This is a modified excerpt from a book I’m working on called The Business of Independent Comic Book Publishing. It is the final installment on how independent publishers can make the most of comic book conventions as a lead into my appearance at New York Comic-Con this year. As always, this isn’t the final word. Comments and insights are welcome.
Attending a comic con as an independent publisher can be divided into the basic framework of pre-production, production, and post-production. Different members of your team might be responsible for different elements of this list, because it might be too much for one person to deal with (See You Need Two Teams to Publish Comics). Let’s walk through the steps of getting a table at a con because it’s a more involved process. If you decide to go mobile, you’ll be able to skip some of the steps (See Do You Need to Get a Table?).
Pre-Production (Getting Ready for the Con)
a. Registration: Most cons have applications that need to be filled out by a specific date if you want to reserve space at a show. Space is always limited, so the bigger the show, the harder it will be to secure a spot. You need to reserve space at some cons a year or more in advance. If you miss the deadline without getting a spot, some cons have a waitlist, but the costs can be higher and space isn’t guaranteed.
As your filling out the application form, keep in mind that it is essentially a contract between your company and the event organizers. Most of the forms will have terms and conditions limiting the liability of the con if something goes wrong or is damaged. Take some time to read over those terms and if anything doesn’t make sense or seems odd, talk to your attorney before you send in the form and pay your money.
b. Travel/ Lodging: Once you know you can get into the show, you need to decide how you’re going to get there. Price and availability are based on timing, so again earlier is better. Getting to the convention city and finding a place to sleep are the major considerations, but don’t forget to make arrangements for travel within the city for you, your team, your booth items and your inventory. Trying to cram four people, signage and boxes of books into an Uber the morning of the show isn’t a recipe for success.
c. Pre-Show Marketing: When you attend a con as an independent publisher, everyone in your target market needs to know about it (See How Do You Build a Relationship with Your Target Market?). It should appear on your website, be a prominent aspect of your social media self-promotion, and appear in your marketing e-mail. If you have relationships with local comic shops, it might make sense to let them know too, especially if they will have a presence there. In many cases, this doesn’t have to be done as early as registration, so making the pre-show announcements about a month before the show gives people enough time to find out without giving them too much time to forget.
d. Booth Items: Your table is going to be competing with hundreds if not thousands of others for the attention of convention fans. If you’re going to catch the eye of your target market, your table has to appeal to their aesthetic. There are basic universal items like a table skirt, pricing signs and a sign-up sheet for your mailing list, but you can also incorporate banners, easels, photo backdrops and other visual aids depending on the rules of your con. Whatever you decide to do to dress up your table, make sure it is mobile, reusable, affordable and easy to work with. You don’t want to buy a new display for every show and you don’t want to spend several hours setting up or braking down your table every day.
Beyond the visual stage you are creating for your audience, there are also several backstage items you’ll find helpful. Pascual Productions has some suggestions every independent publisher should consider including:
Battery packs for electronics,
A lockbox or fanny pack for the cash,
Change for the people who pay cash
A card reader for people who pay with cards
Emergency supplies and first aid kit
A hand truck to move everything
e. Inventory: If you are going to be selling books or merchandise, you need to get the material made, deliver it to the venue on time in good condition, and be prepared to get the unsold material out of the venue when the show is over. The lead time on the printing will depend on where it’s being produced and how much you’re getting made, but keep in mind many of the printers who specialize in comics and graphic novels might be busy before major conventions, so check with the to make sure they can deliver the product on time.
When trying to determine how many books to bring to the show, remember to keep it small. You want to have enough to create an appealing visual display, but don’t print too much. It is rare for any publisher to sell out of their inventory, and there’s no point in printing and shipping a bunch of books that you’re just going to have to ship back when the show is over. Of course, you can get one set of books printed and then burn through that inventory slowly over the course of several shows as long as you have a cheap reliable way to transport them and you plan to table at more than one show.
f. Scheduling: If one of your goals is networking with other comic professionals and you know you’re going to have some time away from the booth, it makes sense to try and schedule meetings before you get to the show. You can meet with anyone from comic shop owners, creators, distributors, press, printers, and fans depending on your goals and the development stage of your book. This might not be feasible in the early stages of your publishing career if you don’t know many people, but as your publishing program grows and you work the con circuit over the years you’ll run into the same cast of characters and build relationships with them. It’s always fun to bump into an acquaintance on the show floor, but you’re probably going to be running somewhere and they’re going to invariably be running in a different direction. So if you need to sit down and discuss business, reach out to them a month or so before the show and carve out some time to get together.
g. Set-Up: Most con organizers will give you access to the show floor to set up your table before the show starts, ranging from a couple of hours to a full day. This means planning to get into the city and into the venue early, with all your booth items and inventory ready to go. If you’ve forgotten anything or something goes wrong, this is the last chance you’ll have to fix it before the doors open. If everything goes to plan, you can take in the quiet in preparation for the coming storm, roam the show floor to see what the other exhibitors are showing off, or just read some comics.
2. Production (Time Management in the Con)
a. Booth Time: The time you spend behind your table is critical to your offline marketing because you may never have a better chance at direct interaction with a potential reader. Based on the experience of creators who have worked cons for years, the key is to balance personal engagement with stamina. You won’t have much time with each person, so try to keep it short and sweet. Use the fundamental marketing realities as a guide to your conversation:
i. People buy from people they like, so give them reasons to like you with a friendly welcome. Following up with a question about what they like, how they’re enjoying the show or a comment about what they’ve already bought can help make them comfortable and give you an idea of how close they might be to an ideal reader.
ii. People don’t want your book, they want the feeling your book offers, so if it makes sense, try to quickly leverage whatever you can tell about them (what they’re wearing, what they said they liked, or the book on your table that they’re glancing at) with a hook for your book. If you can’t describe your book in under ten seconds, you’re going to lose them.
iii. People buy things they identify with, so they might not instantly buy your book if it doesn’t speak to them in the moment. If they give a positive response to your pitch, offer to ring it up for them. If they hesitate, don’t be afraid to invite them to join your mailing list or if you have free promotional items, hand it to them with a smile. The potential reader who doesn’t buy today could still become a true fan later after they’ve had a chance to identify with you and your message online.
iv. Your book can’t be for everyone, so don’t get discouraged when people decide they’re not your ideal reader. Although rejection isn’t fun on any level, but every time you greet someone at your table you get a chance to practice and refine your technique. You’ll also get to be around people who love comics, and there are worse ways to spend the day
Valiant editor and Comics Experience instructor Heather Antos has another tip for working your table. When you’re not talking to people at your table, take a moment to watch your neighbors and check out the way they engage with potential readers. Are they using a lot of free giveaways or some other swag to draw people in or is it something else about their table? How long do they take before they acknowledge each person? Are they introverted or extroverted? Are they making a lot of sales or do most people walk away? Over time, you can learn and adapt the techniques that work and use them in your own interactions. Part of attending cons is learning from others, whether you’re at your table or attending a panel.
b. Panels: a panel is a group of persons who discuss a topic of interest in front of an audience. At a comic con, panels cover a variety of topics from showing teachers and librarians how to use comics in the classroom, to how-to guides for cosplay, to triple-A video game announcements, to blockbuster movie trailer reveals and cast interviews. As a fan of comics, the options for attending panels can often be overwhelming. As an independent publisher, there are three types of panels that can offer the best use of your time. Check the con schedule before the show and try to pick out panels that fit these categories.
i. General publishing related panels: Cons often have panels for people who are interested in the business side of comics. Topics can range from how to break into comics, the best techniques for crowdfunding, the current status of the direct market, or tips for scripting and layouts. Comics is an industry that is always in transition. Attending panels is a good way to stay on top of those changes. That’s why I make time to attend and speak in panels at most cons I visit.
ii. Genre related panels: You’re going to compete in a specific market, so it will help for you to stay on top of the new releases and developments in your genre. If there is a panel related to a comic, game, movie, or television show that appeals to your target market, it should be on your radar.
iii. Competitor panels: Based on your competition analysis (See Who Is Your Competition?), you know which books have market share within your target market. With a little digging, you can find out who works on each book from both a business and creative standpoint. If any of them are speaking in panels at the show you’re attending, it might make sense to be in the room when the announcement is made. This isn’t a nefarious attempt to spy your rivals. It is an example of competitive intelligence, or the collection and analysis of information for the purpose of creating more effective business strategies. If your competitor is planning something that could impact your SWOT analysis or your publishing plans, the sooner you know about it, the better off you’ll be.
c. Meetings: Comics are often planned, created and published in isolation. Creative teams that might be working together for years might never meet in person. Business associates scattered across the country might only be an email address or a website in your mind. But face to face meetings provide benefits that can’t be replicated over email or social media. Cons give you the chance to sit down and meet with the people who are important to your business. Many also have an Artist’s Alley where you can roam around and find potential business or creative partners. So, whenever possible, make time to sit down with members of your team, competitors, comic shop owners, the press, printers, and fans to establish those stronger relationships. Because there is so much else going on, you might not always have time to meet during the convention day. Fortunately, business-related meetings also occur after hours at many cons in a semi-formal ritual known as Bar Con.
d. Bar Con is the unofficial collective term for the dinners, drinking, parties and other events that take place after the convention day ends. Bar Con could range from an official event organized by a distributor or publisher to an informal gathering of friends, or something in between. The importance of Bar Con for an independent publisher is the opportunity to relax and make connections with your peers. The industry is small. The process is isolated. Many professionals, myself included, have been able to connect with colleagues, form friendships, and survive the insanity of the business partially because of Bar Con. If you have the energy, it often pays to make this a part of your agenda.
As an independent publisher, there are four things to keep in mind when it comes to Bar Con.
1. Make sure you count your money and secure your inventory before you go out because you might not have the energy or the intellectual capacity to deal with it later.
2. Although Bar Con is an informal celebration, remember this is still a professional setting. Any social blunder or personal embarrassment can have negative repercussions on your reputation and your company.
3. Whether you drink or not, remember to pace yourself both in terms of consumption and how late you stay out. If you have to be friendly and engaging at your table at 10:00 am, it might not make sense to get back to your hotel room from the after-party at 7:00 am.
4. There is a lot of potential for new creative ideas, business plans and other opportunities in the warm camaraderie of Bar Con. In some instances, Bar Con is the only chance you might have to meet a potential partner or make a special deal. Just make sure to follow up on anything you want to pursue after the con is over and always get a contract for whatever multi-million dollar earth-shattering shared universe handshake you had outside the bar when the sun was coming up.
3. Post-Production (Follow Up After the Show)
a. Post Show Marketing: After you get yourself and all your inventory back home, sharing your experience with your true fans closes the loop on the marketing aspect of your weekend. You can use your social media network to share pictures from the show floor, blog posts about your experiences or announcements that will appeal to your ideal reader. The idea is to combine your offline and online marketing into a single ongoing conversation between you and the target market.
b. Professional Follow-Up: If you made any industry connections during the show, solidify that link with an email follow up during the following week. If you made any deals during Bar Con, confirm them as soon as possible and start the process for getting whatever contracts you need. If you found out any information vital to an aspect of your business, touch base with the member of your team responsible for that and discuss how it might impact your books. If necessary, modify your plans to take advantage of your competitive intelligence.
c. Cost Analysis: Figure out how much you actually spent and compare it to the budget you created (See How Do You Manage Convention Expenses?). Determine if you are over or under your budget and why. Figure out how much money you made from selling your stuff. Make sure you didn’t lose any inventory without getting paid for it. Collect all the receipts and records you might need for your deductible expenses and deliver them to your accountant before it slips your mind.
d. Lessons Learned: The Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke is famous for the quote “No plan survives contact with reality.” You will probably experience this first hand when you look back at the time you spent at the con. Things will happen that you didn’t anticipate. Opportunities for improvement will reveal themselves. You’ll be able to modify how you prep, or how you interact with fans, or how you manage time if you take a breath when it’s all over and figure out what worked, what didn’t work and what you want to try next time.
e. Prep for the Next Show: As an independent publisher with limited time and resources, you can’t spend all your free time at cons, no matter how much fun you have or how important it is for your marketing (See What Convention Is Best For Your Comic?). But you can’t do everything in one show, so whether your next con is in a month or a year, it makes sense to start your preparations as early as possible…
Have fun with your comic.
If you have questions about the business or legal aspects of your comic book publishing and you'd like a free consultation, please contact me and we can set something up that fits in with your schedule.
PLEASE NOTE: THIS BLOG POST IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEGAL ADVICE. IF YOU HAVE AN ISSUE WITH YOUR COMIC PROPERTY, DISCUSS IT WITH A QUALIFIED CONTRACT ATTORNEY OR CONTACT C3 FOR A FREE CONSULTATION