A big con?
At big events, has artists’ alley become an afterthought? We ask the experts if conventions are a con…
Can artists still make money at conventions, or is artists’ alley now merely an afterthought?
Dave and Denise Dorman spent $7,000 to exhibit at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. They left the event, the largest of its kind in the world, $1,000 down. This is despite Dave’s standing within the comic book industry – an artist whose work includes convention favourites Batman, Superman, Indiana Jones and Star Wars.
It was the same story at Wizard World, GrandCon and other events. Denise – who blogs about cons under the name Comic Book Wife – wrote a post explaining she interviewed several similarly high-profile artists and they all said they’re not making money at cons.
“I have slowly come to realise that,” Denise wrote, “in this selfie-obsessed Instagram era, cosplay is the new focus of these conventions – seeing and being seen, like some giant masquerade party. Conventions are no longer shows about commerce, product launches and celebrating the people who created this genre in the first place.”
Denise says she doesn’t blame cosplay alone for low convention sales. She and Dave are honorary members of the world’s largest cosplay organisation, The 501st Legion. The idea behind the post was to start a discussion about what exhibitors and convention owners could do differently.
Cons have a responsibility, Denise says, to give artist at least equal billing with actors. Artists’ alley shouldn’t be an afterthought. And they need to cut the cost of hiring booths and tables. She also points to a shift in the purpose of cons: from commerce-driven social events, to purely social events. Publishers are also muscling out artists.
“Convention collectability has moved from the artist to the publishers themselves,” Denise says. “But if you focus on the big picture, people aren’t looking to put
something on their walls or collect pieces to file in a portfolio somewhere. If they can’t view it on their phone screen, their computer screen or stream it to their TV, they’re not that interested in spending money on it. We live in the post-Napster era where “everything is free” is a mindset. Collecting artwork in real life is a diminishing pastime.”
The passion factor
Marc Alan Fishman from Unshaven Comics says conventions weren’t founded for the creators to make money. They’re somewhere fans come together over a shared passion.
“The general population – those Instagram-obsessed fans – gives more than just a damn for those creators who take the time to reach out and communicate,” Marc wrote in response to Denise. “I say this admitting freely I’ve never seen Dave Dorman. And we’ve exhibited at the same shows more than once. I don’t know specifically how Dave exhibits. But if he’s like others I’ve seen over the past seven years, he may sit, smiling, awaiting those loyal regulars to come with cash in hand. In short, it’s not enough any more. It hasn’t been that way in a long time.”
Marc’s business relies heavily on cons. Unshaven treats these events as, “a straight business venture from the time the floor opens to the time they kick us out.” Meanwhile, Kyle Gnepper – writer and
In this selfie-obsessed, Instagram era, cosplay is the new focus – seeing and being seen, like some giant masquerade party
salesman – stands and pitches Unshaven’s products to anyone who’ll listen.
The Chicago-based outfit – friends Marc, Kyle and artist Matt Wright – collects data at cons: they track every sale, profit, pitch-to-close ratio and demographic information. Marc says the newest generation of fans come to conventions to celebrate their love of the media. In the digital age, that love doesn’t necessarily translate to sales.
“As much as this is a business of passion, we know the only edge we potentially have is working harder and smarter. We go to shows because we couldn’t be a studio if we didn’t. The conventions are our lifeblood. We don’t sell our books in store – too much overhead, no promotion, no profit – so the cons are 99.99 per cent of our sales.
“As fans, conventions are the best place to fully immerse oneself in the greatest and most creative industry in the world. Those billions of dollars being shared across the multiplexes? That’s because of comic books, and, in part, the continued expansion and growth of conventions.”
A selective approach
Over the past 10 years, Peter Mohrbacher has turned a profit at 90 per cent of the conventions that he’s attended. Events are somewhere he does business in more ways than one: not only does he profit directly from sales, but he builds his audience, networks, finds new clients and partners, learns new techniques and practices. So much so that next year he’s planning to invest even more in cons. He just picks the events that are right for him.
“Everything costs time and if one type of show or another makes me unhappy,” the illustrator and concept artist says. “I’ll do everything I can to invest my time in something I have better feelings about. Even if I were to put a dollar value on my time at cons, the money has added up rather nicely over the past year as I’ve invested in them further. The net dollar amount from sales alone is almost always equal to or better than my standard day rate for freelance work.”
But the real reason Peter goes to cons is enjoyment: “I love the sense of community. Artists are my tribe and it feels important to be a part of a tribe. It can be tiring to sell, draw, talk, sign – or even just stand around for 10 or 12 hours straight for several days in a row. But after, an evening out with friends can really make it feel worthwhile.”
Conventions are our lifeblood. They make up 99.99 per cent of our sales
Peter Mohrbacher admits it was tough to make money at his first cons, but over the past 10 years he’s made profit 90 per cent of the time.
Marc Alan Fishman, whose Unshaven Comics make the Dreadnuts publications, says conventions weren’t founded for the creators to make money.
Dragon Spring, by Bob Eggleton, who thinks artists need to be selective about which cons they attend.
Despite being well known for his Batman,
Superman and Star Wars art, Dave Dorman left SDCC with a $1,000 loss.
Return of the Deep One, by Bob Eggleton. The artist says he dislikes some of the smaller conventions. Eisner Award-winner Dave Dorman has been guest of honour at San Diego Comic-Con three times.
Peter Mohrbacher’s Herald of Dawn. He says he goes to cons primarily to feel part of the art tribe.