Comic-Con 101: How to Attend a Comic Book Convention as a Creator

Attending a con as a creator is very different then being a fanboy or fangirl. While fans are there to have a good time and spend some money, you’re there to promote and make money. If you’ve read my previous columns, you already know some of the basics, but let’s drill down in detail what to do and what to expect at a comic book convention.

Booking the Gig

The normal procedure for comic cons, even the small ones, is to have a few creators in the mix. For large shows, they will have something called “Artists’ Alley”— A special room or area just for creators and artists. At smaller shows, they may be reduced to a few tables or even just one local artist.

Contact them ahead of time. The larger the con, usually the larger the lead up you’ll need. Be prepared to explain who you are and your credits. Comic books are generally the focus, but sometimes the door can open if you’re an illustrator for games or a writer in some kind of genre entertainment like fantasy or sci-fi.

Larger cons tend to have some fees, sometimes expensive ones. Personally, I never pay unless I’m sure the con is going to do gangbusters, but I have Simpsons credits so it’s usually not an issue. $50 or lower is reasonable, but anything more I would question unless you’re just dying to be there or have a great plan to move a ton of product.

Once you confirmed your table space, book your hotel ASAP if you need one. This expense alone is usually what kills any chance of profit for a creator, so choose wisely. Ideally, you have a friend in the area that lets you crash on his couch for a weekend. Perhaps it’s close enough to just drive home every night, but if you have to book a hotel chase down the best deal. At Dragon Con, I would stay outside of Atlanta and drive twenty minutes to the show. It was more aggravation, but I saved at least a hundred bucks a night even with the additional parking I had to pay. (Don’t forget, your parking, gas, tolls and hotel is all tax deductible for small businesses.)

If you’re a desired guest for the show, they may give you a hotel room. Sometimes this means you might have to share one with a fellow creator, but that can save a lot of money. The gaming cons tend to be better at this than comic cons because they always have to reserve blocks of rooms and they’re almost always more than a day. Don’t be afraid to ask, but be prepared to make a decision whether or not you’re still going if they say no. (If they do give you a room, do NOT order room service unless they’re crazy enough to tell you it’s included. Some cons might give you a per diem for food or take you out to eat too!)

The homemade Silent Devil Booth I built from PVC pipe during the New York Comic Con in the late 2000’s

One Day Shows

One day comic book conventions are easier because you usually don’t have to book a hotel. If you had to drive a great distance and need a hotel room, plan to get there the day before, not the day of. This way, you’ll have plenty of time and be nice and relaxed. Conventions usually don’t run past 7 or 8pm for a one-day, so you should have plenty of time to drive home that day rather than stay an additional day and obliterate your profit margin.

Show up early. I cannot stress this enough. Things go wrong, sometimes there are lines and if you show up last minute you could end up standing outside the whole first hour of the con.

You’ll have to get a name badge or at the very least, connect with he con organizer and find your table. Typically, I arrive an hour early, keep my stuff locked in the car, walk inside, get my badge, scope out my table space and then start unloading. Make sure you make friends with the people nearby. You want to watch out for each other’s merch. This is usually not a problem at small shows, but you never know.

Getting Set Up

Bring in all your stuff and park the car if you have to move it. I usually put up my backdrop first. This is a signal to everyone that can see it who I am and what I’m promoting. At that moment, I am prepared to sell. Fellow vendors are often customers too, so don’t be afraid to sell them. They tend to hit tables before the show starts or when it’s slow, usually not when everyone is scrambling to get out for the day. Don’t get too caught up in stopping your set up to sell a comic, but be open to it. Vendors understand that you have to be ready for the fans.

The Table

Next, I put down my tablecloth and start unboxing the books. Tablecloth color is important. You want something that makes the eyes focus on your books, not the tablecloth. Black and other dark colors work best, unless your covers are all steeped in black and dark colors, then you might go with white or  yellow. Ultimately, you want something neutral, so gray or medium blue is not a bad choice if you’re in the middle. Absolutely do not use red. Red is disruptive to the nervous system (which is why it’s great for signs and lettering), but as your tablecloth it’s the exact wrong color to use. People will see you from a long way off and then they will come to your table to have their eyes drawn to…your tablecloth.

The author at the Philly Con: Snagged a corner table and my black tablecloth wasn’t enough. See the difference between the black and white covering ? This is before I had my new backdrop, distractions abound behind me. I’m goofing around. Don’t make this face.

Should you use a rack? I have an amazing comic rack and I no longer use it. I found that I have to much material, fans would mistake me for a vendor. It also looked a little too professional and business-like and blocked some of my sign and me sitting down behind the table. I think you want openness at your table so you fans feel like they can step in and look over everything. The rack allows them to stand further away. Unless you’re a company with a line of books, I’d say don’t use it.

Layout your books in order of importance: Your current books go front and center and everything else goes around that. Have a sign with your name and what you do. If you have enough credits, I also use a sign for that. If you’re an artist taking commissions, put up a price list and it’s sometimes better to have a price list of everything on your table. Keep a stack of postcards/business cards or whatever you’re handing out. Always have a stack near you. You want to personally hand it to the fan. If you find yourself with extra space, it never hurts to have a second stack on the table so people can just feel like they can take one.

These days, I have just books on the table, but other merch should be grouped according to your project and interest. For me, I group The Pineys books and the Jersey Devil comic book front and center. The Pineys is my main sell and the Jersey Devil comics are in the same wheelhouse.

At the sides of my table, I’ll have my other books. I’ll group my Complete Mafia for d20 with my Italian book on one side and then on the other I’ll put all the kids comics like Jetta Raye Adventures and The Travelers. This way, if someone walks up to the table with little kids, I can point them to the part of my table they’d mostly likely be interested.

You may not have as much merch as I do and if you’re table is looking a little empty, you might want to fill it up. Don’t make it look cluttered. You still want something that is a presentation. Here’s a list of some potential display items you don’t sell, but they might attract people to your table.

  1. Artwork/Portfolio: This is often the main display of many artists. It never hurts to display your art, even if you have no intention of selling it. (Make that clear: Either have a sign for prices or label the pieces “not for sale”.)
  2. Custom Figures/Displays: There are action figure guys that can make a custom action figure of your character to put on display. I did this with the Jersey Devil and even cut a deal where I sold some of them.
  3. Previews of Future Comics: You may have some of the artwork of the next issue. Assuming it doesn’t completely give away your story, you may want to have some on the table or at least the cover art. Make sure you label it with “Coming Soon” or whenever you’re slated to release it.
  4. Character Props: Even if you’re not cosplaying as one of your characters, making a prop of one of their items can make for a neat display. A prop guy made the mace for one of my characters in The Travelers and I took it to the shows whether I was in costume or not. It was a good conversation starter.
  5. Work Areas: You can make a spot for you or an artist to work. I like to have a small spot so I can sign my books, although I hide my pens and notebook for tallying orders behind one of the table signs.
  6. Giveaways: Stickers, pins, custom pens— Whatever. Some people like to give away candy. It’s a mixed bag. You’ll get a lot of people coming for candy who won’t even look at your comic. They just want candy. Unless your comic is candy-related or you’re handing out samples because you’re also selling candy, I recommend no.

What you don’t want on your table is food and drink. This is a huge hazard that can go very, very wrong. I use the top of one of my bins as a lower table for my food and drink. It hides it from the fans and if I knock it over, the bin is made of plastic and the liquid won’t get on any of the comics. I also always save a bunch of napkins from my fast food purchases and keep them for wiping spills or makeshift tissues.

Me as Father Shambles from The Travelers back in the day. The mace prop was better than my costume. The rack I mentioned is also on the right.

Preparing Yourself

Okay, now you have your backdrop and table prepared. You’ve organized the boxes below so you know where to reach to resupply whatever you run out. You have allowed yourself leg space so you can stretch out under the table after sitting for four hours. Most importantly, you’ve walked in front of your own table and looked at it so you know what the fans are seeing. Adjust accordingly.

I know it sounds unlikely, but sometimes the guy behind you will have a distracting display. Make sure your backdrop blocks it. Make sure you’re not sitting in front of your own sign and make sure all the boxes are under your table and behind the tablecloth so everything looks nice and clean.

Now, your look. What’s your presentation? For me, I’m dressing as a hunter for the Pineys. That looks is a camo cap, hunter’s vest, open flannel shirt with a Piney Power t-shirt underneath. With that I can wear jeans and I could wear work boots, but since I want to be comfortable, I can get away with sneakers. I’m unshaven, but that’s part of the look. Your mileage may vary. Here are some basic looks you might want to consider.

Me as the Pledgemaster for Super Frat. Custom fraternity paddle I carried during shows with Silent Devil.

The Artist: You shouldn’t be in a suit, but you should still dress nice. Business casual. If you’re going to rock the comic book t-shirt and jeans, make sure they’re not stained and you should be well groomed. A sports jacket on top will make you look more classy or an open Hawaiian shirt over top makes you look fun and tourist-y. Five o’clock shadow, greasy hair and a stained faded shirt is not someone people want to interact.

The Creator/Publisher: Think Stan Lee, how did he dress? Again, business casual, well groomed. This is also the look for the writer, but unfortunately almost no one will ask for the writer at a comic book show. If you’re pushing an entire company, new jackets and shirts with the company logos, possibly on hats as well. You’re the captain of the ship, look like it.

The Character: You’re essentially cosplaying as one of your characters. If you still have to handle money and sales, make sure your outfit is practical. If you’re dressed like the bugs in Aliens, it’s going to be pretty hard to make change using claws and seeing through an alien head. Understand, there’s a fine line between doing something that enhances the table and drawing in a bunch of people that only want to take a picture and leave. If the costume is fairly elaborate and you’ve hired a model, send her around the con to draw people back to the table.

A Note About Hot Chicks: I love hot chicks. Who doesn’t? The problem is, if you hire one to be a model, her hotness becomes the attraction, not the comic. Fanboys can be a horny lot and they will show up in droves to take pics. You might even be able to charge them for the privilege, but I don’t believe it drives the sales to a story. The rule of thumb tends to be, a girl in a costume will attract a lot of horny guys, while a guy in a costume is more of a mascot. Don’t yell at me, I didn’t invent biology or perception.

Me at River City Comics in Berlin, NJ. Everything neatly arranged.

Final Touches

Now you’ve unloaded, prepared your table and dressed appropriately. Ideally, you now have 20-30 minutes before the show opens. First, relax. You’ve done good! You’re ready to go and if anything had gone wrong, you would’ve have the buffer to absorb and still be prepared when the doors opened. Good job.

It’s time to go to the bathroom. If you’re lucky, you’ll be so swamped you won’t have time for the rest of the show. Secure your money and phone, ask your table buddy to watch things and go relieve yourself. If you didn’t bring food or drink (and I told you in the last column to pack a lunch) now might be the time to grab something. Cons often provide bottles of water, so buy or snag a few of them for the table.

Walk around the con and check out the competition. Although the end of the show is usually the best time to buy, if you’re gung-ho to start wasting your money now is a good time. Personally, I try not to piss away all my profit before the damn show starts!

It’s a better idea to network with other creators and publishers. You might set yourself up for some more freelance work in the future or even a publishing deal. Don’t be shy about chatting it up. Also, get to know the comic book store owners— You know, the guys that actually buy comics. Feel free to ask them if they’d be interested in some signed copies of your book for their store and be prepared to offer the appropriate discount. Know exactly what it will cost them because that’s the first thing they’re going to ask. Most will be too busy to buy before the con, but the interested ones will say to check back at the end. (That’s when they will hopefully be flush with cash and feeling generous. This is absolutely critical if you want to move product. One of my best shows was in Pittsburgh and the local retailer cleaned me out of all the comics I brought.)

Your final check should be to make sure your change money is ready and that you can log into the phone app that will allow you to take credit cards. You should have plenty of pens and Sharpies to sign books. I like to bring a small notebook to tally sales or in case I need a piece of paper for something.

The Doors Open

Be at your table, be ready and don’t get too antsy. Fans sometimes like to walk the con, figure out what they’re going to buy and come back. Don’t act desperate. Be confident in your product. You’ll sell it. And even if you don’t, you need that air of confidence to make sales. If it’s early, just be nice and say “Good morning” when you make eye contact.

Like any salesperson, you want to be friendly, presentable and knowledgeable. You have to look excited to be there. Keep your energy up. If you’re not happy to be there, why would your customer? (See my list of the previous column.)

Spidermans and Deadpool probably don’t have their wallets handy. Just sayin’.

Dealing With Customers

The customer is always right, but the customer isn’t always easy. In an ideal world, a customer will come to your table and within a few minutes be walking away with their purchase. That happens sometimes, but more often you’ll be dealing with individual quirks and delays. Most people are aware that you’re running a small business, but some people are just a pain. Give anyone that buys from you great latitude, but here’s what you do with problem customers.

The Talker: The fanboy that’s talking your ear off is the toughest one to deal with because they are usually so enthusiastic. The challenge is to move him along and not dampen his enthusiasm or insult him. If he buys, let him ramble awhile, but if anyone else comes up to the table I put a finger and say, “Hold that thought.” Then introduce the new fan to your product. Most people get the message that you can’t sit there all day and talk to them, some will wait you out and continue the convo. If they’re respectful of other fans and you interrupting, that’s actually ideal. Customers tend to come to a table that already has someone standing there anyway. Let him talk!

The problem arises if the Talker didn’t buy anything and is rambling about some comic book drama you don’t have a stake in. You also don’t want a guy spewing his controversial opinions loudly in front of an audience that might frown and associate you with those bad takes. This is rare, but if you have to jettison the Talker, simply say something like, “I would love to discuss this, but I can’t right now. I appreciate you stopping by. Please, take a postcard and shoot me an email sometime.” This way, you’re not rejecting him, you’re just asking him to talk to you in a more appropriate venue.

The Woman With Kids: Now if you have a comic aimed at kids, this is pay dirt. Start your pitch, invite the kids to look and wait for the moment they pressure mom into a sale. Kids are messy and rough with product, so anticipate damaged product over the course of a show.

But if you don’t have a comic that can be sold to kids or the kids are too young or she just pushed a baby carriage to block your entire table— You might need to move her along if she starts rearranging things in the carriage. (I had one mom that actually attempted a diaper change right in front of me.) First step, just start pitching her the comic. If you’re lucky, she’ll buy it for herself. 80% of the time the answer will be, “Oh, I’m just here with my boyfriend/husband.”

If she still keeps blocking your table and looks like she’s camped out for the day, just keep pitching. Mothers like this are usually looking for a moment’s peace from the bustle of the con, in front of your table is not the place. Don’t get mad, keep being friendly and your incessant sales pitch will get her walking. If she still doesn’t get the message, you can try “Thanks for stopping by!”

Kids Alone: Don’t sell to kids directly without the parents there. Parents have to approve their purchases anyway. In rare instances, the parent has given them some money to spend and are testing the waters to see if a kid can manage the money. As a rule though, assume the kid will need to bring his parent over for the purchase.

Teenagers are usually okay to sell unless your comic has a hard adult theme. You should still be a little wary depending on their apparent age, but it’s usually fine.

Rude Customers: Maintain your composure at all times. Unless a customer does something very extreme like damage your merchandise or attack you, just keep your friendly façade up until they walk away. (They may actually still buy, they may just be an a-hole.) If they make noise like they’re not interested just say, “Well, thanks for coming by.” They’ll get bored and leave. It’s on you to be patient, not them.

Cosplayers: Odds are, they don’t have money on them. They’re in costume. They tend to be a bad bet in terms of customer potential unless they walk up directly toward your table with interest. If they have a costume related to your genre (like cowboy costume and you have a Western) you might have a chance in talking them into passing out some of your fliers for a few minutes. (Make sure you talk to them a few minutes to confirm they’re not insane.) Otherwise, you might not want an endless stream of fans taking pictures in front of your table.

The Shirt Factor: One of the ways I size up a potential fan is to look at their shirt. Fanboys love to wear t-shirts of superheroes or dragons or whatever. That’s usually a signal to what they like so use it to chat them up if they approach. “Which Spiderman is that on your shirt? Ben Reilly? Oh, yeah I remember him. Anyway, I’m Tony and this is my comic…”

Overall, just be nice to everyone. Someone that doesn’t buy today, might remember your pleasant demeanor and buy something in the future or at your online shop. Negativity is for the end of magnets, not your comic con table.

Remember, you’re not there to draw. You’re there to sell and promote. Keep an eye out for customers and engage, don’t bury your head in work. Photo from Pixabay.

Ending the Day

In a one day show, you pack up and leave. You may be tempted to leave early with the first person that cracked and decided to beat traffic— Resist. I’m usually the last guy in the room to start packing up. When the row you’re table is in looks like it’s being completely dismantled, it’s probably time. A good con will usually force vendors to tough it out until the end time.

As the show dies off, it’s a good time to run back to those vendors that seemed interested in your comic. If they have a store and made some money, they might take a few books. Get a business card. At the very least, you might have a lead for a future signing or sale sometime in the future.

When it’s over, box up everything, take down your sign and load up your car. This is usually when I wish I had an assistant! Fortunately, I have it down to a science and can make it in one or two trips. Hot tip: If you’re in a hotel, borrow the luggage cart and you can make it to your cart in one trip. If it’s raining, pull to the front of the hotel and take advantage of the overhang.

Multi-Day Shows

The end of the day doesn’t mean it’s over. Decide what you’re going to leave at the table. Obviously, take the money, your phone and valuables. Usually I just pull my tablecloth over the merchandise on the table, then push my chair to block the boxes underneath the table. Artwork and displays— Especially stuff you spent a lot of money on, should probably go with you back to the hotel or spend the night in the trunk of your car.

A post-con dinner is a good time to network and connect with fellow creators. Many of them will be starving and anxious to go to dinner. The cliques will quickly form and can sometimes get out of control. (I personally led a 35-person entourage after a Philly show to Chinatown where we took over the whole second floor of the restaurant.)

 Try to meet up with someone local, they’ll know the best places and deals on dinner. If you’re hardcore, you have food packed back at the hotel that you’ll be heating up on a hotplate.

Networking

I’ll get into this in another column, but the best place to network is in the hotel bar associated with the con. Either it’s the host hotel or the one connected to the convention center. Set up shop early and be prepared to buy drinks, you might talk yourself into some extra freelance work.

Con Parties

This will be another column in detail (I have many stories!) but they are also an opportunity to relax, eat and party. They are also good for networking, if you’re lucky. Be advised, being hungover for the con on Sunday (the money day) is the worst thing you could possibly do. Drink responsibly, fanboy.

Second and Third Day of the Con

Again, show up early and be prepared. Treat it like a job and be professional. The last day of the con will be your money day. Fans have come for the weekend often unload their wallets on the last day, depending on the show. They also appreciate it when a creator stays on the last day if the ones around them leave. Some people just want to spend it all before they go home.

Like a one-day show, you’re going to pack up and leave on the last day. Unless you’re staying an extra day before the drive home, you should check out of your hotel room on the last day before you arrived at the con. (Another reason you’ll need to be up early.) The moment your car is packed, you should probably head out. Sometimes it makes more sense to have dinner until the traffic out of the city dies down and other times it makes more sense to start your trip to eat somewhere that’s cheaper. Do the research ahead of time and you’ll save yourself some money or time.

With any luck, you’ll be talking all the way home about how it was a fun and profitable comic con.

Tony DiGerolamo

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