10 Things I Learned at the 2009 Small Press Expo

This weekend, I attended my first Small Press Expo, which is (according to its website) North America’s Premiere Independent Cartooning and Comic Book Arts Festival.  My friends Rachel and Josh went last year and they loved it, and since Baltimore is only an hour away from the event’s Bethesda ballroom, I joined them on this year’s trip down from Pittsburgh.

Being surrounded by hundreds of comic book creators, cartoonists, illustrators, publishers, writers, critics and fans was truly exhilarating, and not just because I’m a longtime comics fan who appreciates the indie scene.  A roomful of inspiration, creativity and self-actualization is naturally infectious, and meeting other creative people always makes me want to create something myself.  Thus, I end up leaving these types of events with a million new thoughts swirling in my head (and, in this case, a mini-comic about mermaid love gone wrong).

Some things I noticed, which may be applicable to your event / business / frame of mind:

People respect you when you do it yourself. Regardless of how talented you are, people admire anyone with the pluck to try something on their own, much less anyone who can earn a living on their own terms.  “Being an artist” is a universally romantic yet seldom-realized dream, so an event like this gives everyone who attends a chance to support those people who are brave (or delusional) enough to make their own rules.  (That said, it does help if you’re actually talented; people are far more inclined to support someone whom they personally think deserves to “make it.”)

Making money is allowed.  (Encouraged, even.) Unlike other web content creators who seem reluctant or unable to charge for their work, the vendors at SPX are unashamed to charge for their creations — and the attendees are unoffended.  Since everyone involved is either self-published or allied with a small press, all purchases help support people who make art for a living.  Nearly everyone I saw had purchased something, and lots of people were sitting happily on the floor outside the main exhibition hall, reading through their fresh stacks of brand new comics.

If there’s something for everyone, everyone leaves happy. No matter your tastes, this event had a book for you.  Vendors were selling comics about super heroes, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, relationships, biography, parody, ninjas, animals, kids, horror, history, surfing, pornography and pin-up girls — and everything in-between.  If you couldn’t find something worth your time at SPX, you weren’t paying attention.  (How many events can you honestly say that about?)

Develop a coverage strategy when attending large events. Since this was my first time to SPX (and since I was conveniently broke and therefore unable to indulge my appetite for reading material), I was content to wander the floor and observe.  Rachel made two passes through the room — once to reconnoiter without buying anything, and then a second swoop to make her actual purchases.  And Josh beelined directly for the books he already knew he wanted in advance, making all his major purchases in the first half hour and then returning to explore the $5-and-under offerings.  Having pre-set expectations helped each of us find what we wanted, and we all left happy.*

There’s only so much time to talk. Josh zipped through the event without engaging anyone he didn’t want to talk to, stopping only at the tables of the artists whose work he already admired or whose work kept his attention for longer than a moment.  On the other hand, Rachel and I moseyed from table to table, inevitably getting embroiled in conversations with the artists about their work, their lives and their print quality.  If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to get trapped in endless conversations, be spatially aware of when a vendor has no one else nearby to speak to and nothing else physically to do — those are the times you’re most likely to get waylaid.

Longevity trumps talent. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you keep doing something long enough, even if you’re an average talent, you’ll eventually be respected as a veteran.  You can’t help but acquire knowledge over the years, and that wisdom — coupled with your obvious hard-nosed grit — will earn you generations of fans who admire you simply for fighting the good fight.  (Again, it helps to actually be talented, but it helps even more to get out of bed every morning and do whatever it takes to keep going.  Talent is singular, but tenacity is something we all like to believe we can achieve; when you do, you become inspirational.)

Different price points provide fans with different opportunities to support you. Dedicated fans are happy to pay $20 or more for your work.  People who’ve never heard of you (but like what they see) would prefer to pay less.  And products under $5 let people take a chance on your work without incurring much risk, or to support you fiscally even if they’re not your biggest fans artistically.

Be personable. I realize that people who create comics for a living are trained to express themselves non-verbally, but events like this are a showcase of talent and personality.  As interested as I am in your work, I’d rather talk to you for thirty seconds than watch you ink a page of your next issue.  I can always buy that issue later; I can’t talk to you again until next year.  (I know, I know: “There’s a thing called the Internet.”  But it’s not the same.)

Give me a reminder. People moving through an event like this are going to see a lot of media all at once.  They’ll be overwhelmed.  Provide them with a freebie so they can find you online later and learn more about your work at a time when they’re less informationally challenged.

We need more events like this. Not just for comics, but for all fields, artistic and beyond.  The communal energy of SPX is reminiscent of the kinetic energy at the first PodCamp, which started out as a meet-up for people who make web media.  The opportunity for like-minded individuals to meet in a common space and share their expertise with peers is rare, but the benefits — both professionally and intellectually — are worth the effort.

*  Admittedly, I didn’t have nearly enough expendable cash for an artistic smorgasbord like this.  Judging by the line waiting to access the ATM, neither did a lot of other people.  I should start a trust fund for next year.

  • Beth Dunn

    Aw man did you meet Kate Beaton?? So freaking jealous. :) wish I could have gone. I’m a big webcomics fan, and I would have been giddy with joy. Glad you had a good time, and love that you took the time to share your reflections.

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  • http://www.justinkownacki.com Justin

    Beth: Sorry to say, I did not meet Kate Beaton. However, having now Googled her work, I can say I wish I had. Next year…

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  • http://www.hellowithcheese.com Darren J. Gendron

    It feels a little corny, but if I ever catch myself getting down from boredom or a spat of no traffic or being trapped indoors, I make sure I refocus, think happy thoughts and smile it up.
    Yeah, real corny.
    But it works, too. And even if I’m at first faking the happy, the real happy just kind of takes over.

  • http://hallicious.com Chris Hall

    I’m loving the tenacity reminder, Justin. Just showing up works at work too. When people say no, I just keep showing up until they bend to my, illegal in four states, iron will. :)

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  • http://www.magpieluck.com Katie

    I second your first point one million times! As a first time con-exhibitor, I didn’t get my hopes up too much. I’d heard all the stories of people without pre-existing fanbases losing a ton of money on their first show.

    But I was apparently well prepared for the SPX crowd (which I was trying for). I was selling handbound sketchbooks with original art on the covers. I didn’t sell a ton, but more than expected. Plus, they most definitely brought eyes to the table and I have a feeling if I make a regular presence at the con (which I plan to), I will sell even more next year!