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Comics Expos and Distribution On A Budget
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andyluke
Drifted into the Uk festival scene last year after a long absence, to the Quality Communications organised Brighton Expo. I had a whale of a time ! Lovely location, rum smuggled into over-expensive pub, new and old and discovered friends. Snotty dalek, cheery badges, optimistic enthusiastic comics collectives. Self-publishers of photocopied, printed, laminated works as far as the eye could see in surroundings air-conditioned and stately. Not just looking as good as the Marvel/DC/2000 AD exhibitions, in many cases surpassing them! Not a dream, not a hoax, no imaginary story !

Except it came with a price: £150 for a table and back-board for two days. The Bristol Expo is similarly priced at £75 for a table for two days. A table at the Memorabilia Convention costs £175 for two days. As the average small presser might tell, that £75 would buy a print run of 150-200 copies of a black and white A5 28pager. Lets say safe on copyshop house or printers deal, and make that 200 copies.

Now lets draw those things together.

To break even on the day that would require a sale of 100% of that stock at £2 a copy per day (or, incorporating the promotion provided by the weekend). Selling a hundred copies in a day is not bleeding likely by the most outlandish what if of stretches, but it covers table costs and printing costs. I realise I’m simplifying this, not counting the snowball effect when applied to larger prints on collected works., and leaving out notable exceptions like John Allison. (While I’m not a devotee of Allison’s webcomic ‘Scary Go Round’ it has gained fan devotion that has made it probably the UK’s greatest circulated new comic outside the newspapers. People seem happy enough to pay for his gear although his comic is free in digest. Check out www.scarygoround.co.uk for more details. ) To extend the comparison, raising the price above £2, small publishers have a fighting chance, and its still an incredibly slim one.

These sums do not take into account other costs to do with getting your own short-term showroom : not lunch, not transport, not the bed and breakfast, not the beer, not dinner and certainly not the cost of the comedy dvd you promised to reward yourself with when it all got to according to plan.

By taking part on a table-holder level, are we selling ourselves short ? Have we started to drift into becoming our own vanity press ? If you as a self-publisher with a table at these expos, are by way of parting with your cash, a important component of said exhibit’s existence, doesn’t that then give you a sense of power that enables you to decide on how much or if at all your table might cost you ?

Clicking on the link below will take you to an extended version of this essay picking up from were I have left off above. It offers some solutions to the problems which those of you very familiar with the UK comics scene are quite likely aware of, and further explanations as to this stance. If you’re relatively new to comics festivals, and interested, by all means, read on. I would like these comments to invite discussion in the various boards, forums, pubs, and if yer so inclined, by clicking on the comments links below. (I don’t talk about comics very often here btw). If you want to link to threads on the subject, the floor is open for that too.

Exhibitionism on a Budget : Coming Soon and Brief History Of

Paying the similar rates to Marvel, DC and the larger independent corporations is a dangerous strategy, without having their better established acceptance. There are alternatives, competitive rates on offer.

Shane Chebsey is one of the organisers behind this December’s Birmingham Comics Show. For more information on this go to www.thecomicsshow.co.uk Costs for exhibitors are, Dealer or Pro Publisher: 140.00, Pro Creator: 100.00, Small Press: 70.00. Given Chebsey’s track record as a hard-working supporter of the small press it might well be interesting to watch how he fares on the festival organiser circuit managing the bigger names. I’ll probably be too full of wine and stew and too light on cash to attend, but Birmingham and comic arts have a great history.

The UK Web and Mini Comix Thing held in London around March each year offers its tables at £35. This is a one-day event with comics predominantly the focus, but also sold alongside the works of other self-publishers of badges, woollen wears and other home-made self-product. Close to an arts fair but without the pressure, evidenced by self-publishers expanding their wings some and a quite noticeable lack of tension in dealers tables. As with any good comics expo, it incorporates games, panels, reading space, drawing space, internet accessibility, a chill-out zone and access to food and drink by way of vending machines. It’s the expo that is the exception to the must-have-a-pub rule. Pubs of course are near enough, for that all important social fun, networking and winding down after the selling and shopping is done. There are a few minor changes that can be worked on, I’ll get to those later.

A few good ideas have quite possibly been taken from Caption, the Uk’s longest running festival. : fifteen this year ! Caption is very much the forerunner in the Uk community festival. Instead of renting table space to individuals/groups of artists, The Caption Table(s) provide room for around one to three products on a sale-or-return basis. 10% of your cover price per copy sold goes to Caption, and is used to either subsidise the event, or go towards the following years event. With the Caption table manned by volunteers and committee members, it frees up the hard-working artist to participate more fully in the weekend festivals other facets. Workshops, Galleries, Performance art, Pizza sharing and the Charity Auction join the usual forms of things to do as part of a festival.

During the committee re-shuffle of Caption last year, the suggestion went around that Caption need not necessarily be Oxford-based. Caption this year is being done on a budget in a good-sized community and arts centre. The cost is approximately £150-£200. Community Centres with bars appear to get around the new licensing laws and this is something that folk looking to organise their own small scale festival might want to look into. I have no findings on the laws regarding a sales-dominant venture, such as The Thing model being placed within this type of location. It has been suggested by committee members that the model of the Caption Table might be exported more widely to mainstream exhibitions.

In 1997, Dek Baker, Jez Higgins, Pete Ashton and some others put together Brumcab, renting a pub for a day, with quizzes, dealers tables, panels and walls covered in posters. Rented tables in a balti house that evening, and an agreed but non-hired pub gathering provided the setting for the following day. Again, this may run into trouble with the law for a sales type event nowadays. Relating to the second day event, for an informal get together and networking opportunity it’s a great strategy that relies only on getting enough interest and finding a quiet enough pub Brumcab was based upon and is the basis of several of the comics pub meets in cities and towns running up and down the country.

From the floor, Through The Door: Distribution and Festival Future

Selling comics and exhibiting them for sale need not be confined to festivals and expos, and there are other ways of doing it, and other people who can do it for you, and do it with you. Shane Chebsey is opening up new channels online by offering his catalogues contents in .cbr format. Short for comic book reader, .cbr is a ,pdf style file which is completely free, incredibly easy to use and reasonably versatile. These e-books are created by the simple process of taking jpegs and gifs and renaming them in order of narrative alongside a .cbr extension, and kept in a folder as intended. This allows the pages to be read in sequence in much the same way as a .pdf . Comic Book Reader Files help to substantially decrease publishing costs. Capability for far wider distribution; and for those readers so inclined and founded upon creator policy relating to shareware and freeware, consumer printing is too, possible.

Chebsey of course is the management behind Smallzone, the UK’s prime mover in distribution circles in the last six years. Taking 33% of your cover price on sold items seems like a hefty cut, but I happen to know that Shane is not making a profit from this, has been greatly successful in getting comics out, and travels with a sizeable amount of product to each major festival. With the momentum gathered by Smallzone, rumour has it that Chebsey and Accent UKs Barry Renshaw, are moving rapidly towards a scenario with solutions were he can reach as many comic shops as Diamond UK, along with mass printing easy costs and acceptably meeting market fancies.

(And quite frankly, that’s a relief . The rise in prices in the 90s meant I can no longer afford to buy new comics from my well-endowned tastefully diverse local shop of glossies) And knowing on faith they have no photocopied minis relegates me comfortably to after hours window shopping.)

Smallzone and similar collectives must be the only way to go. The festival/expo circuit is not a survival opportunity for single creators who have been making comics for less than five years. In fact, I know of only one single creator (John Allison) and one team of two (The Rubins Sisters) who managed to turn a profit at the Brighton Expo.

There are many ways to circumvent the need for full-on festival prices. Local pub meets, friendships outside the expo environment. Networked advertisements and reviews, capital available through sp and indy publicity. You may even be quite capable of saving money if you can find a way to organise your own Caption or UK Web and Mini Comix Thing. This brings me to a point I stated earlier I would return to and that’s the facility of comics festivals to provide a comfortable day for the attendees. The idea of fresh air has begun to circulate and if festival organisers can manage to keep to a straight path, the days of body odour masking freshly printed pages may well be long behind us. I’ve also noticed (and used) tableholders space for baggage and a cloakroom. With attendees travelling distances to get to these meets, a cloakroom or baggage space at fifty pence a time might be a suitable addition.
(Update: I passed this essay to Shane Chebsey for a pre-publication read-through and he agrees this idea is long overdue. The idea seems set to join his distribution list and may well be in reality at the December Birmingham Show. Shane wrote,
“… the idea of a cloakroom for coats and bags. This is very simple and very logical. I always have a myriad of bags and coats dumped on my at the smallzone table, which I never mind, but a secure cloakroom for these items at a festival would certainly be a great service to offer.

I'll bring it up the next organiser meeting.

I'm also pretty pleased the BICS has the lowest table rate for a whole weekend for small pressers compared to other events.”

Presumably on-site shower services may be on offer at all festivals in the next five years. Leather sofas, with throw-overs, ice cream vendors. Actually the latter seems a really natural idea, but decidedly un-natural at the same time. Organisers should also aim for a reasonably priced bar, if they can’t organise a cheap one.

The Uk comics scene from homegrown copyshop users to visiting foreign students really need to address the question of who pays for the representation and is it worth it ? Should Johnny Xerox be subsidising Jim Lee and Brian Michael Bendis ? Unlikely headline, though this could be a realism. The recent move by the Megazine to print small pressers work without any page rate concession is an example of just how strong we are, how vulnerable and what a tasty morsel to preying talons. Visibility is not a problem for Uk comics but sustainability is, and its quite possible we should stay with a discordian like distribution of our resources inbetween our triumphs..

My thanks to Jeremy Dennis for the initial spark behind this essay, and to Selina Lock and Shane Chebsey for getting me some important information in the research.

Andrew Luke, April 2006




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I suggest that the high price and the fact that the con is as nice and shiny as Marvel/DC events are not unconnected.

Why not get a bunch of people together and share a table? I saw plenty of that at Caption. Lower costs per person, each can also do a smaller print run, etc. Say 10 people share, £15 per person, each only needs to sell maybe 10-20 comics to break even, if a few don't £15 is small enough to write off.

Or am I being stupid here and there's something I haven't taken into account/don't know about?

Table sharing already goes on a lot, especially at the Bristol event. We always share a table, and I know other people where there are three or four people sharing.

But we've now been on the scene for 6/7 years and know lots of people to share with, people just starting out and with only 1-2 comics to sell may prefer another option, such as the Smallzone table or a Caption-like table.

I didn't really mention table-sharing did I ? I'm a naughty man, and I'm a drunken mess.
As a table-sharer myself, I've found it to be an accessible practice, sweet, but far long road from breaking even.

Online networking

(Anonymous)
As well as online distribution there is also the opportunity for online networking. Although MySpace was initially taken up my bands and their fans there is no reason comics can't do the same thing and there is a grwing small press presence there. I set up The End is Nigh's page:

http://www.myspace.com/endisnigh

and you can find links there to FutureQuake and Wild West Wendy. It has already paid off for us as we've had contacts from people looking to buy the mag as well as creators looking to contribute. All for the cost of a few minutes work.

A certain degree of centralisation and interconnection can help. Individual forums and mailing lists can help with coordinating the production of the publication but can leave people cut off from each other or having to sign up on half a dozen forums and possibly share the same advice/sob stories. PJ Holden's Pencil Monkey forums help bring creators together and offer them their own forum:

http://www.pencilmonkey.net/forum/

Granted this angle is in its infancy but it is shaping up well.

Emps

Re: Online networking

I must check in there given the time. PJ is a great guy and a great guy for fostering a sense of community.

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