Economics of Cons Roundtable

Dream Foundry Board President Jessica Eanes sat down over email with a panel of industry professionals recently to discuss cons and the details of how to make them work for you. You can find out more about each of our panelists in their author box at the bottom.

How do you know when you’re far enough along in your career that it’s worth it to go to cons?

Rachel Quinlan (artist): I’d say the basic requirements to start tabling at conventions is to have a small body of work and some money to invest in stock and a display. You can start at smaller local conventions to get your feet wet and slowly add new products and improve your convention set-up with each new event. And figure out some goals for the convention. I don’t look at conventions as strictly sales events. It’s also a way to network with other professionals in the industry, as well as being active in the community. I might have a convention where sales aren’t great, but I get several original painting commissions later in the year, as a result of having tabled there.

Mike R. Underwood (author): For me, the first question when thinking about whether to attend a con is “what do I want to get out of the convention?” To me, that answer  is more telling than something dependent on your career stage. If you’re not ready to submit fiction yet but you’re writing and looking for more tools and perspectives on craft and business, cons might be worthwhile if you can find some that have good, informative programming. If you’re submitting fiction and looking to connect with other writers at your career stage, attending a convention that has a workshopping element may be a good fit both for the specific feedback and for the chance to find critique partners for projects after the con.

Rachel: Mike makes a great point about the workshops. I go to a five-day convention in October that is specifically for illustrators (Illuxcon). In addition to having two nights where I table and meet collectors, I also get to take workshops run by some of the top illustrators in the field. It’s an incredible experience.

Mark Stegbauer (comic artist): I don’t think there is a perfect time to start. You just go when you want to start. I started even before I had my first gig professionally. I went out to show my art and start establishing myself. I think it all depends on what you are offering. There is a market for pretty much anything out there. So if you feel like you’re ready and that it is worthwhile financially, then by all means go for it. I would recommend starting at a smaller local show. They are usually better for keeping finances down, and lots of the time if you tell them you are local to the show, they might give you a better rate for a table.

Rachel: I think it can also be worthwhile to attend some of the larger conventions before tabling, so you have a better idea of what everyone else is bringing in terms of stock and display.

Mike: If I’m selling at the con, I think about what I know about the con in terms of which sub-genres are likely to be popular, who the guests are, how big the con is, and how much of an insider SF/F prose space it is. Based on that, I adjust which books I’m bringing, how I’m preparing to pitch each book, and what my sales expectations are. I’m going to bring different books to a medium-size fan con like BaltiCon than I am to a big consumer show like Emerald City Comic Con.

The Wise One by Rachel Quinlan
The Wise One by Rachel Quinlan

What makes a con a good con for you?

Rachel: Nothing beats good organization, communication, and a short trip between the car and my artist table.

Mike: At this stage in my career, I attend some cons because of some combination of the following factors: 1) I want to keep up with friends in the industry, 2) I want to increase my visibility in the fan communities involved, 3) I want to sell books to this audience. I almost always want a con to fulfill two or more of these agendas to be worth my time and money. I revisit some conventions year after year (like ConFusion) because they’re affordable, they let me maintain a presence in the Michigan fandom world (#2), and I get to see people I like (#1).

Mark: Any time I can make expenses back, it’s a good show. But also connecting with new fans, and meeting new fellow professionals makes a con a good one. It’s not always about coming out financially ahead.

Rachel: Mark and Mike are both right about making connections with fans and peers.  That’s the main reason I table at events.

What kind of preparation and planning do you do for cons?

Rachel: For me, it usually involves ordering prints of new paintings and taking an inventory of my current stock.

Mike: If I’m on programming, I make sure that I’ve done my research and/or preparation for the panels, especially if I’m moderating anything. Otherwise, I’ll check to see who is attending in case there are people I want to schedule meetings/social time with and/or try to meet if I haven’t done so yet. If the con is new to me, I do research on the types of programming it has, how affordable it is, and what the con’s general vibe is—more professional, more fannish, small and intimate, large but still good for quality time, and so on.

Mark: I’ll usually look into what kind of show it is, if it’s more of a comic book show, or more of an anime show. If it’s something like a library show, I tend to bring more copies of my all-ages projects. I’ll also check inventory of my books and prints and see if I need to order more. I’ll also make sure my price list is accurate for what I’m selling.

Rachel: Mark’s strategy of tailoring his stock for the type of event is super smart and I’ll be thinking about that more for future events.

How do you evaluate whether a con was a success for you?

Rachel: Obviously, if sales are good, that’s always a plus. If the community really seems interested and receives my art well, that gives me some validation that I don’t receive otherwise. And it’s great when I get to network with other creators. That can eventually lead to jobs and other interesting opportunities.

Mike: That depends on what I wanted from the con. Often a con can be a success just because I had a good time doing or trying to do what I wanted at the con—socializing, selling books, programming, etc.

Mark: Success is different for everyone. For some people it’s about doing better than their last show. For some it’s making more connections. For me, it’s about connecting with fans and making sure all my expenses are paid for.

The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan
The Gatherer by Rachel Quinlan

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned, or the best tip you have, for ensuring you have a successful con?

Rachel: Just being friendly and attentive goes a long way.

Mike: I’ve learned to not build up hyper-specific expectations about the precise things that I want to have happen at the con, especially if they’re not under my control. It’s good to go in with a sense of what you want from the experience but it’s also good to be ready to take opportunities as they emerge and to find a way to flow with things when things go unexpectedly.

Mark: I would say don’t set your expectations so high that you are disappointed when you don’t meet them. Also remember to not take rejection of a sale personally. What you do won’t always appeal to everyone, so always keep that in mind.

Rachel: Managing expectations is great advice for a creative career in general.

What’s the weirdest or most surprising thing you’ve had happen at a con?  

Rachel: I once had a con-goer explain to me how a particular artist hero of mine created all of his work in oils, when in reality, he was known for using inks and watercolors almost exclusively.

Mike: The weirdest thing is quite possibly singing the Angry Robot theme song to the assembled populace of the opening ceremonies at Norwescon in 2017 when Angry Robot was the Featured Publisher. I’d listened to the theme song (cowritten by John Anealio and Matt Forbeck) a zillion times while prepping for my in-person interview to get the job I would go on to do for AR for five-and-a-half years, and then it never came up in the intervening time until that opening ceremony discussion, where I surprised not only the audience but also Managing Director Marc Gascoigne (aka my boss at the time) by being able to recall and perform the chorus of the song on command.

Other weird and surprising memories are almost certainly drawn from the various conventions I attended while running a publisher booth for Angry Robot and managing an unruly squadron of authors while we were all punchy and exhausted on the Saturdays and Sundays at the end of any given convention weekend.

Mark: I think probably having Jack Kirby, the king of comics, sit down next to me at an after-con party and just start chatting with all of us at the table. Awesome experience.


What have your experiences been as an industry professional (or newbie) at cons? Do you have advice for other readers, or questions to ask? Let us know and talk with others on our forum!

Mark Stegbauer
Mark Stegbauer

Mark Stegbauer is an almost thirty-year veteran of the comic business, having worked for Marvel, DC, and Image on books such as Nova, Spider-Man, JLA, Flash, and the Badger. He is the cocreator and artist of the hit all-ages comic Ghoul Scouts from Action Lab. He is also the artist for numerous Marvel card sets from Upper Deck. He can be found online at steg-art.com.

No Photo Available
Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. Underwood is the author of over a dozen books across several series, including the Stabby Awardfinalist Genrenauts. Mike lives in Baltimore with his wife and their dog. He is a cohost on the Hugo Award Finalist The Skiffy and Fanty Show and Speculate! The Podcast for Writers, Readers, and Fans. You can find Mike at @MikeRUnderwood on Twitter and on Patreon at patreon.com/michaelrunderwood.

Detail of Submerged by Rachel Quinlan
Rachel Quinlan

Rachel Quinlan is a fantasy artist, based in Saint Clair Shores, Michigan. She obtained her BFA from Michigan State University in 2001. Her work is heavily influenced by illustrators of the Golden Age. She explores themes inspired by nature, fairy tales and folktales, and mythology. Working primarily in ink, watercolor, and gouache, she hopes to craft images that are immersive, mysterious, and magical. She has a penchant for creating eccentric characters and creatures. She can be found online at rachelquinlan.com.