The latest “discussion” rolling through the online comics industry right now centers around how comic conventions have become terrible places for people to actually make money, apparently unless you’re the convention owner raking it in from all the folks who show up just to cosplay. But let’s take a look at this with a little more scrutiny, and from a webcomic creator’s perspective.
First and foremost, of course, is that not all comic conventions are created equal. Comic-Con International in San Diego is over twice the size of C2E2 in Chicago, which is a bit over twice the size of Fan Expo in Vancouver, which is probably several orders of magnitude larger than the convention at your local library. And every show, by the nature of where it’s located and who they invite as guests, is going to attract a different type of audience; for examples, Dragon Con is known for their particularly large cosplay presence, while Otakon focuses more on anime. Which means that whether or not a webcomic creator generates any sales at any given convention can be dictated, in part, by what genre their webcomic is. Not every type of webcomic is going to go over equally well (or badly) at every comic convention; even one creator with two distinctly different types of strips may find that they garner very different levels of interest, depending on what show they’re tabling at.
Another thing to consider is that tabling at a convention is business operation. Of course, creators are going to limit their expenditures due to their personal budgets, but what many seem not do is approach a convention appearance as a set of business expenses. I’m sure most people factor in the actual tabling cost, and probably travel and such. But the tablers who are treating the show as a part of their business will be doing more than just what you might expect at a garage sale. Beyond just taking money from people who walk by, tablers have to advertise and keep track of income versus outlays and establish business contacts…
The internet has in many ways democratized commerce. People know they can compare pricing from several locations instantly, and know precisely who has sold out of what. Exclusive editions are less so now, since they inevitably wind up on eBay sometimes even moments after they’re first released. Even creators themselves are selling much the same set of items on their websites as they are at conventions. So, from a business perspective, a webcomic creator needs to establish a different reason to encourage fans to attend (and buy items) at shows. And what that increasingly means (not just from webcomickers, but for everyone) is experience—a personal interaction they can only get first-hand.
What kind of experience can a webcomic creator provide a fanbase that’s largely based around sitting and reading? Direct interaction. The creator can (and should!) try to make a personal, unique connection with everyone who walks near their table, and make the experience of meeting them that balue proposition. Like I said, a reader can buy directly from the website already, so the benefit of buying at a convention is the added bonus of talking directly to the creator and getting a personalized experience along with a book or t-shirt or whatever. That experience might just be an autograph (preferably with a note referring to the specific conversation, or at least the show) but it could easily include jokes, anecdotes, photos, dance routines, and anything else that can only be conveyed in person.
The bottom line is that a creator can’t just go to a “comic” convention and expect to sell out. They’ll need to do homework first, to make sure they’re going to the right conventions, and then they’ll still have to hustle and provide a smaller version of a Vaudville show to attract potential patrons and get them to experience their comic, as well as buy it.