Sunday, April 23, 2017

Conventions, A Blessing and a Curse

Way back in 2010, when Heidi and I were attending SCAD as wee baby graduate students, the writing was pretty much on the wall.  With the manga influence our styles shared, we'd be hard pressed to find work in the comic industry of the time.  With our backs against the wall, it was Heidi who suggested we give anime cons a shot.  Surely our styles would appeal to that audience?

Seven years and about a hundred conventions later, Heidi was right. 

It wasn't a perfect start- I had to build up an audience by doing conventions in the same location, year after year, filling commissions and chatting up my comic, 7" Kara, over and over again.  Conventions are work if you sell original products, and I've never minded a little hard work, especially when progress is apparent.

After five years of doing conventions, I really felt like I'd hit my stride. Copies of 7" Kara were selling well.  People recognized my work from Tumblr and Instagram, even if they couldn't pin it to my brand name (Nattosoup).  I had a steady influx of repeat customers and referrals.  Teenage girls swooned over my comic.  Although I, like so many comic artists, dreamed of this response, I'd never gotten it from my friends or while in grad school, and I'd leave conventions like Mechacon and MTAC feeling empowered- eager to make art, comics, and create educational content.

Conventions have worked so well for the both of us that it became tempting to lean on them as a income-crutch, assuming that they would be a fairly reliable source of money.  We justified our increased focus in a number of ways- starting How to be a Con Artist to collect our tutorials and con recaps (community and audience building, right?  Nope), we prepped as though editors were going to be there (spoiler:  If it's outta NY or SF, aint likely, especially not at anime cons), we made promo materials to help promote our online projects.

Although we attended dozens of cons, filled hundreds of commissions, and  met thousands of people, I found that there was a huge disconnect between my online audience and my convention audience.  I went through box after box of business cards, going from Moo cards with several designs (people would take one of each, without a thought as to what that cost me), to cheap Overnight Print business cards with a single design (they brag to me about putting the cards up on their wall, with no intention of checking out my work online), to promotional postcards to even 7" Kara stickers.  It seemed like no matter what I did- handwritten notes, enthusiastic endorsements, adorable promo materials, I couldn't get my con audience to engage me online.  I began to worry that I was creating an unsustainable business model built on the impulsivity of convention attendees.

Despite those misgivings, I continued with my con prep, continued filling commissions, continued trying to make connections.  I figured it was a numbers game, and perhaps the conversion rate for conventions is just abysmally low.

Unfortunately, the convention climate has changed in many ways.  The Southern Con Circuit, which is my stomping grounds, has finally seen an influx of print walls, print Walmarts, and collectives where none of the artists are actually present to sell their prints.  Last year's Mechacon was particularly pernicious, with attendees having a difficult time exploring the alley, as megabooths blocked out the sun...I mean view.  The economy has been on shakey legs since 2009, and 2016 was a rough year for many families, which restricted the disposable income that constitutes most kids' allowances. This combination meant that at many cons, sales were lackluster, and the reliable source of income wasn't so reliable anymore.

Even at the best of times, convention work was pretty much convention only- that audience did not follow me back to my Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Youtube, or even my webcomic.  While they were delighted, even enraptured sometimes, to see me at the show, and sales kept me so swamped I couldn't go to the bathroom for eight hours, those sales and that praise ended when the con closed Sunday afternoon.  No matter how much promotion, prep, or panels were prepared, the conversion rate was embarrassing.

During this time, I had shifted my focus away from industry work (so many non responses and rejections) towards self employment, and this meant that the proverbial con floor dropping out from under me caused quite a bit of anxiety and stress.  For awhile, I tried more impulse buy items- amped up sassy button production, more stickers, more mini prints, more ribbons and other cutesy knick-knacks, but the battle for the buck felt futile, as I spent more and more time on meaningless con assembly, and less time on comics or art. 

Something had to give.  I had no intention of competing with print-walls by upping my fanart print quota, no intention of treading in copyright waters with fanart charms or printed bags.  I had to remember why I started doing conventions in the first place- to sell original art, to create commissions, and to engage others, and focus on  pushing that in my daily non-con life.

In a way, the drop was beneficial- I launched my Patreon ), I launched 7" Kara as a webcomic, I launched a Youtube channel, I started pushing Amazon Affiliate links. Although all of these sources of income are fairly minor, they could earn money in the background while I put together a kidlit portfolio.  I focused on working on 7" Kara, and a pitch comic for a publisher's contest.  I stopped relying on the convention audience, who were so enthusiastic at the show, but so invisible after, to help me build a career, and started all over again, from scratch.  The financial pinch is still ever present- conventions changing really hurt my bottom line, and none of the above have come close to bridging that gap, but I think I'm also in a better place to start a career.

If there's something you can take away from this, it's that if you enjoy art and illustration, if you want to make a career as a comic person, don't allow conventions to distract you away from your end goal.  Don't allow one weekend of great sales to shift your focus from original content to nothing but fanart, because eventually, that floor may fall out from under you, and without original content, you have little to show for all those years of work.