Why Are You Exhibiting at San Diego Comic Con?
Why Are You Exhibiting at San Diego Comic Con?
A Review and Comparison of Three Comic Book Conventions.
I just finished the last in a very fun but exhausting series of three large comic conventions. Each one had over 70 thousand attendees.
After getting home from the latest show, I had some thoughts that might help some of you up and coming exhibitors out there.
The convention circuit is changing fast, and there are some people who have been in the business a long time who are also noticing these changes. You can read Chuck Rozanski’s write up of Mile High Comics and their 42-year history of exhibiting at San Diego Comic-Con here: http://www.milehighcomics.com/newsletter/072614wemail.html
The question you have to ask yourself if you’re thinking of jumping into the con circuit is, “What do I want to get out of exhibiting at a convention?”
I ask this question of a lot of vendors; in fact I ask vendors a lot of questions in general. I like to gather information so I can be more successful at cons, and I want to share some of that information to eliminate some of the mystery for people who are just starting out. Here are the top answers I get from my fellow exhibitors:
• To get my name out there
• To get my IP optioned by a movie studio
• To network
• It’s fun
• To reach out to fans
• To make money
Personally, making a comic book and the related merchandise is my full-time job. It is my sole source of income. So, when I go to conventions, I have to keep an eye on the bottom line. If it’s not profitable for me, it’s not worth doing. I’ve experimented in almost every way to find what works for me—with different conventions, different booth sizes, different means of transportation, even different helpers at my booth. And some shows are just more profitable than others, no matter how you slice it. So what is your goal, and which conventions will help you reach that goal? If your goal is any of the top five reasons on this list, then my observations may not apply to you. But if you need your comic book and convention experiences to be profitable, keep reading.
Phoenix Comic Con
I’ve been doing this show for five years now, and I’m continually surprised by the passion of the local fans, the way the organizers are keeping up with growth, and the sales. This year, Phoenix became my highest grossing show ever, beating out San Diego and Emerald City by almost 25%. The Phoenix convention is a lot of fun, well organized, and can be highly profitable.
A couple of benefits unique to this show are the highly affordable booth costs and the fact that all exhibitor booths are corners! That is a big deal—a corner booth here costs almost half as much as the next con on this list. That means this con can be difficult to get into, so if you’re doing it, make sure and book early.
Some other things to note: Phoenix is a very affordable city. There is good food to be had, if you don’t mind driving around a bit to find it. And, it’s hot in June! Very hot! So make sure and hydrate. If you’re looking to get freelance work or trying to catch the eye of a big publisher, this probably isn’t the con for you. This is a selling con. People are buying and selling merchandise and you don’t have to compete with many of the big companies to do it. I highly recommend this show.
Denver Comic Con
2014 was my first year here, so I don’t have as much experience as I do with the other two shows on this list. I was nervous about heading all the way out to Denver, especially for a very new show. It can take many years to work out the logistics of getting 70k + people to turn out to an event having it run smoothly. But some friends who exhibited before assured me that this was a show worth doing, and I did not regret it! Phoenix 2014 had been my highest grossing convention ever, but then the following weekend I was at Denver, and that turned out to be my new highest grossing show. The fans in Denver are just as passionate as those in Phoenix. I was blown away! Denver is a con where people are buying. They’re looking for books and comic related merchandise.
Once again, the big publishers only had a small presence here. And as always, your spot on the floor can make a huge difference. One thing I noticed here was the presence of non-comic or even pop culture related booths. I think because Denver is such a new show, they are still struggling to fill their floor with quality vendors. You may think, “But so what? San Diego has non comic related vendors too.” Well, San Diego does not have a Geico Insurance booth or a Verizon Wireless booth, just to name a couple.
Shows like Denver and Salt Lake City like to talk about the huge attendance numbers they’re getting, but growing that fast comes at a cost. Denver has a lot of small wrinkles they need to work out with their show and floor planning. They are also still trying to figure out their pricing structure. How much do you charge your exhibitors to exhibit at your show when they are the ones who make a convention worthwhile to the fans? When your costs rise, who pays? The exhibitors, who are trying to make a living? Or the fans, who you desperately need to attend your show? San Diego crossed this bridge and found a compromise by using corporate sponsors and Hollywood studios to subsidize the more independent aspects of a comic convention.
The newer, growing shows are proud of their numbers, and they should be, but they have a lot of work to do still to create destination conventions that people will travel from other countries to attend. Denver is a great convention, capable of becoming greater. I look forward to being there again next year and watching them grow. You should attend if you have quality books to sell or you have some great, unique art to display in the artist alley section.
San Diego Comic Con
San Diego is the “big show” for a lot of people. It’s the con everyone wants to exhibit at, and once people secure a booth or a table, they tend to keep it as long as they can. Just go back and check out Chuck Rozanski’s article again. He’s been doing the show 42 years, and he’s on the brink of losing $10,000 per show, but he still can’t come to terms with not exhibiting there. There are several reasons for this.
One reason is that San Diego Comic Con has grown so big, it’s legendary. If you ever go as a fan, then your dreams of being on that show floor are cemented in and you’ll do whatever it takes to get there again. It’s like getting to play in the Super Bowl. Another reason is the show is almost a week long. When you’re hanging out that long in a city filled with other people you see there every year, it feels like summer camp. San Diego is a family. More than any other convention, there is a feeling of camaraderie among exhibitors and fans who have been attending the show for decades. How many other North American comic conventions have even been going on for decades?
Another reason exhibitors can’t bring themselves to cut this convention from their schedules is habit. It’s not just Chuck and Mile High Comics who struggle to make a profit at the big show. I’ve talked to many exhibitors who mentioned barely making back their booth cost or making half their expenses for the show. Exhibitors like to talk in code about this stuff. If these people aren’t making any money at the show, why are they there? They have been doing the show so long, or going as fans for so long, they think that losing money in San Diego is just part of the game. There was certainly a time when San Diego was the only convention in the U.S. that had over 50k attendees, and definitely the only con with over 100k attendees. But clearly that is not the case any longer. If your goal as an exhibitor is to reach a ton of new fans and make a profit, there are several other shows that will give you that exposure to fans who want to buy comics at a much more affordable price.
Finally, the lure of Hollywood keeps exhibitors in their booths year after year. When asked, a lot of publishers tell you they exhibit at San Diego for the exposure. And this reason is partially true. San Diego has the largest proportion by far of people coming up and asking Who’s licensed my series? Would it make a good movie? What are the possible toy options? No one asks me these questions at Phoenix. So that part is true—Hollywood people are at this show in full force. But what can that do for you? And is it worth paying almost four times the cost of a booth at another show just to talk to some Hollywood folks? No, it’s not. The biggest entertainment people are there to promote their own shows; they don’t care about your hot girl zombie comic. And if they do give you some attention or even option your book, it probably will hurt you more than help you. Getting a book optioned means very little. Usually it’s a small up front fee. Very small, if you’re an unknown indie creator. Sometimes it can be less than the cost of a San Diego Comic Con booth itself. The worst part is, once you’re optioned, it can become a huge time sink. There are meetings and plot proposal write-ups that they’ll expect you to do at your own cost. It becomes a carrot being dangled in front of you, wasting your time when you could have been putting out more books.
So, is buying a $2,000 dollar booth for 10 years worth the chance that someone will option one of your stories one day? I don’t think so. Before the internet was a thing, San Diego Comic Con was already huge. People would travel there to see the latest up and coming storytellers. Now, movie industry execs can go on youtube and Facebook and see who has the biggest fan base; they can see who raised a million dollars on Kickstarter and offer them the movie deals. That way, they’re guaranteed a built-in fan base from the start. Getting to a point were you can exhibit at San Diego doesn’t mean what it used to. All it means is that you have a day job that you can use to funnel money into your booth and that you were patient enough to wait until your name came up on the waiting list. So if you’re just looking for exposure there are much cheaper and easier ways!
This all begs the question, why exhibit at San Diego Comic Con at all? Well, there is one sweet spot on the floor that has changed very little in the almost twenty years I’ve been attending: the Small Press section. This area is juried every year, which means they go through everyone who submits and a panel decides who gets in. That means that every year, your book has the same chance as anyone else’s to get in. In addition to that, the Small Press area is located in the best spot on the show floor. Everyone who goes upstairs to see a panel has to walk right through Small Press. And that’s not even the best part. Small Press tables are cheap! Yes, that’s right, they are downright affordable! Compared to an inline booth cost of around $2,000, a small press table cost close to $500 dollars. With that kind of table cost and 130,000 + in attendance, you’ll have a chance to make some real money and reach a whole lot of people.
However, if you do plan on upgrading from a Small Press table to a booth, San Diego is a difficult show to turn a profit at. But it has nothing to do with the way the show is run. The SDCCI crew does an amazing job of wrangling all those cats every year. The reason is because it’s San Diego Comic Con! If you set up at your local con with a few comics and a single banner you ordered online and bring that to the Super Bowl of conventions, people will ignore you. You have to bring your “A” game to this show. And your “A” game cannot be the following: a sexy booth babe, prints of women barely wearing any clothes, zombie anything, or an actor who some people may have heard of. That’s because the big companies are already doing these things, and they are doing them better than you can. You may be able to hire one or two sexy girls to work your booth, but some companies have a multitude. You may think your zombie comic is awesome, but The Walking Dead has two giant booths at this show, complete with actors dressed like zombies and the actors from the show. You can’t compete with that. So why try? There are plenty of conventions where The Walking Dead has no presence at all; why not go to one of those? You have to bring something unique to this show and do it better than everyone else. If you got your comic idea because you thought, “Hey that’s popular right now, I think I’ll do that,” then you will not do well with an exhibitor booth at San Diego. Your idea is already being represented at this convention, and by a company with a much higher budget who probably doesn’t even need to turn a profit at the convention. They’re passing out free comics based on the movie or video game version of their product that makes millions or even billions of dollars.
San Diego is an amazing show if you know how to do it right. Small Press is perfect if you’re a small company with only a few titles or an artist with your own book. Exhibitor tables or booths are great if you have several unique titles and some interesting merchandise and prints to go along with them. But you have to really make an effort to stand out. Before you rush to exhibit at San Diego, perfect your game at some local cons like Phoenix and Denver. If you can sharpen your booth design and book or game offerings, than you stand a better chance of actually making a profit at the big show. I love San Diego and I hope I never get to a point where I have to drop it because of low profits or high costs. Right now it takes more planning and strategizing than any other show I do, but it’s worth it for me!
Why Are You Exhibiting at San Diego Comic Con?