C4 Winnipeg Post Mortem 2017

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General Impressions

I’ve had a lukewarm relationship with C4 since I’ve started doing conventions. Wherever I go, I can predict what I’ll make, taking into account all the various factors. This convention is the exception to the rule. I can guess, but I never know for sure, because the formulas just don’t work for this one.

Sam and I arrived downtown at the RBC Convention Centre, after stuffing her 1984 Firebird full of boxes, banners, a flat screen TV, and a large portable battery. And so began the annoying part of the weekend: parking and loading.

(So sporty)

If Hell is a place, it is perpetually loading and unloading in preparation for an event that never comes.

The convention centre itself is actually two buildings: the north (older) and the south (new). They are connected by a skywalk (or as we say in Calgary, +15s [pronounced: Plus Fifteens]) There are two underground parking lots: one on the north side, and one on the south, and are they connected? No siree. Did we park in the south, knowing that that’s where we were going to be, only to be told that we HAD to load in the north side in the service elevator, even though we were just two people with a wee dolly and some boxes, and walk all the way across the hall multiple times? Yes. Yes that is what we had to do. Did we have to pay for parking in two different lots? Oh yes.

Also when we arrived, we went to where artist registration was the previous year (where it was supposed to be), only to be told to go up to the convention floor, where we would be issued our passes. Okay. We followed those directions, and “checked in.” We were told by volunteer staff that they were NOT issuing passes until Friday morning, and we could just come and go as we pleased.

So essentially, anyone who had that knowledge on Thursday could have made their way into this public building, went up the elevator, and had their pick of all the vendors’ stuff without verification. Event staff obsessively checked wristbands on every other day, except this very important one, when apparently there were no wristbands to give.

We ended up loading in, going to Wal-Mart for extra supplies, going to back to the convention centre to drop those things off, and going home for the night, leaving set up until morning, hoping our stuff was still there.

It was: everything was fine. Thank goodness.

Speaking of the wristbands: I had mixed feelings about them. Usually conventions give you lanyards or at the very least, pinned nametags. It acts as a security measure, but also identifies you as a vendor to customers. C4 issued dollar-store level sparkly wristbands, as if we were at a theme park, to vendors and customers. I heard that weekend pass customers had the SAME wristbands as vendors—very confusing. We were essentially forced to wear this wristband for three days straight (Scott Henderson had his fall off—I had the opposite problem, I could barely get it off at the end!). Even though the lanyard obscures your outfit and makes wearing necklaces problematic, at least I can be identified.

Location

Sam and I purchased an artist alley endcap back in January for $737.50, split between us. That was the early bird pricing: an artist alley endcap happens at this convention when you buy three artist alley tables together. It’s cheaper than an actual booth in the vendor section.

Our space last year had a decent location: we got some good traffic, but we wondered if we could do better. After the mixed success Chadwick and I had last year, Sam and I decided to team up with a more expensive space, reasoning that we’d have better placement.

Then, the organizers decided it would be a good idea to put all the writers together in one section. I have mixed feelings about that practice. In theory, the reasoning is sound: book people stick together! The customer gets to go right to author alley and buy all the books! However, it also creates more immediate competition between booksellers, especially those selling similar products. You have to be the best you can be in your row if you want to compete for customer dollars.

Originally, Sam and I were bringing up the rear of this double-row of authors/graphic novelists. We were not pleased with this arrangement: too much empty space, with celebrities a thousand miles away on one side and across from the photo ops (Delorian, etc). Basically you’d have 1/3 of your booth actually being effective. Getting a good location at a con is rolling the dice a lot of the time. But after paying nearly $800 upfront ten months ago, it was like being slapped in the face. We asked to be moved, but we were not accommodated.

Eventually, Sam complained on social media on a thread of other disgruntled artists, which caught the attention of Violet Paille. The two had an exchange that began in public and ended in private, resulting in us being moved to the other side of the row, which was a better spot—the end cap should have been there in the first place. Unfortunately, this resulted in the reshuffling of our good friend Chadwick Ginther, in a move that felt vindictive (“Chadwick can be across from the Delorian. Someone has to be” were her public words on Facebook). She’s not wrong that “someone” has to be across from the Delorian, I suppose, though tables were rearranged so they faced away from it. We didn’t want Chadwick to be punished, so Sam replied via email that we didn’t have to be moved–but we were moved anyway.

I think it ended up being okay for everyone in the end (all artists reported mediocre sales/engagement), but it was unfortunate that we had to cause a stir just to be acknowledged, and we felt terrible that we put Chadwick in a bad place because we expressed our feelings publicly. He should not have been publicly punished for what could have been resolved privately between us and the con organizer.

Display

We didn’t have pipe and drape (that was not included in booth cost – it was extra – very unusual for large cons). We had three tables: one in the front, and two on the sides. And virtually no way into our space, unless we wanted to walk halfway down the aisle and through the back of everyone else’s displays, which would inevitably be impossible once everyone’s banners and chairs were set up. We didn’t want to deal with that.

So, we changed things.

We took our leftmost table and put it behind us, and set up our banners on top, and draped some boxes to create a place for Sam’s prints. This created a barrier between us and the other artists, but it was also a feature piece that headlined the whole row. We set up a shorter table to the left – you know, so we could actually get in and out without crawling under the table in our dresses. We lost a tiny bit of table real estate, but since the only thing across from us were the celebrities (a thousand zillion feet away), we maximized our corners and key traffic points, beaming content into everyone’s eyes.

I’m always a little nervous when placed by the celebrities. Regardless of the gulf between the artist tables and the celebrity signing spots, it means that my traffic is guaranteed to come in large waves. I found sales were brisk when one of the celebrities (usually John Rhys-Davis) was signing.

Sam set up her flat screen TV, powered by a portable battery (electricity was extra – not unusual at conventions), so she could do live art. The plan was to leave it running all day and play a looping slideshow promoting the both of us when she wasn’t doing art. This worked for a little while, but as we found out after the show, the kind of battery she had was more for jump-starting cars and less for powering TVs. It attracted a lot of attention, but she probably wouldn’t do it again in that way because bringing an entire TV and a battery isn’t that feasible for every single convention. She found that because she wasn’t actively selling while doing her art, people felt more comfortable engaging with her, resulting in a couple of sales.

Sam also created free colouring sheets and gave them away to all the children (and anyone else) who expressed interest. We had a corner of the booth dedicated to colouring. I wasn’t sure how this would turn out but we actually had a couple of people hang out and colour!

The two of us build mini book towers for our books, in spiral fashion (you cannot escape an Uzumaki reference Sam, we cannot, we belong to the spiral now). This works when you have a lot of stock! I think it looked all right, and I’ll play with this set up at my Christmas shows when I can put even more stock on the table. The disadvantage of this set up is the more you sell, the smaller the towers get, and perhaps the less inclined the customer is to disturb the display, to handle the project.

My poor display boxes are starting to get chipped and damaged. This is the second time they’ve been in a suitcase. Hopefully I’ll have my butterfly display for my Christmas shows.

This is probably one of the nicest displays I’ve had in a while! You know who also thought our display was great? John Rhys-Davis! He appeared before Sam while I was getting coffee, and told her that our display was lovely, and wished us a successful weekend. He was so nice!!

SAM AND I RARELY TAKE PICTURES TOGETHER BECAUSE WE ARE VERY BUSY DOING A BUSINESS!

Sales

I did okay. Better than last year, but still not up to par with what I would expect from a convention this size.

The margins in the publishing business are razor thin. Sometimes I offer discounts, but honestly, even though I’m cutting out the middle man by going direct to customer, it’s not like I’m rolling in the dough. Even when I am rolling in the dough, there are a lot of expenses that are hard to cut down on (shipping, table cost, travel cost, not to mention the cost of actually making the product).

The Violet Fox and Stars In Her Eyes were neck and neck, once again. I sold more Violet Fox bundles because of the price point. I had people return for The Silver Spear and Hunger In Her Bones, more than I expected, which was awesome. Some eBook sales, but mostly print books – I also didn’t have my eBook sign with me so I possibly would have gotten more bites if I’d had it.

Together, Sam and I were able to make some money. If I had been alone, I would not have the display power to fill the space and it wouldn’t have worked out. But when they passed around the earlybird renewal, asking for $300 minimum for an artist alley space (which would increase over the next 12 months), we noped out of that.

Cool People

When you go to a con, it’s not just about the experience behind the table, but who you meet and what you do with them. So glad that I got to hang out with all my Winnipeg friends: Chadwick Ginther, Scott Henderson, Hope Nicholson, Greg Chomichuk, Justin Currie, Nyco Rudolph, and James Gillespie especially!

On Saturday night, despite Sam’s migraine, we went out to supper with Nyco and Scott and one of Sam’s old friends, and then all of us went to a studio party at Greg and Justin’s. We couldn’t stay for super long, but I had a great time chatting with James and Andrew Wheeler (graphic novelist from Chapterhouse).

Back at the con, Sam and I were across from Chasing Artwork (Justin Currie). He always does a good business, and it was a treat to get to look at his art for three straight days! Earlier this week after the con, Sam and I returned to Justin and Greg’s studio to record their new podcast, and we also talked about Very Special Secret Business!

Also, THANK YOU to so many people who returned to buy my new books! I had way more people than expected buying book twos and book threes. I think when Winnipeg likes you, they LOVE you. Yay!

Also: there were a LOT of Adventure Zone cosplays at this convention! I counted EIGHT people! I usually see at least one or two.

“I’m just looking”

I’m used to engaging with potential customers, whether that’s saying “hello” to everyone who passes by, or with a book-related opening line, “Do you like to read?” At this convention, people were on the defensive. More than half the time, they did not want to interact with me unless they initiated the conversation. Even saying “Hello, how are you?” elicited a “I’m just looking!” defense. My instinct is to reply, “I’m just saying hello.”

My selling style is not what I would call aggressive. I am assertive in that I will acknowledge your presence and attempt an interaction purely to see what kind of person you are. If you are a book person, I might attempt to engage you with my product. If you are a shy person, I’ll let you tell me what you’re comfortable with. If you come at me with high energy, I’m going to respond on that level too. I let my customer dictate who they are. But it’s hard to tell who they are if I don’t get a taste—hence, me saying hello to you. By Sunday, I had to relax a lot of my natural friendliness and allow them to initiate the conversations just so I wouldn’t scare people away.

Because I got a lot of “I’m just looking” immediately, that tells me that there are a) a lot of people actively selling at this convention and they’re tired out b) they have a tight budget and don’t want to be pressured into a purchase. I got the sense that it’s the latter. It cost $35 per adult to go on Saturday alone, which seems pricey just to get in the door. That doesn’t include parking, any food purchases, or celebrity autographs. That’s literally just for the experience of walking around the convention centre. I saw many families there—I don’t know if there was a family pass, but I can see how a family of four on a Saturday (children under 12 got in free, but if you’re 13-17, it could cost you $26) could spend $200 in one day if they just wanted to get there, have food, and get a celebrity autograph, without engaging the vendors.

Weird Interactions

There were an inordinate amount of security guards at this event. Maybe it’s just because we were by the guests, but we had at least two security guards loitering around our table earlier in the convention, standing off to the side of our table, as if they were guarding both Chasing Artwork and us from…danger? It was a little unsettling and not good for business. I would have been more fine with this if one of them didn’t try to chat me up while he was working.

This con has its share of odd interactions. You often can’t escape because you’re stuck behind the table. It’s one thing to be engaged by someone who has a mental disability, but it’s another to be engaged by someone who knowingly takes up your time by talking about themselves and doesn’t buy anything.

Will I go back?

Nope. Unless it comes under new management – even so, I’ll have to give it a few years before I’d trust them with my money and time again.

The convention ended at 5pm on Sunday. Yet word went around that it was open until 6pm. Even though the website and the programs said 5pm, and people were already filtering out by 4:15pm. There was even an announcement near 5pm that told the vendors that it was open until 6pm. What? Five minutes later, another announcement, telling attendees to finish up their purchases. Then, another announcement saying that dollies were not allowed on the floor until 6pm. Uh, why? Sam and I looked at each other and were like, we are getting out of here, by any means necessary.

Sam retrieved the dolly from the Firebird and brought it back to the convention floor. On her back to the booth, she was told by a volunteer that dollies were not allowed on the floor.

She picked it up so the wheels weren’t dragging and continued walking.

A volunteer also came around, apparently, and told Justin Currie that his little suitcase was blocking the giant aisle with a ton of empty space. Right.

It took us probably an hour and three trips featuring extravagant balancing acts to load everything out. Everyone seemed to be using the large freight elevator. It was just very frustrating note to end on. Normally we would end C4 by going to Eastern Indian Company with all our artist friends, but almost everyone was too tired or frustrated. Sam and I got take out Indian and commiserated.

This convention is a hard nut to crack. It’s in an expensive venue downtown. I have to travel there. I have to ship books. It’s one of those things where it passes all of my litmus tests for cons: it’s been in existence for many years, it has at least 20,000 people or so, there are celebrity guests. Yet, when you go there, it doesn’t conform to my expectations, sales wise.

I gave C4 a solid two years, but there are other shows I can do at the end of October instead that won’t break the bank. If I lived in Winnipeg, I might be able to justify the cost, and spend the money to build up those return customers. But it probably would be easier and cheaper for me to just find a retailer or fellow vendor to carry a couple of copies at C4 next year.

That is, if the convention exists at all. There were signs of decay at this convention: badly photocopied programs. Bad communication. Volunteers who appeared listless—and maybe too young. There seemed to be no difference between a volunteer who was on duty and one who was off-duty, other than what was denoted on their lanyard (THEY got lanyards!). I started thinking, I hope I don’t get sexually harassed this weekend because these volunteers don’t inspire confidence or appear trained to handle that situation. That made me extremely nervous.

It’s not just about lanyards, or untrained volunteers, or badly photocopied programs. If you can’t deliver on the promised experience, people are going to be upset and they won’t return.

I’m honestly just very over this convention – it’s an excuse for me to visit Sam and everyone else. If C4 can’t resolve its issues, if it doesn’t get bought by Fan Expo or Wizards of the Coast, there are plenty of other shows dedicated to creating a community who could fill the vacuum:

Prairie Comics Festival – organized by a committee that includes Sam as well as Hope Nicholson. It’s not only free to attend, but the tables are free for the artists.

FanQuest just started last year – just met the organizer Dan the other day, and he seems dedicated to putting on a good show. I’ll be watching that show with interest.

Ai-Kon – The anime convention here apparently has a dedicated community.

Well, just TWO MORE SHOWS TO GO this year! Calgary Holiday Expo and the Festival of Crafts Show, also in Calgary.

To follow my sales journey and to see how I did at past conventions, click here for the full list of articles.
I talk conventions with my BFF on my new podcast, BUSINESS BFFs. Listen here.