DoKomi 2021 - Reflections and Practical Advice for Artist Alley (Part I: The Table)
This past weekend we tabled at DoKomi in Düsseldorf. It wasn't supposed to be our first convention, but due to Corona it was. As essentially the biggest Manga and Anime convention in Germany, it was a daunting way to begin. My only experience tabling had previously been at a comic book store for FCBD in the USA, so everything from the magnitude, the professionality and set up to the pricing was completely new.
The following blog posts include a few reflections on what the experience was like as well as some practical advice that I wish I had been able to find beforehand. If you're reading this as a future Con Exhibitioner, I hope it helps!
While there are plenty of things that could have been better, on the whole the experience was a pleasant one. By writing this blog, I also hope to record my own successes and failures so that the next con is even better.
First of all, to anyone thinking of trying out a con: It was wonderful to meet new people and receive the kind of confirmation that only strangers can provide. Friends mean well, but we all know that they can sugar-coat the truth. Random people owe you nothing, and when such people make a compliment and even exchange money for art prints, then something must really be there. You probably won't make much more money than you invested to attend your first con, but the emotional reward is very empowering. Yes, there are also aspects of a con that are draining and can make the experience less enjoyable, but on the whole I would highly recommend it to any other fledgling artist.
Now on to the details. In the next couple of posts I will discuss aspects of preparation, set up and pricing before addressing the complex issue of expectations vs. reality. I've divided this series into the following topics for which I have dedicated 1 post each:
Expectations vs. Reality
I find the table to be one of the most technical and seemingly bland topics in the series, but it was actually something that I wished I could have read about more in preparation for DoKomi. After 1 con I cannot promise real "tips and tricks", but I can offer the basic advice that I couldn't find myself and wish I could have known beforehand.
1. The Table
Your table will likely be long and narrow (something akin to 120cm x 80cm) and you will probably vacillate between thinking that you have too much AND too little to fill it. Either way, you've got to rock what you've got.
I tested out my own table set up at home and then still had to improvise a little at the convention center. Ultimately, the table ended up looking like this:
Since everyone is setting up at the same time, I did not really get the chance to copy other tables and was limited to the equipment that I had. With the benefit of hindsight, these are the pros and cons that I felt my set up offered.
Two columns on either side of the table (with prints were also on the outside of the columns). This set up allowed visitors to see the art from afar and to stand at either the center of the table or the corners. As a relatively shy person, I like the opportunity to stand at the corner of the table away from the direct eyesight of the artist. While I was the artist in this case, I think some other people felt the same way. The advantage of this set up is thus that people could look at the prints with a degree of privacy if they so desired. (Note: I required 24 songmics storage organizer squares for this build.)
A postcard stand drives sales. The central postcard stand that I have (meant for 12 postcards, but I stuffed it with over 15) was the source of most of my sales. A majority of people who came to my table wanted an affordable mini-print in the form of a postcard, which is why halfway through the first day I even set up postcards in front of the cups and even had them leaning up against the bottom of the postcard stand. Even if you say that an A4 print is available as a postcard, people are only really interested in the A6 postcards that are actually on display. So buy a postcard stand!
Put large portfolio on the table. A portfolio is the most space-efficient way to display large posters and gives the viewer a chance to look through them at their own pace. Even though postcards were sold more often, I had more sales of A3 prints than A4 prints. Some people even decided not to buy anything if it wasn't available in A3. This is not something that I expected, but I also never would have had the space to display that many A3 posters without a portfolio. Moreover, almost every person who bought something at my stand looked through the portfolio first and many people who didn't purchase anything still seemed to enjoy flipping through it. (Corona note: keep hand-sanitizer readily available on the table. We removed it for the photo, but it should be near the portfolio.)
List prices multiple times in multiple places. People will always still ask you if the 2€ postcard costs 2€, but often they will say this with a 2€ coin already in their hand. Make it as easy as possible for people to confirm the cost of an item.
Spread out business cards everywhere. I was unsure whether to put this point in the merchandise section or here, but since business cards are free and more like a part of the table than the goods for sale, I decided to put them here. Indeed, I thought it was a trope, but there really are people who collect the business cards on the first day, take notes on them, and then use them to make purchases on the second day. People use the business cards to inform their spending! Give them something to hold on to. (Note: I probably went through about 150 business cards over 2 days.)
Maximum 2 chairs behind the table. We were three people running the stand, but we only had space for two chairs. This worked out well, because it essentially made it necessary for one person to always be walking around the convention. For a single-table stand you really shouldn't ever need more than two people, but at the same time it is very useful to always have both people at the stand (1 for getting the prints out and bagged for sale, the other handling money/card payments). With a third person floating around, it was always easy to arrange for food/bathroom breaks as well as the chance to attend events while ensuring that two were always at the stand.
(Didn't) Utilize the space directly above the table. While the two columns of hanging space worked well at my table, I wish I could have had another 6-12 songmics squares to connect the columns above the table. Most other stands did this and the additional hanging space would have been nice. On the flip side, some stands hung rows upon rows of prints in this overhead space, which made the stands look overly full and a bit claustrophobic (something I would try to avoid).
(Didn't) Use the songmics squares to build cubby holes on top of the table. If you look at the picture of our table, you'll see that I built the corners of the songmics structures backwards (specifically the right corner). The way I built them, there is a shelf on the second tier and an empty space directly below. This lower space is essentially dead space, because it is hidden from view and thus not usable for display. (I ended up taping signs so as to fill the empty space.) Since you'll need to build a cube-shape in the corner of the structures to ensure greater stability for the tower/column of squares either way, it would be better to build the cube corner so that there is one panel missing at the back rather than the front. This way when you are sitting behind the table you can use the cube to hide your phone/drink/snacks out of view WHILE you can use the other walls of the cube that face the front of the table for displaying more stuff. Win/win. (I understand that this might not make a lot of sense in writing, but as soon as you find yourself actually building the structure you will understand what I mean.)
(Not) Enough stands / shelves. Given the size of 1 table, I assumed 1 postcard stand and the songmics squares would be enough display area. They weren't really. It would have been nice to have both more postcard display space as well as a smaller stand for charms/pins. Some others used corkboards or other upright display surfaces for charms/pins/stickers, which would have certainly looked better than just spreading them out on the table.
(Flat plastic instead of...) Wire-Frame Songmics Squares. The songmics storage squares (or similar alternatives) are available in flat plastic and wire frame variants. Before setting up my own table, I thought the flat plastic looked better. Now I know that a) it doesn't matter what it looks like because it gets covered with art and b) it is less versatile than the wire frame variety. This distinction comes down to one major issue: to hang up my prints on the plastic I could use either patafix or tape. Art prints don't really like either of these substances. With a wire frame, there are more options for hanging including string and clips as well as old-fashioned tape. For my next con I will definitely acquire some wire-frame squares in addition to my flat plastic ones. At the end of the day, it is probably a good idea to have a mix of both.
(No) Standing banner. Admittedly, for my first con I wasn't ready to financially invest in a standing banner to put in front of my table. While I do not regret this decision, for the future I would really like to have some signage. Except for the business cards on my table, I didn't have anything to make it clear that this was the "Siggiko" table. In the future, a banner of any kind would really improve the professionality of the stand.
(No) Under-table storage and categorization system. I had an open suitcase, random boxes and random bags of stuff under the table. I basically knew where everything was, but it was not that orderly and my assistants frequently had trouble finding things when I wasn't at the table. Make it easier for yourself and anyone helping you out by setting up an organized system to store your goods under the table and make them easily accessible at the same time. I noticed that some artists had mini-filing cabinets for prints and index card boxes for stickers, which certainly made it quicker for them to find what they wanted. While I do not think I will invest a lot of money into filing systems, I will certainly rethink how I store my goods.
Beyond the pros and cons of my own table, I tried to be relatively self-aware of my own reactions to the set ups of other tables. While the following points are heavily based on my own idiosyncrasies, there are still based on my honest behavioral response. My introvertedness may be a bit extreme, but I do think that my reactions to certain types of tables are not unique and thus may be informative. There are also a few points regarding tabling info that don't clearly fit into the "pro/con" dichotomy.
Overcrowding. Some tables were blanketed with tons of merchandise. While this probably makes sense for those selling mostly buttons, pins and stickers, I imagine that these tables are only really looked at closely by the people who love buttons, pins and stickers. I admittedly bought more stickers than anything else at DoKomi, yet I do not consider myself a sticker person. I found these overcrowded tables off-putting, especially because I am too introverted to get that close to the table (and the artist). Yet from a distance the tiny buttons, pins and stickers were not really recognizable. It was thus awkward to stand far away as well as to get up close. (In a few cases the tables were overcrowded with art prints rather than tiny doodads, but the principle is still the same.) In short, overcrowded tables typically overwhelmed me more than they attracted me, so I usually walked past them.
Sparsely populated tables. The same logic applies to the other extreme. Tables with fewer than 10 prints/items means that there is little space to hide from the gaze and greeting of the artist. It's also hard to know how long to awkwardly stand there, because your eyes can scan 10 pictures in a matter of 2 seconds. As a result, I usually just walked a bit slower past such tables and got my 2 seconds in without stopping. If you are starting a table with just a few prints, consider easy solutions like hanging up doubles or putting a little extra decoration on the table to fill the space.
Double and mega stands. At most conventions you can choose between 1 table, 2 tables or even bigger, more professional mega stands. Depending on the cost of the table, you should really consider whether you need the space. I personally do not think a double table would have doubled my sales, and thus it would have been that much harder to just cover my costs. For some of the mega stands, I really wondered whether the artist was going to break even. At the same time, I saw artists that I recognized from Instagram with single tables and it looked like they were doing very good business. All in all, I think putting something like a portfolio on the table is a great way to save space and I would discourage other new artists from starting off too big.
WiFi, outlets, and other amenities. Buying anything extra at DoKomi is basically prohibitively expensive. The good news is that when you are booking your table, you probably do not need to get these things. I did not notice any other artists using fancy electronic equipment and for those that had card payment options, cellphone data was enough. All the same, do try to investigate in advance whether there is good service at the convention center you'll be at and reconsider whether you will actually need WiFi or outlets.
Tablecloths and sheets. A nice tablecloth is an easy way to make a good impression and the best impression probably requires you to have a tablecloth that almost reaches the floor (at least on the front-facing side). Otherwise everyone can see the boxes of merch under your table. Because it will need to be fire-resistant, do not make the mistake that I made and try to google "fire-resistant tablecloth". The results I got either didn't confirm that the tablecloth was actually fire-resistant or only sold them in bundles of 10 or 100. The first tablecloth I bought using this method arrived and wasn't actually even fire-resistant. The smarter solution is to just go to your local fabric store and ask for the fire-resistant fabric. Then you can just buy 2 or 2.5 meters of it and call it a job done. If you're lucky, you have a friend with a sewing machine who can hem it for you or you can to what I did and haphazardly hem it by hand. Either way it's more reliable than putting search terms into Amazon. On a similar note, it is probably a good idea to also get an additional bit of fabric that you can spread over your table when the day is over. While the likelihood of someone stealing your stuff after the visitors have left is pretty low (I've only heard of a few cases), I certainly would have felt more confident leaving some of my more expensive products on the table if they had been covered with a sheet for the night. However, I didn't have such an extra cloth and just got anxious about it instead (for no reason; nothing was stolen).
Alright, so that was more than I planned to write, but these are some of the questions that I had about the table going into DoKomi. Hopefully they overlap with yours and were helpful or at least interesting to you!
Check for the next update again soon where I will discuss the meat of the convention: merchandise!
Expectations vs. Reality