VanCAF: My First Convention!

Whooooaaa! VanCAF is finished! VanCAF was my first convention as an exhibitor of my works. I’ve done career fairs before, and I’ve done retail, but this was somehow a combination of both, and so much more.

I thought I’d share with you here my experiences, and everything I learned from doing things right and doing things wrong. Maybe it’ll help another first-time con-goer, or give ideas to long timers. As I wrote this it got bigger and bigger, so prepare yourself! First let me tell you what VanCAF is. VanCAF is a yearly Vancouver Comic Arts Festival. From what I heard this year was the third year it was run. The whole event is pretty much 99% comics, with very few other things, like an animation project or a sculptor thrown in. It was filled to the brim, this time around, with amazing people. Some artists I’ve been dying to meet for years and others I’ve never heard of and was so inspired by their work. I met a ton of wonderful people; artists and fan alike. Not so much my fans, but a couple did show up! I was really really moved when they showed up. So thanks, guys! You know who you are, and I hope you know how moved I was at your support.

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Things I Did Right:

Softness: I took a Yoga mat and cut a 2 – 3 foot chuck out of it. I had read an article (by the amazing Erika Moen) that it eased the strain on your feet from standing all day. I didn’t end using it as intended, as I’m too short and the chairs were really short, too! So I folded it and used it as a booster seat instead. It made the had plastic chair much more comfortable, too.

Free giveaways: Also taken from Erika Moen’s advice, I created little black and white comics on half an A4 page. I printed 100 of them, with 50 being for Gilad’s story and 50 for Clou’s. They actually completely new content, and you can read them on my Tumblr. The idea was not only to have a business card with my URL on, but to also be able to give people a taste of my comics. Because I made one for each story, when I offered them I’d say “Grab one of each freebee! Since my story is actually two stories happening in the same world but in different times…” and I sneak my stories premise while they’re grabbing freebees. My heart swelled each and every time someone picked one up, read it and chuckled. Seriously. That will never ever get old. That way they remember what my style and comic was, and hopefully also go check it out! Woo!

Change: Know what you’re selling, and stock up on change. VanCAF was awesome in that they had change to give to artists, but you don’t want to have to run in the middle of talking to a potential fan to get change. I sold my sets for $15, so I made sure to stock up on $5s. I only ran out in the last hour of the last day but was saved due to my next point:

Make Friends: Help others. I arrived about 30 minutes early since I only had 2 feet of table to set up. I immediately set out to familiarize myself with my present neighbours and offer any and all assistance. I ended up helping one of them set up his shelving, and I pointed out I had hand sanitizer should he need any. As a veteran con-goer, he was more than willing to give me pointers on table set up, allowed me to use the side of his shelves to display my own work, and on the second day we exchanged snacks and he gave me change when I had finally run out of $5s. My neighbor on the other side was also a con newbie, and we made a point to cheer each other on and point out when we weren’t being enthusiastic enough to people who dropped by. We watched each others’ tables on bathroom breaks and exchanged ideas. My first convention could have been a lonely, intimidating experience, but I transformed it into an inspiring, exciting opportunity. I’m not saying your neighbours are always going to be awesome people, but if you don’t talk to them, you won’t know!

Keep hydrated: I know this one might seem obvious, but a headache can set in from dehydration pretty early in the process. You might start feeling fatigued because of it. These two small points can really wreck the energy you need to maintain in order to get people as excited about your product as you are about it. Not to mention– once the day winds down, if you haven’t been keeping hydrated the fatigue and headache can easily carry on or get worse the second day, so keep that water flowing!

Be as excited as you want them to be: Something I learned from doing a million and one interviews, and I’ve heard it from recruiters, too; be excited. Maybe later, when you’re swimming in fans and money you can afford to be a bit more on the professional side, but if you’re making the comics you’ve always dreamed of making, what excuse do you have to not be super excited about it?? I’m not saying drop all pretences of professionalism. I’m not saying bore any passer by with every minute detail of your story. I’m saying that you should smile big when you talk, and meet the person’s eye. Talk in an animated fashion and try to infuse your words with the emotions you feel. Express in your attitude that this is something you love, and you’re here to make them love it, too. Don’t show when you’re tired, and don’t know if a sale didn’t pan out. Don’t complain.

Compliment, engage: I don’t mean suck up, but a great way to draw someone to your table is to say “I love your shirt!” if it’s a nerdy shirt. I saw a people walk by with cool earings, shirts and hoodies, and I tried to compliment them all. “Oh, cool! Night Vale!” I’d say, and they’d come over and discuss Night Vale with me for a moment. They most of the time didn’t buy anything, but they grabbed my freebees and maybe remembered me. I’ve made sale just because I kept my eyes up (not sketching or texting) and said hello to people who caught my eye. Then, as they browse I offer my free samples, often getting up, picking both up and handing them to the person, despite them being clearly presented on the table. I’d ask if they were having fun, or if they came here last year. Then I’d start telling them about my story, whether they asked or not. If conversation doesn’t continue I’ll tell them how many times it updates online. Just keep talking and not being just part of the table decoration. They don’t know anything about my story, so staying silent will give me nothing. When I managed to leave my table, when an artist met my eye and engaged me in conversation I was far more likely to look at their stuff than if their eyes were averted or they had their head down in a sketchbook.

Practice pitching your story: Unless your story is 100% self explanatory at a glance, (and I don’t mean ‘it’s sci-fi’ or something, but the tale itself), prepare a pitch or two. It doesn’t have to be like a line from a play you repeat the same each time, but know what you’re saying. If your story is complicated, simplify it, and tailor it to the person you’re talking to. Mine was “These are two stories that happen in the same world, but in different times of its history. They’re tales of courage and adventure and swords and magic. You get to follow the lives of these two young men (point at table images).” I would change it up so that I don’t sound like a parrot, and I would change it up depending on who I was talking to. To an older person I’d mention that the story talks philosophy, too, or discuss the repercussions of violence. To a younger fan I mentioned that both are my heroes are a similar age to her! I never said anything untrue, but I did try to find what in my story might appeal to this person. Prepare what you’re going to say, ’cause you’ll have to repeat it about a million times throughout the day!

Be resourceful: Gearing up for the first con can be expensive! I didn’t expect it to be so. Tablecloth, money box, display stands, pens… My advice is be creative and resourceful where you can. I didn’t want a dollar store tablecloth, and didn’t really know where to get one, so I went to the thrift store and got a 2 feet by 2 feet silver and grey pillow case. It fit snuggly on my table and cost me near nothing! It wasn’t the most amazing thing, but I wasn’t ready to invest in a full-blown anything until I knew what I was getting myself into. I looked around for a lockbox for money. Then I realized that if someone wanted to steal from me, they’d hardly read into my lockbox for my change- they’d take the whole damn thing. So why would I need to lock it? Also many money boxes have layers, and reaching down to the change is tedious. So I looked at home and used my new phone’s box. It had a little divider in it for some reason, and that served to hold change perfectly. Its narrow and long and fit bills like it was designed for it. It was lightweight but sturdy enough to stand being rattled around in my suitcase, and I wasn’t worried about anything metallic damaging my merchandise. The guy beside me made due just fine with a tupperware container for his money! Display stands? Well, I’m pretty poor, and not yet ready to invest in full-blown metallic stands or selves. I don’t have that much yet! So, thinking about it, I went back to the thrift store and went to their picture frame department. Then found what looked like sturdy frames. The shape and colour didn’t enter into it, because at the till I removed the backs stands for each and handed the lady the glass and wood or plastic of the frame. So long as the back, usually made of sturdy cardboard, could stand on its own, I took it. At the thrift store I paid less than $10 for three stands, each a different size and colour, but who cared? All three were hidden behind my comics, proudly standing for all to see. Pens…? I have nothin’ there. I just bought a pair of Sharpies with a fine point. Yeah. I got no resourceful advice there.

Calculate it all: It’s a great feeling looking into your change box and seeing bills and coins, but are you making a profit? You spent, probably, a not-insignificant amount of money putting it all together. Each product you sell should cover the cost of that product and give you a bit extra. Now, I’m an organizational nerd and a professional organizational nerd (it’s what I do for a living!) but calculating the actual cost of each unit can give you an idea if you’re covering your costs or also making money. How many would you have to sell of that particular item to make a profit? Are you likely to do so? Perhaps you shouldn’t have that item if you’ll need to sell 100% of your stock to make any profit on it? This is far from a cut and dry rule. After all, you may want to sell the first volume of your story at cost, or even under cost to entice people to read your story. You may need to then bump up the cost of something else to compensate. A business that operates at a loss is doomed to fail, but you do need to “spend money to make money”. A simple Excel sheet or Google Spreadsheet can quickly and easily answer many of your financial questions. You might not be in it to make money, but unless you’re lucky, you need to have money as part of the equation.

Later, Less of: Unless you’re a super established creator with a new book you know people are looking forward to buying, and especially if your work is progressing (as in, each chapter builds on the story before it), make less of the later chapters. Most new people, unfamiliar with your story, would be willing to invest in the first chapter or two. But the likelihood of your selling the later chapters to new readers decreases with each chapter. Keep that in mind.

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Things To Do Next Time:

My first con was far from perfect. I thought I’d also catalogue the things I want to remember to improve upon next year!

Pace yourself: Despite my advice above of ‘be excited’ it’s also important to learn not to be so very excited that you’re dead on your feet by 3pm. I made that mistake the first day and by 4-ish (the con went until 6pm) I was having trouble pitching my story. The second day I tried to reel it in a tiny bit and I brought more snacks to keep my energy up.

Bring all the foods: Eating was really tough to do at the con. Since I’m so little known and since it was my first time, I wanted to be at my table nearly continuously, taking the least amount of breaks humanly possible. I didn’t want to miss a single person! That made eating tricky, because stuffing my face while people are walking by wasn’t appealing. My idea for next con, and you veterans tell me if this is a good idea, is to bring bite-sized snacks, and a lot of them. Cookies, granola bars, dried fruit… things that go down quickly and give you energy. Possibly next year I might take the 20 minutes it takes to each a sandwich away from my desk, but for all other meals I will snack. That way I’m not chewing a huge bite while trying to draw the attention of a promising looking person!

Tabling: Next year I want to share my table with a friend, or at the very least take up more than 2 feet. While I didn’t have much to display this year, having 2 feet, and being all the way at the foot of the table, literally, with the legs of the table in the middle of my sitting space, was not super duper fun. I will also seek to get a full-blown table cloth instead of the convenient, but not exactly majestic 2-foot square silver/grey pillow case I used. While it worked great for my first con, a table cloth that reaches down in the front of the table and hides the mess under it and my legs makes the presentation look cleaner and nicer.

Inventory and notes: Next year I would like to bring a print out list (small and discreet) to keep track of what I sell and how I sold it. While what I did was simply count my inventory at the end of each day and see how many I didn’t have anymore, I only started with 20 – 25 of each. If I get to the point where I bring more, that could quickly become a tedious, unwieldy process. What more, while I had a clear price for each, it was cheaper to buy all three books I had together. Sometimes people just bought a certain book individually. It would have been cleverer of me to keep track of how many bundles, and how many singles I’ve sold. If I have many more types of products in the future that could help me understand what’s popular. On the second day I brought a notepad with tearable pages. That proved to be good, and I’ll bring one to the next con, too. You see, you meet all sorts of really cool people at these cons. Not all of them have business cards, but many of them have really cool ideas or things for you to look at. I have an entire page with scribbles from peoples; their names, their Twitter accounts, cool YouTube videos I should see, other webcomic artists that aren’t at the convention but I should “totally check out their stuff” and so on and so forth. At the end of the second day, when I completely ran out of freebees to give, I started writing my URL and comic name on notes. Not as ideal, but certainly better than nothing.

Have you found any of these useful? Are you a veteran and found that I got something wrong, or have more tips to offer? Let me know!

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