This Mortal Coil at the Alternate Press Expo 2017
Oct 2, 2017, 7:15:44 AM
Over the weekend of September 23-24th I flew up to San Jose to table at the Alternate Press Expo with my friend Yang, who is a fellow game developer/engineer and comic artist. She makes the shoujo manga Red Reminiscence which you can read on Webtoons.
I've never exhibited or sold my own art before, and this is the story of how I did that and how I almost didn't make my #1 best selling book of the weekend, that is my comic The Rabbit and the Moon.
Read on to find out how I prepared for this convention and my thoughts on APE.
Alternate Press Expo: A Big Comittment
I spent the last two and half months preparing for the Alternate Press Expo.
Yang and I talked about it as far back as March of this year. I might have hesitated at the idea when she introduced me to it, but in the end I said yes.
I know it's a big commitment. I'd have to make merch. I'd have to publish the book. What would my table look like? What else would I have to prepare that I didn't know about? Would I be mentally prepared for this?
Even though I agreed to it, I still harbored a strong sense of doubt.
"This Mortal Coil will never sell"
"Why am I even doing this?" I think a lot of my self-doubt comes from years of asking that question as I worked on This Mortal Coil. In the end I'm proud of my work, but it's a tempered, battered kind of pride.
It's not a perfect story, not even close. The story's muddled in places. It's slow to start. I cringe at the awful dialogue (not all of it, but some of it). Some pages look terrible, but I think in almost every respect I improve as I go along. I fought off perfectionism and focused on shipping. I learned how to solve my production problems, cut content, and tighten things up as I made my comic.
The work was hard (and fun), but it was the mental gymnastics I put myself through that was harder. When you get a few years into a project and you don't have a sense of validation good or bad about what you're doing, it becomes a hard sell, even to yourself as to why you should continue. In my mind the words still linger:
You could be doing almost anything else, why this? Nobody asked for it. You can quit anytime.
Somehow I always convinced myself to continue. I was always more drawn to the characters and their potential, the art style, and the story I was crafting. All of that overcame the self-doubt. I argued this with myself nearly everyday and though I have the fruit of all that labor, what I remember is the doubt.
I often forget that there is positive praise for This Mortal Coil from peers and friends. When I check my analytics I'm always glad to see someone come by and binge read the comic. I answer the few comments left behind as well. Yes, it's not all terrible, but leading into July, my first thought was, "This Mortal Coil will never sell."
Social Media also fueled this lack of validation and a blow to my ego. I'm a terrible marketer, PR person, and social media guru -- what do you expect, I'm an engineer, but that's not much an excuse these days. In order to make it in this new world, you have to be a jack of all trades and willing to step outside your comfort zone.
Still, I don't know how some Instagram sites have tens-of-thousands of followers and why I can't crack 300. I hashtagged, pinned, tweeted, liked, hearted, and whatever the new buzzword-thing Silicon Valley web 2.0 wanted me to do. It's addictive to get likes and followers and disheartening to see the latter disappear as fast as it came. It's an unhealthy addiction for me, and you know what the best way is to deal with addiction?
My priority isn't to post on Instagram or Twitter anymore. I still like browsing on Instagram every so often because of artists I like and Japanese Lolita models I follow. I like connecting with other webcomic creators on Twitter, but beyond that I don't look to those apps for audience building. When you dig deeper and see how other folks are playing the game it makes me wonder if those apps aren't just empty shells claiming to be mansions.
Experts tout social media as a means to grow your presence online, but I don't think "likes" equate to dollars. Having retreated away from social media, I realize I don't have many traction channels to grow as an artist. I'll still share. I'll hashtag on Instagram -- I mean heck, I kinda know how to do it, but I'm not going to try as hard as I did, nor organize my activity around those apps.
All of this, left me thinking there was no point to try and sell my work.
Fast Foward to July...
I committed to this venture, and in mid-July I turned my attention to preparing for APE.
First off...the comic book.
I looked at sites like Print Ninja which wanted at least 250 books printed and would cost a couple thousand dollars. It's a hefty price tag to invest when you're preparing for failure.
I didn't want to print a run of the book only to be saddled with hundreds of unsold copies that nobody asked for or wanted.
I could try printing an issue of the comic, like the first 32 pages. It would be a cheaper failure.
Or, maybe it wasn't worth it to do the book at all. I could do art prints and other merchandise. Maybe I'd only have the coloring book. It made some money on Amazon making it a safer bet.
I told Yang I wasn't going to do the comic book.
She told me that was a stupid idea.
Well... I'm sure that's what she thought. She told me I might regret it if I never do it.
I could print 20-25 books. A couple hundred bucks to test the waters. That's much more reasonable.
And she was right, I would regret not presenting my body of work. If I never do another convention again, I'll have missed my one and only opportunity. The Rabbit and the Moon has been my artwork for 6 years now. I poured thousands of hours into it to craft a 128-page story, and I owe it to myself to finish this journey.
I went with Kablam as my printer and did a short run of 25 books. Before I submitted to them, I had to rework my manuscript before I could submit it. I asked them a ton of questions which they patiently answered for me. I bought a single copy as a proof before I did the 25 books.
The print was beautiful compared to an earlier one I did with Createspace. If you'd like to see that version here's the video:
With the Kablam print there are some binding errors with the pages in the front of the book. But, most of the 25 books they sent me turned out decent and I sold those. I'm left with some of the bum copies, but they are perfectly readable even if they aren't perfect products.
The investment paid off.
I sold 13 books at the Alternate Press Expo, and later a few friends picked up some more copies. At the convention, I got a lot of compliments from folks about the high contrast art style. Sure it's not thousands of likes or whatever, but hearing people say it and buy the book because they liked the art or like the story I pitched felt validating.
Oh, and having money in the bank is way more validating than any number of likes on a post.
I'm left with 8 books: 7 printed ones for the convention and the original proof I did. If you want one they're $25 dollars and in limited supply right now. Contact me and I can send you details on how to get one.
If you're curious, here's the completed list of what I accomplished between July and September to prepare for APE:
- Created a vertical banner for the booth
- Bought other things to setup stand - cork board and book stands.
- Applied for temp seller permit with the California Board of Equalization
Sent out TMC order on Kablam
- Finished cover interior
- Test print with 1 book -- looked most good, asked them about errors.
- Printed 25 books
- Created Bookmarks and printed with GotPrint.com
- Created 6 11-by-17 inch art prints and printed with CatPrint
- Made cheap business cards with Vista Print -- make a simple design
- Square for credit card transaction and app inventory
These other products didn't sell near as much. I did sell a bunch of prints and a few bookmarks. I sold three coloring books. No buttons. By far, it was the comic book that made the weekend worthwhile. It was my #1 bestseller at the convention. So lesson learned: I'll have to pitch my Lolita deity and her goofy timey-whimey adventures to save mortals from yokai and disaster. I don't know if my pitch really worked, but it sold books, so that's gotta be something.
The books sales impressed me so much that maybe I should do another convention or find other avenues to get my book into the hands of potential readers.
APE 2010 vs 2017
It's not my first rodeo, but it's the first time I'm selling my own artwork. Back in 2010, I tabled with a group of friends for Drawing Meats at APE when it was in San Francisco. I helped my friend Emmy put together an ashcan comic book. If you want a super-rare piece of Mortal Coil trivia and history, that ashcan anthology was the first time anything Mortal Coil related appeared in print format.
In 2010, APE was bustling with people. Maybe part of that was due to it being in San Francisco, and maybe because the Comicon folks owned the convention at the time. I recall there were some panels and even some celebrities there. The show had an independent press section and a dealer's area. That's the kind of show I'd love to try and convention at again and see how far This Mortal Coil would go.
2017's APE... well, I'll let this picture speak for itself. It was taken at noon on the second day during the convention.
It was a ghost town.
There was hardly any foot traffic. The halls were empty most of the time. The convention didn't fill the entire circus tent either. Only a third of it.
As I understand it, the Comicon people don't own it anymore. APE is back in the hands of it's original founder and evidently worse off for it. I heard it wasn't advertised. The tables go for 300 dollars a pop which is expensive for not attracting a large crowd.
I talked with some seasoned convention exhibitors and they were far from thrilled with the turnout, but as a first time convention exhibitor, I was fine with it, but DON'T take this as an admission that APE was a great convention. I figured the convention would be small (not non-existent) enough so I could get my bearings. Still, even with a severely reduced crowd walking through, I did make plenty of sales.
My hope is that APE gets turned around, but it sounds like APE's been going through a slow death since it changed hands. Still though, thank you APE 2010 and 2017. I inadvertently introduced This Mortal Coil there 7 years ago, and I came back to sell a finished graphic novel version of it in 2017. APE's woven into the fabric of This Mortal Coil's history.
While Yang and I were setting up our table, a woman wearing a flowery dress and hat walked over to me and asked, "Are you AlbinoGrimby? I recognize your artwork."
I've seen a great deal of her watercolor art on Twitter as I scroll through my feed. We've participated in #WebComicChat and #ComicBookHour together. She knows some of the people I'm Internet-friends with from Webcomic Underdogs as well.
It was a really cool surprise to put a face to the Twitter icon. She co-runs several websites including Ink Drop Cafe and How to be a Con Artist, and after we chatted for a bit, I might even contribute an article or two about some technical related topics to building a webcomic site.
Hey, APE might have been a tiny con, but it did give me a chance to meet some new folks.
The big question you probably have on your mind: How did I do? Was it worth it financially?
Having done some quick back-of-the-napkin math, I might have spent about $1000. That's for the flight, the booth, producing the merchandise and books, and getting some gear for the table. Keep in mind, I co-tabled, so I did split some costs and I had help.
I made maybe a little more than half of that back over the weekend, but I still have to pay taxes on it.
Not exactly glamour and riches, but hey, it's an investment.
Everything I've done with This Mortal Coil is an investment in my skill and time and now monetarily. The website, The Shrine, The Rabbit and the Moon, the Lolita Fashion Coloring Book. These are all assets. I'll be better prepared for a second convention. I can potentially move in directions I haven't yet thought of because I have these assets.
I don't know what the future holds in terms of conventions, and I don't know if I can even get into another one, but I'll try.
Until then I'll be working on The Shrine and preparing for a new episode of This Mortal Coil.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. I know it was long. Maybe self-absorbed, but I hope I impart some of my passion and tempered drive to make things and see them through.
You can do it too. (I believe in you!)
I worked on this comic a few hours each night over the course of years. If you want to make something big don't think of it as one sudden creative gesture. Think of it as a slow burn. It'll require discipline and drive. It'll be mentally tasking. It can be frustrating and depressing, but ultimately, I hope, for your sake, fulfilling too.
If you have any more questions about APE or want to ask me specific questions about printing comics and art, please leave a comment and I'll get back to you as soon as I can.