According to our current on-site poll, which we’ve let percolate for several weeks now, not one person has ever discovered Zombie Ranch as a result of running into us at a “Live Appearance”, which naturally would include any of the conventions we’ve ever done; including Comikaze 2012 which came and went with the poll live for voting purposes.

So what’s that mean? Well, technically speaking not much, since all we’re sampling are the people who bothered to vote and not the readership as a whole. Still, I must admit I would have hoped for a number above zero, considering all the hundreds of fliers we’ve given away in the last three years. Plus, if you think going to conventions is a money sink as an attendee, you should try it some time as an exhibitor.

Sure, the idea is that you’re going to make some sales back to help cover your costs, or maybe even make some profit, but I’m fully willing to admit we have still not mastered that. So you think, hey, at least we’re getting our names out there and getting some exposure… but then you find out even that’s questionable. Is it worth continuing when it seems like most of your audience is finding you through online means, anyhow?

If you by any chance have followed the behind-the-scenes saga of Zombie Ranch from its very beginning, you’ll know that it was never even a decision for us on whether or not taking the comic to a convention was a good idea. The comic bloody well got jumpstarted from concept to reality because we had applied to the first ever Long Beach Comic-Con, mostly with the thought of just trying to showcase Dawn’s art, but then we got our acceptance notice and decided to try to show off a comic book as well. What happened next was more of a frantic blur than any form of careful planning. We jumped right in the deep end with some vague ideas about learning to swim. I can’t even remember at what point we ended up deciding to make it a webcomic, but once we had we timed our first online page to publish right as the first day of the convention opened. And remember this was pretty much our first go at an ongoing comic story, as well, along with a great heaping helping of “Who the hell are you guys and why should I care?” It was probably, by any measure, an insane plan.

There’s been quite a bit of learning between 2009 and now, but conventions are still just something where I can’t quite figure if we’re on a learning curve… and even if we are, is it curving up or down? I mean, our biggest sales to date were at Emerald City Comic-Con, and had that been a local show we might have broken even or perhaps even come out ahead… but alas, once table and travel expenses were figured in, no chance. Then we come back to the more local shows, where the travel is cheaper, but we just can’t seem to get the same kind of gross out of them. What sells at one show gathers dust at the next. Even the same exact show can vary wildly from year to year, so if your thought is that you might eventually make enough money to justify your presence, much less have extra to kick back into your creative and personal life, you can imagine that being somewhat frustrating.

That said, I do know webcomic people who aren’t on the scale of, say, Phil Foglio, who still seem able to consistently break even or profit, and in a lot of cases they’ll admit it took them years to get to that point. They have a diverse set of merchandise that covers price ranges from “What the heck, I’ll buy a set of buttons for $1″ to “What the heck, I’ll buy that custom sculpture for $200″. They also manage to store, transport, set-up and take-down their elaborate displays with a minimum of fuss. They pay $1000 for a booth, confident that by the end of the weekend they’ll have made that back and then some.

They also make most of their money selling stuff that’s designed to look cool to passerby, without hinging on whatever comic they’re doing. This is perhaps the biggest dirty secret of making money at conventions; you have to let go of your ego and accept that a majority of purchasers don’t know or care about your story, they just think that zombie horse t-shirt looks cool. Yes, we made that t-shirt, and yes, people at Emerald City bought quite a few of them for that very reason. And then, just when we thought we’d hit on something marketable, our next two appearances sold none of them. Back to the drawing board. Do we invest in buttons? Bookmarks? How are we going to carry all of them when our current containers are already bursting at the seams? Will Dawn finally breaking down and making an art print of Dr. Who (just like everyone else on the floor) continue to get buyers? Will we ever sell any of those other prints she had made, some of which are years old now?

After all the advice and observation, it still seems like we’re subject to the whims of fate, groping towards some manner of solvency where these appearances would at least pay for themselves. Can we keep it up long enough to make that happen? Should we, especially if the promotional aspect just isn’t there?

I want to, because there is nothing like the experience of meeting people in person who are genuinely interested in your work, especially in the nerd-friendly atmosphere of a comics convention. After weeks or months of producing comics online, never quite knowing who’s reading or how invested they are, I get to shake the hand of a man or woman who is overjoyed Dawn and I just signed their print copies of the latest issue.

In the spiritual sense, that’s worth a lot. We’re making the connections. Now it’s just a matter of making ends meet.