Con Job: Tips to Making the Most of a Convention

This past weekend, while tabling at the two-day Captain’s Comic Expo in Charleston, SC, I took time to observe what seemed to work (and not) with artists’ and publishers’ con booths. I view conventions as more a marketing and networking venture, while others may depend on them as a revenue stream; in either case, the goal is to bring people to your table so they see your wares. Which, to be honest, is easier said than done. 

Given the sensory overload at comic conventions, the real goal—especially when you’re trying to build an audience—is to cut through the noise and stand out in the crowd (or at least increase your chances of being seen). 

Here are a few of my observations.


Get Vertical

How you lay your booth out is a design and retail problem, depending on what you’re selling. What won’t work well, however, is just laying your product—your comic or graphic novel, your prints, your original artwork—flat on the table. In the hustle and bustle of a con (or even when it’s slow), it’s way too easy for people to get tunnel vision and march forward through the aisles. If your merchandise isn’t in their line of sight, it’s easily overlooked and ignored, defeating your purpose for being there.  

Think about when you first walk into a bookstore like Barnes & Noble. What catches your eye? The books laying flat on a table, or the ones up and facing you? Get your product up and vertical in your space. If selling comics or books, invest in some shelves or racks to prop them up on your table; if prints or shirts, hang them from racks on your table or on a backdrop behind you. 

This isn’t to say that everything should be up and in their line of sight—depending on what you’re selling, that can become too much noise for some. At a minimum, find something to take the vertical space and help catch their eye so they come to your table. In my case, I had a shelf featuring copies of a catchily-titled book I illustrated (I’ll Be Sober In the Morning) and a CD from local band Honeythief with my cover. These items aren’t like other products you usually see in Artist Alley, so they tended to pique people’s curiosity enough to check them out and then the other items on my table. Often, while the book or CD didn’t sell that much themselves, they often caught the attention of someone who’d end up buying a print or comic.


Be Approachable

That advice to “Get vertical” applies to you as a person as well as your wares. 

If you’re sitting behind the booth all day, you’re easier to overlook, and you may also seem standoffish. Get on your feet, and welcome people as they pass your booth. That said, don’t be obnoxious (no one wants to deal with an over-aggressive used car salesman-type at a con); instead, be friendly and attentive. A simple “How’re you doing? Are you enjoying the show?” may be enough to catch someone’s attention and engage them in conversation if they’re so inclined; it’s also easy enough for them to politely dismiss if they’re focused elsewhere. 

On the flip side, if you’re quietly sitting behind your table or just hanging out chatting with your booth mate all day, attendees are likely to keep walking by. In the words of the real estate agents in Glengarry Glen Ross, “Always be closing”—but just think about the type of salesman you’d want to deal with as a customer.


Put On a Show

If you’re an artist or have one at your table, doing sketches live-and-in-person is a bit of performance art that can help create a draw (pun unintended). If you’re able to do commissions, sketches can be a nice revenue stream that builds upon itself. 

It may seem contrary to the previous advice of being “attentive and welcoming”, but like how a street magician doing parlor tricks can draw a crowd in a bustling city, the magic of seeing someone create art can be its own attention-getter. 

I was lucky enough to have a couple commissions going into the show, which led to additional sketch requests throughout the event. And whenever I worked on a sketch, especially during the inking stage when the high-contrast black stood out against the white drawing paper, people would tend to congregate around the table to watch the action. 

That said, if the crowd is there but you’re too focused on the art in front of you to strike a conversation with them, it’s a lost opportunity. Be able to multitask—shifting from your sketch to your audience and back again—or have a booth mate free to engage with the crowd while you draw. Attendees at your table to catch the magic show are a captive audience with a newfound interest in your work—in short, an ideal customer to introduce to your product.

In closing, these are just a few observations to what seemed to work well personally and for others at the recent con. Take time to play around with your own table setup, and figure out what works best for you and your product (and then share them with others in the ShoutFyre Facebook group!). 

Steve Stegelin

Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic)  BOONDOGGLE