How to Sell Your Work at a Convention
by Nolan Nasser
Selling my artwork at comic and gaming conventions has had a huge impact on shaping my path to becoming an independent artist. I’m writing this today as a way to say thanks to the artists who have influenced me and to pay it forward to new artists breaking into the world of sci-fi/fantasy/comic art! For the past year I’ve been able to take the lessons I’ve learned, some good art, and make a moderate living wage by only freelancing and exhibiting at conventions. What follows are some of the key practices that have led to my success with selling my work at conventions!
Recently, I hit a great turning point in my independent art endeavors. I earned enough money from selling at two conventions to justify quitting freelancing and doing nothing but conventions and my own work full-time. Here’s the kicker: I made as much from these conventions as I did freelancing all of last year (If you want to reach out to me, I’ll privately clarify what those numbers look like). My sales at Indiana Comic Con doubled from the previous year, and my sales from C2E2 tripled (went from sharing a booth to a whole booth — keep this in mind). By watching shows like “One Fantastic Week” or reading books about business, and applying what I’ve learned, my sales have been steadily growing every year! So how did I come to this turning point and what led to that success?
There’s myriads of methods you can use to sell yourself and your art at a convention; however, with some shifts in the way you think about conventions, you can achieve much more with personalized tactics designed for your success.
The major tactics I’ll be talking about are:
- Selling a personal connection;
- Booth space;
- FOMO (fear of missing out);
- Engaging your customers; and
- The 80/20 rule!
All five of these points play off of each other and make a huge impact on what I do and why I do it. So let’s discuss them!
Selling a Personal Connection
When people buy a print from you or your online store, those people are buying an extension of themselves, not your art. That’s how most people shop for almost everything, but especially creative things like decor. They are looking for that item that accurately expresses who they are. You’re not actually selling yourself and your art at a convention; you’re selling somebody else a piece of themselves. It isn’t always about expressing who you are as an artist. That’s certainly a big part of it; however, if you want to do that and make income as an independent artist, you have to appeal to people’s need to relate to and express themselves through art.
People always say to me, “Oh my gosh, your art must be inspired by WoW.” It may not necessarily be the main driver of inspiration behind the piece, but I always respond by enthusiastically delving into the similarities between my art and WoW — thematic elements, the color palette, etc. Why? Making these connections with someone offers several benefits: first, it empowers the consumer to feel comfortable enough to continue the conversation with you, which in turn allows you to start building a rapport with them. Secondly, it’s network-building. Finally, it is a shared experience that leaves the consumer feeling as though they’re not just buying an item, but an experience, and a special piece they can relate to.
Art doesn’t have to have only one meaning. Along those same lines is the fact that people want to support you because they’re personally connecting with your creations and receiving a way to express themselves in return. This is best explained through my top-selling product: mousepads.
I sell mousepads at $20 a piece, but here’s the thing: people aren’t buying just a mousepad. When they approach my booth, they connect with my art, and after a little engagement, they connect with me, too. Now they might have a desire to support my work. Normally, people won’t go out of their way to buy a $20 mousepad; however, they will go out of their way to spend their money on something special: an item that tells a story, has sentimental meaning, or represents a personal connection, while also boasting functionality.
Another thing I see a lot of artists at conventions get caught up with: price is mostly irrelevant. People just want to support their favorite artists.
Selling a connection is key. In my opinion, it’s the most important thing and can be applied to all of art as a business, not just conventions.
I cannot begin to tell you how important maximum space is at a convention. Enough with thinking you are confined to Artist Alley — take the risk and get an exhibitor booth or multiple Artist Alley tables! Here’s why booth space is honestly one of the most important things for conventions:
When you’re working at a convention and that family of seven all cosplaying Harley Quinn with their gigantic props stops at your booth, how the hell is anyone else supposed to approach you while they’re there? They can’t. Then, of course, there’s the opposite — you have conscientious people who don’t want to impede your sales and they’ll end up leaving to let others browse when they could be a potential sale. Hence, with less space, people are also less inclined to stay at your booth or end up blocking it for others. Having more space allows more people to approach you, browse your work, and develop a connection to it! As an exhibitor at Indiana Comic Con, I had twice as much space and made more there than I did in Artist Alley in Chicago, despite C2E2 being a way bigger convention.
The other cool thing is that having more space allows you to potentially draw a bigger crowd. A big group at your booth engaging with your art can be great for drawing more people in IF you have the space to accommodate them. People are inherently afraid of missing something cool at comic con, myself included. This brings me to my next point…
FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
Ah, the fear of missing out. This is a recent realization, but I think this is a mindset that drives a lot of sales both online and at conventions. For example: Peter Mohrbacher’s Patreon Pin. There’s no way I’m missing out on getting that. Why? Because it’s personal to me. Pete has had a huge influence on me, so it’s an expression of how I have grown as an artist, something I collect, and an example of something I love.
Limited edition prints are also a good example of FOMO driving sales. FOMO also directly impacts sales; the more booth space you have, the greater likelihood that FOMO will increase your profits. At C2E2 I sold three special edition prints within five minutes of each other because I had one guy come up and look at some special edition prints up close. While he was contemplating, a second person came to see what he was looking at and bought one. Witnessing the second man buying one was all it took to convince the first customer to buy one. While he was happily wrapping up his sale, a third person, witnessing what was happening, came and bought one. Luckily, I had enough space at my booth to accommodate this. You can create interest with larger space by allowing people to linger looking at your art and ultimately, end up attracting more customers through FOMO.
Engaging Your Customers
I’m sure you’ve heard people go on and on about how you need to be engaging at conventions. It’s extremely important, and there are a few reasons why.
First, customers can’t create a personal connection without your engagement. If you put sincere effort into getting to know a customer they’ll be more likely to give you their business. Secondly, by consistently engaging with people, I’ve become adept at quickly picking up on intent, knowing who’s at my booth to purchase something and who’s there to tell me why, biologically, women can’t be time travelers (true story — Allen Panakal knows… we booted that dude out!). This is important because if you’re expending all of your energy on your feet and talking with people throughout a 12-hour a day/four-day convention, you’ve got to make sure you’re spending your time with the right people.
Speaking of being on your feet, stand up at your booth if you can! Get a comfortable mat and stand on your feet the whole convention or if you need it, a tall stool. You’re much more approachable when standing. Being approachable is a surefire way to kickstart genuine engagement with your customers.
Engaged customers are more likely to make passersby feel like they’re missing out. Engagement also engenders relationship-building and enhances existing personal connections. All of this becomes easier when you have more booth space! See how this all fits together?
Lastly, this all culminates in one business tip I picked up from author Tim Ferriss called the 80/20 rule.
The 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule should also have its own post, but I’m going to give you the SparkNotes and how I applied it to finding success at conventions. The 80/20 rule is:
80% of your success comes from 20% of your effort.
You can apply this rule to any facet of your life by dropping the things you’re spending effort on that only account for 20% of your success, and then focus on maximizing the 20% of your efforts that are leading to 80% of your success. I know it can be confusing at first, so here is an example to help shed some light on this principle.
After the convention season last year, I looked at what products were accounting for the majority of my profits at shows. The answer: playmats, with mousepads coming in at a close second. So what did I do with that information? I stopped trying to find the perfect special edition print, or push canvas prints. I went out and found the best vendors at the best rates for mat products and made that the staple of what I sell at conventions. I give them the most space on my table at shows and I don’t spend my energy worrying about other products. If all you have is prints, what print is selling the best? Make more and bigger versions of it! This rule can be applied to everything! Jacob Walker found that 80% of his income was coming from self-led projects and only 20% from clients. That realization allowed him to narrow his focus to his own work and be in a much better bargaining position as a freelancer. I urge you to ruminate on this rule and how you can apply it to your life and your business!
So, in summary, these five tactics are the most salient practices I utilize at conventions.
Look at what you’re already doing and focus on the one thing that’s working better than everything else. Then buy more booth space for your next convention. Engage your customers and read their responses, react differently with each person — remember, it’s about them, not you. Stress the personal connection that they have with your artwork. FOMO works on its own, but works even better when implemented with the other tactics.
These practices work for me, but they might not work for everyone. There’s no one solution that guarantees success. I watched, read, and interpreted what I was learning. Then, through trial and error, I applied what I had learned to my business! If you attempt anything I’ve talked about in this post, please let me know how it works for you!
From here, I’m going to take these tactics that I’ve been applying to conventions, continue to learn new ones, and discover how to apply them to my online presence and improve my online sales!
If you have any questions or would like me to expand on any of the points made in this post, feel free to reach out to me. You can find me on social media at:
- Nolan Nasser