ARTIST ALLEY 101
Hi there deviantart guinea pigs! 8D I'm preparing an outline for a panel at A-kon! I have vast experience attending conventions and displaying my work. What I've written here are my total thoughts on how to do your first artist alley. It has not been made into an outline yet. What I'm needing is feedback, questions, and conversations about this information so I can decide what I might add or take away from this discussion before creating a final outline and hand out! Please help me! I'd really appreciate any comments you feel ready to leave! I am not really a comfortable public speaker, I only feel capable once I have prepared material extensively for the occasion.
Why to do an artist alley:
AA can turn a nice profit for a lot of people, but more often than not, First Con Ever is a learning experience more than a bountiful retail extravaganza. But before you shy away from losing money, consider that you'll probably pay more for a single college class and you'll probably learn just as much about art as a business and have a lot more fun doing an AA. Ultimately, an artist decides to do their first AA with the intent of learning a lot so that their SECOND AA will be better.
The professional side of WHEN to do an AA:
Most cons require you to be 16. Check the con's rules. If you're over the age limit, a good time is always now. Start by observing artists at AA tables. Consider how they display their work. Ask them before you photograph their display. You need to also consider the finances involved. Pick a local show for your first learning experience. Count on at least 100$ for the table, 100$ for printing and display material, and another 100$ for random unforeseen expenditures. You will hopefully make some of this back, but this needs to be 300$ you can live without incase everything imaginable goes horribly wrong (and it may not even be your fault. The shit. It happens.)
The personal side of WHEN to do an AA:
Are you good enough? Can you emotionally handle it? Artists are the biggest pile of self doubters the professional world has ever seen! It is because our work is more intimately associated with our hearts than, say, flipping burger might be. These questions are difficult to answer and may not be answered until you're in the middle of the experience. The best way to prepare yourself is to establish beforehand how you will react if everything ever is a complete failure. Having a sucky first AA is never a reason to quit drawing or to quit striving for a dream. Before entering into the challenge, confirm with yourself that your first AA is unlikely to be the beginning or end of anything. It is a middle rung in the latter.
Where to do an AA:
A local show is always best to start out with. Something you can drive to. If you absolutely must fly, A-kon and Otakon are each huge, very well attended anime themed shows that are most likely to merit a plane ticket. Before signing up for a con, it is always good to visit the convention's forums so that you may read advice from veterans on how sign ups usually go. Some AA sign ups are incredibly fast paced and you will need to be punctual and organized beforehand.
HOW to do an AA: What to sell, which designs to sell, how to display it, how to sell it!
What to sell:
Items with varied prices and functions. 1$ buttons can prompt impulse buys, 10$ prints can pay for your entire convention. Having items with differing functions is a good idea, too. Buttons, prints, key chains, charms, postcards, stickers, shirts, and books are just a couple ideas. When starting out, you need to consider items that will give you the best unit cost without you having to order a giant inventory of things. Ordering large quantities will get you a better unit cost for a better long term profit, but in the short term, if you're only doing one convention a year, a large order might not be necessary. Especially if you're doing your first AA and you have no idea what's going to sell. Posters in varying sizes and buttons are good first time con items.
Which designs to sell:
Deviantart popularity can be a good indicator of how well a design may sell ... but it can also be misleading. Consider what prompts a person to fav an image on deviantart vs. what prompts a person to make a purchase. A purchase is based on quality and longevity where as a fav is frequently based on the immediate gratification a lolcat gif may provide. A funny cartoony image might make a very good button, but it may sell less a poster which is meant to be a wall decoration. Pick a mixture of things, then! At your first AA, it is most important to experiment. Don't be afraid to print a few copies of a poster you personally like but think may not sell. They can always be good display items.
The Fanart Debate:
Currently a major point of contention is whether an artist should be allowed to sell fanart or not. Fanart is defined here as a composition and drawing of one's own making, not a trace of an existing image. It has to do with copyright laws, which protect things like character likenesses and licensed art, while leaving the realm of "parody" and "free use" open for exploration. The question is what constitutes as parody or free use? The answer is one that so far, most conventions leave up to the artist to decide based on individual morality. The best way to decide your feelings on the matter is to ask yourself if you would let a fan of your work sell a drawing they did of your character.
*** Please note that copyrights and trademarks are completely separate pieces of law. A character can have a copyright on it, but a logo is trademarked. If you draw fanart, you must not put the official logo on your fanart. Copyright laws are designed to encourage creativity. Trademark laws are designed to give absolute power when a case ends up in a court.
Whether to Sell Fanart?:
A good rule to follow might be the half n' half rule. Your works should be roughly half fanart, half your own intellectual property. Fanart does sell very well, and especially when starting out, the extra money can make all the difference in breaking even. But don't forget about your own brainchildren. It is more frequently your own original ideas with which you will be identified. Build your own brand, don't build someone else's. In the here and now, fanart can help you if you want to sell it. But in the long term, your own characters and stories will be what make you memorable.
How to display work:
There is no substitute for going to an artist alley and looking at the multitudes of displays. But here are some basics that every good AA display should have:
- 1. A tablecloth in whatever color makes you happy. Sometimes AA tables don't come with table cloths and you end up with a naked, beat up table that can give you splinters!
- 2. A binder of prints. 11x17 is the standard, 8.5 x11 binders are also common. It allows for a viewer to easily access your designs while not touching or damaging the posters inside. Some people have begun to use ipads as print binders, and that can help, but it is usually best to allow a possible buyer to get up close and personal with the real item they might actually buy.
- 3. Some kind of display that rises off the table so that you may display a few prints vertically in the line of site of viewers. This can be as simple has putting your favorite print in a mat and propping it up against a box (please wrap the box in a 2nd tablecloth, it will look nicer) or as many artists do, they create pvc pipe frames over their tables from which they tape prints. Wire storage cubicles are also used in place of pvc.
(picture of box. picture of pvc. picture of wire cubicle.)
- 4. It is ok to have some items loose around your table! Especially durable items like buttons, bookmarks, or postcards. Having a button bowl or pile can encourage people to rummage through and make a discovery. Not having a perfectly neat table can let people know its ok to handle the items. When a person picks up a thing, they are more likely to consider it theirs, which makes them more likely to buy.
How to sell work:
If you have ever worked in retail, you might have learned how to greet possible customers. AA is not dissimilar from that. As artists, we are frequently shy and lacking social skills from so many hours spent hidden in a dark cave drawing things. But being in the AA is going to challenge this and pull out the conversational human you didn't know you could be. You don't have to talk to EVERYONE. Wait for them to slow and register what they're looking at on your table. Then you might say hello and ask them how they're enjoying the con so far? Don't be TOO shy to admit you're feeling shy and this is your first attempt at displaying your work. There is a genuine human connection there. It is good to give a person a few sentences of talk and time to look around or to walk away before you offer up a sales pitch. Follow their eyes and listen to what they say so you can figure out what part of your work they're interested in, and then go from there. If they're looking at your pikachu print, tell them the cost of the print and then tell them why you drew pikachu. They'll need to know the cost if they're considering buying it. They'll need extra conversation from you so they can keep thinking while not feeling pressured. Some artists take commissions, which can hinder conversation, but they can effectively distract you and take the pressure off would be buyers while they look around comfortably and make their decisions. When a person is ready to walk away without buying something or maybe they say they'll come back later, you can offer them a business card to look you up online or to remember you by incase they decide to return. You should avoid offering up the free item before they're ready to leave as it frequently feels like a sale and is a queue for a possible buyer to now leave the table, transaction done.
How to PRICE things:
The three most important aspects of pricing are firstly having prices that are easy to make change for, secondly having a wide variety of items at different prices, and thirdly having prices that can build on each other.
-1. Round numbers are a good thing. 1s, 5s, 10s, and 20s prices are easy to make change for. If you price an item at 6 dollars, you will run out of ones much to fast and run out of sanity counting out the ones because most everyone will pay with 10s or 20s for a 6$ item, so every transation will involve you giving 4 ones.
-2. You want a variety of items at different price points. 1$ buttons prompt impulse buys, 3$ postcards are impulsive, but a bigger commitment for a bigger, better item. 15$ 11x17s are for the people who love the work too much to get the small thing.
-3. Your prices need to build on each other so that you can offer good deals for multiple item purchases. A postcard is 3$, but TWO postcards are 5$. A poster is 15$, but TWO posters are 20$! A buyer could even pair up with their friend and split the cost. 4 out of 5 people will take the upsell because they had a hard time deciding which item they wanted, anyway.
-4. This is optional, but having one or two items around at a higher price point can be a good thing. The large, 50$ 20x30 poster in a mat, for instance. The big, beautiful display item usually serves to sell its smaller counterparts, but those one or two giant purchases can make a huge difference for your profit margin. Don't be afraid to have at least one Big N' Shiny at your table.
How is your customer going to take that print home?
The more a customer pays for an item, the more important it is to them to take that item home in mint condition. So don't worry too much about having a bag for every button. They're just going to rip the button out of the bag and pin it on their shirt. A durable item like a postcard can probably make due with an average business sized envelope. But the 11x17 and larger prints would benefit very much when you tell your customer "the 11x17 prints are 15$ or 20 for 20$, and I even have an archival bag for you to take it home in." This is especially pertinent information when doing an artist alley during winter or in a city prone to bad weather. Also consider the free advertising you gain by putting posters in clear bags. That buyer is going to be your personal walking billboard. If clear bags are hard to come by, Staples, Office Max, Office Depot, and other stores offering printing are usually willing to give you more than one paper bag with your purchase. Or you can offer to pay for extra bags with your printing. Paper bags make excellent Bags of Desperation, when necessary.
What about sales tax?
In the US, each state has separate departments for issueing temporary sales permits. Remember, your sales tax goes to the state in which the sale is made, not the federal government. You should refer to the convention's artist ally FAQ to see if the convention you're exhibiting at requires a tax permit. If the show does require a temporary permit, the show will usually provide extra information about how to get the permit. Usually the process is pretty simple. If reporting your sales tax is necessary, it is easier to take that tax out of your gross sales total at the end of the con than calculate individual sales tax during each transaction. Maybe that means you make 9% less per sale, but time is money, and you could be missing out on new sales if you're preoccupied with typing in tax decimal points on your calculator.
Are commissions important?
At your first artist alley, you should experiment! If you find all your time is consumed with talking to possible customers, don't take commissions. If the convention is slow and there aren't many buyers, absolutely offer commissions! They are a service in high demand, for sure, but they are also an extremely time consuming service to render. Here are some pros and cons associated with commissions:
Pros: They don't cost you much of anything to produce. They can challenge you as an artist.
Cons: If you're so consumed with commissions, you might miss out on the conversations that will prompt purchases of your prepared merchandise.
Whatever you do, don't take so many commissions that you can't sleep at night. Some freshness the next morning is necessary if you don't want to scare people away with your panda eyes.
check list of stuff you wouldn't think about:
besides all your merch and display materials, there are other things you probably won't think to bring! But you'll find yourself wishing intensely for them halfway through the con. If you're driving, pack extra food and water, you're about to be trapped behind a table for possibly more than 12 hours strait. Packaging tape AND skotch tape AND artist tape, you just never know. A sweater, even if it's hot outside the air conditioning inside might be its own weather pattern. A swiss army knife if you have one, scissors, blades, bottle openers and tweazers all in one place can be handy (put it in your CHECKED luggage if flying.) Wet wipes to sanitize your hands or clean your print binder after a child with candy fingers has pawed all over it.
Consider also the con you might be attending, always read the con's rules carefully! Most cons have different rules! Some have bans on stickers, some ban fanart, some categorize you by what type of merchendise you specialize in and if you're selling prints, you can't sell 3D items like buttons or shirts. Just read the rules carefully and ask questions in the con's forum if you need to. Also consider the theme of a convention. If the theme is My Little Pony, your recent fanart of Deadpool may not sell so well. Anime cons, fantasy cons, and American cons can all be similar, sometimes its good to be the artist selling the slightly different variety of art and sometimes its a death mark, but from con to con it's almost impossible to say until you've been there and done that. The best thing to do is to find other artists who are selling work that targets the audience your work also targets. Follow what those artists say about shows. Attend the conventions they are repeat visitors to.
Some printing resources:
It can be worth it to order online from printers that are far away. Some items can easily be accomplished locally, like posters and stickers from places like Office Max, Staples, Office Depot, or Fedex Office. But for specialty items, paying shipping might save you money and get you a better product from a specialized printer.
Online Art and Frame Supplies: Jerry's Artarama, Daniel Smith
Printed books (short run digital printed): Kablam
8x10 + 11x17 prints: Printkeg (sometimes bad print quality, but customer service has always replaced bad prints,) Cat Print, Fedex Office, Office Max, Costco, Jakprints (email for specialized quote)
screen printed shirts: jakprints, brunetto's
postcards, bookmarks, business cards: Overnightprints (warning: slow production, allow at least a month, but good quality,) Gotprint
vinyl stickers: standoutstickers (expensive, but all stickers are gloss laminated), stickeryou (no minimum order), jakprints (Holy Crazy Sticker Papers Batman)
Paper stickers: Office Max, Staples, and Fedex Office all carry sticker paper for printers.
pin back buttons: purebuttons
canvas prints: Costco
20x30 or larger posters: El Co Color (GET THE FUJI METALLIC PAPER. I'M SERIOUS.)
clear bags for posters: Unique Packing's Ebay Store, Clearbags, Jerry's Artarama
business envelopes for postcards: just about anywhere, but Costco has some good prices on bulk
pvc pipe for your display: Home Depot. They have many sizes of pvc and many sizes of utility clamps. A common choice are irwin quick grip clamps + 1/2 inch diameter gray pvc with threaded ends.
grid walls for display: hold up, I need to ask some people where they buy these, I've never used them.
Many of these suppliers offer an email subscription. Do it. There are coupons.
I really hope this pile of information is helpful to you! Please please please leave comments if you have complements or criticisms! It would help me very much in creating a panel for the good attendees of A-kon ~