We caught up with Brett Uren back in October before his attendance at the London MCM Expo where he promoted his independently published Graphic Novel Kuzimu. Since the interview Brett and his partner Fae have had a baby – so we all at Geeks Unleashed wish them congratulations. With Convention season almost around the corner we thought it would be good to get some perspective on what it’s like to be on the ground floor from a creators point of view. Brett has the skinny and the experience so I’ll let Brett take it away:
Comic Conventions are now mainstream. There I’ve said it.
These gatherings of passionate aficionados for all things fantastically fictional are in vogue. They used to be conducted in small grotty halls by stack-stalkers only, but the once-dismissive have now moved in and put up sticks with aplomb.
I say this having recently attended one as an indie comic creator. Beforehand, I had read postings by American artists and con attendees, about how the larger cons there have become promotional circuses for network shows and video game publishers. The next thought to enter my head, inbetween page layouts and publisher emails, was ‘Give it a couple of years, and that’s what they’ll be like over here in England’.
How wrong I was. It took much less time.
If this sounds like a complaint, it isn’t really. Comics themselves (and Graphic Novels in particular) have developed a cultural legitimacy with the same establishment that once dismissed Poe and Lovecraft. The Dark Knight Rises is being considered for the Oscars and The Walking Dead is crazy huge in the TV ratings. Every time I’m in a comics retailer a fresh young reader is finding the same joy in them that we older chaps do.
But with this acceptance comes a certain drop-off in critical mass. That which is outside the mainstream usually has more ‘cool’. This was evident at shows such as this year’s London MCM Expo, the con that I recently attended.
Now, MCM was originally a Manga and video game-centred affair anyway (as I’m told). However as it has grown, the floor plan has progressively followed similar trends to other large cons, both on this and the other side of the Atlantic.
Huge booths from 2K games (publishers of Borderlands and Bioshock) and Konami (Metal Gear Solid), along with pre-release Nintendo Wii U consoles (for test playing by the be-costumed passers-by) dominated the main area. A massive Doctor Who ‘experience’ and various celebrity panels (including personal favourite, Bill Paxton) completed a lively, bustling event.
The smallest part of the event was the Comics Alley, which encompassed the Manga comics and artists. This is indicative of larger general trends in entertainment. Film and television, while still huge, are on the wane. They are left in the dust by the still-belittled juggernaut of the video game industry. A billion dollar movie is lauded as a major achievement, whereas yearly billion-dollar and upper-million selling franchises are de rigour for games. It is the biggest entertainment sector in the world.
By contrast, these days comics have a far smaller share than they used to.
While single special issues could regularly sell into the millions during the ’90’s, these days really popular issues are lauded if they sell 100,000 or above (The Walking Dead #100 being a perfect recent example). Most monthly Marvel/DC books regularly run at a level around 10,000 copies (as far as I’ve been told).
Digital sales, with a greater potential market reach through various e-reader and app marketplaces could one day change that. Or perhaps comics coming-of-age has caused them to lose their ‘cool’ and relegated the funny books to a legitimised niche pass-time? Think of vinyl records, jazz music or poetry.
In conversation with a creator friend from Australia, he said a visiting Top Cow comics executive confessed that they make their money from merchandise and licensing.
THE DOING OF IT
For independent creators and artists attending a convention, such as myself, all those immediately invisible factors make a difference.
Some are positive, such as the wider audiences that walk through the convention. Gamers and viewers introduced to Sci-fi and fantasy through popular franchises like Doctor Who, X-Com or Game of Thrones, can be more freshly receptive to your creations than perhaps more knowledgeable/decided comics fans. Also, the presence of extra people can help to bolster a possibly reduced customer base for indie comics.
Some less positive aspects can stem from a similar source. Games and their associated merchandise can have much higher base prices than comics, reducing the willingness to spend at the indie comics tables. In addition to this, fans who have come only for the cosplay or to catch a glimpse of the celeb guests can treat the comics alley as a ‘killing time zone’. This adds a faction of passers-by who have a pre-determined mindset not to buy anything from you or your row neighbours.
That being said, I found my attendance at the London MCM Expo to be incredibly positive. It being the first print appearance of my Graphic Novel in the UK, I had thought that sales would be non-existent, due to my complete obscurity and unfamiliarity of my material (that is, one that does not adhere to easily-recognised genre tropes). But books and merch sold reasonably well, even enough for some useful profit.
Networking is also an essential part of the convention experience. Visiting some other tables and talking to the creators around you is not only educational, but I honestly think that the camaraderie is definitely one of the things that make attending shows worth the costs on its own. Having played and been around music for most of my life, it seems to me that musicians, bands and comics creators have much in common when it comes to community and fostering collaboration. It is in that particular melting pot we find great new projects and characters are born.
When you get down to it, we all dream this could launch a glorious adventure into full-time creating and financial independence (and/or in many cases). Those of us who have been around and been published for a little while know differently. The competition amongst budding writers and artists for shelf space and column inches is equal to most other entertainment sectors, perhaps more so now given its newly-earned societal backing and shrinking revenues for actual comics. This means that ultimately, if you’re there for the love of the thing and can live with only a little modest profit (at best) for your troubles, you are doing well and better than most.
To reach the most people they can with no marketing expenditure, creators at my level are always going to cons. Directly facing the public and small website interviewers are our bread and butter.
This brings me to our conclusion, a set of creator rules and realities for cons honed from a collective lifetime of attendance. My experiences have been cross-referenced with the musings and advice of fellow independent comics creators to come up with these points. Should you follow them, your success in selling the latest issues of your book or developing your connections and fan-base should be greatly improved.
With the awesome input of:- Wes Locher, Magnus Aspli, Mark Bertolini & Rafer Roberts. You are damn fine people and great creators. Rob Liefield could learn a thing or two.
1) Be nice, be yourself. It sounds obvious, but being overtly aggressive in your sales approach or being distant and uncommunicative while sitting at your table sketching will limit your potential for sales and new fans. Standing can put you at eye level with customers and seem more energised, but sitting can be less threatening and relaxed for longer stretches. Whatever you do, make sure you are comfortable and at ease to the best you are able. Being overly nervous or uncomfortable is easy to detect and affects how others will see what you are offering.
2) Freebies (or nearly). We humans love free stuff, just ask any record company executive these days (and watch them turn into Red Hulk). Give-aways/things for pennies, such as bookmarks, badges or similarly cheap items can entice passers or sweeten a deal. Despite this being the 21st century, a comic con is still essentially a bazaar or marketplace, so creativity and deal-making is essential to selling. It can be hard to pick up as an artist, but advertise your free stuff and tell con-goers about it. They will rarely pass it up, giving you easy opportunities.
3) Talk to them, they won’t bite. Let’s face it, there aren’t too many rock star comics creators out there. It not being a performance art, we tend to be shut in for long enough periods to skulk around large crowds (like Gollum in a Superman t-shirt). Having gigged around, I can tell you that stage-fright and con-fright disappears by about the third song/customer. A lively conversation introducing yourself/asking their names, what they’re enjoying at the show, about their cosplay outfit or how tense the last few issues of Sweet Tooth have been will grease the wheels like you wouldn’t believe. Enjoy yourself and let people enjoy your company and good things tend to happen. It goes without saying that this also applies to your fellow creators at the show and around your table. Chat with them, get to know them, recommend them to others post-sale and maybe you’ll get customers passed your way, or the beginnings of a collaboration. It is networking and research in one swoop.
4) Do the maths, for all our sakes. Having had a bad loss-making show or two, take it from me, you want to research and account for all your expenses, profit margins and sales demographics. This sounds dry like beef jerky from the Sahara, but attending shows IS a business venture. You won’t get anywhere and be able to invest more in getting your stuff out there if the upfront costs bury you. Travel, hotels and equipment all hit your bottom line so figure them in when working out how much a single issue, print or t-shirt will cost your customers. I know, I know, for creative types this can be a complete drag… but knowing your cost/profit margin is essential to being competitive and knowing your limit on deals. No need to dig your way out of a hole if you aren’t in one. Also, if your work is dense I recommend printing up some single issues or shorter stories to compliment full-on graphic novels, you’ll always sell smaller things than larger. The old adage goes ‘sell low, sell more’.
5) Be a great storyteller. This is why you’re there, right? Because you love stories, visual and written. Fact is, people at the con and at publishers will want you to tell them your story before they’ll buy it. If it’s a straight one-shot comic or a thick graphic tome, the same rules apply. If you’re self-published this will be particularly relevant, as getting both the public and publishers (should you go that direction) interested in your work means pitching it to them in as concisely a manner as possible. Getting the outline down to a paragraph, sentence or phrase is ideal for high-turnover shows and the success of converting to sales will probably indicate when you’ve nailed it (Think of how on-the-nose the title of Mark Millar’s Super Crooks is for the ultimate reductive description). This is great for pitch development if you intend to approach publishers with projects afterward.
So, the rest is now up to you, as they say. With all these experiences in mind I hope that I’ve helped you in some way to get more out of cons. They’re only getting bigger and more essential to us indie comics guys, as they also become more of a challenging arena.
Go forth and create my friends, and most of all… Enjoy it!