I'm planning a bigger writeup about APE 2011, with some reflections on my first con as an exhibitor, APE 2001, and I'll announce that here when it's ready to go.
Lots of discussion about the convention is going on around the web, but The Beat's a nice place to weigh in: http://www.comicsbeat.com/2011/10/03/deb-aoki-on-updating-ape/
On the positive side, the Couscous Collective's table looked more professional than it ever has, and we've locked up a really nice floor space after several years of exhibiting as a group (and ten-plus when you count me, Shaenon and Jason Thompson). I had a lot of great conversations with old friends, talked about new and upcoming projects and exhibitions with people, and had a good time hanging out with the rest of my tablemates.
Once again, I noticed that people stopping by the table would barely even look at the mini-comics/zines and cheaper items that we had for sale, which is kind of a sad trend. One thing I loved in the old days was that $20 would get me a big stack of comics at APE. Now that's going to get me an eight-page comic with a silkscreened cover and a paperback collection containing several mini-comics' worth of content. That trend has cut down pretty severely on the amount of new content I buy at conventions, since I'm not seeing that $2-3 entry point for an artist's work anymore.
On the negative side? If you weren't Drawn & Quarterly (Kate Beaton was the 500-pound gorilla of the show, selling $20 hardcovers as fast as D&Q could collect money; Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes generated big sales; and they've always got a lot of great books for sale at every convention already) or someone hosting a Craig Thompson signing, sales were pretty flat. I heard that from big publishers, small press, veteran exhibitors, and pretty much everyone I spoke to. Rather than being glad I'm not the only one who didn't clean up this weekend, I'm bummed that so few of us did much more than break even and maybe make enough extra for a couple of meals.
What was working against APE this weekend? For one thing, Saturday and Sunday had some of the best weather we've seen in San Francisco all year. If you're on the fence about going to a comic show, that's going to factor into your decision. The other big sales killer? Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a giant FREE outdoor music festival in San Francisco took place this weekend, far enough away that people were really unlikely to do both events. Add in the Castro Street Fair on Sunday, and that's two big events during perfect outdoor festival weather, plus both crowds being the type of people who'd be into an alternative comics show, and that had to have an impact on the number of attendees.
The warm weather made the Concourse warmer and muggier than expected, and most of my crew seemed to be operating at half-power throughout the weekend. Probably not so bad for attendees, who were moving around constantly, but that's the sort of thing that really hits an exhibitor.
This was the first year that it really struck me just how big the convention has gotten. The Concourse was reconfigured last year, which allowed for a big increase in exhibitors, although supply didn't meet demand for table space this year (which I think has been par for the course for a while now. APE and WonderCon always have waiting lists, too). Walking around the convention floor, I was struck by just how many booths were staffed by complete strangers. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing, since it means that there are new people getting into this, but it's strange for someone like me to walk past 20 tables in a row and not recognize any of the exhibitors. And if my group, with whatever name recognition we've racked up over the years and our primo floor space, wasn't breaking any sales records, I'm really curious about the people in the distant corners of the convention floor at their very first show selling hand-stapled zines and trying to make up table costs, printing costs, airfare and hotel expenses. (That's with the assumption that at least one of the new exhibitors was traveling from out of state and didn't have a friend to stay with in the city.)
One last gripe (honest!) about small press shows, and I realize as I'm typing it that it's not completely reasonable, is the number of attendees who come to these shows and tell me some variation of "I like your work, but I didn't bring any money." (Popular variations include "I already spent my money at .......'s table," or "I'm saving my money to buy ................ later," or "can I get this on Amazon?") At shows like WonderCon and Comic-Con, people plan to buy. They'll take $100-200 out of the bank, then have a checkbook and a credit card ready to go in case they burn through that. At APE and Stumptown, people plan to pay admission, then maybe set aside $20 for the entire show. After your must-get book from one of the special invited guests (Beaton, Thompson, Tomine, Clowes, Shannon Wheeler, Matthew Thurber) or that Dr. Who-zombie-Star Wars-mustaches mash-up print, there's not much left to spread out among the nearly 400 other exhibitors. Yes, APE attracts a different crowd than the shows that spotlight Marvel and DC and Hollywood movies, but it's still frustrating.
Yes, it's great that people are supporting the convention by attending it. No attendees means no reason for organizers to put a show together. Yes, it's great that so many people are attending, and that they're going to panels and workshops and looking at our wares. But it would be nice if more of these people came to the show with the intention of buying comics. Sure, attendees are fans and supporters of the arts, and they don't necessarily have a lot of discretionary income, but for a show like this, they're pretty likely to be Bay Area residents. That means minimal travel costs and no hotel costs. Exhibitors may be local enough to avoid those travel costs, but a full table at APE is $250 with an early-bird discount, $300 if you miss that deadline, and I'm guessing that puts half-tables at $150 for the early-birds and $175 for people who register later. Printing costs for a mini-comic (not counting an artist's time investment) will probably be $60 on the very low end for a 100-copy print run of a zine, a nice banner will run $30-150 depending on whether it's loose or you invest in a display system, add in another $50 for miscellaneous costs along the way and it's pretty easy for an exhibiting artist to be $200 in the whole first thing Saturday morning.
When attendees don't spend money, artists don't, either. If I have a busy morning at a convention, I can take some time away from my table in the afternoon to visit friends and drop some money on their books. When sales tank, it's harder to justify buying anything, and it's also harder to justify time away from your table, since that's time you won't be working toward making back your table costs. However broke an attendee claims to be at a show like this, the artist on the other side is broker. I think I had the same complaint the last time I wrote about APE, so that's just something that we've got to deal with until the economy improves, but I wish more of the attendees would squirrel away a few bucks here and there leading up to APE.
All in all, I still have a great time at the convention, and I'll be back for more next year. No more complaints from me until Stumptown 2012.