Yesterday, Bleeding Cool ran an article by Denise Dorman with the provocative headline “Are Cosplayers Killing Comic Conventions?” She went on to describe her experiences at a couple of her recent shows, San Diego and Wizard Chicago.
As you might expect, I have some thoughts.
I was going to wait for this week’s Comics Assembled! to talk about this, but I don’t think I can wait. But be sure to listen anyway. Brian will be sure to ask lots of interesting questions I haven’t thought of yet.
First, to the headline. Are cosplayers killing cons? I don’t think so. For a couple years running, DragonCon was my best sales show, and that is virtually all costumers. I do really well at MegaCon, too, and that has a huge cosplay and anime element.
If anything, cosplayers are an indicator of a changing show attendees, not the change itself. The people who show up at a convention are your market, and it is in your best interests to pay attention to it. Remember the first time you noticed all the Adventure Time outfits? That wasn’t just letting you know that Finn and Jake were big, but that a new audience was showing up.
In the years I’ve been attending and exhibiting at shows, there’s been a quantum leap in the number of female attendees. I’m thrilled to see it, but it also means that as an exhibitor that there’s a whole new market for you.
Not all shows are the same. A Wizard show is different than Comic-Con is different than Baltimore is different than a new local show. Wizard gets a bad rap in the industry. I’ve said they’re the McDonalds of comic book conventions, but that’s not a bad thing. They’re a known quantity, just like the Golden Arches. I prepare for a Wizard show differently, but I also know what a Wizard show will be like, regardless of the venue. What changes with them is geography. In Chicago, the comic-heavy audience may go to C2E2 instead. In Austin, it may be the biggest show there and as such grab more of that comic audience. You’ve got to do your research.
Not all pros are the same, either. I’m working on My Little Pony. Does that help me? Heck, yeah. I’ve got a brand new group of people coming up to see me and there’s only a handful of us that have worked on the book. That puts me in an advantageous position. But back when I was doing just Love and Capes, I still did well at shows, because I knew to sell to my audience. You don’t always have a winning hand, but there are lots of things you can do to make that hand play better. And I won’t always have Pony. Eventually it won’t be the hot thing, or IDW could lose the license or all sorts of things. I’d be a fool not to prepare for that day.
Baltimore is currently my favorite show. My sales were up 30% there from last year. But I’ve also read a report or two from creators who died on the vine there. As a businessperson, you’ve got to do what works best for you. If a show doesn’t play well for you, and you think you’ve done what you can, move on and go somewhere that does. It’s business.
You’ve also got to do your numbers. I’ve largely resisted speaking directly to the Dorman article because I want to address the larger issues and not pick on any one person. But there was one fact that jumped out at me: They spent $7000 on San Diego. That really surprised me.
To me, there are advertising shows where I set up and hope to break even, and selling shows, where I generate revenue. San Diego is definitely an advertising show. But by the article, it sounds as if the Dormans treat SDCC as a selling show. And she also mentions that they could make more money being in the studio rather than setting up at some shows. Let’s talk about that.
Using that paradigm, I’m shocked that San Diego would ever be a good show. If your setup costs are $7000, you’ve got to sell that to break even. So what would a good show have been? $10,000? $15,000? The amount of product you’d have to sell to generate isn’t something I can conceive of. I suppose it’s possible for someone with a body of work different than mine, but it still seems like a lot.
At San Diego, and shows in general, I do what I can to get my costs down. My booth is $2500, but I split it with someone to make that number more manageable. Same with my hotel. I go to Target and get a flat of water and snacks so I’m not living on five dollar coffee and three dollar pretzels. I even designed my own shelving system that would fit in my suitcase so I could save the significant cost of shipping racks to the show. The less you spend, the quicker you turn a profit.
So if the numbers don’t work on a show, or you’re not getting what you want out of it in terms of networking or exposure, it’s your duty as a businessperson to cut that loss. I do a hefty convention schedule, but there are one or two shows I’m dropping because the math doesn’t work. That’s my responsibility.
The most important takeaway from all this to me, though, is that the market is dynamic and always will be. We’re all living through creative destruction.
When I was at Kubert, the thing I was best at was hand lettering. It was the mid-90’s. Hand lettering was going away. I was riding the wave of getting enough hand-lettering work to buy a computer and learn how to work digitally. And I always made sure that lettering wasn’t my only revenue stream. That shift was a defining experience in my life.
It’s easy to lament the changes that cost us work, but we’re constantly on both sides of that equation. The computer lets me create color comics without needing to hire a color separator, which is great for me but lousy for the separator. I feel bad for all the people who lost their job when MacWorld folded their print version, but print magazines have been in trouble for a while. Such changes are rarely stealthy. We see them coming and we have to react. Digital comics? Digital distribution? Changing convention attendance? More media guests? Bad economy? Start figuring that stuff out.
It’s always a game of inches, and you’re always adapting. You have to know what game you’re playing. My sales on Love and Capes will never be the same as Spider-Man. But they don’t have to be. I’m not paying for offices in New York. I’m not paying anyone else to produce the comics. What is a success for me may not be a success for you.
But the great thing about being self-employed is that you get to steer the ship. The scary thing is that you’re the one who has to chart the course.
When it comes down to it, my job isn’t being an artist or a writer or storyteller.
My job is being employed.