Ever shopped for a used car? I’ve done so three times now in my life, and each time absolutely dreaded the experience. No matter how (seemingly) friendly the salesman, you could smell the desperation to make a sale coming off them in waves, and a statement of “no” carried exactly the amount of weight and consideration you’d get behind the bleachers after the homecoming parade. There’s probably folk out there that love to haggle, but I ain’t one of them. Not to mention that whatever sales philosophy gets followed puts a huge emphasis on not letting you off the lot once you’re there. Much like telemarketers, ending the transaction is only possible via a) giving in, or b) engaging in what society would consider a deliberately rude act, like hanging up mid-sentence or turning your back and walking away without another word. I was conditioned not to do these things, at most being allowed to indicate my disinterest with polite but firm refusals, after which it was only right to wait for the offering party to graciously acknowledge the “no” and initiate the goodbyes.
Yeah, when’s the last time that worked? Salespeople are trained to take advantage of just that phenomenon, which means I’m not alone in that ingrained response that prevents people from just hanging the fuck up on the douche who calls you in the middle of dinner and wants to discuss timeshare opportunities. As long as they keep talking, well, it would be terribly bad form not to at least listen, right? They’re just trying to do their jobs, after all. Think of their children!
I hate it. I will always hate it. I hate the idea that people are willfully taking advantage of my instinct to be polite and reasonable. I hate that air of desperation that implies if I don’t buy what they’re selling, their family won’t eat. Most of all, I hate that feeling that I’m the young co-ed behind the bleachers whose repeated cries of “no!” are, at best, interpreted as “room for negotiation”. In a hard-sell situation where you don’t feel like buying, you end up with exactly two choices: kick someone in the nuts and run, or lie back and get fucked.
So why am I bringing all this up? Well, because sometimes, this phenomenon happens at Comic-Cons. And when I say “sometimes”, I unfortunately mean it happens with enough regularity that people become afraid to approach exhibitor booths, even if they might be potentially interested in what’s there. I know–I’ve been the guy walking the aisle with that practiced vague gaze where you try to catch a booth’s merchandise display in your peripheral vision without slowing your walk or making eye contact with the vendors staring at you hungrily. Sometimes even that’s not enough to protect you, as the following horror stories show:
– A friend was browsing the small press area when a man suddenly barged into his path in the middle of the aisle, and loudly insisted he buy his comic for $3. The comic, which had been in no way introduced, was a cheaply bound mess, and upon my friend stating he had no cash on him (which was actually true), the vendor called him an asshole and stormed off.
– Other friends were accosted on multiple occasions by a vendor shouting at them from his corner booth, trying to sell some illustrated travelogue of his personal adventures. Despite a sales pitch which included such endearing statements as identifying himself as “the best writer at this convention!”, they were not terribly interested in the product, though one did graciously offer to take a business card. “Business card?!” cried the Best Writer At This Convention, “I need to eat! Buy a book!”
– On a personal note, at one show we were neighbors to Galaxy Press, an outfit dedicated to publishing and distributing the science fiction and pulp stories of L. Ron Hubbard. It has nothing at all to do with Scientology. Honest. Okay, maybe a little. In any case, it was a little creepy watching them first offer free posters to people (fine), then offer a free picture of them holding the poster (okaaay), then the picture taker would direct them into the back of the booth area where they were flanked by smiling, attractive booth workers for the photo op… and now that they were good and trapped, the sales pitch began. I don’t believe any personality tests were given, but I was too busy praying that we’d get any traffic our way after word got around of the tar pit next door.
Now I’m not saying that exhibitors should just huddle behind their displays, out of sight and out of mind. I’ve actually experienced the opposite end of the spectrum where I tried to talk to an artist about the prints she had for sale and she completely ignored me… and no, she wasn’t drawing at the time, nor was she talking to anyone else… she was just sitting there with her arms crossed and her head turned. I’m going to be kind and assume she had headphone buds in her ears, but it was still rather awkward. And before you ask, yes, I was wearing pants.
But the hard-sell? It needs to stop. Comic Conventions are not used car lots. Comic books are not timeshares. No independent creator (that I know of) gets paid based on commission. Yes, we’re by and large not very rich people and we’d love to make a profit off of our work, or at very least make enough to break even on our exhibitor and travel costs, but if you started your comic with the idea of making bunches of money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons and you’re more than likely going to end up disappointed. If you then channel that disappointment into pressuring and abusing the people walking by, you’re not only hurting yourself, but hurting everyone around you by making a potential consumer feel like crap during a time when they figured they’d be able to jaunt about, talk to fellow nerds and browse new things they might potentially enjoy. The worst is when it happens to be their very first comic convention, and now it’s going to be their last because they had such a soured experience.
Comics are entertainment (I know, I know, yours is really deep… it’s still entertainment), and people buy comics a lot more often than they buy cars. This doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to take what you’re doing seriously. By all means, envision yourself like any other small business looking to build a brand and create a customer base, but remember some of those niggling statistics about small businesses: that many fail in the first year, and that of those that survive, most take at least three years to actually start turning a profit. Over and over again in the field of independent comics (and webcomics), you’ll hear that persistence is the key trait–but the unsung handmaiden of persistence is patience, and I do believe that a great part of patience is the patience to allow people to say no.
I’ll admit there’s a possibility I’m trumpeting all this because of my personal preferences, and I can hardly hold my personal sales approach as the path to success (we just haven’t been “in the business” for long enough), but Dawn and I have had some pretty decent outings in our convention appearances. Sometimes it seems like we’re marketing ourselves as much as the comic itself… our online sales of the print version of Zombie Ranch aren’t great, which I frankly expected given all the content is already online for free, but our convention sales have been surprisingly good, and it’s not because I’m large and loud in person. People will walk by our booth, glance at our display and move on, and I let them. Even if they stop to browse one of Dawn’s portfolio books or look at our sample comic, I often let them do so in peace, though I’m ready to slip in a greeting and offer a free postcard with our website URL should I feel like they’re interested. I’m walking that careful line in my mind between being attentive should they have questions or comments, and seeming like I’m watching their every move, and there’s times I’ll just let them leave again without a word. Maybe that’s the last time I’ll see them, but so what? If they had a taste and didn’t like the flavor, I’m not going to shove their face back into the cup. On the other hand, if they have questions, I’m more than happy to talk until they get tired of asking, and I don’t take any offense if they walk away after that. I’ve done the same, and even if I have no intention of buying right then, that doesn’t mean I won’t in the future. Or in the case of a webcomic, that I won’t check it out later and become a fan.
The thing is, unlike that experience used car salesmen have, someone “leaving the lot” at a comics convention may very well be back again, and more than that, may bring friends with them… but only if their first browse put them at ease (or I suppose if you’re giving out free iPads as swag, but that’s usually outside of our promotional budgets). You don’t need to force a “Today Buy”, and if you try, then whether you succeed or fail, they’re going to be reluctant to get anywhere near you for the rest of the day because of the awkward atmosphere you created. Heaven forbid they spend any money at the booth next to you while you stare daggers into the side of their heads, or worse, verbally accost them… and yes, that’s happened. Even if you’re meaning it as a joke, it’s disruptive at best, and is a surefire way to piss off that neighboring exhibitor. And if you don’t think maintaining good relations with fellow exhibitors is a good idea, well, let me put it this way: if you go on the convention circuit, you’re going to be seeing a lot of these people again. Going into Artist’s Alley with a Glengarry Glen Ross mindset will ensure you stand out and get noticed, and most of all remembered–but yes, Virginia, there is bad publicity. Get famous first, and then you can afford to be a prick. Maybe.
Comic conventions are full of nerds. They go there to dig up old treasures, find new ones, and hang out with people who see nothing wrong with discussing at length the merits of the Jamie Delano run on Hellblazer vs. the Garth Ennis run. In fact, the last part brings up a great point, which is that we’ve made a handful of our sales on the basis of what seems like sheer nerd cred. I’ve spent fifteen minutes talking to some random dude about superhero films, and at the end of it he buys our comic. Dawn advises some budding artist’s mother on what kind of Bristol board she likes, and that mother goes and gets the kid, and Dawn talks to the kid, and at the end of it all they buy our comic (and maybe also one of Dawn’s art prints). I joked to Dawn that it was like getting “speaking fees”, but in no way did we act like we were entitled to them… we were just enjoying talking about subjects dear to our hearts and the hearts of our visitors. We have had people come back to our table multiple times during the day… sometimes they buy, sometimes they don’t buy, and sometimes they buy more than once.
Maybe one day when we’re more popular we’ll run into the problem of having to move people along so others can have a slice of our time–but so far, we fly casual, and casual works. Not only does it work, but it’s a lot more fun for everyone on both sides of the table.
So take it easy out there, and find that precious balance between engaging a potential customer and stalking them. You’re selling a $5 sketchbook, not a $10,000 automobile, and as an independent creator you’re also selling yourself (so to speak). Give ‘em that personal touch: not the kind of touch they’ll have to show on the doll later during therapy, but a good experience that they’ll remember when they see your comic or pull out your business card. Coffee may be only for closers, but comics are for everyone to enjoy.