This was first presented as a panel at Animazement in Raleigh, NC May 25, 2018. Author's note // I'll do my best to update this page over time with current info.
Hi there! I'm Eli and I tabled eight cons in 2017, and three in March of 2018 alone! I've gotten pretty comfortable behind an artist alley table and each con there's at least one person who asks how to start. So here's some info I've gathered, written, and compiled to the best of my ability. My first con was Animazement 2004, I was 12 and wanted to table in artist alley. The next year, I brought a binder of drawings and sat on the hotel hallway floor, I didn't gain any interest or sales. I don't recommend it, haha. I registered for my first artist alley table at Animazement in 2007 with friends (pictured below). I made about $50 that weekend, covering the table cost, and part of my room expenses at age 15.
Unsupportive family made me question the success I had at that con. There's a lot of aspects to running a table that don't involve art skills that you'll be learning in your first cons. If those around you don't realize it, they may be quick to discourage you from tabling, but please have faith as you take those first steps. After being discouraged for not making enough profit, I pivoted to making crafts with a friend. I also had original comic zines but at the time zines were a hard sell unless you already had a following so those didn't sell back then, haha.
2009 was my last artist alley table during that era. I had a lot of issues with family and things turned out pretty bad. I finally came back to artist alley in 2016. By this time I knew I wanted to draw sequential art. So I started by making my second Inktober project into a coloring book for Pokemon. The reason I chose Pokemon was it is my oldest fandom. But when I was 11 I drew a Cyndaquil and posted it online, a user commented that the flamethrower looked like he was vomiting blood. To be fair, they weren't wrong, but that comment kept me from drawing pokemon for 15 years, haha. So the coloring book was about 15 years of pent-up fanart waiting to be drawn and I drew 151 pokemon in 31 days!
With coloring books in hand, I found a Nintendo themed con in November of 2016, Super FamiCon in Greensboro, NC and buddied up with my old high school friend Alex Graves to table together since we were both looking for art opportunities. The theme of our table was Alola since Pokemon Sun and Moon came out that weekend!
We didn't make profit at that con but we got a hang of tabling and agreed to do another con again in the spring, Triad Anime Con also in Greensboro, NC. At Triad we both had a lack of products so we started drawing sketch cards for $5-$10 each and both of us ended up making grocery money for the month! It was a huge encouragement, even if we were underselling ourselves. We'll get into pricing later on.
Soon more friends saw what we were doing on social media and wanted to join artist alley so Bryttanye Bannister and Bridgett McFierce joined up. We'd buy two tables at a con and split them two ways. After just a year, five new artists got experience working artist alley, and are moving on to tabling individually as we've each grown our work!
Okay! So that's a bit of my background, here's some things I've learned! First, it's absolutely normal to be nervous or a bit scared to start and put yourself out there. I was so scared starting out that it took me a couple years before I got my first table. But really, research and preparation is the best weapon against fear. Start by referring back to your last English class essay writing exercise, ask:
Determine your // WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHY & HOW?
If you're ready to give art a try, determine a few things to help you figure out where to start. Ask WHO, WHAT, WHY, and HOW. For example, for me my WHAT I am selling is drawings, HOW is through prints/commissions, WHY is to make a living with my drawing, and WHO is the audience that I'm creating for folks who enjoy cute art and candy coated horror. For someone else it could also be different. WHAT might be anything from needle point to masks to costumes, WHY might be to support the hobby or as a side income, and HOW might be through selling original crafts, and WHO might be steampunk fans, or fans of nostalgic video games. Either way, figuring those questions out in advance can help inform your decisions later on from setting sales expectations, to how you design your booth, to what conventions you table at. But these questions apply to the whole process!
Get Social (Media)!
Share WHAT you want to make on social media before you table. This is helpful if you're nervous but it's also very helpful having an online gallery for both applying to cons to show your work as well as letting your audience know where to find you at events. It really depends on your preference for which platform you prefer but personally I had a lot of luck using Instagram. Just don't forget the hashtags! With the current algorithm go with 3-5 hashtags and avoid using the same tag for multiple posts. Personally, I prefer smaller hashtags that have around 1-3k posts in them. Then after posting in a tag, go check out that tag and engage with folks also posting about that subject, that's a good way to make friends and connect, and other users might find your work that way as well.
Know WHEN to start // as a professional & personally
"[Professionally] Most cons require you to be 16. Check the con's rules. [..] 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.)
[Personally] 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, [real estate] 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."
- Cari Corene, Artist Alley 101 Journal on DeviantArt
WHEN // Apply Ahead!
So you're ready to table at a con? Time to start looking for winter shows! If it's Memorial weekend, start looking at cons like Ichiban Con (anime), Greensboro Comic-Con (american comics), and illogicon (sci-fi, fantasy) in North Carolina. What you're making will depend on which type of con might best fit your work. It's not a bad idea to go to a con as an attendee first and see what the artist alley looks like. If you see an artist who is doing work you'd like to do, ask them how the show is going and if they would recommend it. Towards the Holidays, you can also try pop-up markets as many customers will be looking for holiday shopping so events like the GeekCraft Expo in late November in Durham is a great place to table. I use the site AnimeCons.com to look for new cons throughout the year and begin checking the con websites up to 6 months in advance. It can help to email the artist alley organizer to ask when to expect the artist alley applications to open then check back during that month. Animazement artist alley applications open in January, so mark your calendars!
Some cons, like Animazement, have a juried artist alley and that's where having an online portfolio will come in handy to show your work. Though to be honest Animazement even likes to see something more polished like a real website portfolio. Other cons, like NC Comic-Con (formerly Oak City) let anyone table who has the money, the table application includes an invoice payment. Many cons have open applications then send out acceptance emails/invoices later so for those cons it never hurts to apply to cons to see if you can get in! Once you're accepted, or even in anticipation of acceptance, it's time to figure out what to sell.
HOW // Products
So if you have already been creating for a while and have an idea of what you like to make, it's time to adapt that for selling. For me, I want to focus my art into sequential art. That means learning to make quick creative decisions and drawing lightning fast, so for myself I LOVE drawing sketch card commissions. Commissions also work with my anxiety so I don't have to stress about a long drawn out product development process for something like acrylic keychains when that's not what I want to create long-term.
On the flip side, if you are a graphic designer and have strong skills in typography and don't want to focus on the stress of drawing at a con, merchandising might be your best friend for developing stickers, keychains, and enamel pins!
If you work with textiles or fiber arts, anything from needlepoint to lasercut designs are valid and you'll find folks interested in what you have to share, you just might need to get creative with how to share it. For example, making plushies by hand is a time-consuming process and finished pieces can be too expensive for average customer. Since that's a higher end product, a way to make your work accessible might be to photograph your plushies in cute scenes and sell prints, greeting cars, or even make a book! Stay curious and creative with ways to apply your passion for creating with ways to support yourself.
HOW // Tabling
HOW you share your work will help customers have an easier shopping experience. Think of your table as your shop window. It's so easy to get overwhelmed at the intense setups you see in Artist Alley but consider that most folks with big fancy setups almost always have 5-10 years experience. When starting out: K.I.S.S.! Keep It Stupid Simple. You can cover a lot of territory by investing in a table cloth and wire storage cubes.
Practice your booth setup at home before the con to see how everything looks ahead of time and how fast you can assemble. Try to keep your setup under 30 minutes since you'll usually have an hour window when you're allowed to setup and before artist alley opens to public when it comes day of the con.