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AC Dealers’ Room 2012 Post-Mortem

That title sounds weird, since it assumes that the con is dead, which it very definitely isn’t—over 5K attendees this year, and given that furry cons rake in money an order of magnitude more than any other fandom, still the biggest con of the year for me. But I like “post-mortem” more than “report” since I’m doing a bit of a dissection this year.

First, the fluff—saw a lot of great people, got to spend time hanging out with some of them that I don’t normally get a chance to see when we’re not all bent over sketchbooks muttering about commissions. Always a delight! And Kevin was working security this con, so I was very lucky to have Ben and Taliabear as my Table Minions.*

Possibly because I was at the table without relief much more than usual, I paid more attention to sales trends than usual, and after a couple of cons of these trends, and talking to a bunch of other artists, here are my thoughts. (Insert usual disclaimers about plural of anecdote not being data, etc.)

A broader, shallower pond.

The dealer’s room nearly doubled in size at this last AC, and while attendance continues to climb, it did not double in size by any stretch. This means we art-fishies are competing more fiercely for tasty tasty fish-treats, and by fish-treats, I mean money.

ETA: Well, butter my ass and call me a biscuit--the room doubled in size, but that was all aisles, and the table space only went up about 15%. I suspect that the division into two halves of the room may have been a factor in sales for some people (those of us on the "traditional" side of the room probably got more immediate hits) but that'll probably flatten out as people get used to it. (And god, I loved the bigger aisles.)

In that case, I am even more puzzled! (And thank you, Uncle Kage, for the data!)

The economy is better, if not in the boom time prior to late 2008.

The days when AC was three months rent for me have fallen by the wayside, but we’re climbing back up there, and the con continues to pay for itself plus some extra. There are certainly steps that I could take to radically lower my expenses (i.e. eat very cheaply all weekend and share a room with somebody other than Kevin) but as my income is still 99% Dragonbreath and AC is mostly love and a weekend with a bunch of buddies, I continue to treat it like a weird-ass self-funded vacation on that front.

That said, we all like money, and I would of course love to make more of it, which leads us to the next few points.

Prints aren’t selling.

Don’t ask me why, but in October 2008, print sales fell off a cliff, and while other stuff came back, prints didn’t. From making up approximately 80% of my table sales, they now make up less than 40%. Now, while I’d normally attribute that to me not putting out enough new content or something similar, I’m hearing this across the board, from very very big artists in fandom. Haven’t bothered bringing the printer for awhile now, and at no point did I feel the lack.  (40% is still a LOT, mind you, and I will always have print books, but it’s a definitely downturn.)

Jumbo prints really aren’t worth it.

Sold three. One was the pear. I can read the writing on the wall there—there’s no point in lugging a bulky, obnoxious to prepare, takes-a-lot-of-table-space item around if sales are gonna keep going this way. In a lot of ways it’s a relief, they were always a bear to fly with. So, unless the pendulum swings t’other way, for the moment I’m gonna stop lugging jumbos to the con.

Commissions stay steady.

Still not up to the Olden Days, but definitely solid. For a number of cons now, this has been true—people have X amount of money, they want to spend it on personalized art. Approximate 50% of my sales were sketchbook commissions, and I really need much better signs because people had no idea that I was taking them and/or was still available. That’s a spot where I, personally, can improve with a little advance planning—i.e. don’t wait until the day of the con to realize you don’t have a sign, and do not then draw it hastily in sharpie and then realize that your sign holder is also broken.

People want tchotkes.

Upwards of 10% of my sales were little cloisonne pins of the Pear and Happy Cthulhu. I have sold out of Red Wombat and Digger pins, and will be shelling out the money for a couple more designs before the next con. Also finally sold out of Biting Pear patches. I heard similar things across the board—people want little small things that are wearable or nifty or whatever.

Corollary: Postcards seemed to do well. Not much data on this, but I moved a lot of $1 pear cards, and myself bought a fair number of post cards from artists–stuff I can tack on my corkboard and enjoy, but not a huge showcase piece. Price point is so low on this that table space must be carefully juggled, though. Talked to a very nice woman who was selling some gorgeous cards on oatmeal paper, and she told me where to find that, so I’m looking forward to experimenting there.

That said, people are willing to pay for big pieces at the table.

My buddy Mel does art dolls, and sold a surprising number, and those are NOT cheap. I heard a couple of other similar reports about masks and other such—people will buy a big piece at the table. Possibly this is because they aren’t doing so in the art show, which leads us to…

The art show sucked for (almost) everybody.

Reports across the board, art show was really poor. Even the few individuals who can generally expect a couple pieces to go to auction and come in at four figures were much slower than usual. Couple of artists who are top of the line popular still said that they brought home a LOT of art from this one, and it seems to be an ongoing trend. While I had no mature work this year, I hear that it was even slower out there, and that this is also a cross-con trend—people just aren’t shelling out for mature art anymore.

My personal theory is that collectors are out of wall-space.

I was one of the few outliers on this, in that the art show was one of my better ones. I attribute this to two factors—sold one BIG $$$ (Thank you, Mel’s Hot Friend!) and actually had less art than usual, so those few much-loved collectors who want to go home with an Ursula original were forced to bid up pieces instead of spreading out over more art. Two actually went to voice auction.

This was not intentional on my part, and I’m unsure of how to act on the information, since I actually feel bad when somebody tries really hard to get a piece and loses it at auction–yes, the money’s awesome, of course, but I know these people. They’re my collectors, and over the years, most of them are now at least casual friends, and I hate to see them disappointed, and I can’t help but feel a little responsible. (I frequently wind up giving somewhat discounted take-home sketch commissions Sunday afternoon, since I just plain feel bad they couldn’t get the art they wanted.)

(Also, incidentally, a big thanks to Highwing and BryantFox, who cracked me up completely with the comments written on the bid sheet during their bidding war.)

Sunday was weirdly dead.

No explanations here, but the big rush that usually comes after the art show, when people have lost the pieces, did not materialize. Dead art show strikes again? Maybe. This is a single data point, though, so I’ll just keep an eye out at future cons.

Year of the Brony

Seriously. People doing MLP-themed art everywhere. It’s quite a thing. (At one point I turned to Kevin and said “All these ideas, and what we really ought to be doing is figuring out how to put fursuits on My Little Po—oh crap, I’m a genius.”  Sadly, the only way to do so is mods, and while those are fun and would sell, they’re not cheap and take a lot of time.)

All this said, and feeling weirdly alert on the drive home, Kevin and I spent most of West Virginia brainstorming about stuff. The future, it appears, is in merch, or at least prints need to be aggressively supplemented with such things.

Personal conclusions for yours truly:

1) More pin designs.

2) Do a run of postcards–mix of old and new designs.

3) Work up a couple of pendant/jewelry designs and give those a try.

4) Try luggage/backpack tags and/or keychains.

5) Ditch jumbo prints.

6) Better signs, dumbass.

7) It is not worth killing self to fill art show panels.

8) Try a couple of hand-painted prints at the table (sort of like hand-colored prints, or the stretched canvas prints, but I tend to go for stuff that involves thick paint strokes on solid colors, to give it a nice meaty texture) sealed to small boards. Inexpensive, but a little more interesting than flat prints, and not appropriate for art show.

9) Do a couple of big leather masks for the table, and hey, you never know.

Anyway, that’s my experience and conclusions. If you’re an artist who does cons, I’d love to hear anything that either contradicts or corroborates these, as well as any novel solutions you’ve come up with. (It may be a broad shallow pond, but we’re still all swimming in it together…)

*Minion badges did not sell for beans, but I’m gonna keep bringing them because I gave away quite a few. They are very very useful in that regard. May have to adjust price or offer more designs or break out a laminating device or something. Lamination…*shudder*

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


You have Biting Pear cloisonné pins!??! Since when!?!?
I would buy one!

You should get someone to sell your stuff at Further Confusion, if you don't already have one.

I'm finding that with my iPhone, iPad, and iPod all holding tons of pictures, I don't have framed art on my walls as much anymore (though one of yours holds pride of place in my husband's study).

I have to wonder if the deal with the drop off in prints may have something to do with downloadable/cd portfolios, even though I've heard the cds haven't really been going well either. Of course...the internet...so much art, so little wall space, let's load down the computer with images?

Pins are interesting, I've been considering buttons, but I just don't know if it'd be worth it. Not a lot of confidence in my art currently, and I'm failing at all marketing techniques that I try, thus I assume it's me as an artist.

Post cards....have to look into that. Maybe in the future.

I don't think so--the CDs have been around for a good decade, people were doing it when I started selling at cons, and the print sales didn't drop off a cliff until the recession hit. And the sales, as you say, aren't exactly rocking the house there either. I just don't know.

Prints are no longer selling because more and more people are doing digital work, which most folks tend to get for free. That's why original sketchbook art is still doing so well, it can't be downloaded.

As for fursuits for MLP toys, that would be one HELL of a lot of work for something I'm not sure people would buy. Be fun to see those, though.

Mmm, I don't know if that's really what's going on. Bear in mind that I started as a digital artist, have always had work on-line, and the print sales were solid of both digital and traditional stuff up until the recession, so whatever's going on, it didn't actually take effect until sometime in late October 2008.

Prior to that, for a good six or seven years, print sales were where it was at for me and most other artists I know, and the internet was certainly in full swing in those Halcyon Days of Yore.

Okay I really need to make some pins or follow through on those multi-part necklaces I was kicking around or SOMETHING.

My sales for the past couple years are hard to pin down, as I've been entering some new markets - I had 5/9 of the things I hung at Norwescon sell, but I chalk a lot of that up to me being the new flavor since I'd never exhibited there before. I also make the stuff I hang in the art show cheap, as it's limited edition digital prints rather than the one and only, and usually unframed if the con will let me get away with it.

In general I've found that it's the $25ish stuff that moves. I always leave a con with less copies of Absinthe than I came with, and when I brought Tarot decks to last FC, they sold out the first day.

And yeah. Sketchbooks. Normally those are a significant portion of my sales. They weren't at my last FC, but that's because I was offering badges for the first time at what turned out to be too low a price for the time I was putting into them. But the theme holds - people want their custom art a lot more than they want prints of random stuff.

I haven't really tried knick-knacks and tchotchkes yet, so I can't speak to how well those move historically or currently.

Huh. I thought your breakdown of what people are/aren't buying was very interesting, especially in light of my buying patterns. Some of them match, so my reasons might give you one possible explanation as to why it's that way, if you're interested.

Prints aren’t selling.
When I started buying prints, they were usually $5. I bought a lot. When the price crept up to around $7 I bought fewer, but tended to buy more if a bulk discount was offered. The same was true at $10 for a while, but at some point I realized: this print costs more than most paperback books. It makes prints much lower on my buying-list than they used to be. (If I see someone selling $5 prints these days, unless the art is hideous or obviously traced from something else, I will buy at least one, just to support them.)

Jumbo prints really aren’t worth it.
8.5x11 prints can be put in a binder and then easily pulled out for admiration later. Jumbo prints can pretty much only be put on walls. There are very few inches of wall space in my house that aren't covered by bookshelves, or previously purchased prints/posters. (Which actually kinda supports your theory that collectors are out of wall space ;} ) That, coupled with the fact that jumbo prints always cost more, means I have passed up art I've really liked because the only format was a large format.

Corollary: Postcards seemed to do well.
I will buy $1 postcards in a heartbeat. If I see someone selling $1 postcards and I find their art even remotely interesting, I will buy some. If I actually *like* their art there's a good chance I'll buy one of every card they have, not necessarily excluding ones I already have larger prints of.

So, just one fan's view, take it for what it's worth :)

Postcards can also be framed relatively cheaply and stuck in the odd corners that are left (I am out of wall space!), plus you don't feel quite as bad sticking them in a place the sun hits more than you like. Or you can stick them in the bathroom without quite as much careful prep to avoid humidity damage.

And if you just like hoarding the art, postcards take less space for the same happiness at Having.

I travel long-distance every couple of months, and so does my family. I would buy the hell out of interesting luggage tags that mean our luggage doesn't disappear into the black hole that is Heathrow baggage claims.

So what were those comments on the bid sheet like? };)

*laugh* "BryantFox--WHO HAS WAY MORE MONEY THAN HIGHWING." was the one that stuck out in my mind.

Glad to help! You're always awesome company. :3

What he said! Sorry if I came across weird at any point, the crazy bits of my brain were all "clearly you are bugging her by offering to help man the table!" - which, judging by the thank-yous, is not a fear anchored anywhere near reality. ;) Glad you had a good con, I'll probably see you there again next year!

All I know is that now that I finally have money, I am bummed that I can't get tote bags, tea, or mousepads through Ellen Million anymore. :(

I know organizing merch production is a pain in the ass, but I would blow so much of my paycheck on it if I could.

http://www.zazzle.com/ursulavernon <--- Apparently this is actually official, so um...tote bags, at least?

3) Jewelry sells well; even people without wall space at home will buy a pin or pendant they'll wear once in a while.

I think everyone here would buy one of your Biting Pear pins if we could. Alternatively, I'd buy a T-shirt, but being that I have over 300 T-shirts, I'd rather have a pin.

T-shirts are honestly not worth it to lug back and forth---ONE checked bag full negates the profit margin on a LOT of t-shirts, and you always wind up with a couple of XXS and XXXXXXL leftovers that will never ever sell. I've gone to having people buy 'em off redbubble rather than fiddle with stock myself.

I really have nothing useful to say except ...

luggage/backpack tags

... I would LOVE to see (and buy) a luggage tag or two that you've designed.

Sales were very down for me as well. Prints did not move. Portfolios and packaged things sold.... somewhat. I think in a sea of dealers, it was hard to catch the eye unless it was someone looking just for you and that is a fish already caught. I have a feeling that people don't want the paper anymore and digital is the way to go. I am going to try and package some old stuff on CDs and see what that does. It'd certainly be lighter to carry!

I like the commenter's idea about the price of prints. When I did a print sale a number of years ago, they did move faster. Maybe that's the way to go. The profit margin slides lower, but once something is printed then it is money already spent and needing to be recovered, IMO.

I did small (4x6 matted to 8x10) prints at the table for a while using repurposed mat centers. Those did pretty well with some of my more popular images (mom-safe ones, especially). I could not bring those for this convention.

Postcards are an interesting idea. I considered that a while back and forgot about it. HMM

My art show sucked lots. I left feeling pretty outclassed by the whole thing and needing to level up my skills. Not sure quite how to go about this, really, but onward and upward! I would rather feel lacking than complacent. To be fair, too, I did not see anything that I had to have, either. Lots of pretty but nothing sang to me.

Edited at 2012-06-21 12:28 am (UTC)

I have to agree with the price of prints. When they're not too expensive (5-10) I tend to buy a fair share but lately some of the more popular artists have been hitting the 15-20 mark. I still buy a couple here and there buy my budget at cons is typically pretty low so I buy a lot fewer of them. Also, the dealer's rooms are so packed sometimes that it's often not worth fighting to a table to look through print books unless I already know the artist. I will if they have art on the table that really catches my eye but being sort of crowd phobic means that there are a lot of tables I never look at because they're hard to get to. Though often if I see something I really like in the art show I look to see if there are prints of it, even if I know the artist..

I do a bit of art myself, not enough to have a table but I was depressed and stressed by the experience the last time I put anything in the art show...I sold one painting that went for the minimum bid and it was way lower than the cost of producing it, really.

As far as pendant/jewelry designs, shrinkydinks might be useful here- either doing art straight onto the sheet or somehow printing onto the sheet (ask Monoceros Media, They of the Excellent Grommet?). Once the plastic's been art-ified, they can either be cut down to a neat shape or whatevered. I dunno about you, but I'd buy a necklace made of small plaques of the various Odd Fruit in a heartbeat.

Also, good idea on the corkboard- I've been getting postcards as rewards for Kickstarters and have felt guilty about having no way to display them. Thanks!

Edited at 2012-06-21 12:21 am (UTC)

This comment reminded me of the pendants I was seeing on Etsy made from an image applied to a Scrabble tile. Handy little size, durable -- the main trick here being finding artwork that can handle being shrunk or cropped to that size without losing too much detail.

The prints thing is super complicated. I talked with Natasha and a few others at length and I suspect there are a few major contributors...
The furry demographic is changing. We're getting more and more young people coming to cons (not a bad thing) and with no disrespect intended, many (not all but many) of them have a totally different take on prints than We of No Internet when growing up. Not that I'm that old, but I still grew up in an era where having a tangible piece of art that I could look at ANY TIME I WANTED was absolutely cherished! And even now, even though I can see the art for free online, the owning of a physical copy still holds magic, because of my childhood. The difference between a nice large, well made print and a low resolution image on the internet is obvious, of course, but there is something to be said for the free instant gratification of seeing it for free online... vs. taking up space in a binder or wall in person. This argument sounds very similar to "but, digital art!" but it's different in specific ways-- the difference being how younger people feel about prints in general. I too started as nearly 100% digital when I started selling my work, and as you said it sold really well. Now, it does not. Even pieces that have never seen the light of the internet don't sell well as prints. This isn't a digital art argument.
Another change is that, at least on a larger scale than before, people prefer custom artwork. There is a special sort of gratification many people get when seeing a piece just of 'them' or whathaveyou. When there weren't as many artists available at a con, not everyone could get custom art (and especially not super cheap) thus a lot more people tended to buy prints. Now, you are pretty much guaranteed to find an artist that is open for work and in your price range at the larger cons.

Other reasons that prints don't sell-- who the hell knows! Buying trends are weirdo.

I agree with this - I also thing the huge amount of new artists/competition between artists is a big factor. If you can get a custom sketch or badge in the artist's alley for $10-20 - why would you instead spend that $10 on a print when you can just save the pic online if you want to see it? Also there's a huge art show full of original art and sketch binders full of cheap art... why get a print when you can have original art? I think this shift, along with people who never got used to collecting binders full of prints (you can only hang/show so many things) and popularity of CDs/online media has booted the print market in furry. In general shows, prints are strong - people buy them to give as gifts or hang in the house. In furry, there's so much other stuff available, why bother, I guess?