Colors by Audrey. Everything else is by me.
Kat apparently didn't get the memo.
Below is a rant. Short version: You don't have to play the Con Game to succeed. Original work can sell.
I saw Shotgun Shuffle’s post on his experience at MegaCon in Florida. While what most of what he had to say is true, I take issue with this section (about halfway down his post): “I think out of all 500+ Artist Alley tables, there were MAYBE 4-5 actual webcomikers. Maybe 4-5 of 500 tables. That’s telling. It’s telling that the model of strictly pitching your own original work is a failed one. Back in 2006ish at my last con, there were dozens of original artists. They’re gone now. Times are changing, and we have to change with it.”
I disagree wholeheartedly that pitching your own original work is a failed model. And I really don’t want new artists to think they have to play the Con Game (meaning, selling fan art to get noticed and then hoping to get a big enough fanbase to launch your own original work) in order to get anywhere. You don’t have to play it. It’s not even a good game to play!
But at the same time, I will not say it’s easy to go the solely-original-work route.
The difference between selling fan art and selling your original work at a convention is similar to working full-time for someone else compared to working full-time for yourself. The former has security, a reliable paycheck, no risk, boredom, drudgery and the constant wishing you could do your own stuff one day. The latter has no security, a feast-and-famine paycheck style, high risk, excitement and terror, and the complete freedom to do whatever you want.
I totally understand why people play the Con Game. It’s easier. People come to you, attracted by their favorite character. You get positive feedback. And, assuming you’re better than your (many) competitors or know how to engage people, it pays the bills.
However, you’re building a reputation on someone else’s IP. And the conversion rate from trademark characters to yours is not very high. I have talked to many artists who have tried this route. Some make it. Many don’t. And they are stuck doing those same trademarked characters year after year, never able to branch out on their own. Just like always being a hired artist for someone else instead of for yourself. People are still doing the Con Game cause it sounds like it will work but guess what, it often doesn’t! Otherwise, there would be a TON of artists doing original art in the Artist Alleys by now!¹
However, if you START with your original work, then no one is going to get upset when you stop selling their favorite character and switch to your original character.
But, you might ask, how do I get anyone to like my original character (OC from now on)?
Easy. Via a story.
People like stories. That’s why they’re buying those fan art prints and gushing over the cosplayers. Because they liked the story and the character that was in that story. If Marvel or DC created a new, original character not associated with any of their current storylines--fully dressed and (gasp) not catering to the sex-sells crowd to boot--and put up prints of that new character in their store with NO background story or anything to explain who this character was, do you think it will sell? Especially if the print of that OC was done by a no-name artist who had absolutely no following?
Eh, it might sell some since it has the Marvel/DC name behind it, but its sales are going to be abysmal in comparison with Batman or Wolverine. Why? Cause that OC has no story, no MEANING behind it.
If you’re doing OCs, then focus on the story, not the prints. That’s how you’ll make it.
For example, I sell 100% original work. Here’s my (missing-the-banner-but-basically-ready) table at this year’s Phoenix Comic Con:
Not a single fan art to be seen. Oh, I have dragons, which do get some people to stop by, but my dragons are not typical dragons (he’s a virtual one, after all). Now, notice all my posters over there on the right? Out of the 3 years of cons I’ve done so far, I have sold…(consults spreadsheet) about 50 of them. Yep, fifty. About half of them being the poster of Kleya and D walking nonchalantly. I sell the posters at about $12, so that’s $600 in 3 years. Yeah, looking at that number, you might as well as throw in the towel and start making fan art. No one can live on that.
But in those same 3 years, I have sold over 1100 books, 500 of those being NAV 1 (with still-learning art and zero pandering to the sex-sells crowd, btw). At $20 a book, that’s $22,000. Waaaay better than that measly $600. And what’s the difference? I’m selling a story, not an image.
But how do you get people to stop at your table, you might ask? Fan art is an easy way to get people to stop, but that doesn’t mean they’ll buy. The way I do it is by carnival barking (carnival barking isn’t as horrible as it sounds, btw. Saying “Hello” loudly as people walk by counts as carnival barking. You basically want people to look at you²) and then giving a compelling 30-second pitch (called an elevator pitch) of my story. Oh, and smiling. Cause a happy person is more endearing than a not-happy person.
Now, I don’t always get a buy. But you have to remember, at a comic con of 50,000+, I only need 1% to stop and listen to me. And then just half of those to buy in order for me to make a profit. That’s it! Totally doable. Yes, you'll endure a lot of rejection, but just like mining for gold, all that dirt you slugged through becomes non-existent when you find that shiny gold nugget. And the high that comes when you sell your original work to a total stranger is, I guarantee it, worth it.
So, yes, selling original work isn’t easy. It’s hard, emotionally and physically demanding (especially when you’re a one-woman show who has to move 300-600 pounds of merchandise by herself), and sometimes, during the many rejections, you wonder, “Why in the world am I doing this?!” But then I remember I want to be known for MY stories. MY characters. MY art. Not anyone else’s. And I’m getting there. I have fans who come to a con explicitly to see me (thank you!!). I have people who get excited to see I’ve returned and thank me for stopping them last year so they could discover my story. I have fans that come up and eagerly throw money down for NAV 3 without me having to catch their attention (thank you!). And just this last con (Phoenix Comic Con), I had two fans cosplay as my characters. MY characters (The Dude and Danni--so awesome!)!
THAT makes it all worth it. THAT makes the last three years of grueling work, high risk, and near-constant rejection worth it. To see people get excited over MY stories. To get giddy over MY characters and even dress up as them. And that’s what keeps me going. One day I’m going to be big. I don’t know when, but it’s definitely not going to be an ‘if’.
And I didn’t have to play the Con Game to get there.
I just want to clarify that I'm not judging or dissing those who choose to play the Con Game. I simply wanted to help and inspire artists who DON'T want to play the Con Game but feel pressured to do so.
When I began, I had many people behind the table and in front that told me I was nuts to go solely OCs. That you can't make money that way. That playing the Con Game was the only way to succeed in the world of conventions. And I know other OC/webcomic artists who get that same pressure and I felt Shotgun Shuffle's statement was adding to it. I just wanted to stand up say: "It's not true. It can be done."
¹ To be fair, a lot of artists in the Artist Alley are there mainly to attract more freelance work. Or in other words, they're there to get hired, not to sell original work.
² I tend to say "Check out my books" as people pass by and those interested in books often will stop and hear my elevator pitch³.
³ The pitch is the most crucial part for me. It's my main selling tactic. If people like the pitch, they'll look at the book. And if they prefer story over art, I'll get a sale. Yay!
Feel free to ask any questions 🙂