New York Comic Con is an annual convention for fans of anime, comics, video games, and toys. It's held at the Javits Center and sells out with over 75,000 people in attendance. There are other comic cons in the US, including a huge one in San Diego, but New York is a pretty big deal.
New York Comic Con started in 2006 and is an incredibly popular and well-attended event drawing devoted fans from all over the United States and the world. All kinds of comics and literary stars and well-known entertainers come to meet their fans and talk about their work. It's a pretty major event.
What caught my attention about Comic Con was the focus on toys, and especially on plush and indie plush makers. This isn't a plush show per se, and it isn't a craft fair either. It's a gathering of like-minded people who love comic books and cosplay. But many of these same people also love vinyl toys like these by Pete Fowler and creative, creepy, and interesting plush.
There were a few plush makers at New York Comic Con this year, including Phil Barbato. Phil makes wonderfully furry, fleecy monsters. I've followed Phil's work for a long while now and I was excited when I saw on Twitter that he was heading to the show.
I got in touch with Phil the day before he left for New York to ask him what he was hoping to get out of the weekend. This was his first Comic Con and I wondered what motivated him to sign up. As an indie plush designer, what can you get out of going to Comic Con?
Here is what Phil shared with me about his hopes for the show (huge props to Phil, by the way, for talking to me from the car on his way from Virginia to New York):
It's hard to say what we're expecting out of New York Comic Con. We've never sold at a con (meaning a comic book convention) and have only ever been to one before this one. Prior to this, the largest show we've vended at was Crafty Bastards or Renegade Brooklyn. Our rough guess (having visited NYCC last year) is that it will be like three days of Crafty Bastards plus a day of trade show. In other words, crazy town.
Our decision to pursue cons was easy to make. After doing the indie craft show rounds for about five years, we feel like we still aren't finding our market there. No matter how big the show, we usually break even at best. My wife and business partner is business-school trained and great at doing all the soberingly accurate and detailed analyses of our business. It's painful and usually unpleasant to see the numbers. But you have to be honest with yourself. Plush is labor-intensive and it's hard to make it profitable.
I just have to break in here to say how awesome it is that Phil and his wife closely analyze exactly how much money they net from doing big indie craft shows. I think it's easy to believe a show was profitable, without really looking at the costs involved.
Last year, Wendy from iheartguts asked us to be on a panel at New York Comic Con and we got to walk around and check out the show. We decided, with encouragement from Wendy and Marcy of Moons Creations, that Cons would be a place where we would find more of the people who get our stuff.
Breaking in again to say that finding people who get your stuff is THE KEY to making it in any business, and certainly in an indie plush business. You've got to actively seek out and connect with those people, wherever they may be, and once you do you'll have a fan base that appreciates your work and is willing to spend money on your product.
As far as preparation, we've printed up some mini catalogs and order forms for the first day, which is industry only. We hope to snag some wholesale orders. We had no idea how much stock to bring, so we arbitrarily decided on four times our regular stock level. With a month of late nights and friends and interns helping we got a little over halfway there. Hopefully that will be enough.
Anyway, I'm running on an hour of sleep and rambling on way too long. Basically we're hoping for a big fun nerd party and we're hoping to sell out.
So then Phil went to Comic Con and I followed along on Twitter, reading updates on the show. And when he got back, I checked in with him to find out how it went. Was it like an indie craft show? Did he connect with his right people? Were there wholesale accounts to be had?
Big props to a tired Phil for sharing his show experience with me just a few days after he returned from New York.
New York Comic Con was a mixed bag for us this year. We went in with high expectations and those were not met. The floor layout at the con this year were unusual. The Javits Center is currently under construction and our section was completely separate from the main Dealers' Room.
We heard from at least one customer who could not even find us until the last day. Another issue was the name of our section. This year our section was called "The Block", which I think is a too-clever title for "independent toy companies". Last year it was "The Cultyard", again too clever for its own good. So I think the bad location, brought about by site construction, and the vague name hurt our sales.
This disappointment aside, we still did well. We made far more money than we usually do at craft shows, just not quite enough to cover all of our expenses. The bottom line is that it's an expensive gamble. It's easily 3-10 times the cost of a craft fair, especially if you have to travel. If you've done wholesale shows or the New York Gift Show, the cost won't be shocking, but if you're doing local and regional fairs, New York Comic Con looks very expensive. Smaller, closer cons are a safer place to start.
Phil's booth. I love the sewing machine. It sends a great message here.
I think a con is like any other show or market: you have to go two or three times before you're implanted in people's brains. We had a great time, though. We met tons of new people and a lot more people with whom our monsters resonated. Our core audience (geeks, nerds, low-brows, street-artists and street-art lovers, beardos, weirdos, etc.) was there in much higher numbers and showed us love.
I love the word "beardos."
Phil also got some great press about his work on Tomopop, a site about collectible toy culture and in a local alternative paper in his hometown of Richmond.
We also got to see and hang out with other makers we met last year, people we knew from the craft-show circuit, and make new new artists friends. We will definitely go back and we're going to try other cons as well. We still believe it's a better fit for us demographically than most craft shows
I asked Phil if he thought other plush makers should take the leap and attend a comic con.
If you regularly see geeks at your booth and connect with them, you'll probably do well. I can't say exactly what it is about my creatures that resonates with the con crowd. If you are the kind of person who goes to comic cons, or wants to go, and if you feel that your creations are an honest expression of yourself, you will probably do well at a con.
Phil will be at Crafty Bastards on November 10 in Washington, D.C. if you'd like to say hello and check out his monsters in person. You can connect with him online on his website, on Twitter, and on his Facebook page.
Thank you so much for sharing your Comic Con experience so honestly, Phil!
Have you ever been to a comic con? What kind of plush do you think would do well there? Does hearing from Phil help you in your thinking about doing shows like this?