It’s never quite conventional…
Not all nerd shows are created equal. Dawn and I have only been exhibiting for two years now, exclusively in California (and mostly Southern California, for that matter), but it’s a truth we’ve come to realize. You understand this phenomenon somewhat as an attendee as well… some conventions seem more cosplay-friendly than others, some have a more “all ages” atmosphere, some are just overall more crowded… but as an exhibitor I think you really start to pick up on certain differences, especially as the item that was such a hot seller last time gets barely a glance from the crowds at the next show.
Case in point, at Wizard World Anaheim we sold so many of Dawn’s Bits of Nothing collections that we came within a couple copies of completely running our stock dry. Zombie Ranch and her personalized sketch cards got a bit of attention, but nothing to crow over. Fast forward to San Diego Comic-Con and Bits of Nothing goes largely ignored while Zombie Ranch is seeing lots of love and Dawn can barely keep up with the sketch card demand (in one case, a lady just bought every single one currently on the table). Then there was APE, which was a very friendly and well attended show, but the crowds there just by and large didn’t seem interested in anything we had to offer. It’s possible we just looked too mainstream? That would be highly ironic considering the content of Zombie Ranch, but of course you have to get past first appearances to really know that.
We haven’t ever exhibited at an Anime themed convention since I don’t think that’s our audience, either, but when I attended Anime Expo this year I thought it was interesting how even though both it and more “standard” comic conventions have Artist’s Alleys, the set-up differs considerably. In the conventions I was used to, the table contained some of the artist’s work, but then behind them are the display banners, samples, etc. At Anime Expo, the display was usually a latticework of piping latched right to the front of the table and covered in art, with a small ‘window’ in the middle the artist(s) lurked in.
Psychologically, it seemed to me like the effect there was to present the art first and foremost, with the artist as an almost hidden afterthought. In some of the more extreme cases it seemed like people were handing their money and speaking their wishes into a mysterious cave from which signed prints would then mystically emerge. On the other hand, it perhaps makes you consider how much of the non-Anime-con Artist’s Alleys are cults of personality, where it’s the artist’s name and presence that brings the boys (and girls) to the yard, not necessarily whatever they’re producing at the moment. ‘JIM LEE’ says the banner. ‘TODD NAUCK’, says the next one over. That could be a simple function of more mainstream Artist’s Alleys having a lot of big names with big distributions, but in any case everyone tends to be front and center, easily able to lean over, shake your hand, and hear what you’d like sketched.
Speaking of which, one oddity we noted at APE was that not a single person asked Dawn for a sketch, and at every convention we’ve ever been at, someone’s always wanted something, even if it was just a quick free scrawl for their collection book. Then again the set-up is much like if a convention was entirely composed of Artist’s Alley, and I heard at least a couple people talk of how there was just too much for them to try to see in what little time they had available. It’s not a big convention geographically speaking, I could walk from one end to the other in a couple of minutes (try doing that at San Diego)… but there’s a lot packed in there.
No one asked me for a sketch, either. What? I did a few free ones at San Diego. At the requester’s own risk, of course. I’m the best there is at what I do… what I do isn’t pretty…
… no really, it isn’t pretty. I think my art skills haven’t improved much beyond what they were when I was six. It’s still fun to play around with, though… if you’re coming to Long Beach or Comikaze in a few weeks and you feel like a laugh, go right ahead and hit me up for one. It keeps me from getting into trouble. Mostly.
Anyhow, where was I? Oh yes, so basically, even when you’re not dealing with Anime/Manga versus more “Western” conventions (and since I haven’t been to one in Europe that may be a misnomer), there’s a lot of variance in terms of crowds, show management, and heck, even the nature of the surrounding area. Anaheim has a very pretty, very spacious convention site, but because of the proximity of Disneyland the hotel prices and even the food prices are through the roof. Everyone knows that getting eats inside the Convention hall is a great way to go broke, but Anaheim is a place where you go down the street to the IHOP and find the burger there will *also* cost you twelve dollars. Rough stuff, and every dollar spent on passes, lodgings, and tickets cuts into your budget for buying things at the convention itself. APE was wonderfully cheap at the door, but had the interesting phenomenon of having your parking for the event be pricier than the ticket to get in.
Sometimes it may also a matter of being able to stand out. We did well at one show because we were one of the only tables there with a comic to sell, but the other part of that equation is having people there who came looking to buy a comic. There was only one booth at APE selling discounted trade paperbacks, when most conventions usually have several. I don’t know how well they did when all was said and done, but they managed to fulfill my goal of getting a bunch of Love and Rockets books at a discount price, and without hassle. If you’ve ever tried to scout for trades at San Diego Comic-Con in the last few years, you’ll know just how important “without hassle” is. Before Dawn and I gave up on it completely we would be there on Sunday trying desperately not to die in the crush as we scavenged through 50% off and $5 “end of Con” specials. Now we know that it is much better to wait for a different convention where the booths don’t quite resemble a bad rugby pile-up. The deals are still there, and the selection usually is as well. Maybe even moreso.
It’s expensive to attend different conventions, even if they’re all local to you… that’s probably why we didn’t really start noticing all the different “vibes” and circumstances until we had wares of our own to hock and so a really good reason to do the legwork. There are subcultures that develop based on location, main subject matter, and even the traditions of the convention itself. Just like the problems with the concept of “Conventional Wisdom”, pop culture conventions are rarely something you can apply a blanket approach to.