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Research, Research, Research: Distribution -- Conventions

A column article by: Ace Masters

Not too long ago, comic book conventions were relegated to dark, back rooms at hotels. At that time, they seemed to be secretive things that gathered under the cover of darkness; no one was allowed in unless they were part of the "crowd." Many places didn’t want it to be known that they had held a comic book convention for fear of the negative reputation it could bring.

That was yesterday. Now, it's history.

Comic book conventions have gone from darkly-lit rooms to pop culture powerhouses that places want to hold and promote. The San Diego Comic Con is the perfect example of what a convention should be. How many conventions in any industry - how many film festivals for that matter - can say they are covered by mainstream press like Entertainment Tonight, TMZ, G4, Entertainment Weekly, major newspapers and more?

Now for some bad news. For whatever reason, the mainstream press outlets tend to cover the San Diego Comic Con as if it were the only convention for comics. And at that, the press doesn't always cover it in the best of lights.

Now back to last week's Burning Question.

At the end of my last column, I asked, "Just what does a convention bring to the game and what can it do for you?"

That question is easily answered with one word: SPACE.

That is all a convention gives you, space. Nothing more, nothing less. It does not give you a chance to promote your book -- or yourself. It does not advertise your presence, even if your name is in the convention guidebook. It does not sell anything for you.

The only thing a convention does for you is to give you space for your use during the time the convention is held. And truthfully, that is all you need.

Whatever else you gain from the convention you attend is your responsibility. It is up to you to promote, advertise and sell.

But perhaps I should have phrased my Burning Question another way.

Maybe the Burning Question should have been this: how can you use the convention circuit to your best advantage?

Because, put simply, that is really what you are there for -- to use the space at the convention for your own benefit.

The biggest question really is, what are you willing to do, how far are you willing to go? Or are you - like so many others - going to sit there and wait for people to come to you instead?

They say that if you build a better mousetrap, people will beat a path to your door. However, if no one knows you built it, they won’t come.

Before going into how best to use a convention, let’s first dispel two big myths:

Myth 1: Everyone will see you.

FALSE. Odds are, unless you are a player in the industry - or want to shell out upwards of $1,000 or more for a table - you will be in the Small Press area or Artist Alley. This can be a blessing, or a curse. Because most people hit the major guys and the retailers, then leave without doing anything else -- that's the curse part. But die-hard fans walk the entire floor, which can definitely prove to be a blessing.

Myth 2: People make @$$ loads of money at conventions.

FALSE. Retailers and major publishers can make money. Small Press publishers usually cover their table cost and make a little bit of money.

In other words, do not expect to take a thousand copies of a title with you and sell all of them on the first day of the convention, because that isn’t going to happen.

"But," you say, "those two reasons are why I am going to conventions in the first place!"

Then you need to expand your horizons.

It's possible that everyone will see you. And maybe you will sell all your copies of a title and make a ton of money -- but even if you do, that's a short-sighted goal.

You can get a lot more out of a convention if you do it properly. The problem is, most people don’t. Because before you go to a convention you need to plan out what you are going to do.

That’s right: plan.

Conventions can be tricky things. They can be small and intimate, or large and overwhelming. Either way you have to plan how best to prioritize your time, presence and location.

Your four main goals when going to a convention should be:

Your table: keep in mind that you have to pay for your table/space. Some people seem to think they don’t have to, then they get frustrated when they realize they have to pay like everyone else. Be realistic about what you can afford, how much you can expect to make and what you have available to sell.

Because if all you have is one graphic novel - even if you have a thousand copies of it ready to sell - getting the huge four-corner booth for a couple of grand is a waste.

Get what is reasonable for you, price-wise, and get only the space you need.

That's because having too much space is worse than having too little. Having a table mostly bare, or filled to the brim with only one title, is not a good move. It can give people the wrong impression before you ever have a chance to give them the right one.

Base what kind of table you are going to get on cost, how much product you have, and how you plan on setting up your table.

Next, we have location, or as I like to call it, "Location, Location, Location." This is beaten into the head of every business student and is a truism even when it comes to conventions. That's because where you're located -- your location -- is the most important aspect of your attendance at a convention.

For example, if you want the best location, you need buy a table early. This means you will be spending quite a bit of money, and you'll need to hope they don't mess around with layout changes at the last minute and shift you from your preferred location.

In truth though, you will probably not get the best location no matter what you do. Those will go to retailers and major publishers, the known players in the industry. So in practice, what you want to do is just to get the very best location you can.

The key will be in using whatever location you have to your advantage.

Did you know that even if you end up in a dark corner, barely seen by anyone, you can use this to your advantage?

"How," you ask? The answer is that it's all in how you set up.

Get some lights and set them around your table if the convention will allow you. Or have a huge backdrop with posters and, if you have it, maybe even a blow-up of the cover of your book. Maybe you can set up a laptop or small TV with scrolling images from your comics.

Or, best yet, do all of them at once, and really stand out.

This is why planning helps so much. Because when you get your table, you should know where it will be - your location - well before the convention, which gives you time to plan. Do something at your table, wherever it is, that people are going to see.

That's how you can turn even a bad location to your advantage.

And, while it's not a main goal, please don't forget about promotion.

"What's 'promotion,'" you ask? Well, promotion is all of the following: Posters! Business Cards! Flyers! Free giveaways! Convention-only Special Issues!

The fourth and final main goal for your convention experience is simply this: recognition. This might've been fourth on my list, but guaranteed, recognition is the most important thing you want out of a convention.

Whether or not you get it depends on how well you do at the following.

First: Sell, Sell, Sell.

This does not mean merely selling your comics for money. I'm talking about salesmanship, here. Salesmanship means this -- can you convince people they have to have your comics? That your work is a must-read?

If you can, you've done so because you've gone out there and promoted yourself and your titles, and because you've actually done the most important thing of all -- you've gotten the convention-goer's attention.

My first rule of thumb at a convention may seem simple, but here it is: Never sit down. Never.

You need to stand up. Always.

Why? Because if you are standing, people will always see you before they see the guy next to you who is sitting down.

Of course, it's impossible to stand the entire time if you're manning your booth alone. So if you have to take a break and sit for a while, please remember to stand again when people come to the table.

The main thing here is, never let potential customers look down at you if you can help it. And please, always give them your full attention.

If there is only one of you, the need to be visible and to give people your full attention is even more important. But if there are two of you at your table, the rule of "always stand" can be relaxed a little.

With two people, you can take turns sitting. But remember, whichever one of you is standing up, don't just stay behind your table because that won't help you enough. You need to walk around the outside, talk to people, hand out flyers and more.

With two, one of you mans the booth while the other walks the floor of the entire convention and hands out flyers and does promo.

Mind, if there are three of you, that's even better. If one is the artist, that's perfect. Let the artist sit and draw. An artist at work always gets attention.

Then, once people come to see what he is doing, go into sales mode.

No matter how many people are manning your table, remember to always look busy. Never sit there looking bored, even if you are. (Trust me; there will be times, even at the most exciting convention in the world, when you can't help but be bored.) Because if someone walks by and sees you sitting there, looking bored, they are less likely to care about what you have as it is seems like you don’t care.

To sum up, what you want to do when you're planning your table is this: think of everything people have done at conventions that got your attention and made you check out their table.

Now do that, only better.

In other words, how well you do at a convention, and what it does for you, depends on what you are willing to do in order to make your appearance a success.

Keep this in mind: your goal at any convention goes beyond selling your titles. You want the people you talk with to remember who you are, then seek out your titles after the convention is over. Ultimately, your goal is for the customers you meet at conventions to order your titles through their local comic book store - or through you, directly. What you want to do is to turn them from a one-time reader into a long-time follower.

And it's all up to you, and your plan, as to whether or not this happens.

With my next column, I'll discuss Diamond Comics Distributors, and what they bring to the table. ('Nuff said... for now.)

Later,

Ace.

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