Wednesday, September 14, 2016

ConLife: Artist Alley 101 - Before You Step Into the Ring

Welcome to ConLife! Where in I tackle some of the questions people have asked about us travelling to so many conventions a year and selling our crafts, books and costumes. Have questions? Comment with them and let me know what you'd like me to answer!
We've all done it.  

So you arrive at the convention for the weekend, costumes packed securely in your suitcase, anime shirt and hoodie comfortably in place and wallet full of cash to spend in the dealer's room.  While you're meeting up with friends from around the country whom you only see a couple times a year, you decide to make a stop off into the Artist Alley room and take a look at the art being offered and if they have your new favorite pairing.  And somewhere, in that room full of art, you notice that these artists have suitcases of art and a table set up - and they're making money instead of spending it.  That's not too different from you is it?  Besides you can draw too, right?

You're right - and you're not.  Let me explain.

The point of this article is to give you a bit of a back door look into the world of Artist Alley and conventions.  This isn't a discussion on if you can draw/sew/sculpt and/or craft.  In fact, what you plan to make and sell doesn't really matter here, and it might even apply to full fledged vendors.  Instead I want to explore the background stuff you may not realize that goes into an Artist Alley table, even before the first item is sold and things you certainly should consider if you want to start.

1. Organization
Running an Artist Alley table is a lot of background work, so being organized is a solid key.  From convention rules, to expenses, orders, supplies and just money in general, there's a lot of information that can pile up fast.  Not to mention just keeping track of where your crafting supplies are in your own home.  It's really easy to get stressed out really fast, so if you're diving into this, attempt to be organized from the start - it'll save you a lot of headache in the future.  And trust me, you'll learn what information you need to keep track of as you go to make your life and business easier.

Simple bookkeeping can go a long way with this too. Bookmark the cons you're looking at and peruse their forums and sites for their rules. Keep track of your receipts when you make a few items and take notes. What takes you longer, what sort of things should you remember? Get used to keep track of a lot of things, because you'll need to if you start getting into this seriously.

2. Business
There's that scary word.  Running an Artist Alley table is fundamentally a small business and comes with many things that this word entails: especially customer service.  Being able to sell your craft is great and you will have people who love your stuff.  But you will also encounter people who are displeased with your item, your style, your skill etc.  The ability to put on a smile and be polite until they move to the next table is a needed skill and will help you in the long run.  You don't have to agree with them, but you do have to be polite so that they'll move on and you can spend more time with another customer who is willing to spend money.  This goes for anime series too... you may find yourself having to pretend to like a series you can't stomach just to make a fanboy or fangirl happy.  It's ok, it comes with the territory.

3. Self Care
Sitting behind a table for a weekend is easy right?  After all, you're not required to do anything other then talk and collect money and it seems like a win/win.  However, consider that some Artist Alleys can be open for 12 hours at a time and often it's a cramped space that may be hard to get in and out of, depending on your setup and how close the tables are together.  You'll need to figure out how you're going to handle bathroom and food breaks - especially if you're manning the table alone - and you WILL need them.  Pack some snacks that will tide you over throughout the day, and make sure to have plenty of water.  Have a friend that can jump behind your table to cover it while you disappear to the bathroom, or at least have a sign and let your neighbor know where you're disappearing to.  They may not be able to sell your items, but they can at least make sure nothing is swiped while you're gone.  Trust me, dehydration headaches are not something you want to go to sleep with and sitting at your table looking miserable because you're hungry is not a sign of strength, it will only hurt your sales. Plus, if you plan on going to more and more cons, keep in mind that you're the one making and selling your art, if you get sick, there is no replacement you can call in until you get better.

4. Schedule
As an average con goer you have a preferred schedule.  You have the panels you love, the friends you meet up with, the costumes you wear and masquerades and raves to attend.  The hard reality of manning an Artist Alley table is that you're likely not going to be able to do most of these.  

If you're running the table by yourself, that's especially true, but even if you have a friend to help you will have to cut down.  The simple truth is that you will sell your items the best, so you need to be at the table.  You can't set up a table and expect your friends to run it for you while you still enjoy the convention - you have to be there.  Beyond this, your sleep schedule will be wildly different from others you might be rooming with.  Since setup for the Artist Alley may be around 7am, going to a rave each night might not be the best idea if you want to avoid the con plague and return to normal life in one piece.  The same is true for elaborate costumes - you'll need to make sure they can fit behind your table and you can sit in them for long periods of time without hampering the other artists around you.  Changes will likely have to be made to how you normally 'con', so keep this in mind and plan accordingly. The nice thing is, your friends will have an easy time finding you throughout the entire con.

5. After Con Work
For someone who has an Artist Alley table, the work doesn't stop at closing ceremonies.  We pack up our bags and head home, usually with a list of items to make for customers who've already paid and for future con tables.  Even if you're not like us veterans and don't have two to three cons a month, you will still have to do some work after the convention.  Chief among this is your internet presence - because people will want to contact you after seeing your table.  Be it a customer who couldn't afford something at the con and now can, or just a random person who wants more of what you had - people will be looking for you.  So building a website, having a Facebook, twitter or instagram is pretty much a necessity.  Business cards are also a thing of wonder to pass out while at your table and to keep on you at all times. Crafting and selling doesn't stop after that weekend, you'll find as time goes on there will always be more to do.

Artist Alley isn't just a fun weekend job, there's a lot more that goes into it.  Your mileage may vary, of course, and there really is no one perfect way to run a successful table. Instead, part of the draw of the Artist Alley is the variety in that room.  From the range of crafts to how people handle it as a business or a hobby, you could spend years collecting all the different tips and tricks.  The true answer is that the more cons you go to, the more you'll learn about how to do this right and your way.  So maybe keep this as a small checklist in your back-pocket as you're packing that new suit case.  Enjoy the weekend and keep your eyes open, adjust what doesn't work and make note of what does.  Before you know it you'll be a well oiled machine and conventions will be just like the back of your hand, and you'll be sharing your own works in the process and having fun - which really is the most exciting part.

Jessica and Briana (Snow & Brichibi Cosplays) travel to about 15 conventions a year, dressing up in costumes, giving panels about writing and body positivity. Frequently at these conventions you can find us in Artist Alley or the Dealer's Room selling their novels, art and costumes. Got some questions about Artist Alley and the convention life we live? Just comment and maybe it'll be the next subject I cove on my blog!

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