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Guerillas In The Mist - or just how effective are conventions, anyway?

By Von Allan

I thought it would be interesting to break down the Alternative Press Expo from a bit of a different point of view. Many people have been writing on the show itself and the amazing art to be seen. That’s become a staple and helps make APE APE. That said, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to add my voice to the chorus. Besides, Moggy will do her write up on the show and I don’t want to tread on ground she might cover, too.

Instead, what I’m going to prattle on about is some of the numbers behind APE. The marketing I did before the show, what I was hoping to get out of it, and my overall thoughts on the dollars involved. Simply put: did I get out of it what I wanted? How do I measure it?

First, let’s look over the key data for the show itself. The one thing we won’t know (and can never know) is exactly what the paid attendance is. There is no independent audit on these numbers so we really have no idea how accurate they are. That’s NOT to imply anyone is lying or being disingenuous about them. All I mean by an indy audit is that we don’t have a neutral third party verifying the numbers and catching mistakes. For all I know they are completely 100% accurate. So don’t jump all over me on this. I should add that these conclusions are mine and mine alone. They don’t reflect anything else save my quirky way of looking at things. Take what you will from them.

What do we know, then? Well, we know that APE ’07 had a total of 338 exhibitor tables in the entire convention space (see this link). Not exhibitors – tables. The cost of each full table, assuming each exhibitor took advantage of the early bird special, was $185.00. I’m going to ignore the half tables just to keep the math simpler. So, the total cost of ALL 338 tables was $62,530.00. Put another way, APE attendees would have to shell out this amount for all the exhibitors to cover their table costs. And more than this for exhibitors to make a profit.

APE claimed that 4800 people attended the 2006 edition of the Expo (1st page in the 2007 program book, 2nd paragraph) but most blogs/reports seem to agree that attendance was down in 2007. Let’s say that only 4200 people attended the show over the two days (remember, again, that this is impossible to verify). But call it 4200 ‘cuz we gotta work with something.

With 4200 attendees and the total table cost we calculated above, we know this: each attendee would have to be willing to shell out about $15.00 each over and above the cost of admission ($62530/4200). If they did, then all the table costs would be paid for on average. That’s not saying much, but y’know. The problem is this: how many attendees does each table (NOT each exhibitor) have to see to earn that money? If it’s totally equal, then we’re looking at about 13 people each (4200/338). Well, it’s obviously not going to be a “1 to 1” ratio. That just doesn’t happen. For the most part, the rule of thumb (and the one I’ll use) is the ol’ 80/20 rule. 80% of your sales will come from only 20% of your customers. If that’s the case, then only about 840 attendees (4200*20%) actually attend the con prepared to spend money over and above the cost of admission. The other 3360 attendees (the vast majority) are really there to take in some art, hook up with some friends, and maybe buy a mini-comic or some such. Most aren’t real buyers, though.

So, we now gotta revise the $15.00 per attendee number we came up with. If only 840 attendees come prepared to really spend money, how much do they plan to spend? Well, the answer is pretty simple: about $50,000.00 (62530*80%). The ol' 80/20 rule again. The vast majority of attendees (again, 3360 of 'em) will only spend a total of $12,530.00, or about $3.75 each. Not good. Each of the 840 other attendess has to drop $60.00 ($50000/840) to cover 80% of the total table costs. Put another way, each table needs to have three of these attendee angels drop $60.00 on their table. Figuring an average price of $20 per item (be it book, print, or whatnot), then each of these hypothetical attendees would need to buy 3 items each to make it work. Sounds pretty easy.

It’s not. Mainly because each exhibitor is competing with every other exhibitor and there are also a lot of larger publishers and a few retailers competing with you on top of it. Now, one could argue that the larger publishers (Fantagraphics, Oni, Slave Labor, etc…) may not be there to make money. They could be doing it for exposure and other obtuse marketing reasons. But the retailers are almost certainly there to make money. Or, at worst, break-even. I was a retailer and there’s no way in hell I’d set-up at a show like this if I wasn’t making a small profit. Both Comic Relief and Lee’s Comics had 5 tables each and, I suspect, would need to sell $5000.00 in books over the course of the show to make break-even (if anyone wants to know how I came up with this figure, just ask). Both retailers are regulars at APE so it’s unlikely that they exhibit at a loss. That just wouldn’t be in the cards. So I’m pretty confident with that total figure of $10,000.00.

Ok, so what does that do to us? Well, a couple of things happen. Some of our 840 attendees will spend their budget on the retailers. How many? If the retailers need to sell $10,000.00 worth in books and we figured each “angel” would spend $60, then we probably lose about 167 people ($10000/$60). Probably a bit less than that, 'cuz some of the other attendees might buy something, too. But it'll do. So we’re down to 673 buying attendees. If we adjust our total table revenue to account for the 10 tables the two retailers had, we’re down to needing $60,680.00. But with only 673 attendees accounting for 80% of that figure (the 80/20 rule), we now need each of these to spend $72.00 per remaining table ((60680*80%)/673).

Put another way, we have a total of 328 tables left (accounting for the retailers) and only 673 attendees willing to spend real money (about $48,500.00 worth). We know, of course, that it won’t be spread this equally. If we go back to the 80/20 rule again, only 66 tables (328*20%) will see a great deal of action. If that’s even close to accurate, then these 66 tables will gobble up about 80% of the remaining money (so about $39,000.00 of the remaining $48,500.00), netting each of these 66 tables about $590.00. $590.00 is actually not a great deal of money. It covers the cost of the table, food, the hotel and transportation if the table owner is an out of towner. A number of publishers had 3 or more tables (including Slave Labor, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Oni Press, Last Gasp, Drawn & Quarterly, and a few others). Combined, this accounts for 29 of the 66 tables. The big guys, relatively speaking.

So, what do we have left? Well, 262 tables are fighting over about $9,500.00 (48500-39000). That's about 132 of the remaining buying attendees (9500/72). Or about $36 for each table. Then, 328 tables are fighting over that extra $12,530.00 that's kicking around in the vast majority of attendees (the remaining 3360). That's another $38 per table.

Think about that.

262 tables fighting for $9,500.00. 328 tables fighting over $12,530.00.

In total and on average, that’s $74.00 per table. It wouldn’t come close to covering the table cost let alone any additional expenses. Food, hotel fees, and on and on.

The questions each exhibitor really needs to ask themselves are these: is what you’re offering to attendees enticing enough to get more dollars from the 673 attendees than $74.00? Do you have a way of getting their attention? Is competing with all the other exhibitors an effective way of gaining traction at the con? Are cons right for you?

Are these numbers accurate? No, probably not. Without knowing what the paid attendance is, I have to make a guess. And it’s only a guess no matter how educated I think it is. In addition, I’ll never know what the actual buy rate is. While the rule of thumb is the 80/20 rule, it’s quite possible that far more attendees come to APE (and shows like APE) planning to spend money. Then again, the attendance figures could be lower. On top of it, even less people may be prepared to buy at the con then what I outline above.

So, why go? Well, as many of you know I’ve been trying to grow this book of mine in a slow and methodical fashion. Part of the reason is that this is really my first time doing comics and I want to make the book as strong as I possibly can. As a result, there’ve been a fair amount of corrections and refinements as things have gone along. I’ve been also hoping to build word of mouth about the book and get some early attention to it before the book is ever solicited. I’m under no illusions that the book will do well; that’s impossible to predict but the odds are stacked against that happening. First-time authors are notoriously difficult to sell and I’m certainly not na├»ve on this front. Cons, I’ve hoped, represent a chance to get my work “out there” and into the hands of exactly the kind of people I wanted. Indy fans and art lovers. Alternative publishers and cool retailers. And media types that are specifically keen on comics and graphic novels. Basically, people that love the form.

The whole approach for all four shows we’ve attended (two SPXs and two APEs) was to give out free samples to try and gain some traction. I don’t give a shit about sales at this point. Sales dollars don’t even enter into it. I could sell ashcans and whatnot but I’ve long thought that this would restrict the amount of hands I could get my stuff into. I really need exposure as I try and build an audience for my work; I’m fairly pragmatic about these things so it seemed the best way to go about it. On top of it, by not selling anything I avoid any chance of alienation. I can make edits and wholesale changes without the concern that someone who already bought my work will have to do it again to get the “complete package.” I also don’t tick off retailers. Some retailers feel that artists and/or publishers selling at cons (see Robert Scott’s thoughts, for example) is unfair competition. If they support your work and you debut a book at a local con, you wind up competing with them and potentially cost them sales. Lastly, by exhibiting at cons I hopefully show that I’m keen, eager and easy to work with. The rest of this post is gonna go into details of what I did, tried to do, and what I think the overall effect was.

So, a few weeks before APE I started sending out press kits to a number of “opinion formers” in the Bay area. Which people? Well, media types. Librarians. Other creators. That sort of thing. Each kit included a cover letter, a few bookmarks, the press release for my APE appearance, a “tip sheet” that goes into details about the story, art excerpts from the book itself, and a few interviews I’ve done over the past year or so. I had sent a number of query emails in advance of the kits so they weren’t going in cold (well, for the most part). In total, I sent 24 kits down in advance of the trip. Why kits? Well, I have to build exposure somehow and what I was trying to avoid (desperately!) was the feast or famine phenomenon that happens on the con floor. I was hoping that these people would come and see us at the show itself instead of stumbling across us by accident. Maybe they’d even seek us out. Or, if they did forgot us by the time the show started then their memory might be jarred when they saw our table. The only problem with this was that the table assignments weren’t ready in time for my snail mail deadline. I basically had to tell people to “look for us” instead of telling them exactly where we were going to be. Annoying.

In addition, I decided to take out a full page ad in the program book. I wanted to see if I could get any extra traffic to our table with an ad and I was also curious to know if the powers that be would give us a better table location then last year (where we were in the equivalent of the nose bleeds). A full pager is $100 so it’s not cheap. But it seemed like an educated risk to take. The table assignments weren't ready for the ad, either, so I had to do a second "look for us" instead of a direct pointer. Grrrr...

How effective was it? On this point there’s no doubt: with one single exception, every exhibitor who took out a full page ad in the program book was on the main floor (the exception was the guys with Super-Con, who were there only to advertise the con with flyers). The half page ad folks were way more scattered – some were on the main floor, some weren’t. But if you’re relatively unknown and want a good spot, take out a full page ad in the APE program book. It’ll get you on the main floor where the big boys play.

The main giveaway item we brought down to APE was 300 ashcans of a little short story I did called “Li’l Kids.” Featuring characters from my bookie in a little short story seemed like a good way to go. Readers get a beginning, middle and end story that stands on it’s own but also ties into the book itself. The ashcan is also a nice little introduction to my work in general. On top of it, I brought down 55 galleys of my book that I had done up through Lulu.com. This is the complete book - all 143 pages of it. These were going to be given away to key people (folks who got my press kit, retailers, publishers at the show, people who seemed really keen on my stuff, etc…). On top of it, I had done up a number of giclee prints (measuring 11” by 17”) to give out to really interested people. These helped on another front: since I wasn’t super happy with how the Lulu.com books turned out, the prints helped reinforce what the final pages will look like. Lastly, we had some candy and bookmarks to hand out, too. Good group of swag, all for free, and all done in the interest in drumming up support.

The good news is that we distributed all 300 copies of the ashcan. I figure that we had about 215 at our table with the rest either at the freebie tables or given out to a few retailers. Not everyone wants a freebie, of course, but my “back of the envelope” calculations figure that we probably gave it away to 90% of the attendees we saw. That gives us around 240 visitors to our table over the course of the show. Some stopped just long enough to grab a freebie and scooted. Others would stop, chat, flip through my portfolio, look at the galley and generally act civilized before moving on. I figure the time each attendee stayed could range from 20 seconds to 10 minutes with the average probably being around 3 minutes. I really wish we could drive that up, but I’ll take what I can get.

Now, if I’m right about that average of 3 minutes and also right with the 240 visitors, then we had about 720 minutes of total attendee visits for the show. Or about 12 hours (720/60). APE lasted about 15 hours (11-7 on Saturday and 11-6 on Sunday) so we had about 3 hours of lull time for the entire show. I can’t completely verify that, but it feels about right. This is partially why I think that the attendance for the show was on the low side. There were obvious lags when there was just no traffic at all. You could see the “bald spots” in the corridors when there were few people wandering around. I wonder how exhibitors on each side of the main floor found it?

On the galley front, I came home with 10 left over. Cool beans. Most of the 45 were given out at the show itself but the problem here is that a good chunk of these galleys were already spoken for. They had nothing to do with visitors to our table. These were the copies I wanted to get into specific hands. When I adjust for that, I probably had about 20 that I gave to “keen” people at our table directly. That puts our “keenness” rate at around 8% (20/240). That's actually 12% less than the 80/20 rule, but I was still fairly pleased.

This is where it gets interesting (well, at least if you’re me). If that 8% would have turned into actual sales, I would have sold about $400 worth of books for the weekend (20 copies times $20 – the $20 retail price I’m pulling out of thin air but it’s around right for my book). That’s a big assumption, I know. From a dollars and cents point of view, it would have paid for the table and covered some of ye olde cost of goods sold. Not great, but something. The catch is that we really don’t know. Someone can be incredibly enthusiastic about your work but still stop cold when it comes to shelling out $20. Odds are some of these people would have balked at the $20 and just grabbed an ashcan instead. How many? Who knows?

Since we weren’t selling anything, how did it go? Well, pretty much every single person who got an ashcan at our table (again, since about 215 ashcans were given away, we probably chatted with 200 of these people) were asked to give us some feedback. So far, that hasn’t happened. Now it’s only been a week, but I haven’t received any email from anyone who got one. Not a single one. Sigh. Yes, you could argue that this has really been a short period of time so there’s no reason to worry. But…this is exactly what’s happened with the previous three cons. No news, unfortunately, has not proven to be good news. It could change and the jury’s still out, but I’m not optimistic that I’m going to get the feedback I had hoped for.

The ashcan actually put us in a tricky situation: I had talked a lot with a few friends leading up to APE about changing our giveaway strategy. Instead of just giving them away, one option was to specifically ask attendees for contact information in exchange for an ashcan. Normally, we passively collect email addresses on our mailing list but that hasn’t been extremely effective (we got maybe 10 new names this time around). Instead, we could have tried this new approach and then done follow-up directly with each recipient. It sounds easy to say as I write this (and was, when we talked about it before APE) but when we were actually on the floor it was a far different thing. It seemed extremely pushy. Aggressive, even. Moggy and I kinda decided mutually to pass on it for now and take our chances with asking people to get back to us. Unfortunately, when the entire reason we’ve gone to a con is to get feedback, this may not have been the smartest thing in the world to do. Double sigh.

I’m also quite interested to know what people thought of the galley. The story, of course, won’t work for everyone. It’s tricky subject matter and that will create problems for some. Not everyone digs my style and that’s ok, too. On top of it, it’s a smidgen rough. As I mentioned above, Lulu.com doesn’t seem to be able to handle my washes all that well. They print extremely muted and I’m really thankful I had the prints and portfolio samples to show how the pages are meant to look. I’m also lucky that I do have a lot of contact info regarding who got these and I can (and will) do follow-up. We'll see how that goes.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment, when I look back on it, was the lack of success with the press kits. Despite the fact that I had an email exchanges before the kits were mailed, very few people actually sought us out on the convention floor. Take, for example, librarians. I had specifically contacted a number of Bay area librarians who I know (from research, folks!) are keen on graphic novels. Despite the fact that the email feedback was quite positive, not a one swung by our table. ‘Course, I have no idea if they actually attended APE so it’s a smidgen hard to judge. I went to a great deal of effort contacting them and I’m (understandably) disappointed that I couldn’t chat with any in person. My book won’t set the retail world on fire and it’ll take librarians to help push it over the hump. Not being able to get galleys into the hands of these people was quite frustrating. It’ll come, but I’ll have to do it through direct mail instead. And I lose out on what I was hoping for the most – the chance to talk in person and hopefully get them fired up about it. Hearts and minds is what I need.

On a broader level, we really weren’t able to network all that well, despite the better table placement. One concern I’ve long had with conventions in general is that the key people I would hope to talk to don’t know I exist. On top of it, I don’t know they’re there, either. What do I mean? Well, here’s a “fer instance”: it turns out that Gina Gagliano, one of the high muckety-mucks at First Second Books, was at APE. I had no idea. It would have been fantastic to give her a galley, especially since I would love to freakin’ talk with these folks about this book or perhaps another one down the road. I just don’t have an “in.” One hopes that being at a con will help pave the way for this type of networking, but time after time that hasn't happened for us. In addition, other media were there covering the event (hell, even Wizard and Newsarama were there and did some stuff on Hope Larson, Gene Yang, and whatnot) but we didn’t see any of these people. Quite honestly, we have no pull at all. As a result, you’re totally reliant on people finding you (I should add that I tried quite hard to get a list of media contacts from the APE powers that be. I really wanted to know who would be there, at least on the media front, so I could contact them directly myself. Unfortunately, I wasn’t given that info).

Again, the whole reason we went was to try and build awareness for my work. That’s the only reason for us to go to a con. Give out stuff and try and create a groundswell for the book. Create a buzz and get people talking. It costs a huge chunk of change to go to these things (remember that we came down from Canada) and the only “return on investment” I’m looking for is some love. Emails and blog mentions. Hell, I'd even take negative reviews as long as it was something (it's the ol' Oscar Wilde line, "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about"). Simply put, no word of mouth equals a pretty big failure from where I sit. On top of it, I was actually a bit stunned to realize that we didn’t have any one come up remembering us from last year. Hell, at SPX last fall we at least had a few familiar faces swing by. I think this time around we had one guy who remembered my stuff. That either says one of two things: the memories of APE attendees are too short. Or APE isn’t doing a great job getting repeat visitors on an annual basis (this is another good argument for a survey by Comic Con. It would be really interesting to know how many people attend APE annually).

So that pretty sums up my own experiences. So far, we haven’t gotten what I wanted at all from APE...or even SPX. Again, it’s not dollars that I’m looking for. We had nothing for sale. It’s buzz and feedback and love. With four cons under our belt, I haven’t gotten a sense that any of this is happening. Put it another way: if it wasn’t for this blog, would you have ever heard of me or my book?


Next up is a discussion on freebies and by that I mean free giveaways to convention goers. The consensus of opinion would seem to be that it’s not a good idea to do. You don’t really risk any alienation, especially with ashcans, by selling your work. And hopefully it creates more of a resonance with person who bought it. They paid for it because they wanted it – and that very wanting will hopefully move it up their reading pile. That’s difficult to argue with and I think is well worth considering by any con exhibitor. The drawback to this approach, and with selling to build exposure in general, is you shrink your potential audience. Not everyone who likes your stuff is going to pay for it. The catch here is that we don’t know how many people we miss out on. If I take the 240 people who stopped by our table as accurate, I certainly don’t think that any where close to that number would have bought the ashcan. Some will have, sure. How many? I dunno. 20? 50? 100? More? I’ll never know.

The disconnect, in a sense, is that the ashcans will never sell for very much money (a buck or two). In my case, 300 ashcans cost me about $87 Canadian. So, if I sold 87 of ‘em for $1 (albeit in US funds), I’ve pretty much earned back my investment. Anymore is gravy. But if I can only sell 87 of them…or even 100, I’ve shrunk my potential audience by quite a bit. I’ve also lost out on the freebie table (yes, no big loss, but still…). Again, I figure I gave out 215 ashcans at our table over the two days that APE was held. If I could only sell 87 copies of the ashcan, that’s only 40% (87/215) of the audience I hit with the giveaways. Yes, one could easily argue that some of those 215 just picked up the ashcan because it was free. I’d argue that, for the majority, this wasn’t the case but whatever…some people grabbed it just because it’s free. I don’t know, however, that I could sell 87. I might have been able to (after all, we had a good table location) but I don’t know. The dollars, even if I sold ‘em for $2, doesn’t really enter into it. Hell, even if I sold ALL of them at $2 each that’s only $600 in total revenue. Not that this would have happened, but hopefully you see my point. There is only so much that you can expect from this type of promotion dollar-wise.

From another point of view, though, I’d still rather give them away. The jury seems out on the amount of feedback one will get even if they were for sale. It would seem that the simple purchase of an ashcan, in and of itself, isn’t quite enough to get an email, blog mention, or whatnot. It might increase the odds to some extent because, again, someone has now paid for something and that may give it some more meaning to them, but…if they aren’t a blogger or even keen on emailing a stranger, it probably won’t make much of a difference. So, that brings us right down to a crass dollars point. For $87, I was able to reach 300 people with my stuff. Yes, I haven’t heard back from them (well, save for this very nice bit). Yes, that’s disappointing. And yes, I don’t know exactly how much of a “quality” 300 that truly was. But it only cost me 29 cents ($87/300) per attendee to do it. That’s not bad. And long-term, who knows what will happen? I might get an email a year from now. For $87, that's not bad at all.

How much did the entire trip cost us, then? Well, let’s see. I have to exclude the vacation part because if we had only gone down for APE itself this would have certainly knocked off a few days. Let’s assume we flew down Friday afternoon and left on Sunday after the show. That would only give me two days of accomadations to worry about. So, our hotel room was $100 per night split three ways (call it $34 each). We did eat out a few times, but we also hit a grocery store and went fairly conservative on the food budget. For this time-frame, we may have spent $125 each. The plane tickets were fairly expensive, so we’re looking at about $400 for each of us. To save money we drove from Ottawa to Toronto and back again. Parking the van we drove in was $15 per day (so $45) and gas was about $200 in total (yeesh!). Three ways that about $67. We also had to get around the Bay area, so toss in BART and MUNI fair and a few cab rides with all our gear. Probably another $60 or about $20 each. Toss in some miscellaneous expenses (medicine, snacks, etc…) and your easily looking at about $700 for each of us for the Friday-Sunday timeframe. That’s not too bad.

Now, the con. the table at APE was $185. The ashcans were $87. The giclee prints were probably about $3.00 each (including acid free backing boards and bags) and I did 50. So $150. Bookmarks I already had and same for the candy. Call it another $150. The 55 galleys were actually the most expensive. Printing, tax and shipping were just shy of $400 (and a big shout-out goes to a certain Bay area retailer who allowed us to ship them directly to their store. Lulu.com’s shipping price to Canada would have added another $200 to that price. But by shipping them directly to San Fran we saved these dollars). Mailing the press kits cost me $2 each and I did 24 of ‘em. So that’s another $50. If I really wanted to get picky I’d add a portion of the banner I bought back in 2005 and some other sundry display items, but on the off-chance I’m overestimating I’ll leave them out. Roughly what I’m looking at is a total “table set-up fee” of about $1000. Probably a bit higher with the exchange rate, but eh…Now, of course, not everything was used up. I came back with 10 galleys and about 25 prints so they should probably be knocked off the total price. This depends on your point of view, though, because they were done specifically for APE and have to be accounted for. Some would argue that they should be deducted off, but I’m going to leave them. That I didn’t move everything at APE doesn’t mean they should be dropped from the calculation. The same goes for some of the bookmarks that were left for stores.

So…if I had just gone by myself, I’d be looking at $1000 in table fees plus another $700 (at least) in travel costs. So $1700. Since Moggy came with me, then that kicks up to $2400. Jason, our third tablemate had to pay his own $700, but let’s exclude him from it just for clarity’s sake (no offence, Jay). Conservatively, then, I’m looking at $2400 for APE ’07. And again, please keep in mind that would be doing the con as close to it’s actual schedule as possible. Flying down on Friday night and leaving right after the con was over on Sunday evening. We actually spent more, but that’s for the vacation part of the trip.

$2400. That’s a big chunk of change. Now, I’m actually prepared to spend that money purely on promotion. It’s the risk and expense about doing anything entrepreneurial. If we had sold “stuff” at APE, we’d actually only have a few things to really sell. This is quite important to keep in mind from the previous discussion. I could have sold the ashcans. And I could have sold the prints. The galleys, though, can’t be sold. They are galleys, after all, and not completed books. Yes, they were expensive, but galleys (also known as Advance Reader Copies or just “Advance Reader’s”) are a necessary part of publishing. Kinda unknown in comics and the Direct Market, but I’ve long believed in them (for why, see this). They are there to give out to publishers, retailers and the media and they did their job. That really leaves the ashcans and the prints. I probably could have sold the prints for $20 (which would have been a helluva return on investment, I hasten to add) but I doubt I would have moved that many. If I managed to sell 15, we’re only talking about $300. The ashcans, as I covered above, are tricky. Since they were only 7 pages of story plus a little preview of my book (so six 8 ½ by 11 pages folded in half and stapled), it would have been tough to sell them for $2. So say I sold all 300 for $1 each. That’s another $300. So $600, tops, and there’s really no way I would have hit that.

Would selling the ashcans have gotten more feedback then giving them out for free? Honestly, and partially informed by the discussion on my last post, I doubt it. My thinking is that it’s just not something that most attendees are comfortable doing. Regardless of whether they buy it or not, your chance of hearing back from someone is pretty small. Most likely no more than 2%. But most likely not much higher than 5%. So call it 5%. True, it’s probably a higher percentage than a response rate from freebies. But the catch is that your getting your stuff into the hands of less people. Say freebies have a response rate of 1% and sales have one of 5%. I gave out 300 ashcans so I’d hope to hear back from 3 people (300*1%). If I could only sell my ashcan to 87 people (my breakeven point on them), that’s only 4 people (87*5%) – 1 extra person. While we’ll never know actual numbers here, it’s certainly something to consider. From my point of view, I’d rather get my work into more people’s hands for free and take my chances. But this is just one approach and your mileage may certainly vary.

One other thought on attendees. As I said, I believe we saw 240 people at our table and I’m pretty damn skippy that we gave out ashcans to 215 of them. Now, there were certainly a number of attendees who just walked right by, not even taking a peek at us. Presumably they had other exhibitors to go see or friends to meet up with. So, about 240 people stopped by our table. It’s possible that another 1000 (and I’m guessing wildly here) walked right on by. It could be 100 people. It could be 2000 people. I don’t know. So, we know that the Comic Con folks claimed 4800 attendees at the ’06 show. If we had in front of us about 1250 attendees over the two days, that’s only 26% (1250/4800) of the total attendance. Well, as I’ve said before I do think the attendance was lower this year. I guessed 4200 and let’s go with that. That bumps it up to 30% (1250/4200). Still – is it possible that we only saw 30% of the total attendees? On the main floor? Doesn’t that seem wonky?

Well, ok…what if I’m wrong about the number of “walk bys” that didn’t stop? Say it WAS 2000. That gives us around 2250 attendees. It would also mean that only 11% of those actually stopped by (240/2250), but for arguments sake let’s run with it. That’s still only 54% of the attendance (2250/4200). Weird. Hmmm…let’s say, then, that APE does add the exhibitors to the paid attendee figure. We can only guess at this, but if every table had the maximum of 4 people at it, then we’re looking at 1352 exhibitors (338*4). Taking that out of the 4200 total attendees, we’re left with 2848 (4200-1352). That’s 2848 who paid the admission price to come in. If we did have 1250 go by our table, then we still only saw 44% of this total (1250/2848). If so, where the hell are the other 56% of attendees going? Again, I’m not saying anyone is lying. But this is the exact reason why the attendance has to be audited. And made public. As has been mentioned, the Comic Con is a registered charity so it’s highly doubtful that their lying about the numbers. I suspect, though, that they are inflating the attendance figures with the exhibitor count. We have one clue that could back this up. The 2007 program book (page 1, paragraph 2) says this, “In 2006, Ape continued its run as the best-attended indy comics show in the country as 4,800 people packed into the Concourse Exhibition Center.” Think about that. “…4800 people packed into the Concourse…” That could easily include every person who was in the Concourse, both exhibitor and attendee. My best guess (though again, I could be wrong) is that the “real” attendance, defined as those attendees who ponied up and purchased a ticket, was much closer to 2800. Possibly even lower. Plus, how are they measuring “indy comics show”? Staple, Space, SPX and which others? Are these even included?

In the meantime, we don’t really know anything. If 4800 people actually bought a ticket in 2006, then the attendee/table ratio is 14 to 1 (4800/338). If it’s only 2800, though, that drops to 8 to 1 (2800/338). It also means that the average hourly attendance is 187 (2800/15). Now, while that does seem low, keep in mind it would be inflated by the lull periods (opening and closing). And, of course, by the fact that a certain number of exhibitors would be wandering the floor. Without measurable stats, though, we don’t know…and we’ll never know. If the attendance numbers are closer to 2800, though, it may mean that Comic Con should consider restricting the number of tables to get the ratio back up. A 10 to 1 ratio would drop the number of tables to 280. Of course, the problem is that they’d have to raise the table prices to compensate for the loss of income. With 58 tables gone (338-280), that’s $10,730.00 missing (58*$185). The early bird special would have to rise to $225 to compensate. I doubt anyone would be happy with that, but it might be something that should be considered. Especially when you think that SPX’s early bird tables cost $300 and they list their 2006 attendance as over 3000 attendees AND exhibitors. If APE has over 4000 attendees AND exhibitors (which I’m arguing here), then the table cost should go up. And they should cap the number of tables available, too. SPX only has about 170 tables and only 2 badges per table (so only 340 exhibitors). So about 2650 paying attendees. Call it 2600 just in case. With 170 tables, that’s a ratio of 15 to 1. Quite a difference.

It’s not hard, folks. Each exhibitor should expect a reasonable chance for success. Be it financial or just exposure. Or both. As I pointed out here, there's a decent chance that most attendees won't have loads of cash on them. If you’re an exhibitor, consider carefully the attendance to table ratio at whatever con you’re targeting. That should be one factor (not the only factor, though) that goes into whether you want to exhibit there.

From APE's point of view, the first step is transparency. What’s the real attendance? And this should be put out publicly. Next, they need to run surveys (even if the response rate is 10% or lower) of both the exhibitors and the attendees. Especially the attendees, though it’s obviously too late for this year’s show. And they should certainly follow-up with as many exhibitors as possible to determine if the show was a success (however each exhibitor measures that). This would go a long way in helping build confidence. Edited to add: I just realized that the ALA does exactly this. Check out this page - it breaks down what the real attendance was and what the total number of exhibitors were, too. This is exactly what the Comic Con people need to do.

Artists pay to be at cons like APE. It’s only fair that they can make as educated a decision as possible about where they spend their hard earned dollars. Transparency leads to honesty and trust. That, above all, should be the mantra of every con. Artists deserve that first and foremost. Some may make money. Some will lose money. But everyone deserves to be treated fairly.

Before we go any further, I’m gonna talk for a moment about the riddle of comic book and graphic novel marketing. Just to make sure we’re all clear on this, ok? The riddle is this: how do you create enough awareness of a new book that folks are talking it up? Especially talking it up to their local retailers (be they Direct Market retailers, Book Trade retailers or both). Retailers need information before they place there orders and, with a new book by an unknown creator, there is very rarely anything for them to hang their hat on. If a book in this situation gets ordered at all, it’ll often be because the retailer believes in the publisher of said book and is willing to take a chance. Even that, though, often results in “onesies and twosies” and that’s it. And, in my experience as a bookseller, it doesn’t happen that often. For titles to be ordered broadly enough, there really needs to be a tangible sense of interest and excitement; retailers need to able to feel this. While some retailers will hand-sell a book (Moggy and I did this directly with Mary Doria Russell’s fantastic debut novel The Sparrow), creators cannot rely on this to happen. If it does at all, it’ll only happen a handful of times.

Remember, too, that most new books by unknown creators fair poorly. It takes passionate fans and dedicated retailers to change this. It’s also critical to get “gate keepers” involved in the book as early as possible. Advance Reader Copies need to be in circulation and reviewers from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and the like need to be onside. Even with that, though, it’s extremely difficult for a new book by an unknown author to create any impact sales-wise. Keep in mind here that I’m not talking about unbelievable sales. Just healthy ones. The Book Standard back in 2005 had a fascinating article by Kimberly Maul that described some of this data. The key bit was this, “93 percent of ISBNs sold fewer than 1,000 units in 2004, according to Nielsen BookScan.” This is for the entire 2004 book sales figures in the United States.

I’ll say that again, just so we’re clear. This is for the entire 2004 book sales figures in the United States as measured by Neilsen BookScan.

1000 copies. 93% of ISBNs.

Chilling, ain’t it?

As Maul’s article points out, bestsellers drive the book trade. In graphic novels, we see much the same thing. ICV2.com has been indexing sales figures from Diamond for a number of years now so there’s a fair amount of data about what sells in Direct Market shops. Without going into the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Direct Market, it’s important to state that much of the same thing is seen. Diamond annually releases their Year End Sales Charts and Market Share Anaylsis (Newsarama has the 2008 one here and the 2009 one is here) and it’s pretty clear. If your not one of the four brokered publishers (or Viz, Tokyopop or DDP), you ain’t in Diamond’s top 100 for ’06. No Fantagraphics. No Top Shelf. No Slave Labor. No nothing.

More importantly are the titles that are missing. No Maus. No Persepolis. No Blankets. No Ghost World. No Strangers in Paradise. Nothing.

That doesn’t mean these titles don’t sell. Of course they do. They don’t sell in the Direct Market to nearly the same numbers as Spidey, X-Men, Batman or whatever sells. It’s just the way it is.

Obviously, most people would want to make a living with their book. Maybe not a great living, but a decent one. I’m not talking about striking it rich here or anything like that. I am talking about earning more through one’s art then you’d get flipping burgers at MacDonalds. With fewer than 1000 copies sold, though, most prose writers won’t be able to accomplish that. Really, you need to be, as Maul points out, one of the “7 percent of ISBNs (that) sold more than 1,000 units and made up the remaining 87 percent of sales.” So, you can do your art and put it “out there” and hope that you catch lightning in a bottle. The odds are extremely long that this will happen, but there are success stories out there. The only alternative is to try and market your work. Get it out there and try and build awareness with the public at large. Get people talking about it and get people passionate about it. The drawback is that it does cost money to do this. And, of course, not all marketing succeeds. A lot of it fails. But to do nothing almost certainly means failure, so my preference is to do something. And make that “something” be as educated as possible.

Which brings us to cons. And brings us back to APE. The big problem with conventions, as I now see it, is that the amount of measurable data is sorely lacking. Without having any firm idea of what the attendance figures could be, it’s impossible to evaluate whether APE is well-attended or not (as I pointed out here, all we know is that 2006’s attendance could be anywhere between roughly 3500 to 6200). What’s doubly frustrating about this is that other cons and expos (albeit outside the comic book industry as a whole) DO qualify their attendance figures (see Book Expo Canada and the American Library Association, for example). On top of it, APE states things that are impossible to quantify (“APE continued its run as the best-attended indy comics show…”). Just give us information, usable information, and we can take it from there. Without it, potential exhibitors can’t determine whether a show like APE is the right show for them. Which, of course, is the entire point.

Was APE right for us? In hindsight, no, it probably wasn’t. As a promotional outreach, it most likely failed. The only piece of feedback I’ve received from the 300 ashcans we printed up is this lovely review. While I’ve had a number of emails about this blog series, I still have not received a single piece of email regarding that little short story. It’s now been three weeks, and while it may have seemed early at the time of the first post, three weeks is a goodly chunk of time to have passed. So, from a measurable data point of view, it was clearly a failure. Disappointing, sure, but such is life.

The immediate future, then, will be readjusting the marketing plan to take this failure into account. From this point of view, failure is actually not a bad thing. We learn by doing and I now know that this type of con isn’t that effective for what I want and need it to be. That doesn’t mean the entire marketing plan goes out the window or that I just give up. It just means I want to chew over my options before I go any further. I suspect part of this readjustment will be a stronger focus on the book trade and library expos and possibly shows like MoCCA’s Art Festival (though they suffer from much the same lack of information that APE does). We’ll see.

The last question, then, is this. Was it a good vacation? After all I’ve written about, was it worthwhile going to San Francisco? Especially from a putting-your-feet-up and getting-the-hell-out-of-Ottawa-for-a-wee
k point of view? Was it enjoyable to hangout with Moggy? And was it nice to see folks like Brian Hibbs, Joe Field, and the late Rory Root (people we’ve gotten to know over the past few years that we don’t see all that often)? Was it worth the money? Was it fun?

Damn right it was.

‘Cuz, see, it wasn’t just about going to APE. It was going to another part of North America and seeing and doing things we don’t get to do all that often. Seeing Moggy smile like crazy when she walked along the beach with the Pacific Ocean right there is magic. Was APE, taken in context, what I hoped for? No, it wasn’t. Was the vacation, taken in context, all I hoped for? Oh, yes. Definitely. That’s the whole point of a vacation, after all. Seeing people you don’t see often enough. And being sad when you have to say “so long.” That, folks, was worth the $3000 right there.

Or to quote Alfred NoyesForty Singing Seamen, “...there's a magic in the distance, where the sea-line meets the sky.”

Thanks for reading!

For more essays like this, just visit my main Essay page.

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