Your first few conventions can be amazing experiences, but they can also be difficult, overwhelming, and disheartening. Here’s 10 pieces of perspective that Cory and I have adopted over the past three years that keep us focused on the things that matter most.
1. The first year you have a superpower: Invisibility
Yeah, I didn’t think it was much of a superpower either, at first. Nobody wants to feel unknown or forgotten, but the truth is it takes repeated exposure to a person or idea before most people will take interest. If this is your first convention with a table, you are starting from ground zero. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a good first impression! Nor does it make it impossible to convince people to buy your books or artwork.
What it DOES mean is that you have a great opportunity for low-stakes mistakes.
I made a lot of mistakes in my first year, and many more since, but the impact of those mistakes was smallest at the first convention. Every mistake can be an opportunity to improve and evolve the process. How I pitch my story has been drastically transformed since I first attempted it. The design and layout of my booth has been overhauled multiple times. How I engage people that walk by has changed. The roles that Cory and I play, and how we work as a team, have evolved. My method of getting equipment and merchandise to a convention has been streamlined.
Very few early mistakes matter to the consumer, but they can be game-changers for you.
Most people don’t remember us from that first year. If they do, it’s just a hazy, “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I…?” We were invisible. It gave us the freedom to learn.
2. Put your story pitches to the test!
There is no better place to practice a pitch, story or otherwise, than a convention.
Before you go, try to boil your story down to a few sentences. Maybe develop two or three pitches, just so you can try them all out at the convention and see what sticks. Listen and adapt to the kinds of questions people ask. Do they want to know more about your characters? Maybe add a brief synopsis (adjective noun style) of your main character to your pitch. Do you have a theme? See if you can weave the keywords of your core message into your description.
As you speak the words over and over, the hard edges and unnecessary material will get removed as you fine-tune what you do. First conventions are a great time to practice this! Tell people about your story every chance you can.
See if you can transform your presentation from unpracticed to polished by the end of the weekend!
3. What’s YOUR story?
Speaking of pitches, there’s more to your work than just your art or your story or your characters. There’s also who YOU are as a person. It took us until year three before Cory and I realized that the people coming by our booth were interested in more than just our book! They wanted to know about us. How did we define ourselves?
Over time, we learned to pitch our identity.
We’re entrepreneurs, artists, writers, educators. We’re a small company with big dreams. We’re passionate creators of unique, personal, inventive tales.
Much of this grew naturally out of hundreds of interactions with people. Noticing that certain stories would resonate, or just finding myself answering the same questions over and over. People want to know how long I’ve been making comics, or what I went to school for. They’re interested in how Cory and I work together.
Our journey to this point is just as valuable and interesting to people as our work, because when they buy a book, it is to support who we are as people. They want to learn if we’re worth investing in.
4. Find your style and your rhythm
Oddly enough, Cory and I do best when we slow down. We like long conversations, letting people explore our work or weaving a tale for them. I particularly like drawing Dream Eater for kids and telling them about who he is and the dreadful price people must pay if they seek his knowledge. I get to go full-blown cheesy storyteller with them, because children don’t find a storyteller hamming it up nearly as weird as an adult sometimes will. (Although, more than once, I have caught a parent leaning in to listen as I regale their daughter or son with my tall tales!)
Cory is great with drawing people in and presenting the story with passion and enthusiasm. He is amazing with managing people and keeping them engaged while I wrap up a drawing, which is especially tricky when things get busy and we might have five or six people around the table at once. He’s also much better at connecting with people from a distance, and doesn’t take rejection nearly as harshly as I do.
Over the years, we’ve found where our greatest strengths are, and learned to operate as a team. At the start of conventions, we always remind ourselves to slow down and engage people in a way that we can be at our best.
Play to your strengths.
Maybe you love a quick, high-energy pace. Perhaps you’re great at projecting a welcoming personality. Love cosplay? Show off your skills and broadcast your particular sense of story and style. Or it could be that you’re shy, but if you can build the booth to bring people in, you’re great with engaging folks one-on-one. Once you find those strengths, do everything you can to create an environment at your table where those aspects of yourself are allowed to shine.
5. Every person should get a spectacular experience
We want them to feel special and valued. Even though many people will not remember us, there’s no reason not to do our best for each person. You never know when you will make a lasting impression, and we want it to be a good one!
Not everyone WILL become a reader, but anyone COULD.
We’ve found that we can never tell who will love our work. A person might come by and seem super excited, chat for ten minutes, and then walk away, never to return. And then we might have a gruff, taciturn person come up and ask to buy our books before we’ve had the chance to say hello! Everyone is a potential reader, supporter, and perhaps someday even a friend! So we try to treat everyone that way, if we can. I won’t claim that we always succeed, but we do try.
6. Have no expectations for the show, other than to do your best and learn everything you can.
If I expect a show to go well, it can never live up to my inflated expectations and I get discouraged. If I expect a show to go poorly, I will self-sabotage and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’ve found that I do best, and am happiest, when I aim for having no expectations for a show, but for myself. My focus is on giving my best effort and learning everything I can.
This attitude keeps me engaged in what is ultimately the most valuable aspect of the show. How can I improve? What is unique about the show? What should I change? Who did I meet?
The answers to these questions will pay off for many years to come!
7. Keep records
One of the things I did at my first conventions that paid off well was taking a tour, with camera and notepad, of the floor. Seeing what other people did for their set-ups, and what I could include in mine. I’ve tweaked my table layout every year. Every show, even, since I’ve rarely gone to two shows in a row that had the same sized tables.
I also keep records of what I sold. (More on that in this WA article!) This can become exceptionally valuable data later on, because often my perception of a show is not accurate to the reality of the show. There are so many things going on during a convention that it is often hard to keep track of it all.
For example, after my first convention I almost decided not to make more softcover books. I was convinced that nobody was buying them. Fortunately, I had kept a record of my sales, so I checked the data. It turns out that I sold hardcovers and softcovers in equal numbers at that show! So why didn’t I remember the softcovers? Well, most people that got a hardcover didn’t mind the extra charge for a personalized sketch. However, many of the people who bought softcovers were not able to and/or interested in the extra drawing. As a result, I had personalized every hardcover book, but few of the softcovers, and my memory of hardcover sales was much stronger as a result.
These days, we actually sell far more softcovers than hardcovers at conventions! Good thing we had the data that let us know to keep them!
8. Don’t be discouraged if something sells poorly the first time
What sells will largely depend on the show and its crowd. And every show, in every community, has a slightly different vibe.
I’ve had shows where nobody wanted anything but books. Others where it was all art. And some where people wanted it all, or none of it.
…And then, even when you think you have a show figured out, the next year the vibe may change, and so will the response!
It’s a process of feeling out which crowds you mesh with best, and how to present yourself to them.
Chances are good that you’ll do amazing with one type, okay with others, and poorly with another. Then it’s just a matter of matching what you do to the shows you go to. I’m still figuring it out!
9. Start small and local
For your first convention, consider starting with a local show.
Many times there are great shows with fantastic opportunities that get overlooked because they aren’t Big Official Conventions. These shows have a lot to offer! You can meet local supporters and peers, connect to your communities, and at a fraction of the cost to fly out to a larger convention out of state. The value of the practice you will get pitching and networking is good no matter the venue, but smaller conventions are often much more low-key, relaxed, and operate at a slower pace. They aren’t nearly as overwhelming. As for sales, I’ve had small hotel conventions out-perform big 50,000+ attendee shows, and for a tenth of the cost to attend and set up. Not to mention, I could drive home to re-stock and sleep in my own bed once the day was over!
If you do apply for much larger cons your first year, don’t get discouraged if you don’t get into every one you apply to, or the spot you do get is not the greatest. A foot in the door is the important part, and as you as you build your body of work and your network, it will get easier. Keep an eye on the websites of the conventions you’re interested in and apply as soon as you can! Not only will this usually save you money, but once you have a spot in a convention, you often have access to early registration in future years that other people don’t.
Overall, if there’s one plan that I had in my first year that’s proven to be a good one, it was to aim to add conventions slowly, and not to worry about leaving the state for large conventions until I had more years under my belt. Year One: One local convention. Year Two: Several local conventions, try one out of state. Year Three: Many local conventions, two out of state. This plan has let me grow at a manageable pace, keeping costs reasonable. It’s one of the few things I wouldn’t go back and change!
10. Connect to people!
The webcomics community is a great one to be a part of, and there are lots of resources for you to learn more about how to prepare for your first convention. As a starting place, check out what my fellow Webcomic Alliance folks have to say on cons. Dawn and Chris, in particular, have WAY more experience than I do.
Don’t be afraid to reach out.
You may find a fellow creator going to the same show that you can split a hotel or table with. If you get a spot in the show, check the listing for the people around you. You might be able to contact them on Twitter or their website and get to know them a little before the show even starts. I know I feel much less awkward meeting someone I’ve already met online.
There’s also several great Facebook Groups to connect with, or if you’re using a hosting service (such as Tapastic, which Drezz introduced us to) there’s probably a built-in community forum to tap into as well. Dip your toe in the water, be genuine, and offer help and assistance with no desire for gain beyond being a good friend and peer. You’ll find an amazing support group in no time!
While it can be tempting to focus on people that are already “Big Time Creators” in your mind, don’t overlook the value of people at the same stage in their career as you. These people are your true peers. They will be struggling with the same challenges, will be the most invested in your mutual success, and may even develop at a similar rate as you. Since creating a webcomic and a following is such a long-term, year-upon-year activity, the people you connect with now will grow with you. They also are the folks that could benefit the most from a friend and peer. There is a lot of great information and wisdom you can glean from a Big Time Creator, but at most that person is a mentor or role model. Don’t lose track of the fantastic people all around you, struggling and striving to become better. See if you can become part of someone else’s journey, and help them to succeed the way you would like to.
What pieces of perspective do you have to share?
Robin Childs is addicted to storytelling, with specialties in world-building, character crafting, and language making. You can find the results of her storytelling pursuits at LeyLinesComic.com! Or drop a line on Twitter at RobinofLeyLines. If you are struggling with your own storytelling troubles, she offers a variety of developmental editing services!