The Elephant in the convention room

il fullxfull.175283654 300x273 The Elephant in the convention room

little elephant from sabahnur on etsy

There have been some rumblings on the internets dismissing complaints about how low sales were at SPX this year. Sales complaints are not a minor problem — these are Troubled Economic Times, and this year, even the bigger publishers at SPX showed signs of cutting back. The show was missing more than a few of the usual faces, and statistically, at least some of them had to have been economic casualties. I love going to SPX, and I have no complaints about how it’s organized, but I’ve questioned whether it’s even feasible for SPX’s attendees to support the number of creators in attendance. So I thought I’d do some math regarding SPX tables in the interest of seeing just how the money in the room spreads around.

[If the math gets boring, skip down to the bold below.]

Paid attendance was just over 2000, up 18 percent from 2009 and 30 percent from 2008, according to PR coordinator Warren Bernard.  371 exhibitors, VIPs, press, and so on brought total attendance to 2600.PW.

Assuming the 2000 attendees buy $100 each of comics, the total of cash entering SPX is $200,000. For each $20 increment over that $100 that the group average spends, there’s an extra $40,000. So, $120 = $240,000, $140 = $280,000, etc. The tricky part is, there is absolutely no way to accurately figure out what either the total or the average is, unless next year the SPX people keep track of how much money people have in their wallets & attendees update them when they go to the ATM. So until I have a better sample of estimates, I’m going to stick with the $100 per attendee average. (And that might actually be a little high, economy & whatnot.) And before we anecdotally break down into “I spent $300 just at Fantagraphics this year!” comments, remember that for every diehard fan, there’s the friend who got dragged along, the family with kids, the student with the love but not the money for the convention it took them a significant portion of spare cash just to get to.

The show has 371 (exhibitors) / 178 (tables), which works out to 2.08 people per table…but from looking at the floor, it looked like most people had 3 or 4, which collaborates the 600 with VIPs, etc. For the purposes of clean math, we’ll assume:

–That the number of creators getting VIP badges & buying regular attendee badges matches that 600.
–The number of retailers & press are comparatively small.
–Retailers are not enough to significantly affect the totals, because even if they buy more, when they do, they get a discount for buying in bulk (and also there are just a handful of retailers there).
–Also that the number of creators at a publisher’s table matches the 3 or 4 of a regular table, and that they still have the same per person cost.

And I don’t count sales from artists buying comics, because we’re looking at the money coming in the door being enough to pay for the trip of everyone who makes it inside; plus, buying comics also increases that artist’s cost of attending.

I’ll admit this isn’t the most scientific model, but without solid numbers to work with, these are at least pretty fair and have some basis in reality. I’ve tried to have the math err on the side that turns a profit.

But here’s some actual numbers I can confirm as an exhibitor at SPX:

My costs for the show, splitting all the split-able ones with a group of 4 or 5 people, were about $325, which breaks down to:

– $75 for a half of a half-table
– $90 for hotel for three nights
– $60 for travel
– $100 for meals & drinks

As an exhibitor coming from within driving distance on the East Coast, I think it’s a base from which the cost can reasonably be estimated for a talking point about averages, but costs are higher for those flying in from further away, and those shipping books. From the price of $325, the cost of 600 people going to this show is $195,000. Even assuming 2/3 of creators leave the hotel on Sunday night, it only lowers the cost to $179,000. (Subtracting $40, for room cost & one meal.)

[THE POINT:]

Going with the scenario of $179k spent to $200k earned, we’re talking about a $21k profit that’s divided among the 600 exhibitors at $35 over the cost of doing business at SPX. For each $20 increase in the average of money spent by attendees, it spreads out to $67 more per creator.

But this isn’t how business actually happens. Some people do very well, and other people don’t even make their costs. No one expects kids showing up for their first year to make their table money back, (and we might actually try warning them about that) but I’m surprised when I hear that talented, critically acclaimed artists with long-time audiences who’ve been going to the show for ages don’t break even. If reality conforms to my admittedly not ironclad and somewhat idealistic math, the average profit earned over 14 hours of con time doesn’t even begin to compete with minimum wage, not even counting the time, effort, and cost put into making the books themselves. Yes, this is a standard observation for a comics article, but this is supposed to be one of the few rooms where the audience is seeking out the indie, artistic, and obscure. Even here, there’s not the demand to support most decent cartoonists. The attendees outnumber exhibitors by only about 3 to 1.

Clearly, few of us are making bank with at shows like this. To those that are making a living at it, it’s still an often precarious situation dependent on many variables beyond your control, and not something you can always call comfortable. The fact remains, you can win an Ignatz and not cover your expenses for the show. And, in a year where many of us are struggling to make a living at all, it becomes harder to justify the expense if you’re not getting something else out of it.

The simple math of it all is, if I didn’t love SPX, I’d have stopped going by now. The real point is to raise money for the CBLDF, not cartoonists, and the organizers do that pretty well. But the social aspect of SPX is the part to keep coming back for — it’s priceless, or at least, the rest of us have silently agreed that hanging out with our peers is valuable enough to offset our losses. The real highlight of SPX might be finally being drunk enough to hit on the shy cutie with tortoiseshell glasses after the Ignatzes.  (I can’t even count how many couples I know who met each other at the hotel bar, including myself). You go to SPX to take part in the comics love-fest. Any other reason and there’s going to be a year you stop seeing the worth in going.

Comments

  1. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Has anyone on planet earth ever extolled the virtues of small press shows as a for-profit endeavor?

    Also, I don’t think you can count food and drink 100 percent as an exhibition cost like table fees are for the fact that that you get food and drink in return for that money spent.

  2. That’s a good point, Tom. You can only write off HALF your daily allowance for business meals on your taxes, for instance. (I guess because they assume ya gotta eat, whether you’re doing business or not).

  3. The bigger elephant in the room is the same as the comics industry in general. It hasn’t expanded it’s fan base. SPX and other small press shows have the potential to sell comics to non-comics people because the produce extends beyond the narrow scope of what the general public preceives what comics are. I’m not sure what they are doing to get the “regular” people in the door. Over at SPACE we’ve been trying. I’d be interested in any ideas.

  4. Tom and James: yes but since most of the indie cartoonists I know sit at home and eat ramen and drink PBR most weekends, the costs are greater for interacting with other humans and finding a (life)mate.

  5. Okay edit then press the button:
    The bigger elephant in the room is the same as the comics industry’s in general. It hasn’t expanded its fan base. SPX and other small press shows have the potential to sell comics to non-comics people because the produce extends beyond the narrow scope of what the general public preceives as comics. I’m not sure what they are doing to get the “regular” people in the door. Over at SPACE we’ve been trying. I’d be interested in any ideas.

  6. I gave up the hope a long time ago of making money at either MoCCA or SPX – but what keeps on bringing me back are my friends, the comics and the after-party scene.

    What I do worry about, however, is the climbing cost to buy tables at these two shows. I don’t think MoCCA or SPX raised their prices for this year’s shows, but they both had in previous years.

  7. I came across this, this past weekend. PIX (The Pittsburgh Indy Comics Expo 2010) is being held the weekend of October 16 & 17. PIX, (http://www.pixcomics.org/) I believe that’s the same weekend of APE.

    I checked out the details of this first time show, and according to the site it looks as if it’s being held at the type of building that MOCCA used to be held in. Also, the table costs are very cheap and there’s no admission cost.

    Expense-wise, this sounds ideal for a small press creator to sell their work, though I wonder:
    • Is there a large enough Small Press Fan Base in the area to come to the show, even though it’s free to get in.
    • Can a first time show, with little advertising, grab any attention?

  8. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I understand that the costs are greater for eating out on the road, I’m not completely insane, but you also get a greater reward and a more direct one than other categories — not just the indirect one of being in proximity to good times. You get a plate of food that wasn’t boiled. You get beer that doesn’t come with a roll of toilet paper with every 12-pack. It’s not a 100 percent cost.

    True story. I used a mover once in Millersville Pennsylvania and paid them in cash, which the three guys immediately went and spent at Funk’s Farmers Market on pies. This cracked me up, especially when they said they always did that when they moved people around there. But it wasn’t like you could say that was a cost of moving people in that neighborhood. They got pies!

    Personally, I think the $100 average figure is way too high, and that the general point is solid, but then again, I’m still looking anyone who ever seriously suggested for half a second exhibiting at small press shows was a solid money-making venture. It’s not an elephant in the room if everyone walks by and says, “Hi, elephant.”

  9. Shannon OLeary says:

    Bob, one way to expand the comics audience beyond creators and hardcore fans is to consider not charging an entry fee. That worked well at Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest last year and the organizers are doing it again this year.

    If you’re trying to grow an audience, it’s not the best strategy to expect them to pay to get into a trade show where, once inside, they have to continue to pay for things they’re not even sure they’re going to like.

  10. Jim Higgins says:

    To Bob’s comments: If the attendance was up 18% from 2009, that’s a pretty substantial increase. Plus, we have no idea at this point how to identify who are new comics readers and who’re not. I teach six comics writing and drawing classes out here in LA, some at art colleges and some at Meltdown Comics in Hollywood, and have been doing so for about two years. About 20% of my students have only started reading comics in the last two or three years (I ask each group during the first class). How much my individual experience might matter is up for debate.

    I know that Reed gave many caveats about this not being scientific and that many of the numbers are his guesses. While this article in general has a good premise and discusses really important ideas, the fact that there are something like 11 or 12 different factors and 6 or 7 of them are based entirely on guesses makes this whole exercise, to me, not worth all that much. It’s one thing to have a good idea, but why not do some journalistic research by trying to ask or survey people who had tables? Writing a whole piece that ultimately winds up being one person’s guess vs. another doesn’t seem to be worth it, and even winds up spreading disinformation or myths. Maybe people involved in SPX can incorporate surveys and information gathering into the convention next year.

    This is part of a larger problem in the comics business and comics community. People don’t collect data or real numbers. Even Marvel and DC don’t or *very* rarely do market research. You’ll hear a person at one of the big companies give a percentage of something like how many mainstream readers are female (or usually what they mean is non-manga readers, but that’s another discussion), and then find out the number is just a guess. Can’t someone get numbers and try and do some real analysis? We really need it!

    This is also part of an even larger problem. The comics community still doesn’t do some very basic things necessary to be in business, things that other industries do routinely. Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc rarely advertise outside of the comics community (though I’m curious if DC is changing this in light of the new graphic novels coming out Like Sarah Glidden’s book and Vertigo Crime). Has anyone invloved in SPX or Mocca or one of the other indie fests hired a PR firm? I think there’s an immediate assumption that something like that would cost too much money. But if the PR people do their job and increase attendance, it would likely pay for itself. In any case, it’s something that should be done.

    I was at DC when they hired Peggy Burns to do PR. Peggy was bombarded with praise in the first five or six months she was there (deservedly so) because she got so many stories placed and attention to the company. I remember her being a little taken back — she was surprised because she felt like she was just doing what she’d done in other jobs. She wasn’t being self-effacing (well, she was a bit), just surprised that people were so impressed that she got DC ANY attention. That was ten years ago and not enough has changed.

    I’m sorry I’ve wound up in part targeting Reed here so specifically. What I’d hope is that people look at the article and say, “Good idea — let’s try this again after gathering some solid data and information.”

    One last bit — one way to deal with the fact that we’re talking about small presses and individual creators who are not necessarily lighting their cigars with %100 bills, might be to form a small press organization to do PR and advertising, with the costs spread out among it members. Or to put it more simply: “Got Comics?”

  11. Tom, $100 was based around a few days of eating 3 meals @ $10 each, tips where appropriate, coffee from the Starbucks in the hotel both tabling days, and some drinks “from the bar,” which you can also substitute as “snuck in from the closest liquor store.” It can of course be done much more cheaply, but it can also be way more expensive if you say, go on a bender, or fly to the show.

    I am totally not shocked by what I found, but the internet not usually being a place for common sense, I posted it. Never in my life have I thought that comics are a solid money maker. My main concern was just figuring out the size of that economy, which, along with the rest of the market, is just too small. (Just like Bob is saying.)

  12. Jim: First, just for the record, SHE.

    Second, in trying to pull numbers together, I based everything on what little data I had available to me, and I did talk to other creators who were willing to talk about their experiences openly with me. My even less scientific research of asking twitter how much people thought the average attendee spent revealed that most people thought people were averaging way less that $100. But even just going by ratio of attendees to industry folk, 3 to 1 is TERRIBLE.

    I would love to do an actual survey for next year about what exhibitors expenses are more accurately like, and also what attendees plan to spend. Anyone who would like to comment here about either of these expenses, your data is appreciated!

    Third, I will totally join your PR group. There’s a desperate need for it, which is more the point of writing this.

  13. Did anybody check out the elephant’s minis? Were they any good?

    This is anecdotal, but I did the first five or six SPX’s and we made coin back then, sometimes good coin. But most of the folks doing the early SPX’s were established to some degree, and to a larger degree, like Jeff Smith, Dave Sim, David Mazzucchelli, Shannon Wheeler, David Lapham, Batton Lash, Marc Hempel, et al, and the full-on self-publishing era still had some traction.

    I stopped going because the folks who were buying books grew up some and started buying their own tables to sell their own comics and stopped buying stuff from anyone else. ANd after a few years, you’re old news and nobody cares as much that you’re there. Then people like Bob Schreck stopped going and the beer can-filled tub parties ended, and my friends stopped going, or moved away from the area. It’s the way things work at small press shows, I find. Old guard fades, a new, younger group starts going, takes up the slack, and turn, turn, turn, there is a season, etc. Oldsters start having kids and different careers, or can’t afford less returns on their money when in their 30’s and 40’s or older. Of course, the great and indefatigable Roger Langridge defies all this conjecture.

    SPX was never about getting rich, it started in one room worth about 12 or so creators, it was about getting together with like-minded people, away from the madding crowds of the big impersonal longbox shows. The shops that serviced the Bethesda area carried our books, so it wasn’t completely foreign territory. That’s why it was “the gathering of the tribes” show, as whoever the hell put it. We hung out and watched Diamond employees and Shirtless Dean Haspiel try to play softball.

    The economy was bad and good during some of those shows, but whatever the case, I’ve found one thing as a tweener in this field – small press fans at shows by and large have a hell of a lot less money that the folks at mainstream/big circus shows. They buy less art. On the other hand, bless them, they rarely ever bitch about prices, they tend to value what they’re looking at and understand why things are what they are. The mainstream folks, again, a generalization, are the ones who sniff and look at you popeyed for thinking your stuff’s worth anything.

    I don’t think I answered any questions here, just ruminating. Anyway, small press shows – the bigger publishers do well. The rest do the best they can, trading more than selling sometimes. I stopped doing SPX and MOCCA because the numbers stopped working and I stopped having fun and started feeling left out as the new folks came in. But I’m 45 with a family and I don’t need to feel like I’m on top of everything anymore, I’d rather stay home and get some pages done. If it works for others for whatever reason and you’re not cutting your throat financially just to feel part of the fun, do what you like, I say. But sometimes I really do think a cartoonist is better off with a few more pages than a show that’s not getting their work out there. Then again, what’s the price point on a lifelong friend, perhaps even a partner, or connections that can lead to interesting projects. Maybe even a few bucks. It happens.

    I withdraw everything. Vaya con Dio.

    Also not of any help. I’m just typing.

  14. Tom Spurgeon says:

    MK, I wasn’t objecting to the dollar amount, but that the dollar amount was being treated as a 100 percent expense incurred by the show. If you spend $6 on a coffee, you also get to drink the coffee. That has to count for something.

  15. This was the first year since 2004 that I didn’t make a tidy profit from SPX. We also didn’t have a new book, but instead were promoting our new Comixology title.

    I wasn’t expecting to make back much of anything, but surprisingly we did pretty well. All said and done we made the two tables, truck and one of Team 12’s two rooms over the weekend. That doesn’t even include sketches and things we just pocketed the money for.

    So, for the cost of one room and a few meals the five of us got out of New York for the weekend, saw some great friends, saw some great comics, went to several awesome parties, talked to “fans” and spread the word about our new digital venture. Money well spent, every penny.

    I’m sorry if other folks didn’t feel it’s worth it, that’s a shame. I think I’d go and have just as much fun if I didn’t make a dime. SPX has almost a industry trade show or college reunion sorta feel to it as opposed to a comic book convention. I venture to Rockville to see old friends and new comics almost as much as I go to hock my books. It is, by leaps and bounds, my favorite show of the year. Blows the doors off MoCCA on a regular basis.

  16. Jim Higgins says:

    MK — thought I did a good job of leaving the gender pronoun out since I wasn’t sure, but I goofed. Sorry.

    To speak more to your point, I’ve actually had these exact thoughts, especially when I notice cartoonist friends who seem to go to so many indie shows, and I think — that’s a lot of airfare! And your estimates were mainly for people not flying!

    I don’t have the head for putting together a PR group but there are a lot of great people in the indie comics community who do a lot of writing, administrating, or general supporting of the business who would probably do a terrific job. CBLDF is a great, successful example of a collective organization that does a lot by marshaling the forces of so many of us who care.

    I did some searching for your credits. Good luck on Americus, it’s certainly an interesting (and really relevant) topic.

  17. Shannon,
    I have thought about not charging but then I felt the people who drop in don’t have a vested interest in the show. My experience has been that if something is free peoplethink there something wrong with it. I came to the conclusion of charging very little, offering some great pre-sale deals and giving out a lot of comps. It has slowly increased attendence over the years and brings in an interested crowd.

  18. Tom- I see your point, but I think it’s kind of moot. I also get rest from the cost of the hotel, you know? The money isn’t totally vanishing into the air without any returned value, true, but it’s part of the budget for attending.

    Jim- (happens all the time, part of the gender neutral pen name.) I think we’re starting to get it together, but this needs to become an organized effort. Read Comic In Public day was a good first step, but let’s start doing that every day. I’d love to start seeing folks sell minis in Union Square when the farmer’s market opens- stuff like THAT would start to make comics more public, and you can do that for free.
    (And thanks on Americus!)

  19. As a webcomic creator who is still early in his game (but old enough to no longer need to find a mate at one of these things or really be able to even last at any of the parties) I’m wrestling with the question of how many of these unprofitable conventions I can really afford to do in order to get my name out there. Mocca, SPX, Fluke, APE, Fanaticon, HeroesCon. Tough to choose and the costs really add up prohibitively.

    Yes, there is huge value in meeting the right people, meeting fans of your work, etc. But the way I’m thinking these days is it might not make sense to even start incurring the costs of getting comics printed and doing conventions until you first prove yourself and your ability to find an audience by doing a successful webcomic.

  20. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I was going to respond, but after eating a Subway 6″ Meatball Sandwich (still the best; forget the rest) while reading the previous comments I’ve decided it’s no longer a break-even option for me to post here.

  21. Lazy bastard. You should get the 12″, save the other half for your next meal. Use the savings to post a few words.

    Why do you hate comics?

  22. Here’s my current idea to improve small press readership and convention attendence: Creators do comics that might appeal to a particular audience who are non-comic fans. Let the event organizers know about it early enough so they can market to the nitch audience. We had some success with our exhibit of Matt Dembicki’s “Trickster” this year and with Carol Tyler’s “You’ll Never Know” in ’09. We could have done more. There were also a few books I recieved at SPACE this year that I might have been able to get media attention for if I knew about them.

  23. Or… why doesn’t SPX choose a theme for each year? Cartoonists can create a mini to tie-in with the show. If successful, then there could be an anthology collection published the next year. At least, there’s something new for people to look at, at SPX, and possibly purchase. There could even be a special Ignatz jury prize for best theme comic. (And us old godgers can refer to each show by the theme as we reminisce at the bar con.)

  24. I find this very interesting. The other day on another blog, I think I remember Frank Santoro saying something like “the average creator sells 20 comic books” or something like that. And at the con, C. Spike Trotman mentioned that she sold at least 100 trade paperbacks. That’s a significant difference.

    I would love to get some more scientific-ish data and really hear some numbers. What about going through the SPX exhibitor list and contacting folks to find out how they did (with an anonymity option of course).

    I would be happy to take on a number of folks and contribute to such a project.

    Is there any interest in this?

    Jonathan

  25. 100 is pretty incredible, I’d guess very few folks move that number. The best Ho12’s ever done was 60 of one title and 20 of various others, so 80 units at one show, this year we moved just shy of 60.

  26. Spike’s also hugely popular. Her 100 graphic novels sold balance out the three that are moved by a lesser known cartoonist. The average isn’t disturbed by this, it’s balanced by it.

  27. @Richard, regarding PIX: You’ve got to start somewhere! PIX has the right idea with the free admission (gets curious people, i.e. more than just hardcore fans, in the door) and a cheap registration.

    Pittsburgh is small, but it’s also lively, positive, and supportive. Who knows how good attendance will be, but knowing Pittsburgh, it will be the start of something good.

    (Note: I am biased. I helped start the Small Press Festival in Pittsburgh in 2009, which had pretty mediocre attendance. It’s just hard to get press, attention, and attendance when you aren’t a known quantity. This year we held it again and saw a big increase in press coverage and attendance, with still more room to grow. I guess what I’m saying is: it couldn’t hurt to get in on the ground floor of a cool thing in a cool city.)

  28. Bob ::
    At the Minneapolis Indie Expo, we’ve been tapping our local arts and literary communities. They are, to me, the most likely to become future fans of comics. Also trying to get more college students in the door.

    A lot of creative people get burned out by academia or the literary and gallery scenes and feel more freedom and warmth coming from the comics community. For us it’s been an easy sell and we hope to expand our relationship with these communities in the future.

    Also, how about selling tickets at the door — but also seeding your city with free passes. Like a film would for a free screening before opening weekend to generate buzz. Just make up a limited batch of freebie passes and hand them out on campuses or in coffee shops or something. You’ll still get some money from hard-core attendees, and you might get a few newbies because — although, like you say, people tend to discount what is free — people do get SUPER PSYCHED about free shit. It makes them feel unique and rewarded, like they won a prize. And if they come to love comics at your show, that certainly benefits everyone involved, yes? Worth the risk of losing some ticket sales just to try it, I’d say.

  29. Bob:

    I think you’re spot on that we need to expand our audience. We’ve been trying to do this with Trees & Hills, partly by attending shows that aren’t comics-specific: zine fairs, craft fairs, local festivals, etc.

    I think the free admission / low registration fee model is the way to go (I realize juggling the costs of putting on a con is probably tricky enough already) – these are the types of shows that have been best for us, and I think even a small admission fee will keep out some casual attendees & walk-ins. And while those people may not be as invested, “people who aren’t invested” are the potential audience we’re trying to expand to (and they’re just as prone to impulse buys as anyone). Maybe I’m just cheap, but I don’t think the phenomenon of not valuing free things applies so much to convention admission, since as Shannon pointed out we’re charging them to get in to a place where we’re trying to sell them things. I heard recently about a convention (I forget which) that charged like $3 admission, but it came with a $3 voucher good at any table in the show, which I thought was clever.

    I also think finding a location with good potential for walk-in / casual traffic is extremely useful, though I realize this can be difficult.

    I think your idea about appealing to specific non-comics audiences is really smart – people who won’t be drawn in by comics in general may be interested in the subject matter. This is an angle we’ve been working with as artists/punlishers, though we too could do a lot more with it.

    It might be worth trying out events at the con with an eye to non-comics fans – panel discussions with the above-mentioned specific appeal, short workshops, audience-participation jams, etc.

  30. “I heard recently about a convention (I forget which) that charged like $3 admission, but it came with a $3 voucher good at any table in the show, which I thought was clever.”

    I like this idea a lot. It’s *like* free admission, encourages the non-invested to try something out (even the overly shy like to get free stuff) and sends a few bucks directly to the exhibitors.

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