Amateur VS Professional

So, this year, Steam Crow is starting our own show.

I’m starting to learn a lot about the other side of being an artist – from the perspective of one who DEALS with artists; The Con Organizer.

I must admit that my thoughts are shifting about what makes a Professional – professional.

The Blurry Line

We live in an age where the line between Amateur and Professional is a blurry one.

In the past, one had to be blessed by a “Kingmaker” in order to be deemed “Professional.”  Basically, if a Publisher decided to print your work, you were more or less on the Pro Team. It was never easy, it took a lot of talent, and most of the time it took a good decade of work and practice to get your career there.

Today, EVERYBODY can get some business cards printed, create a few products –  comics, prints or other pieces of art, and sell them in a well-designed online store. There are no gatekeepers, no Kingmakers to prevent you from selling your work, and building an audience.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing.

But, does selling online make you a Professional?

I’m not sure that it does, though it’s a tough thing to fully define in this day and age.

Are you professional if -

  • You sell your work online?
  • Other stores sell you work?
  • You do X events and conventions per year?
  • Your print quality is really exceptional?
  • You update your webcomic X times a week?
  • You receive X number of pageviews per day?
  • If you sell X dollars of your work? (But what on earth would that be?)
  • If it’s recognized by an arbitrary number of blogs, sites?
  • You have X number of followers on Facebook or Twitter?
  • You manage to eke a living through this work? At what level?
  • You can afford to eat steak?!
You see, it’s a blurry thing. It seems that just about EVERYBODY wants to be considered professional – with the least amount of work possible.

Since it’s difficult (at least for me) to define a real list of what attributes a Pro must have, I’ve realized that some other things matter more to me.

For me, a Professional is someone who:

  • Answers communications promptly – say within 24 hours.
  • Doesn’t require constant wrangling to get simple answers. (6 emails to get a response? Really?)
  • Has a consistency between words and actions. (“the check is in the mail.”)
  • Has cultivated an audience, and communicates with them consistently. (Doesn’t drop off the earth for weeks or months at a time.)
  • Someone who creates a steady stream on consistently great work. (Pros are usually prolific.)
  • Competes on the value of their work, rather than PRICE. (They don’t undervalue their work.)
I KNOW that this is a rather incomplete list – you can probably easily add to it with some thoughts of your own. These are just the basics I pulled from my “Con Organizer” hat.

Here’s what I see obvious Amateurs do:

  • Argue that they should be considered Professional. (Using words instead of work.)
  • Put little attention on communications. (Ie, ignoring emails for the first few times, not updating their blog/facebook, etc.)
  • Put out a few good pieces of art every now and again.
  • Miss their deadlines.
  • Price their work with desperation. (Undervaluing their artwork.)

Now, there’s NOTHING WRONG with being an Amateur.

In our culture, it seems like you’re “Professional or you SUCK” which I don’t agree with at all. Having a steady job and making cool art/things on the side is a pretty smart, and reasonable thing to do. (I did it for 20 years before quitting my job.) There is no dishonor in the amateur path, and it’s okay if you’re not making a living at it. Do your thing, eat some steady meals, and be happy.

Professional is more than great work

But, if you want to be professional, you need to do more than concentrating on making great artwork. You need to be unreasonably good at the whole package – meeting your deadlines, communicating in a reliable manner, and valuing what you do.


Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner of Steam Crow LLC (with his wife Dawna),  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates Good Monster Goods. He’s the founder of TINY ARMY, a social group dedicated to helping Arizona creatives succeed by sharing information, marketing techniques, and information.

What e-commerce system to use

I’ll be honest; I’ve been looking for the holy grail of e-commerce systems for a long while now.

I want a system that is:

  • Free. (Who needs yet another monthly bill?)
  • Hosted on my own domain, so that I can control the brand experience.
  • Has a clean, nice template to start with.
  • Sophisticated enough so that I can help folks find all of my products. (Related products, good top nav, good category management.)
  • Fully-featured… enough. (Mega-features can slow you down, both in product creation and overall setup.)
  • Won’t kill me to set it all up.
So far, I’ve tried:
  • Multiple paypal button plugins for both Joomla and WordPress.
  • OSecommerce.
  • Zencart.
  • Shopp for WordPress.
  • WP-ecommerce for WordPress.
  • Opencart
By “tried” I mean setting up my store and using it for at least 6 months. I’ve committed to each, at least until I got frustrated enough to move along.
I’m not going to dive in and give you a review of each of these; the web is full of comparison charts and reviews of “X vs Y system” out there. Use your Google if you want to know more about WHY one might be better than another.

About Paid Carts

I see most of many of friends utilizing a paid system like BigCartel, Shoppify, or Volusion. These systems have a lot of  draw; they’re clean, easy to setup, don’t require any coding skill, and you can get them going in a relatively short amount of time. The downside is that they charge you a monthly fee; and typically that fee goes up the more products and features that you want.
This is especially a problem if you want to have a number of products. (We’ve had as many as 300 products online at different times.)
Monthly fees to have 300 products*:
BigCartel – $29.99
Volusion – $39.00
Shoppify – $59.00 (For 101-1500 products)
These prices aren’t unreasonable, but for an indie producer like us, avoiding unnecessary monthly fees is pretty important.
*Yeah, 300 products is a lot, but we develop a lot of product. Heck, we’ve offered over 80 buttons alone. (It can quickly add up!)

WordPress Issues

I will tell you that the WordPress plugins were both good, but failed in a couple of big ways for me.
First, there’s the overhead.
WordPress (WP), along with a a variety of plugins installed, one often has a number of CSS files, Javascript calls, and other overhead that pulled when you do a webpage load.
Now, imagine all of that along with a rather complex and sophisticated e-commerce plugin(s) riding on top of all that… with it’s own css(s) and Javascript files. (And with some of the plugin functionality and resources like lightbox duplicated.) Your potential for plugin conflict is pretty good, and your page load is filled with a lot of extra crud – not ideal for speeding your customer onto a fast and easy transaction.
I found that the site(s) that I so lovingly built was pushing errors and loading really slow. (I think that the site was calling something like 11 CSS files at one point. EeGah!)
Second, I found that there was a very large risk that any WordPress core upgrade was going to really mess up the store plugin. I ran into this a couple of times where there was a vital and important security upgrade, and the dang thing broke the plugin. Sure, it eventually gets fixed, but who wants to wait days or weeks for that to happen.
Eventually, I just gave up on WordPress-is-everything approach all-together.

Recommended Approaches

There are 2 platforms that I do like: StorEnvy and OpenCart.
StorEnvy
StorEnvy is a hosted solution, not terribly different than the Paid Cart approach – except that it’s free.
They offer you the platform, you reskin it will CSS and fill in all of your products. If this is the approach that works for your model, these guys will do it for $0 monthly fees and $0 cut of the profits. For an additional $5 per month, you can even use your own domain name. (And yeah, you can use your own domain name to point to any Paid Cart; Storenvy lets you keep it on your domain for that $5.)
All around, it’s a fine system. Folks can buy from you and other Storenvy folks, and you’ll be paid directly in Paypal for purchases made on that system. (And it’s up to you to ship it, too, of course.)
You can see my basic setup here.
OpenCart
OpenCart is a free, open-source shopping cart. It’s fast (the fastest one that I’ve been able to identify), with a modern code-base, a decent amount of features, and a modern code base. (Something that I can’t say about ZenCart and OSecommerce.)
I like it because it’s straight ahead, easy for the customer to use, and it doesn’t take any coding (aside from CSS) to customize. If you want to customize it a whole-lot, it can take more work, but I found the standard template a really nice foundation.
It does take a fair amount of setup to get it really rolling, but there’s now a good community of folks using the product that most of your issues have likely been solved, if you search for them.
You can see my Opencart store here.

Which should you use?

I’ll make this simple.
If you will only have a few products, use something simple like Storenvy or even Etsy for your store. There’s not need investing in a solution that you aren’t really going to use all that much of.
If you take your e-commerce very seriously and you anticipate offering a lot of products, I’d recommend OpenCart.
As always, your mileage may vary; I’m just sharing our opinion of the current e-commerce landscape for the indie creator.
————————————————————

Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates characters/stories/goods with a monster imagination.

He also creates the Monster Commute, a monsterpunk adventure comic. He has a love for Halloween that can’t be sated.

How to sell e-books at events

I’ve been thinking a lot about ebooks lately, and how it impacts the convention experience.

The problem: If you sell ebooks, how do you sell them at in-person events?

We sell physical books (we have 5) but I’m certainly not a big-time book seller. We’re probably more of a “design merchandiser” than a straight-up publisher; we illustrate our products and sell that illustration as merch.

Part of the magic of going to a convention is to meet creators, have a little time connecting with them, and perhaps buying a book/print and having them sign it. If one is just selling ebooks, there’s not so much to sell in-person at the show.

First of all, if you’re selling your books solely as ebooks, you’ve limited your ability to profit directly from the event itself.

Sure, you could go and have some POD books made, but they’re crazy expensive, and you’re not going to make much of a profit on your sale. I’m trying to convince other creators that making a profit at a comic convention isn’t just a privilege, it’s a MUST, I’m not going suggest that approach right now; the margins aren’t there yet.

More vital though, is the connection. People really like take-aways, they like to maybe  get a photo with you, grab a freebie, or maybe even a signature on a book that they’ve bought. They want to connect with you, their favorite creator.

With ebooks, that autograph part is pretty much non-existant.

A possible solution

I’ve been talking to one of my pals, Ovi Demetrian, who runs an ebook store called IndieAisle. Basically, he sells ebooks, helps people discover new stories, and he offers a book formatting service to make them into proper ebook formats. (It’s pretty cool.)

Ovi was going to be exhibiting at a local comic convention (the fairly great Phoenix Comicon) with the sole purpose of simply getting his brand out there, and finding new fans. I suggested that it’s always a better idea to make a profit, I suggested the following idea:

What if you sold access to your book, at the convention? No, not just an open laptop where they could order it online. Something more tangible.

Why not make an exclusive print/postcard or such, and put a unique download code on the card itself?

The fan would have a cool takeaway that could be signed (like a book) and the creator could have something on the table to sell.

Also, if the print were really cool, you could likely charge a premium for that too! (Getting paid for both the download and the print.)

The fan could go online after the con to redeem the book, making yet another connection to your brand.

We tried it, but it didn’t work so well… yet.

The biggest problem is that we run a full booth (10×20 in this case) and these little postcard prints were lost in the visual hurricane of both the convention and our offerings. Nobody saw them.

I remain convinced that it could work though, especially if one emphasized this as an offering. Also, if the practice itself was more widespread, it could maybe even catch on.

Other enhancements that might just work:

  • Do more than just duplicate the cover of the book; it needs to be something more special then that. (Unless your cover is ass-kicking… James Jean perhaps?)
  • Make the print a convention exclusive – offer folks a reason to stop by and buy your book NOW!
  • If you’re doing straight up literary fiction, have a few different scenes/characters in your book illustrated to generate the prints.
  • Offer a lot of books like this on your table. Cover your table with the mini-prints or postcards so that they can’t be missed.
I think that if enough indie folks were to do this, the approach could catch on. It’s going to take a shift in the way that creators and fans think of the books, what gets brought home after the convention.

Surely not the only answer

I don’t have the arrogance to think that this is the only solution to the problem, but it’s a start. With so much flag-waving over POD and ebooks out there, I’ve been hoping to find someway to do sell ebooks without fully gutting my convention business too.
  • What approaches have you tried?
  • How else could you sell ebooks at cons?
  • How can we continue to make in-person connections with our fans with eproducts?

Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates characters/stories/goods with a monster imagination.

He also creates the Monster Commute, a monsterpunk adventure comic. He has a love for golems of many sorts.

San Diego Comic-Con Review 2011

Steam Crow just finished up our 2011 SDCC.

SDCC is our biggest show of the year, and it’s broken our gross sales record each time we’ve done it. (Thank goodness.)

It’s not our most profitable show, but it’s dang fun participating in this Chaos Pop-Culture Carnival!

Steam Crow at SDCC 2011

 

History

We’ve been exhibiting here since 2005, starting in the Small Press area, and then moving up to a 10×10 booth in 2006. In 2009 we moved up to a corner booth, where we’ve remained ever since.

2005 – Small Press table. Made a profit, just barely.

2006-2008 – 10×10 booth, over in the Illustrators section. Sales increased simply because of the move.

2009-2011 – Corner booth (#4207) across from Fox and Nickelodeon. Sales increased again because of more products and better booth placement.

All shows have been profitable, but we’ve really benefited from 1) having more space to sell in, and 2) being in a high traffic area.

Moving out of Small-Press was the best thing that we’ve ever done to increase sales. (Though we worked hard to fill that booth.)

2011

SDCC  usually starts out slow for us.

We do some sales on preview night, but it’s nothing too fancy. However, it helps the bottom line, so you won’t ever see us skipping it.

Thursday’s sales volume increased, but we started having some challenges with our Square credit card reader due to massive cell traffic competition. (To be talked about in a future post.)

Friday’s sales increased a bit more… which turned into a solid day. (Third best day of the show.)

Saturday was the biggest day of the show… though we were having to compete more and more with the FOX signings in their booth. The overflow of folks made it occasionally difficult to do much more than just stand there, and attempt to talk to folks. Credit Card processing was very, very slow on Saturday and Sunday.

Sunday was the second best day of the show, but the FOX signings slowed things down for us again…

Overall, we had about a 20% increase in sales from 2010; probably our slowest SDCC growth on record… but it’s still growth.

What worked

  • Having a large variety of product is a must to make money at this show. We have a lot of stuff: glasses, books, prints, goggles, t-shirts and other stuff.
  • We benefit from having product that doesn’t require knowledge of our comic or the universe that it occupies.
  • We finally, after 6 years, made our name “Steam Crow” a huge part of our booth design. Many SDCC veterans noticed us for the first time, it seems.
  • Our themed “Monster Marketplace” hats and aprons were well received. We looked like a place where you could get some service and attention, and we tried to back that up with actual service and attention. Plus it was fun.
  • Having more helpers was really nice, especially as folks like talking to the artist. I tried to give people my full attention and I didn’t have to worry that other people weren’t being helped. Our minions were superb.
  • Our “deals” worked well too. (Many of our items have a “buy X get Y for free” deal.) It help mitigate the “I only have X$, let’s make a deal” mentality. Awkward for us.
  • Our classic (public domain) monster movie prints (finally) were our big sales winners. We use these as a way to get you into Steam Crow stuff. Last year we had 3 different prints in this theme; this year we had at least a dozen.
  • Our booth design is unique, and the product has a fairly unique vibe. Dawna’s top striped banner was a win.

Do Betters

  • Better Credit Card processing. We love Square, but even being on 2 different providers (ATT & Sprint) it was way too slow due to the volume of cell traffic. Fix: We need to look at getting a dedicated WiFi, or getting one of our phones on Verison and see if that helps.
  • Tabletop was too crowded. We did the best that we could with our little 10×10, but we could really use more space for our product. Some stuff was simply overlooked because there was no place to put it. Fix: Ask the SDCC gods if we can add a second booth.
  • Four of us in a 6×6 ft area is TOO MUCH. Three people is okay, but four is a crowd. Fix: If we can get the 10×20 arrangement, four people will be ideal.
  • No distinct theme. Sure, we do Monsters, but that isn’t entirely clear. Our Food Kawaii prints don’t fit the monster-mold, though they do sell. Fix: We’re working on a new character property (featuring monsters) to bring in more continuity and brand clarity.

Tips for sales success

It’s difficult to suggest a “one size fits all” plan, as everybody’s audience and product mix is different. The worst thing that you can do is just try to copy someone else’s model. It pays to be unique… so keep that in the forefront of that skull of yours.

  • Don’t roll into SDCC just trying to earn back your table costs; develop a strategy to make a profit right away.
  • Make product lines or sets, so you can sell more than just 1.
  • Develop products that have a very focused appeal. Don’t try to be everything to everyone.
  • Have many different price points – $1 to $100 would be ideal. You should have the most choices at $20 level; we concentrate our efforts there.
  • Work on your Con products and plan all year long. You won’t be able to bust out a successful con 3 weeks before the show.
  • Be unique. Be unique in your brand. Be unique in your approach. Be unique in your product offerings.
  • Go big. Get out of the Small Press area as soon as you 1) have ample product and 2) you have some audience to support it. We started from zero.
  • Follow your passion. You can’t fake your stuff based on sales. Make what you’re passionate about.
  • Don’t disappear for the rest of the year. Use social media, blogging and such to connect to your followers all year long. You already knew that, though.

Ripping to get rich

If you want to make a whole lot of money at the con, do this:
  • Make prints/t-shirts based on a famous property that you don’t own. Dr. Who is hot this year. Next year, who knows.
  • Mashup 2 hot properties – the flavor of the minute. It’s funny, at least for a moment.
You’ll get some quick sales for sure.
But I wouldn’t recommend it; it’s a short-term gain with no brand-building.
  • You’re competing with tons of other folks doing exactly the same thing. It’s the biggest trend at comic conventions hands down.
  • It’s not memorable. How many Batmans are out there? How are they going to remember YOU?
  • I predict that eventually the big studios will shut down this sort of activity, and then you’ll have to start from zero all over again.
  • It’s lacks story. “Why did you make X?” Oh, well I’m a fan of X.” That’s a boring story compared to being inspired, excited about your creation.

Endplate

It’s getting more difficult to profit at comic conventions, but I’ve seen it done, and know that it’s possible. It’s no longer a space where one can simply show up, and expect to profit. But, with ample year-long preparation, and strategy, it is doable.

Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates characters/stories/goods with a monster imagination.

He also creates the Monster Commute, a monsterpunk adventure comic. He likes Halloween a bit too much.

What to sell at Cons

From time to time, folks ask us about product development, and what to sell at cons:

My husband and I went to one of the Tiny Army events where you were discussing what to do at a con to get noticed and one of the things you suggested was Product! Product! Product!

However we’re having trouble thinking outside of the box. We’re going to be doing typical things such as buttons, stickers, etc. but really want something unique.

Can you advise me on what more unique items sell well at cons? Any suggestions you may have will be very much appreciated. Thank you!

It’s a difficult question because there are no universal answers.

What works for you may not work for me. Combine that with the whims of fashion, differences of region, audience, and product popularity… and you’ve got a complex problem indeed.

The biggest mistake would be to simply copy what others are doing.

It might make sense on the onset (it works for her, it might just work for me) but in the end, you’ve taken the easy way out. You’ll end up with all the same products that everybody else has, essentially turning your offerings into a commodity.

Instead, I suggest focusing closely on your own brand, your characters, and the worlds that you’re trying to build with your comic/story.

  • What’s the main thrust of your story? Funny? Lighthearted? Dark?
  • What’s your genre? Fantasy? Post-apocalyptic? Steampunk?
  • What are you characters like? Can you make some products that reflect them, their likes or fashion?

If you’re Madame M, and do a comic like Super Vamp, it might lead you to develop ghoulie jewelry, Gothic portraits, a Vampire survival guide (for vampires) and maybe something like coffin purses.

Basically, things that both reflect her brand, her genre, and appeal to the sensibilities of her audience.

The next thing you need to do is know your audience.

This can be a difficult thing to do, because your audience may not be exactly who you thought it would be at the beginning.

When we published our first book, Caught Creatures, I figured that we’d sell our stuff to a bunch of alternative families; basically folks like us who didn’t want to dish Disney stuff on their own kids. In reality, our customers are unique, free thinking people who are confident, generally don’t have kids, and like to collect cute (but spooky) monster stuff.

Here are some easy ways to learn more about your audience:

  • Create a poll for your blog, and ask about their likes, dislikes, age, gender, and so on. You don’t have to ask everything at once, and you can do different polls over time.
  • Create a larger survey via SurveyMonkey or even Google Docs.
  • Make a note about who purchases your stuff at Conventions. (We had X females to X males for transactions.
  • Pay attention to the names on your mailing list; do they skew more male or female?
  • Ask questions on your blog posts, and see what they say in the comments.
  • Look at your Facebook Fan Page statistics. This has lots of demographic information about your followers.
  • Ask your followers about what kinds of products they’d like you to make. (Easy, and effective.)

While none of these will create a scientifically sound idea of who your audience is, it will start to help you realize who they really are.

Zig when they zag

If everyone is offering a product, it could be time to go the opposite direction, and try to find something entirely different to offer.

If everyone has X product, that product is going to become a commodity in the marketplace. Basically, everyone is going to “know” that a t-shirt is $20; it becomes more difficult to charge more, and some folks start trying to undercut the competition with price. Pretty soon, prices start falling.

You want to avoid that if you can, by offering stuff that other people don’t have (and don’t really know that it should cost $X)

Design around your art strength

Not every-one’s art is perfect for every type of product. Some folks do really detailed character art that may not work great for 1 inch buttons.

Make sure that you’re playing to your artistic strengths with your product design. If you do beautiful pinups, consider making pinup prints. If your work is very graphic and simple, maybe make resin-cast toys.

Again though, reflect back to your brand and your audience, and make sure that it’s the kind of stuff that they (and you) like.

Design around your unique sense of humor

If you’re a witty writer, you can contribute to some great products too. (Funny buttons, funny t-shirt slogans, stuff like that.)

Weregeek is an RPG comic, so they offer some funny t-shirts that appeal to their RPG gamer audience. Same goes for Little Vampires, and their t-shirts.

How to discover new products

Look for existing products that match your brand/story values, but also could be repurposed/rebranded cheaply. Ad Spec (Advertising Specialty) companies have tons of this kind of stuff.

Drunk Elephant Comics could sell Drunk Elephant metal flasks. (His audience is adult, and he already features drink recipes on his site.) He could buy in bulk, add a Drunk Elephant sticker, and he’d be golden.

Look outside comic conventions

Go to a crafting event, go to a Chinese market, visit an army surplus store, go to Value Village. You just might find a product that isn’t terribly expensive, but could be customised to be your next repurposed product.

Make something

Use your hands and skills to make something by hand.

Miss Monster makes resincast beast masks that are amazing, and more importantly different, than anybody else is selling. This makes her brand stronger, and she’s able to offer stuff that nobody else is selling.

You could sew your own plushies, make a hat that one of your character wears, or whatever.

You could take a common item and repaint it to make it cool, to reflect your brand, or echo something from your comic. Don’t limit yourself.

What to avoid

Buying too much of something. You may not need 1000 flag hats, even if they’re a great deal. Scale back to what you might reasonably sell.

Making X product because THEY do it. Sure, it might look profitable or great from your point of view, but research it first. They might have an IN with a supplier to make those fleece jackets more affordable than you might.

Not thinking through the entire product cost. Make sure that you factor in shipping, packaging, rebranding into the true cost of your product. THEN, and only then, you can determine what price you should charge for it.

If you start with price first, you may find yourself with margins that are far too slim to survive and excel.

Expensive Products. It’s tough to make 4 times the cost of your product, when that product initially costs $25. It’s really easy to do that when your product costs $.25 to make.

Be careful, and realize that $20 is a magical price point. Under $20 is usually an easy sell; over $20 it’s a bit harder.

However, if you’re delivering real value, and have a product that is fantastic and unique, you can start to go even higher. (And it’s really nice to have a $50 item that’s selling to help you pay off that table cost, hotel, and plane tickets.)

Closing

Really, developing and selling unique products is the name of the game. It can help make you stand out, help people better understand your brand, and delight your audience, who in turn show the products to their friends. It’s a devilishly complicated thing to do well, but if you stay true to your brand and your audience, you’re bound to have some successes.

What’s your killer product idea? (Anyone brave enough to share?)

 


Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates Good Monsters/Monster Goods.

They also create the Monster Commute, a 5 day a week monsterpunk adventure comic. They enjoy gifts of pie.

Best West Coast Comic Shows

Shows are a lot of work, but they can be an honest source of profit AND a prime connection to new and existing fans.

I know that there’s been a lot of talk in the “to do shows/don’t do shows yet” vien out there, and that’s all good. I can only tell you that doing shows has been vital for Steam Crow’s success, and we’re going to keep doing our favorite ones.

Caveat: Not business is the same. I’m simply sharing what has worked for us, over time. YMMV.

Also, one should remember that if you’re doing your branding well, sales will grow year to year. It’s unlikely that you’re going to be maxing your potential the first time that you do a show. For us, it took a few years to get most of these cooking.

Here are Steam Crow’s top 3 West Coast shows, in order of most sales to least:

San Diego Comic-Con

The Good: It’s a huge pop-culture circus, there’s a sea of humanity ready to spend money, and it lasts for 5 days.
The Bad: It’s very difficult to get in, it’s expensive (hotels/booths), and the sea of humanity. It’s huge.
Years exhibiting: 5
Worst experience: At the 2010 show, Saturday was so busy with cell traffic that all credit card terminals died. Everywhere. Sales were really hurt because of this, but it was fixed by Sunday.
Growth: Stalled. Can’t expand in the current building.
Sales: *****

Okay, I know that everybody says that you can’t make money at this show as an indie exhibitor, but that’s simply not true. You need to make sure that you’ve got a wide variety of product with a wide appeal… and work at standing out. It can be done.

In 2006 we had a Small Press booth. It was very, very difficult to make that really successful. In 2007 we bought up to a 10×10 booth, which was the best thing that we could have done. Get out of small press, if you can. It’s a sea of tables…

Tip: Get out of artist’s alley and get a table or a booth… if you can. Watch your costs… that hotel isn’t cheap for 6 days.

Phoenix Comicon

The Good: It’s growing faster than any show I’ve heard of. Lots of fans. Good energy. Amazing local organization. Well run.
The Bad: Local creators are stepping up and getting really great at their presentations/products/scene. You’re going to have to bring your A-game to succeed.
Years exhibiting: 5
Worst experience: None, really. If you’re new to exhibiting at this show, plan on doing it a couple of times to make it really sing. (The local artists do a lot of promotion for PHXCC.)
Growth: HOT HOT HOT
Sales: ****

SO, this is the biggest little show that you’ve probably never heard of.

I predict that you’re going to hear more about it as time goes on. The folks putting on this show run a tight ship, with year-long promotion of the show, artist signings, and a killer marketing and street team. Combine that with Phoenix being the 5th largest city in the country, and a quick 5 hr drive from S. California, and you’ve got a growing, vital show.

Cosplay and anime combine with comics and media guests… this is a multi-media show that attracts a well-rounded geek crowd.

Also, the depth of  programing is fantastic, meaning that you’re going to see way more 4-day passes than wimpy 1-day visitors.

Tip: Participate on the PHXCC forum. Engage the local scene. Have a great presentation.

Emerald City Comicon

The Good: Growing, happy crowds, vibrant art community. Well organized. 10×10 booths are corner booths. Lots of webcomics.
The Bad: What’s not to love about Seattle? I can’t think of anything negative to say about this show.
Years exhibiting: 5
Worst experience: In 2007 we were placed at the back of the hall in a corner, facing the back and sharing a corner. Moved to a booth the next year, and all was better.
Growth: HOT
Sales: ****

Emerald City Comicon strangely feels like Phoenix Comicon’s older brother. The vibe is positive, the folks are happy to support comics, and the show is run by pro-comic fans. The show is growing, and it feels like a really vibrant thing.

This is one of our favorite shows, hands down. Sales are great, the organizers are great, the hall is superb. It’s something special.

Tip: Get out of artist’s alley if you can… it’s huge with lots of very famous guests. Table or booth it, for max success. Bring lots of product.

Other Shows

These shows are good, but don’t have quite the same success rate, at least not for us.

WonderCon

The Good: A large show, run by the same folks as SDCC and APE. Nice hall. Well organized.
The Bad: Hit or miss. I don’t know if it’s the local economy or what, but sometimes it’s good… and sometimes just okay.
Years exhibiting: 5
Worst experience: Forgetting some of our display pieces and having to improvise our booth setup. (Mental breakdown.)
Growth: Warm.
Sales: ***

It’s always been a profitable show for us, but it feels a little like it’s underperforming. Sales growth isn’t nearly as strong as the A-List shows above.

Though it’s a much larger event, WC’s sales have only ever been about 1/2 PHXCC or ECCC for us. I really don’t know why. It’s a well-run show, with lots of pop culture and media guests. In some ways it feels like SDCC Junior, but without the hyped sales.

This year we have some great booth positioning, so we’ll see how that effects the numbers. One thing that concerns us is that WC now has a 1-hour setup rule. If 1 person can’t setup the booth in 1 hour, the union workers will set it up for you. (At your cost.) We’ll see how real that one is.

Tip: Keep costs down wherever possible. It’s not a cheap show or city.

APE

The Good: Indie comic focus.
The Bad: Massive number of tables per attendee. Tables not that cheap. Fairly flat attendance. Growing floor.
Years exhibiting: 5
Worst experience: Our neighbors set up a 10×10 popup in their 6×6 booth space. Our booth looked like it was inside of theirs.
Growth: Lukewarm
Sales: *

He’s like your big brother’s hep friend: He’s cool. He’s relaxed. He’s smooth. And he might just try to stab you with his pocketcomb.

APE is a really great show… to attend. There are tons and tons of indie press folks there… the creme of the crop selling amazing stuff. At the 2010 show, there were over 600 tables!

That’s the problem though… there aren’t enough attendees to go around.

It’s tooth and nail to get sales from such a small crowd of folks. If you do the math, it’s a very tough ratio of attendees to exhibitors. I suspect that since it’s CCI’s smallest show, it get’s the least amount of marketing attention; which is a pity.

I’ll tell you that we’ve had to fight-fight-fight to get our sales to grow at this show. It’s a tough one to make money at, but I do love walking the show floor.

Tip: Do this show if you’re local to the Bay area, have hand-made production values, or you can do it on the cheap. Tell everyone to attend, and maybe it’ll be a great exhibitor show. (It deserves it.)

Stumptown Comic Fest

The Good: An indie show in the indie-haven of Portland.
The Bad: High production values are the enemy. Inward looking scene.
Years exhibiting: Once, in 2008.
Growth: Unknown.
Sales: 1/2 *

Let me be honest: when we started Steam Crow, Stumptown was the show that I wanted to do the very most. The website is great, the city of Portland is amazing, and it just felt like our indie made stuff would feel at home in the rainy Northwest. (Our homeland.)

But, in 2008 at least, it just wasn’t so. Our table was behind a 3 foot concrete pillar, beneath a churning heater on the hottest day of the year. Sales were the lowest of any travel show we’ve ever done. Locals didn’t seem interested in us as we weren’t part of the scene. It was dismal.

Now, things may have changed, so don’t burn me here. I’m just sharing our experiences once, a few years back.

Tip: Most of our Con Artist friends have done this show… once. If it’s local, it’s probably a must-do thing. If not, I’d skip it.

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That wraps up the major West Coast comic shows that we do.

Again, your mileage may vary. I’m just sharing what works, and doesn’t work, for us. Every business is different.

But, hopefully it helps you in your con decisions.

 


Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates Good Monsters/Monster Goods.

They also create the Monster Commute, a 5 day a week monsterpunk adventure comic. He likes steam-golems.

Project Focus

I get this question quite a bit:

Do I ever have a difficult time focusing on projects?

The answer is: Sure!

I took me almost 20 years to get enough focus where I can work on big projects and get them done. That doesn’t help you really, since you’ve got your own focusing to do, but the point is that it’s a common problem.

Here’s some advice about focusing and choosing your comic project:

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Work on what you’re most passionate about.

When I was creating Monster Commute, I had to include lots of different things that I’m passionate about…

…monsters, steampunk, 1984, golems, halloween, advertising, vintage illustration…

…for me to stay interested in creating it every day. It was the only way to prevent me from bailing on it to pursue something else.

It’s super important that you focus on yourself, rather on what you think might be marketable. That’s important too, but you’ll never get there if you can’t finish anything.

Stop watching TV or playing video games, or whatever non-vital ways that you spend your time.

If you’re not willing or able to do that, then you’re not ready to be a focused creator. That’s okay, but don’t also wish that you could be a creator too.

You need the time to work on your project/business, and you ‘ll never have enough time to even do that right.

Work on what’s important.

If it’s a big idea that you’re really wanting to do, go for it. Your art/skill will develop in the meantime. If you’re concerned about your skill level, then do it privately, and don’t put it out there.

Really, what’s the alternative? Working on projects that you don’t have much passion for? That seems like an empty thing to me.

None of us are satisfied with our artwork; but you’ve got to do a bunch of it on a regular basis to grow. Focus on the craft and the making of your comics, and you’ll grow over time. It’s okay if you hate what you did 6 months back; at least you’re moving ahead now.

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In closing…

  1. Decide to dedicate yourself into being a maker, rather than a consumer of content.
  2. Schedule your life so that you can work on your project every day.
  3. Choose your best material to produce; stuff that you’re the most passionate about.
  4. Don’t chase “get successful quick” projects; those are usually distractions. Stay true to your vision.

Mine isn’t the only way, mind you, but it’s how I like to think about creating. Go out there and make stuff, and you’ll figure out your own methods.


Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates characters/stories/goods with a monster imagination.

He also creates the Monster Commute, a 5 day a week monsterpunk adventure comic. He likes steam-golems.

Innovate, Don’t Duplicate

I get this sort of thing all the time:

> Dear Steam Crow – How you do X-Y-Z with your convention display?

I don’t want you to take this the wrong way but:

Innovate your own display, don’t just “borrow” idea/techniques straight from others.

But why?

Four of my exhibitor “friends” this year came up to me at SDCC and said something like this:

“Heh… we stole our display idea (or product model) from you.”

And yeah, they pretty much did to one degree or another. They busted out the pvc and basically copied our display technique, or copied our product offerings, our price points, etc..

“Hope you don’t mind…”

Yeah well, we actually do mind.

Here’s why:

  1. We’re actually innovating. That takes us a bunch of time, thought, $$$ and experimentation. That’s not free, at least not for us.
  2. It costs money. Lots and lots of things don’t work, and the unused parts eventually get tossed in the trash.
  3. It’s differentiation for our brand. It’s what makes us different and special. When people take that from us, there’s not a lot left.
  4. More and more, our “friends” just want information, with nothing in return. Feels like being used, rather than camaraderie. Strangers don’t rip us; “friends” do.
  5. If #3 isn’t enough, please realize that people are also stealing our IP. What’s left?
  6. Take ideas from somebody who can afford it. We’re small and indie, just like YOU. If you’ve got to steal ideas, do it from someone who can afford it.

“You can’t stop me.”

Nope, I can’t. I realize that it’s a competitive field. I get it. I’ve borrowed ideas myself, but I’ve tried to change them, push them further, etc.

I won’t try to stop you, or donkey punch you, or anything like that. But, I’ll probably decide you’re a user/loser. If that doesn’t matter to you, then you probably are.

And anyway, you’re diluting YOUR brand by copying us. Your shortcuts hurt you too.

“You’re an asshole.”

Yep, I’m an asshole today. You might have seen that I spent most of yesterday trying to shut down a ripper instead of getting ready for Saboten Con, Steam Punk Street, STEAMCROWEEN, APE or DesignerCon. With the day job and upcoming travel, I don’t have time for this, sincerely. If I sound impatient, it’s because I am.

Here are some other ideas for you:

  1. Experiment with your own display/product/store. Make up products, rather than just duplicating something that you’ve seen.
  2. Innovate your display. Do it different than anyone else. You’ll go further, and it won’t be copying ours.
  3. Figure out your brand, what makes it unique, and why it appeals to others. If you do that right, it won’t look like anyone else. If you can’t do that, you still have work to do.

Okay, so my preachy rant is over.

I hope you understand our point of view, and can maybe possibly see why this might be an issue.

It’s not like I don’t already spend a lot of effort helping folks. That’s what this site is all about, as well as the TINY ARMY group I founded in Phoenix.

I want you to innovate, not just copy.



Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates characters/stories/goods with a monster imagination.

He also creates the Monster Commute, a 5 day a week monsterpunk adventure comic. He likes pie.

Resources

We often get questions about where we do our printing, where we get our business cards, or who does our web hosting for us. As indie creators, it’s important to have some good places to get your products and collateral produced. Many of these places were referred to me by my friends, so I thought that I’d share them with you.

Here’s a list of some of the folks that we’ve used over the years. I plan on updating this as I go.

Printing

Overnight Prints (Collateral printing)

I’ve used OvernightPrints.com on more than 8 jobs for postcards, business cards, and fliers. I’ve had good quality printing and good experiences there every time. The turnaround is about a week to a week and a half, at least here to Arizona.

Transcontinental (Book printing)

I’ve used Transcontinental for 3 books that I’ve printed – Caught Creatures, KlawBerry, and After Halloween. (Feel free to check them out in person to see the quality.) Transcon is professional, easy to deal with, and quality minded. I can’t recommend them enough. It’s taken me about 2 months from the beginning of the process, to having the books in hand.

StickyRicks (Stickers)

We’ve used StickyRicks a couple of times for screen-printed vinyl stickers. Rick was cheaper than some, and more expensive than others. High quality, though the lead-times can be long.

Fat Rat Press (Stickers)

We’ve also used FatRatPress.com for vinyl screenprinted bumper stickers. 2-color, they turned out great. Fat Rat also does t-shirts, air fresheners, buttons, and banners.

Print 100 (Business card printing)

I’ve used Print 100 on about a dozen jobs now, for high end, die cut business cards. The quality is awesome, and the aqueous satin coating is fantastic. I love my cards with these guys. They’re out of Hong Kong, but they’ll still turn your print around in 7 days.

Backer Boards and Bags

Clearbags

I use Clearbags for all of my print and book bags, as well as backer boards. (If you’re selling prints, you’ll want to bag them. It really helps sales to have them protected.) The quality is great, and they’re pretty much a standard for such. Bags come in an insane variety of sizes… from very small to very large. My only gripe with Clearbags is that there isn’t a 12×18 backer board solution, aside from custom cutting. 12×18 is my standard size, so I’m out of luck.

Nasco

Nasco is a school supply house, where I buy my backer board. I need backer that is lighter and cheaper than Clearbags; I fly to shows and the backer board is the biggest weight that we carry. So, we use “tagboard” from Nasco instead.

Newsletter

MailChimp

I’ve been using MailChimp to send our Secret News newsletter for the past couple of years. In short, it’s easy to use, your email looks good, and they rule. They’re always improving and expanding their system. Buy $250 of credits at a time to save money over the long haul. I found that they were about 1/2 the price of Constant Contact. (At least for my list size.)

Web Hosting

Dreamhost

Dreamhost has been hosting all of our websites for many years now. They’re cheap, they’re up most of the time, and their management panel is really nice to use. I think that their “1-click installs” are a really great way to get WordPress and Joomla sites up fast. Also, I’ve gotten fast and high quality customer service from them. No really. They’ve been good to us.

Ecommerce

Storenvy

StoreEnvy is a free, social-shopping site. They host your store, the cart, and most of the hassles for you. It’s a great alternative to BigCartel and Volusion if you’re short on funds or don’t want monthly fees. Here’s my StoreEnvy shop.

OpenCart

If you want a self-hosted solution (and have or will have more than 100 products), I can’t recommend OpenCart highly enough. It’s free. It’s open-source. It loads fast. And it does require some work. However, it’s YOUR brand we’re talking about here, and YOU can really control it best yourself. SteamCrow.com is my OpenCart store.

Up until now I’ve tried and given up on: OsEcommerce, ZenCart, wpEC, Shopp, PayPal cart, and a bunch of other Joomla and WordPress plugins. The trouble with the “add ecommerce to your Joomla/Wordpress is that the overhead can sometimes be way-WAY too much for a shopping site. I found that my sites were rather slow.)

Etsy

Etsy isn’t so bad, if you want to get selling really fast. My problem with them is 3-fold. 1) You can’t really define your brand other than a header banner. 2) You’ll have little traffic if you don’t promote the heck out of it. 3) You’ll likely get lost in the shuffle. Now, you’re right that #2 applies to your website anyway; however, long-tail traffic is never going to find your products on Etsy. You’ll have a better chance with people finding your products on a Google search with your own self-hosted store, IMHO.

That said, their fees aren’t too bad. Here’s my Etsy store.

Products

Buttons

We’ve moved to printing and manufacturing our own buttons. It allows us to have a much larger variety than we could afford to have printed. We bought our machine off of eBay. That said, we also have had other folks make buttons for us with good results.

PureButtons.com

We’ve used PureButtons when we didn’t feel like fulfilling a 300 button order for a local restaurant. The quality is good, though not quite as good as our own. (Attention to detail.) However, the colors were bright, the Mylar was shiny, and they did the job for less than most button places.

RockButtons.com

We’ve also used RockButtons.com. We had some trouble with one of our orders (shipping bag was ripped open and 200 buttons were missing) and RockButtons took care of us right away. They seem to be a standard for band-folk.

Other stuff

Mailers

Royal Mailers

Good bubble mailers at cheap prices. We ordered a whole bunch and got them when they said we would.

Uline

Unline seems to be the defacto standard for shipping and mailing supplies. They ship very fast to us here in Arizona, and their products are solid. Prices can be beat, but not their range of stuff.

Rubber Stamps

Impress Rubber Stamps

We use Impress Rubber Stamps on at least 5 occasions so far, for branding our mailers and boxes that we send to our customers. It’s a cheap solution, until we can afford our own custom printed bubble mailers and boxes.

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I will continue to update this as I remember more folks that we’ve used.


Daniel m. Davis is the co-owner (with his wife Dawna) of Steam Crow LLC,  a Phoenix, Arizona studio that creates characters/stories/goods with a monster imagination.

He also creates the Monster Commute, a 5 day a week monsterpunk adventure comic. He likes pie.