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Artist Alley 101 From Application to convention

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.

Left: baby's first artist alley table, right: current setup 2018

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!

Practice makes progress!

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!

I cosplayed Alola Gary Oak.

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.

Artist Alley, Triad Anime Con 2017

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!

@martamickelsen on Instagram

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.

@Fluffmonger on Instagram

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.

Baby's first booth left, and current setup. Courtesy Lime Roberts.

It's also a good idea to utilize the space behind your table if you can. I recommend a simple photo stand, pictured below. It breaks down small and you can get a roll of photo paper for less than $10, it's a make shift solution but you use masking tap to secure prints to your backdrop. Obviously, the booth design varies highly depending on what kind of products you sell.

Over-Pack Light

Do your best to pack down your materials as much as possible since you'll have to travel to/from the con with everything for your table and it'll need to fit into whatever vehicle you use. Account for this in your booth design. On the flip, when it comes to office supplies, you can rarely be over-prepared. I personally bring about half my home studio desk with me to cons just in case. Sharpies, scissors, masking tape, and credit card readers are always in short supply and someone is bound to forget theirs. So bring as much as you can remember, and don't be afraid to ask your table neighbor in a pinch.

Con Logistics

Okay, so you've gotten your display, booth, and product arranged. Here's some basic logistic things you'll do well to have arranged prior to the con. Payment methods: I personally use Square to process payments at cons, PayPal for online sales, and I also accept cash at cons. Be sure to get small bills for a money bag, and both PayPal and Square will send you free card readers if you order them (since they know they'll make back their money with transaction fees).

Bring ring a grocery bag for a make shift trash bag, it's more convenient than you'll realize. Bring nibbles, drinks, comfortable shoes, hand sanitizer, breath mints, and wet naps. Also, shower. Very 101, but worth repeating. Take care of yourself!

Also, no artist is an island. Try to hire, do a work-for-merch trade, or get a really kind friend or family member to help watch your table if you aren't sharing a table. You'll do much better being able to have a bathroom break, stretch your legs, grab lunch, and help setup/breakdown.

Pricing, Pricing, Pricing!

Pricing is an ever changing game as you grow, but to start I'm going to turn it back over the Cari Corene: "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."

End of Con & Home

As Sunday afternoon drags on, I tend to use this time to do some purchases or art trades around artist alley and collect contact info for artists I connected with. Pack up your booth and clean up your area. When you get home, I do recommend having a storage system of some kind (a designated space in your closet works) for con luggage. Also, account for "rest time" if you have to go into a day-job Monday morning. Cons are big social events but they can be extremely draining, and you're body will need time to recover, not to mention ward off any colds or viruses, so plan self care accordingly.

Then when you have had time, follow up online with the artists you connected with at the con on social media. I like to share what I purchase or trade and tag artists since it's really exciting for the both of you! That post-con follow up will give you a lot of momentum to start the cycle all over again, since you'll notice this process started with social media! As an artist, you'll usually be working from home so social media can be a good way to stay connected and motivated by following and sharing encouragement with your fellow artists between cons. Good luck!

Resources

This is by no means an exhaustive list but I hope this provides a framework in which to take the next steps! Below are resources for making products, as well as articles and blogs for further reading for artist alley. It can be worth it to order online from printers that are far away, but some items can easily be accomplished locally, like posters and stickers from places like Costco, Office Max, Staples, Office Depot, or Fedex.

From Artist Alley 101 by Cari Corene

If you're local to the Carolinas, consider joining the Carolina Artist Alley Discord! There's plenty of resources, tools, and friendly folks willing to share info on upcoming cons and exhibition opportunities, and make for good company between cons. Join Here!

DISCORD // Carolina Artist Alley ⭐ BLOG // How To Be A Con Artist ⭐ Article // Artist Alley 101 ⭐ Article // How To Make Artist Alley Work ⭐ Pinterest // Part One + Part Two ⭐ Artist Alley Network International

Q & A

If you have further questions about artist alley, please don't hesitate to reach out to me on social media! I'm super passionate about the topic and love to offer up what I've learned, or find you a resource that can answer your questions.

Instagram // Facebook // Twitter // Tumblr

For artists in North or South Carolina looking for a local community, I started a Discord for local artists to share resources and tools. I recommend if you have an interest in artist alley to consider joining the group as I personally post exhibition & tabling opportunities.

I am not getting paid for this panel so I've written this out as a labor of love, but if this information has been helpful please consider supporting me with a coffee or two!

Thanks!
Check out my other topic // Sketchbook Workshop

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