself.

While it’s a bit odd to have monster books on display next to someone selling rutabagas, the show is local, cheap to get into, and a whole lot of people show up every week.

Small comic book shows can be risky. They predominantly feature people selling their collections or comic shops going on the road rather than independent artists. If you can find a local small press show, those can be a natural fit. Unfortunately, small artist focused shows are few and far between.

If you do have a local market that you can weasel your way into, try it out or at least wander around for a day to see if there’s anyone doing something similar to what you bring to the table. Here are some things I’ve learned since doing my local show:

• It’s pretty inexpensive, long term. There were some big expenses right out the gate for this show – buying a pop-up tent, getting tables, the general display stuff. However, those costs all dwindle down if you’re able to use the equipment over and over.

• Repeat customers. There are some pros and cons with this one. While you get to see the same folks over and over and build your cult following, you have to be able to give them something new every once in a while. I don’t produce a book every week, so I’ve had to expand into some quick and easy things to offer my audience. This includes buttons, artwork, and everybody’s favorite, ZomBeans.

• Selling books or paper products outdoors can be a real bummer, what with weather being a thing. Make sure to protect your product in the big, scary outdoors. Plastic totes do the trick. If rain does roll into the forecast, that can really wipe out the attendance of outdoor shows and kill sales. That’s why I focus on doing a repeating show rather than finding a bunch of different annual shows. The annual shows may introduce you to a different crowd, but if weather ruins it, it won’t do you any good. If you have a chance to do a weekly or monthly show repeatedly, weather becomes less of a factor since your spreading the whole thing out. And if the show has built up its own hardcore audience, they’re more likely to come out in the rain than people would for annual shows.

That’s all I’ve got for now but I’ll update this post whenever new things pop into my head. Please leave any questions you have in the comments below.

Authors! Want to shiny up your display at live events? Check out Ratatat Graphics for custom illustration. See your characters brought to life in the glorious Second Dimension!!!

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Eye Candy

Are you looking for things to shiny up your convention table? Of course, you are!

As an author, I had to ask myself, “What can I do to help sell my books in the mysterious land of Artist Alley? Surely, books alone won’t be enough to draw in the eyeballs.”

I needed some eye candy!

While I am a lucky duck and can draw up my own visual amazingness for my display, you may not have that very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you, but if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you.

… um. Sorry?

Okay! Here we go! These are some things that you can do to help your table stand out from the crowd.

Buttons

These shiny little gems are nerd currency. If you have characters, catchphrases, logos or symbols associated with your story, buttons are a cheap and easy way to attract customers. And while you can sell them and make some quick cash, their cost is low enough that you may be able to just give them away to promote your brand.

buttons
I used to offer custom buttons for people, but prices online are so cheap I really can’t compete. Here are some companies that will make buttons for you.

http://www.purebuttons.com
http://www.busybeaver.net

Artwork

Since I illustrate my books, having lots of artwork was a no-brainer for me. But this is to help you non-doodlers, right?

A great thing about working in comic conventions is that you have immediate contact with tons of artists, all with their work on display so you can find the ones you like. Many of them aren’t just their to sell their art, but are there to take on commissions. Some will have signs displayed to let you know they’re available for freelance work. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to ask. Even if a certain artist doesn’t do commissions, you’ll probably make his or her day if you like their work enough to ask about it.

Warning: Here’s a shameless plug. If you’re looking for custom character illustration or illustrated book cover designs, check out Ratatat Graphics, where I offer these services. The artwork I do there is made with authors in mind so whatever I produce can be used in promotions across all sorts of platforms. Like maybe a big poster of your protagonist doing something rad that you can display next to your books at a show. Just sayin’.

And I don’t do all my own art. Click here to check out some of the pieces I’ve commissioned.

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Mr. Fear by Jim Calafiore

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Constance Adora by J. Scott Campbell

Banners

Since I just mention Ratatat Graphics, I may as well tell you how I screwed up for a real long time. When I first started doing the books and four years into it, I was putting them out under Ratatat, my graphic design company. So, I promoted Ratatat at shows, did cons under that name. That was a mistake. If the books have a big fat “Donovan Scherer” on the front cover and those are the things I want to focus on, “Donovan Scherer” is the brand I should be promoting.

And now, the banner shows it.

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Your banner isn’t just important to get your name out there. It helps a lot to build recognition. I’ve had lots of people over the years come up to my table because they spotted that familiar site (not sure what they’ll think now that the old Ratatat banner is retired).

For creating your banner, there are a lot of “design your own banner” online things, generally available by companies that also do the printing. And if you’re getting some commissioned artwork done, be sure to talk to your artist about design your banner. Just remember, your banner should reflect your brand. The banner I have now is the exact same artwork on the homepage of this artwork. Build that recognition.

Some places to get custom banners that I’ve used and recommend:

http://www.vistaprint.com – Good prices and lots of options for all sorts of stuff.
http://www.bannerbuzz.com – GREAT prices and size options. Printing quality is right up there but the material is not as high quality as Vistaprint’s heavy duty vinyl. Something to keep in mind if you’re doing shows outdoors.

Video

First off, I don’t think this is necessary in any way. It can help bring in a few more people but if you don’t already have some video and something to play it on, I can’t fully recommend adding this to your table.

I have ZomBeans, a game I made for iOS and Android, and needed some way to show it off. That’s why video plays a part on my stage. It does catch some eyeballs and since it’s animated, most of those eyeballs belong to kids. I tell the parents about the game, which is part of the Fear & Sunshine series, so it does serve to transition toward the books. But man, what if i want to fart around on my iPad during the slow parts of the show? Honestly, I think most of the people who come to check out the game would be equally interested by the artwork and other stuff. Plus, most of the kids that get super entranced by the moving pictures are too young for the books anyway.

That all said, if you do want video, here are some tips.

Don’t be reliant on audio. The convention floor gets loud and nobody is going to hear what your video is trying to say. And if you crank up the volume, you’re just going to annoy your neighbors. You’ll probably annoy yourself, too. Do you really want to listen to the same thing over and over for nine hours?

While you shouldn’t be reliant on the audio, it should have at least some music. Though quiet, if somebody is really checking it out, a little bit of music can help enhance the experience for them.

Keep it short. Let your video summarize what it’s there to say as quickly as possible. You want to keep your customer moving – either to you to check out more of your work, or away from the table if they aren’t interested. No reason to have people mulling about watching movies and blocking your table from potential customers.

Don’t go for the Oscars. The point of video at your table is to bring people over. As long as it’s eye-catching, even for a moment, that should do the trick. A lot of the generic book trailers provided on fiverr.com should be enough to work.

If you’re playing the video on an iPad, it’s probably gonna die. I can usually squeeze 7-8 hours of looping video out of mine (I use the app vLoop for mine). There are battery booster packs you can bring along but be sure to check that your model is compatible. Many of the phone boosters will not work on an iPad.

Characters

How would your characters look if you really brought them to life?

One of the first things I did when starting the show scene was to create a costume for Mr. Fear, the villain of my story. This was a bit of an undertaking but it was awesome to have him walking around the convention floor, getting pictures with fans and celebrities. Nowadays, I can’t talk anyone into wearing the costume (there’s a smell), but it was definitely a worthwhile investment of time.

And while it may seem a little silly to dress as a character who no one knows, especially if that character doesn’t have any real outstanding visual features, even the theme could play into your costume. If you’re promoting a steampunk series, bring out the gears and buckles. If you write horror, goth it up! High fantasy? Get some pointy ear things.

Click here if you want to check out the process of building the Mr. Fear costume. It’s pretty neat.

The Table Itself

Check out my article “Setting the Stage” for this one.

That’s it for now. If you have more ideas on how to shiny up your Artist Alley display, let me know in the comments below!

Thanks for reading!