(This article was first featured on my own blog back in September, and I’ve given John permission to re-publish it here):
I hope that esteemed comics historian, journalist and curator Paul Gravett won’t mind me borrowing the above image from his website. If anything, it will perhaps serve as a bit of an advert for Comica Comiket, which sounds like it’s going to be a lot of fun. This independent comics fair, which takes place on 2 November, will include ‘…a cavalcade of crazy cartoonists’ whose live drawing will be projected onto a big screen. It will also have lots of independent comic creators selling their wares. I think I’m going to have to do my best to make it down there for what will no doubt be a fab event!
I’ve been thinking a lot about what self-publishers can do to be more successful when it comes to selling their comics in a face-to-face setting. After meeting writer/illustrator/cartoonist Sarah McIntyre on Friday for a drink and chatting to her about my ideas, I’m feeling confident enough to put some of my thoughts down as a blog post. I’d appreciate any and all feedback about what I’m suggesting, even if you just want to pop a comment down below about how completely wrong I’ve got things.
(It would be especially fascinating for me if any comics-makers felt able to share specific experiences and lessons learned from selling their wares at events like Comica Comiket. Please keep things polite and on-message though!)
I suppose the first issue I need to address is why I think I have any right to pontificate on the subject of selling comics when I’ve never done it myself. Well… I have on a couple of occasions, helping the aforementioned Sarah McIntyre at Thought Bubble in 2011 and flogging copies of Redeye with my chum, editor/artist/designer Baz Renshaw at the UK Web ‘n’ Mini-Comix Thing.
However, this post isn’t written solely from the point of view of someone who has sold comics. I also plan to use my experiences as a customer wandering around comic conventions in compiling the following five-point list of tips for maximising sales next time you have a stall at a comics event
Tip 1: The basics
It’s amazing how often self-publishers seem to neglect the basics when it comes to selling their comics at events. They’ve spent months (if not years) getting their product just so: pouring their hearts out onto the page to realise their artistic vision. Then there’s even more time spent dealing with printers, transporting vast amounts of stock around and negotiating with comic and book-shops in an attempt to get their product out in front of paying customers. Finally, they get to an event stuffed full of comic fans, with money to spend and a certain amount of curiosity about this ‘thriving small -press scene’ they’ve heard journalists and bloggers banging on about. And what do the aforementioned creators do?
They slump in their chairs. They grimace. They act cool and chat to their mates. (Or they’re just shy and don’t know how to handle themselves with strangers, which I’ll get to in tip 3.)
And if anyone approaches their table, they snarl and look surly.
Okay, that’s a blatant exaggeration. Many of the comic creators at cons are smiley, happy people but a surprising amount of them…
Well, it’s amazing how often I see self-publishers at comic cons who seem unwilling to do any of the following:
Stand up for at least some of the time so that they can catch people’s eye and look interested/active (I’ll let those off who are spending the whole day sketching), or even just smile.
Tip 2: The rules of engagement
At the first Thought Bubble I attended, I was wandering around the convention hall on Saturday morning just after the doors had opened. I was in paradise, because there were comics as far as the eye could see, many of which were unfamiliar to me. I was blissful, looking forwards to a day of browsing comics and chatting to creators. But I was a little spaced out too, having had to grab an early train from Manchester to get to the con in time for its opening.
I was browsing a cartoonist’s stall, no doubt looking a bit lost, when she turned to me and said, ‘I suppose this isn’t your kind of thing, is it?’
To which I replied, ‘It’s not that. It’s just that there’s so much good stuff that I’m having trouble getting my head around it all. For example, I really, really like what you’re doing.’
And I have to admit that I was more than a little taken aback by her response, which was to say, in a rather terse tone of voice, that she ‘…wasn’t digging for a compliment!’
As it was, I bought something anyway. However, I could have just as easily got the hump and walked away.
Because that cartoonist had forgotten one of the key points of selling: that it’s important to develop some sort of rapport with potential customers.
Here’s what Sarah McIntyre had to say about my approach to selling her comics when I helped her out at Thought Bubble in 2011:
I’m grateful to Sarah for those kind words. It was very easy to be enthusiastic about her comics, which are great, and that made selling them easier. If I’m going to try and sell something, I have to believe in it. But I do have a certain approach to selling, which I hope is rooted in a basic respect for human beings and has, on the few occasions I’ve deployed it, seemed to work.
I don’t sell.
I concentrate on engaging with potential customers as individuals. Then, and only then, do I tell them about the product. Finally, I look for verbal or non-verbal cues as to whether I should stand back and let them browse or engage further. So, at Thought Bubble, the first thing I would do is ask them how their con was going and talk about my experiences at the con too. I’d then describe the comics on display, often mentioning their price as I went, and talk about what kind of audience each one might appeal to. And then I’d wait for the customer to engage me in further conversation and if that didn’t happen, I’d stand back and let them browse.
And overall, it was an approach that seemed to work.
Tip 3: Pitch perfect
That isn’t to say that I didn’t have any sort of pitch. When it came to Sarah’s comics, I’ve already mentioned that I developed a short-hand description of each one as the day went on. This meant that when it did come to telling people what was on offer, I could do so succinctly and clearly. Again, it was about making the customer aware of what our products were and then getting out of the way so that they had time and space to browse without feeling pressurised or ‘sold to’.
A pre-prepared pitch can also be helpful if you’re a shy or nervous type. Don’t be afraid to rehearse your pitch with a trusted friend so that you can get some feedback about how it sounds. It may seem a bit artificial or cheesy, but if you’re the sort of person who finds it hard to engage with strangers then a bit of preparation can work wonders. And there’s nothing to stop you from using this pitch as a starting point that you can expand upon later when you get more confident about talking to people you’ve never met before.
Tip 4: The power of presentation
It’s isn’t all about how you talk to people though. It’s also about how you and your table look. I’m not saying that you have to wear a three-piece suit but do try for a modicum of presentability (after all, if you’ve got access to a hotel room then it’s possible to get someone to look after your table for an hour mid-way through the day while you freshen up and change your t-shirt. Moving swiftly on…)
In terms of your table arrangement, you don’t necessarily have to have a massive back-drop to catch people’s eye. Check out this photo of Abi and Dave from Dumpy Little Robot, who have arranged their wares for maximum visual effect, with prints and mini-comics positioned (where possible) vertically rather than flat on their table.
Oh, and one of my particular bugbears:
If the price of the comics you’re selling isn’t clearly marked, then you may lose sales. That’s because some people will be wary of asking you how much your comic costs in case it’s too expensive and they then have to suffer the embarrassment of putting it back and walking away.
Tip 5: Have fun!
This is perhaps the most important tip.
One of the reasons I enjoyed helping Sarah McIntyre sell her wares at Thought Bubble in 2011 was because it was so much fun. She dressed as a pirate, organised drawing activities/an art competition for people to take part in and was, throughout the day, a smiley, happy person to be around.
That sense of fun made her stall a nice place to hang out, for me and, I suspect, for potential customers too!