So you want to get a table at a show
I’d love to say it’s as simple as picking a show and paying for a table and going and setting up and TA-DA, make lots of money!
However, that would be a total lie. In reality, choosing shows is something that takes time, a lot of research, and gets personal. And not every show is right for everybody. What works great for your friend may be a horrible choice for you.
I attended a great panel at Emerald City Comic Con this year called “How to be a Con Artist”, and the quote that stuck out to me the most was
“It’s not about doing the most cons or the biggest cons, it’s about finding the right cons for you.”
So what do you need to do to decide what shows to apply to?
Research and Legwork
This probably isn’t what you want to hear, but this process usually should take about a year if you’re vending for the first time. ArtbyMelissaM on DeviantArt suggests you start small and local. If there are conventions and shows you are already going to as an attendee, talk to vendors and artists at those shows before you apply for a table. Get their input, feelings, and thoughts on the show. Observe what the vibe and flow are like. Reach out online in artist communities like Artist Alley International on Facebook – see who else has done the show you’re looking at.
Local craft fairs, both geek specific and general ones are a great way to start out small and test the waters locally.
Really, stick to local shows in your early days. Trust me, you don’t want to pour tons of money into shipping and travel costs to a far away show if you haven’t done one and have no idea how well you might do. Especially be wary of putting out a lot of money on your end for a first year con with no proven track record (we broke our rule on that this year because we believed in what the show stood for. Unfortunately, it backfired for us and a lot of others.)
Make a list of the shows you’re considering (I love a good spreadsheet for this). That way you can keep track of the names, locations, deadlines for applying, table costs, and any other considerations.
Bigger does not always mean better. The larger the show, the more likely the costs are higher and the competition is worse. Build up to bigger shows. You may eventually grow into a business that vends at the Big Name Shows, or you may find that they aren’t ever going to be as good for you as the small local community that returns every year (shows like Gallifrey One for us).
Some other things to look at when looking at a show
- How is it being marketed?
- Is there lots of interest? Are attendee tickets selling out?
- If they’re available, look at numbers and recaps from previous years.
- Carefully read the Artist Alley/convention selling rules and make sure they mesh with your merchandise before you apply or pay money. Some shows will only let you have art and prints in Artist Alley, and having any other type of merchandise means they require you to get a (more expensive) exhibitor/vendor booth.
Tools to help with show research
- 2017 Artist Alley Survey Results
- Artist Alley Confidential
- “How To Be A Con Artist” tumblr has some research resources
- A slightly outdated exhibitor survey that still can be helpful
When looking at the application rules and information for shows, there’s a few terms you may come across, especially for Artist Alley. Pretty much all applications will ask you for a link to your website or art and ask you what type of merchandise you’re selling, though it may not play into their decisions.
- First Come First Serve (FCFS) means you often have to pay immediately, so make sure you have the funds available and your credit or debit card ready when you click apply.
- Juried means you’ll need to share at least on online portfolio or link to your art, and maybe an explanation of the kind of things you plan on selling, and the organizers will be looking at everyone’s applications and deciding who fits their show’s feel.
- Lottery shows mean artists are selected by random lottery versus being juried, but they’ll often still ask for the same info.
Here’s a brief list of the expenses you’ll want to consider:
- Cost of table
- Cost of travel (flights or gas, hotels, shipping or luggage fees)
- Cost of meals
- Sales Tax (if it’s a state that requires you to collect it)
- Cost of inventory (first time stocking or any restocking for the show)
- Cost of display materials (if it’s your first show or you need to add items)
- Does the convention require you to carry seller’s insurance?
Considerations Besides Costs
If you’re also working a traditional/day job – will taking time off from it impact too much if you need cushion days for travel plus 3 days of show? Do you need to stick to shows that are 1 or 2 day due to another job?
Cost of show vs length of show – if it’s $250 for a table for a 3 day show, that’s more worth it than paying the same amount for a 1 day show. This same consideration should be considered when adding in travel costs – you don’t want to spend $1000 in airfare for a 1-day show.
Size of the show or artist alley. Some shows are so big it’s harder for a small artist to get noticed in the sea of tables.
Type of attendees. Some shows have younger audiences that won’t spend as much or older audiences that have very specific wants and tastes. Make sure what you’re offering is a good match.
If the cost of a table is too high, look into sharing a table. It might be a cost-effective solution.
ArtbyMelissaM on DeviantArt has another good reminder: Look into all requirements such as seller permits by city, county, state. Many shows/areas require you have at least a temporary license.
Applying For A Table
Okay, now you’re finally ready to apply!
Make sure you read the rules for the application and show! Is it juried, lottery, first come first serve? Are there rules about what you can sell? What’s included in the cost of the table?
If there is a spot for “description of merchandise” or similar, be very descriptive! Don’t just say “art”, say “original watercolors and prints of fantasy creatures” (or whatever you have). Talk about your style or subjects. This is part description, part “sell yourself to us”.
Double check that you’re entering your correct contact information and website. Typos mean they won’t be able to find your work or contact you!
Make sure you have a link to examples of your work or attachments to upload if it’s an option or requirement. Clear pictures of relevant stuff! Blurry tiny pics of your old school projects aren’t going to show them what to expect from your table!
Double check your spam/junk folder for responses from the application. As a gmail user, we often see responses end up in the “Promotions” tab instead of the regular inbox. So keep your eyes open.
If you’re accepted (and you didn’t have to pay WITH the application), make sure to pay the invoice on time/by any deadline you’re given.
As the event gets closer, keep checking your emails for details for load-in and set-up and any other important information from the show.
Review, lather, rinse, repeat
After a show ends, you’re going to need to go over all your sales and figure out how you did. And then decide if it’s worth applying again the next year. As you start repeating shows, you’ll be able to compare how a show did year-over-year. Hopefully, it will keep getting better. But if it doesn’t, you may need to reconsider attending that show unless it’s really a low cost/low hassle event for you. The important thing to remember is to keep records, and keep repeating the research.
Was it Worth It?
Monkey Minion Press posted a great worksheet to help you figure out if you made money at a show.
Sometimes, no matter how much research and planning you do, you will still get burned. A show that does really great one year won’t always do as well the next year. Something that looked good on paper may not work in reality. Sometimes things happen that are completely out of your control.
Don’t give up. Keep trying, keep researching, and reach out to the community for help and reassurance. There’s always new resources and new shows and events.
There’s a lot of fluctuation and trial and error in this life. You’ll find a great community between other vendors and all the great fans and attendees you’ll meet while tabling, and that’s something that you can’t put a monetary value on. Remember that you’re doing this because it’s something you love and you’re passionate about.
I hope to see you at the table next to us during our next convention!