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20 May 2014

Lessons Learned in Self-Promotion: Manage Your Expectations and Know Your Audience

Reporting live from the convention floor!

This past Saturday, I attended the second annual East Coast Comic Expo in Moncton, NB.  This ought to be a post telling all about what a wonderful time I had there.  It ought to be, but it isn't. 

Now let me say right off that none of what follows is the event's fault.  In fact, I would say that as far as comic conventions go, this one appears to have been very well handled.  It was well organized, and all the necessary information was communicated clearly and in a timely fashion.  Costs were minimal, and we were given plenty of space in a clean, well-maintaned facility.  Attendance numbers appear to have been around what was promised, and there was an excellent variety of work on display, with representation from artists both known and unknown.  People seemed to generally be having a good time, and that's kind of the point of the thing.

However, my own experience was different, and I think I have only myself to blame. 

I put a lot of work into prepping for this show.  A LOT of work.  I had a selection of prints, both large and small, available for sale at the table.  I had a special sketch cover edition book printed just for this event.  I also had two sets of limited edition prints that were "semi-originals", meaning that I'd printed just the color layer of each one and inked each print individually, making each copy a unique work of art.  Like I said, a lot of work.  Perhaps too much.
Having put in that much work, it raised my expectations somewhat.  I had actually expected to make some money from this event.  I know that for someone like me, the main purpose of an event like this should be self-promotion, taking the opportunity to meet potential fans and introduce them to my work.  And that's how it's been for me at past events. 
This time, though, I figured that I had enough work of sufficient quality that there was no way it would not sell, and I would be guaranteed to walk away from the day in the black.
That's not quite how it worked.  Granted, a lot of people came by the table, looked over the artwork and had some very nice things to say about it.  A few people even bought things, making sure that I wasn't going to go home empty-handed.  By and large, however, there was more looking than buying.
I still don't think quality was the issue.  I am convinced that the work was and is good, and I'm sure it will do well in the right context, if I can find it.  If I was a more bitter man than I am, I might even say that it was the crowd's fault, for not recognizing the quality of work I put in front of them.  I don't think that's the case either.

I think my problems were two-fold.  First, I set my expectations too high.  At any other event, I might have been happy to take away as much money as I did, given the number of connections I made throughout the day.  I would (and should!) have weighed the value of the day in the great conversations I had with other artists and fans.  By seeing the attendees as customers, it changed my approach to the whole event, and set me up for disappointment, thereby removing some of the pleasure I should have taken in the day.
Second, I don't think the work I had available was right for this crowd.  The prints I had available were more illustrative than comic based, with a definite tendency towards Lovecraftian and pulp fiction inspired content.  The fans in attendance were more interested in superhero and branded content such as  Doctor Who, Pokemon and the like.  In short, my work just didn't fit. I failed to accurately gauge the interests of the crowd I would be approaching and as a result, the work just didn't take off like I'd hoped.

So I think the takeaway from this event is, be prepared to play to your crowd, but don't expect too much from them.  Concentrate more on building relationships, and less on making the sale.  Engage, and after engaging, adapt according to what you've learned.  Most importantly, relax, have fun and enjoy the day.

All that being said, there were some definite highlights to the day.  I met a promising young artist whose webcomics work I will be looking forward to.  I got a chance to speak with Kate Leth, whose work I have found inspirational lately.  I got the chance to catch up with Sandy Carruthers, currently doing work on a Charlton revival.  And for the first time, I got to share a table with one of my kids, who was also presenting work in the form of postcards, buttons and custom Gallifreyan (it's a Doctor Who thing) sketch cards, and who seems to have gotten a very positive response.

So, there was a lot of good to the day, and thanks to the ECCE organizers for putting off such a good event.  If I decide to do another one of these, I think I will put in less work...but come better prepared.