How to Start Selling at Conventions 101
Note: This series was written assuming conventions will happen again similarly to how they were before after a Covid-19 vaccination is developed. Additions will happen as things start to change in practice. Stay safe and wash your hands!
Have you ever seen gone to your favorite convention and seen all the people selling in the Artist Alley and Vendor halls? Have you thought to yourself, "I could do that!"? Have you ever wondered how your favorite webcomic artists make a living? Have you wondered where to make your own enamel pins or acrylic charms?
I put together a guide for you to start your own journey through the wonderful world of convention selling. I'll cover the basics like merchandise and displays, and go into the real facts about taxes, taking payments, customers, and more. I'll go into the lesser known items like factory sourcing and what your income really is. Let's get started!
This post is the first installment of my "How to Sell at Conventions" conventions series. In this first entry, I'll go over a basic rundown of what you need to sell at a convention and what you need to be thinking about before you register. In the following articles, I'll go more in-depth for every topic talked about in this piece. Stay tuned for more soon!
The first step to getting started is to determine why you want to sell at these events. Do you have a comic you are trying to get in front of as many eyes as possible? Do you want to sell in person as well as online? Are you a convention traveler already and would like to fund your trips? Did you see someone tweet that they made lots of money at their last convention and you want to give it a shot?
I often tell new people to the convention scene to start by planning your goals, because it will get you started and successful faster. Goal setting is the first step of a business plan (an official and useful document from the business world) and goal setting will help bring some realism to your ideas. If you're coming into this industry to get rich fast or work an easy, no stress job, you're here for the wrong reasons. Very few of us work this job full-time and have it make enough money to support ourselves and others. The most successful among us are not mega-rich. I don't want to scare people from starting their journey into this field, but many places try to hide the reality of how difficult this job can be to capitalize on the uninformed.
Here's a look at the average convention income in 2019 (data provided by the Artist Alley Convention Census by Kiriska).
Not quite "Get Rich Quick" numbers are they? If you're looking to supplement your income or to just go to get your work out there, these numbers aren't so bad. If you want to make this job your career, make sure you know what kind of financial situation that this might put you in. I will never recommend that anyone without experience jump in and try to acquire 100% of their necessary income from this job.
Again, I do not want to scare anyone away from this. I just want everyone to be as informed as possible. If you'd like to look at all of the data about what people that already sell at conventions and their lives look like, I highly recommend reading the 2019 Convention Artist Census data.
After looking at the data, have you changed your mind about anything? Does it change the goals you started with? I'll be going into depth about the actual process of starting a business focused on convention selling in the next writing, but until then, continue to think of your goals while you read.
Now that you know what you are getting yourself into, lets go over the essential items for a convention seller.
ESSENTIAL CONVENTION SELLING ITEMS
Selling at conventions is like a combination of selling at a retail shop and at a seasonal outdoor market. You will need the right tools and setup for the job. Below I have divided the essential items into what you will need to have before the show, and what you will need while the event is happening. These lists change with personal preference, but I will list the majority of options I see fellow sellers using.
BEFORE THE SHOW
Complete this checklist:
read the convention attendance policies and rules
read the rules about what can be sold at the area you plan to vend in
apply for a vendor spot
know if you need to purchase registration separately or not
know what tax licenses and documentation you need during the show
know what tax licenses and documentation you need after the show
know if you will be able to leave your items in the vendor space overnight
know what the convention is providing for you (table, chairs, etc)
have an emergency plan prepared for things at home and on the road
arrange for pet/child/plant care while you will be away
know the location of where you will need to go for load-in/load-out
plan a loose schedule to ensure you are at the right places at the right time
research food and lodging at the location of the convention
learn how long your display takes to build and to tear down
Have these items prepared:
confirmation of your attendance as a vendor (have a physical copy)
confirmation of receipt of your payment for a vendor space
proper tax information and documentation
official ID for you and anyone helping in your space
a place to stay during the duration of the event
confirmation of your lodging
a way to the convention for you and your stuff
a way back from the convention for you and your stuff
any maps/GPS system to get to and from the location
a meal plan for travel to, during, and travel from the convention
a physical list of load-in and load-out times, and open vending hours
a display that is planned to fit the size of your vendor space
all merchandise in travel containers
ways to accept payments in the forms you are taking (cash, card, etc.)
a personal bag with ID, registration, and other essentials like medication
clothing that will be weather-/location-appropriate for selling in
shoes that will help your feet walking/standing for long periods
items to keep you safe and healthy (hand sanitizer, face mask, etc)
DURING THE SHOW
If you're a vendor, the show for you starts before things officially open. Plan accordingly. Many vendor spaces have setup time a whole day before the convention officially starts. Know if you will need to take that time.
Do these tasks:
arrive on time for load-in, as early as possible for easier loading
park in the proper location for loading
know if your vehicle can stay there or if it will need to be moved
set up your display and merchandise
organize your merchandise to hand it to customers more quickly
plan on staying the entire duration of sale hours every day
make a food plan for each sale day
have a plan for what happens to your items and display after sale hours end
Have these items:
your display items (including a price list)
commission-making materials (if you're offering them)
business cards or other ways to find you online
documentation proof that you can sell (tax ID, registration, etc)
something to keep all of your receipts in
change for accepting cash payments, card reader for card payments
any helpers that will be helping you in your space
a positive attitude
water (stay hydrated!)
energy to get through the whole event
an easily accessible location for hand sanitizer for you
If you follow these tips, you will survive selling at a convention! Pay special attention to the specific rules of your event like when tax documentation needs to be filed. If an event will let you leave things in the vendor area overnight, decide what you want to leave. I leave my display up, but I never leave my merchandise to reduce theft risk. No matter what the rules are, never leave your money or personal bag in the hall overnight. It's risky, and if you need something, convention staff will not let you back in until it opens tomorrow!
When you hit the end of the convention, take your time to get everything put away safely. You'll be tired, but it is not worth rushing home if you could get injured. Also watch your things extra carefully at closing time. There will still be attendees roaming the vendor hall; don't leave your items an easy target for theft. Tear down slowly and carefully, and take your time loading out. Don't get banned from an event because you couldn't wait for your turn on the elevator. After you have everything packed away, triple-check your area for left behind items. If you borrowed or rented anything from the convention hall, return it to the proper area. Tear down and returning home should be the easiest part of the convention.
Once you make it back home, celebrate! You did it! I always celebrate by taking the next day off. It takes a lot of energy to sell at an event, your body will need to recharge. Taking time to rest will help you not burnout, especially if you start doing shows every month or even every week!
GOING FROM ONE SHOW TO BEYOND
After your rest, take stock of the event. Count your leftover inventory, total up your sales, file your receipts, make your income and expenses sheet, and file your sales tax. Did you make as much as you expected? Less, maybe more? Were there unexpected expenses, or did you plan for it all? Did you break even on total costs? Profit? How about profit that was not monetary? Did you gain new followers or subscribers? Sell your comic to new readers? Make friends with the people selling around you?
There are many ways that a convention can be helpful besides earning some income. What did you learn? Maybe you learned that it was too much and you never want to do it again. I hope not, but it happens! Maybe you saw one of your neighbor's displays and you're going to redesign your whole table layout. Maybe you sold out of one print and had people asking you about similar ones. Maybe you thought that one protein bar would be enough lunch and you found out it wasn't. Maybe you realized that the sales part is a lot harder than you planned on. Maybe you're a natural salesperson!
The next step in your journey is figuring out if your experience at that show has changed any of your goals. Are you still on track with your business plan? Did you do things last minute and now you need to make a logo for real for next show? Did you get enough sales to consider doing this full-time? Even if you haven't gone to an event yet and are just reading this, do you feel prepared enough for your next show?
One show is not enough to make a business, but it could be the start of one! Here is my 9 step plan to go from "Artist" to "Artist and Small Business Owner":
Access personal goals for the business
Calculate the cost of all needed materials
Determine how to acquire funding
Decide what level of time to commit to starting the business
Create a plan to achieve those goals including a timeline
Work! Create merchandise, apply for shows, build skills, make it happen!
Re-access if timeline and goals are reasonable, revise plans
Work until goals are met
Make new goals! Succeed!
I hear some of you thinking, "But how-to blog, I don't want to be a business owner, I just want to make art and sell it at conventions!" That's a perfectly reasonable goal to have. The issue that can arise here is your intention. Do you want to just make art and incidentally are selling it at conventions? Or do you want to be making money as your goal? According to the IRS, as soon as your goal becomes income, you no longer have a hobby, but a business. Remember back at the beginning of this writing when I asked you to think about what your main goal was? This was the main reason.
If you decide that you want to keep convention selling as a hobby and making art is your main goal, wonderful! I'll have some upcoming writing just about conventions that can give you some more tips.
If you decide that your main goal is selling your art and making income, welcome to the industry! All of my upcoming writings in my Convention 101 series will be relevant to you. Let's get your business started!
All of my checklists did not have much detail. This article was to give a quick idea of what people would need for one convention. But what does a display even mean? The list said to have tax information, how would someone find that? I plan on discussing every single item talked about in this piece in detail in the following posts. The format will be following my recommended chronological guide to starting an art business that focuses on conventions, and then broaden out. Here are the main topics and subtopics we will be covering as we go:
STARTING A BUSINESS
Selling at Conventions 101 (you are here!)
The Brainstorming and the Business Plan
Taxes, what you can do on your own, and when you need an accountant
Bookkeeping and Receipts, becoming an accountant (or not!)
Money: business bank accounts, online payments, credit cards, and loans
THE Income Question (Business VS Hobby)
Time Management: business work vs product work
Protecting your IP: Image theft, DMCA, Trademarks, Copyright
Ethical Business Practice: politics, image, sustainability, and accessibility
MARKETING AND SALES
Branding: logos, color schemes, accessibility, legal
Branding: business cards, website, online store front
Traditional Marketing: advertisements, in-person
Social Media Marketing: platforms, management, and RSS
Customers: the good, the bad, and the annoying
Commissions: how, where, in-person vs online
Recurring Payments: Patreon, Ko-fi, other platforms, tiers
Online Sales: platforms, FAQ
Shipping: online postage, USPS vs others, international rates
Shipping: labels, label printers, packaging, sustainability
Crowdfunding: Kickstarter vs other sites, why, how
Selling Internationally (USA based)
Convention Displays, what kinds and why
Materials: what are they made of, where to get, table sizes
Design: design, colors, safety, interactivity, theft reduction
Dressing to match your booth and the convention
Where to get organizers and other equipment for the show
Tying It All Together: A Convention Display That Works
What do people sell at conventions? Online?
How much should I buy? (The Rule of 10s)
Pricing: industry standards, community standards, products
Sourcing: print shops, apparel shops, POD shops, being hired
Factory Sourcing 101: avoiding scams, imports, group orders
THE Fanart Question and trends vs interests vs sales
What kinds of conventions should I sell at?
What am I allowed at to sell conventions?
Convention Applications, how and when
Convention Survival Tips: 6-2-1, general attendance vs vending
Furry Conventions 101 and how/when to sell at them
18+ events/vendor areas, adult merchandise/art, policies
Traveling: hotels, airBnB, sharing, selling alone, safety
Traveling: driving, buses, trains, airplanes, walking?
Convention Insurance: what is it and do I need it?
Protecting yourself from theft, both money and merchandise
International Conventions (USA home based)
SKILLS AND EQUIPMENT
THE Art School question
Entry Points to Convention Selling and How to Pivot
Building Skills: art vs business, raw skill vs timing vs luck
Portfolios: industry vs convention applications, websites
Zines: participation, running, fair work compensation
Dealing with Rejection, Building Professionalism
Networking: why, how, discrimination, abuse
Artist Groups, when to use search engines and when to ask for help
Art Videos and Streaming: platforms, equipment, monetization
Digital tech recommendations: printers, tablets, software
Traditional media recommendations: pencils, paints, paper
Office Equipment: desks, chairs, home storage
How to Learn Art Outside of a Classroom, plus book recommendations
Health Insurance: what you need and where to get it (USA)
Retirement: savings accounts, retirement accounts/investments
Mental Health Tips
Physical Health Tips (stretch!)
Work-Life Balance, Time Management Tips
Burnout: how to avoid, what to do when there
Stop Comparing Yourself to Others in Unhealthy Ways
Covid-19 and Con Crud: How to Stay Safe While Vending
Tips for Selling at Conventions when You Have Disabilities
Eating Healthy on the Road (the best we can)
Ways to Relax at Conventions
This list may be a bit overwhelming to read at first, but I promise, once you've read the explanations of all of these topics, you'll be feeling much more confident in things and well on your way to becoming another convention seller. I made this list so other people can avoid the mistakes that I and many others have made, and to make this knowledge free for everyone. A lot of industry information is kept behind paywalls with the rest of us left to guess. If I can figure out how to do it, you can too! But I hope my guides will make things much easier.
I will be updating this list with links as the detailed post for each topic goes live. Bookmark this page if you don't want to lose it, or subscribe to my mailing list so you'll get an email and never miss one.
Thank you so much for reading! Special thanks to the lovely people at How to Be a Con Artist and the Artist Alley Network International for helping me get started in this career. A big thank you to Kiriska for the work on the Artist Alley Census data. And of course, thank you to June Streetman for being my editor and supporter in these times and always.
If you liked what you read, please subscribe to my mailing list to read more, or send me a tip on Ko-fi so I can keep writing and keep the lights on. ★
I note it several times in my lists, but I will state plainly here that some of these topics will be unhelpful if you live outside of the United States. I am a natural-born United States citizen, and while I have visited other countries, I have never lived elsewhere. Topics like loans and taxes will be covered from my viewpoint. While some points are relevant no matter where you live - taxes are worldwide - the specifics might not help. I will be asking my international artist friends to weigh in where they can, but that may not give you all the information you need. I recommend talking to other artists that live where you do and to certified accountants in your area. Good luck!