On Business: The Growing Con Circuit

By | Monday, June 08, 2015 Leave a Comment
I'm certainly not the first person to make note of the growing number of comics/pop culture conventions that we've seen spring up in recent years. In fact, last week Tom Spurgeon pointed out that there were note-worthy comic cons in Austin, Brooklyn, Chicago, London, Manhattan, Memphis, and Munich all just this past weekend. And I know he missed one in Olympia on top of those! These aren't just signings or store events; these are full-on conventions with panels and workshops and the whole works.

Now, comics are getting more attention and respect, so some of this makes sense. I mean, the folks who might go to a London con probably don't overlap much with the folks who might go to one in Austin. But Brooklyn and Manhattan?

CAKE poster
I was talking a bit with Kevin Budnik at CAKE this weekend, and I think he hit on an excellent point. He was a bit nervous going into the show this year because his table is waaaaay far in the back corner of the space. Argueably, the worst table there: the very last table in the corner farthest away from the entrance. Yet he was doing pretty well sales-wise -- possibly better than SPX, but he hadn't done a firm tally on that when I spoke with him -- and he attributed that to walk-ins. The CAKE show is only a couple of blocks from Wrigley Field; there's plenty going on in that area even when there isn't a game. So a number of people who stopped by just happened to be passing by and stopped in because it looked interesting. This is a show, too, that doesn't cater to a "mainstream" crowd so there aren't any cosplayers parading around to attract attention. It's just in a densely-enough populated area that a fair number of people are able to just happen across it.

That wouldn't be a solid business plan from CAKE's perspective, of course, and they don't rely on that, but I think it has helped to expand the show significantly every year since its debut in 2012. This year, I talked to and saw several creators at CAKE -- certainly more than a dozen -- that sold out of some or all of their books. If one or two people sold out, I'd blame that on them for not bringing enough, but over a dozen? That's something else. I talked to organizer Max Morris, and he was saying that their preliminary count for Day One was 1500-2000 and the half-day numbers for Day Two looked to be half that, but given how many people were selling out, I suspect the final two-day tally is closer to 5,000.

As of right now, I don't know how well the other cons did. A cursory glance over my Twitter feed suggests things went well all over. I expect a lot of the specific reasons why vary with each location, but it's hard not to come to the conclusion that comics are an accepted part of the media landscape, and people like and appreciate them whether they feature muscle-laden superheroes in spandex or screen-printed, intensely personal autobiographies with covers hand-cut with an X-acto knife. For as much as the larger cons seem to be driven by Hollywood movies and Silicon Valley games, there seems to be an appreciation of comics as an art form unto themselves.

Obviously, there's an upper limit to how sustainable that is, but it would appear that we haven't reached it yet. CAKE, as I said, is only in its fourth year. The Kenosha Festival of Cartooning only started in 2011. By pretty much all accounts, they're both doing fantastic, even with neither of them charging an admission fee. Spurgeon is also making some news himself by starting by CXC later this year; I'm sure he wouldn't pursue this if he didn't think it was financially feasible. I'm also seeing expansions on several more local shows in my area, with more guests and activities.

I suppose there's some level of independence shows can capitalize on just due to geography (again, someone from London isn't terribly likely to attend a con in Austin) but even there's enough variations in the types of shows you can put on to avoid overlap too. You're not going to find Yeti Press at a Wizard World show, for example, and you're not likely to see William Shatner at a con being held in a library like Comic Book Mania. That all seems to be working right now, as people are able to play in their own respective spaces. The over-saturation will come when we start getting regular conflicts. We've seen some of that already, certainly (without checking, I seem to recall some early issues between a couple of Cincinnati area shows last year) but it's not a regular problem.


Naturally, we'll all be keeping an eye on this, if only for the self-interest of seeing which conventions we can attend, but the thing to watch for more broadly will be recurrences of conflicts among dates, regions, and audience make-ups. When those notices start becoming regular, that's when you'll know we've collectively pushed things too far.
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