Conventional Wisdom – Part One – Getting Ready

I’ve talked about a variety of different subjects related to creator-owned comics- writing craft, networking, promotion, and economics, but one of the areas I haven’t focused on (until now) is a big one: selling at conventions.


I’ve been attending conventions as a professional since 2002 and in the past 13 years I’ve exhibited at over a hundred conventions of all stripes- big pop culture shows, indy comic markets, educational festivals, library conferences, and classic comic cons. Each one has its own feel and its own set of challenges. There’s no possible way for me to give advice that can cover every convention eventuality, but I wanted to put together some key points for things I’ve learned through trial and error that now saves me a lot of stress and is helping get my work out to a larger audience.

First off, let’s talk about expectations and being prepared.

If you’re heading to a convention with the intent of selling or promoting your work and getting your foot in the door but you’ve never done this before, you need to make sure you’re realistic about your goals. You will not make piles of money. You will not sell hundreds of books. You will not be plucked out of a crowd by your favorite publisher and be given a contract that promises fame and fortune. Get that crazy crap out of your head. Conventions are great, but don’t spend money you can’t afford with delusions of grandeur.

If everything goes well you’ll have some fun, make some new friends, and could make a bit of money. As I’ve covered in my post on networking, some of the people you meet may end up being valuable contacts down the road, but it’s hard to tell where these things will lead.

Start local. If your city or a city within driving distance has a convention, that’s a safe bet. If you’re lucky enough to live in a well known convention city (I’m sure we could name a dozen, but off the top of my head let’s say New York, San Diego, Chicago, Seattle, or Toronto) then that’s no problem but with the proliferation of convention culture it’s easier than ever to find somewhere to set up.

Plan as far in advance as you can, especially if this is your first time travelling to a particular city. You’re better off pushing a convention appearance to next year than you are rushing into a show without a plan or proper materials. I can pull together a convention trip last minute now if I have to, but I’d much rather not.

Here’s how my table looked at Fan Expo Canada in 2014:

(My new banner is a set of four that roll up quite small and, thanks to the grommets on each one, I can swap in new ones depending on which projects I’m promoting at each show. I also have a free-standing banner for shows where they don’t have pipe-and-drape set up.)

It’s the largest solo set up I’ve had at a show so far and, thankfully, it ran pretty smoothly because I planned ahead.

Here are some basic questions you should be able to answer while you’re getting ready:

What is the focal point of your table and how are you going to display that in a way that’s clear and easy to interact with? This is where attending other conventions or checking out photos of cons online can be a lot of help.

When you’re just starting out you probably don’t have much product, so this is pretty easy but, even still, early on I would measure a plot on my dining room table equal to the Artist Alley space I was about to get, tape it off and then pre-set up that space to see how it looked from both sides of the table. From there I could make adjustments and double check that everything fit properly. Once you do that a few times you’ll get a good handle on how much space is needed for product and signage.

If you’re going to be sketching at the table, is there enough room to do that? Self explanatory.

Do you have an inventory list and are you keeping track of your expenses? Even if you’re just doing this for fun, it’s helpful to know how much you’ve spent versus how much you make when you’re setting up at a show. It doesn’t have to be high tech. A simple check list for product and envelope to stuff receipts in is good enough to start.

Do you have supplies you might need over the course of the day? Here’s a quick list of basics that are always helpful to have in your convention travel pack:
• A money float so you can easily make change
• Your business cards
• Your portfolio (physical or digitally on a tablet)
• Book or other display stands
• Charge cords for your tech (If you’re a real keener, bring a power bar/multi-outlet too.)
• Pens, pencils, sharpies (thick and regular) and any other art supplies
• Post-it notes, extra paper
• Invisible tape and packing tape
• Clips, rubber bands, and safety pins
• An exacto-knife and pair of utility scissors
• A few feet of dark fabric to cover the table/product when you’re not there
• Granola bars and a couple bottles of water
• A small bottle of Aspirin and/or Tylenol
• Hand sanitizer and breath mints

At the end of each day/end of the show you should look over that list and restock anything that ran out.

Here’s a photo of my convention supplies for a typical show. It all fits in one backpack and is pretty easy to carry around. The only thing not pictured is my banner and books:

Speaking of which, is your set up portable? Getting your supplies and product manageable and moveable is important, especially if you’re setting up by yourself. Get everything you need gathered in one place and make sure you (or you and people helping you) can actually carry it all. Imagine you have to do that while using an escalator or a packed elevator.

On the other hand, if it’s going to take multiple trips to get all your stuff into the show, do you know where load-in is happening and where you’ll need to park? Save yourself frustration and find out ahead of time.

Do you know where things are at the show? Find your table on the map. Write it down so you don’t forget. Locate washrooms and key booths you might want to visit ahead of time so you’re not scrambling trying to figure that out when the show is under way and probably crazy.

Do you know the area around the convention center/hotel? If not, do some research on restaurants, parking, the closest copy shop, and closest post office or Fed Ex. The better informed you are about the area, the easier things will be over the weekend. It’s also nice to be able to recommend places to go after hours.

Going to conventions has proved to be a big boost for my career. Many of the comic projects I’ve done can be traced back to the wonderful people I met at shows and the conversations we had there. A great convention reminds you about the energy and excitement that comes from this industry and, ideally, puts a few bucks in your pocket at the same time.

In future articles I’ll talk about pricing, selling, and travelling to other countries for shows.

If you find my sales and tutorial blogposts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends, and consider buying some of my comics to show your support. Thanks!

  1. Do you bring both sets of banners to every show or do you try to find out in advance if there is pipe and drape or not. What do you use to attach your banners to the pipe and drape? Thanks, this is awesome!

    • I only bring one banner set up to each show. I check beforehand to make sure I know which banner I’ll need. If I can’t get that information I default to the free-standing one. It’s bulkier and heavier, but works in either scenario.

  2. Do use spare or any other type of card payment system?

  3. Shayne Henkelman

    I would also add a few things to that list to research beforehand. They are;

    1) Know the show.
    By that I mean do your homework regarding the show and it’s policies. Does the work you are selling conform to show policies? There is nothing worse than being asked to leave the show before it starts because your work or booth do not meet show specs. And that in itself can mean a variety of things… you may have nudity in your work which the show prohibits on open display, or your booth has been made of materials prohibited by the fire code. Knowing these things ahead of time can save a lot of frustration. Talk to people who have exhibited at these shows before, they may be able to share some important info with you!

    2) Know the venue.
    As Zub said, know where the bathrooms are. Be sneaky and locate the quiet ones where there won’t likely be long lines. Know and understand that almost all venues charge for power and wifi, and neither is going to be cheap. I’ll call a spade a spade and pre warn you…. Most venues will leave you feeling extorted for these things.
    Know where exhibitor parking is, and where you are allowed to load in at. Don’t assume you can load in through the front doors as that is very rarely the case!

    If it’s your first convention treat it as if you were visiting a foreign country for the first time. Do your research!

    But most importantly, make some new friends and have fun!

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