Last week, I attended two tech conferences. I was in Portland, OR for the Open Source Convention (OSCON), just as the sizable population of comic creators in that town were packing their bags to head to San Diego. Then, I spent two days in Austin, TX for the first ever ElixirConf.
Side note: Thursday, on a layover between those two cities in Denver, CO, I was very early for my connecting flight. At the gate I was set to leave from was a plane heading to San Diego. One teenager in Batman gear was walking onboard. That couldn't have been a coincidence, could it? Another in a Superman shirt, though, was a coincidence. She boarded a later plane.
The culture of a tech conference has some striking similarities to comic conventions, but even more differences. Let's run down the list:
- Power, Power, Everywhere. There are power strips at every table, and under the rows of seats in the larger rooms where folding chairs are lined up as such. On a related note, the wi-fi at the convention center is provided free of charge. I never had a wi-fi issue at either show, in rooms filled with computer geeks running laptops and phones.
- Panels are recorded. All presentations are recorded. All presenters have a mic on. The videos from ElixirConf will be free for all in three weeks. Videos from OSCON were part of the paid-for package, though the keynotes were streamed live and are available on-line today for free. In the comics world, we have Jamie Coville with his audio recorder.
- Lunch is included in the ticket price. In Texas, that meant a particularly yummy pair of BBQ meals. The offerings at OSCON were less substantial, but still good.
- Ticket prices: All of these great benefits, of course, come with a cost. If you don't expect to pay more than $100 for a three-day ticket, you're not going to like a tech conference, where $300 is the low end, and $2500 is not shocking. Most of those high-end ones are picked up by employers sending their people out. Comics are a hobby for the attendees of those shows. Tech conferences are a business expense, even for those who just plain love to program or play with tech.
- At OSCON, the marketers on the show floor looking to get attention give out free t-shirts. I came home with a dozen. Free t-shirts are given away by the box load. One booth even handed out light sabers that lit up and played sounds. You had to work for those, though: You first needed to tweet with their hashtag. My daughter loved that one. Can you imagine the insanity at a comic convention with booths filled with free (granted, very cheap and smaller than their stated sizes) t-shirts?
- This all makes me think that a "higher end" con would be a good idea, but nobody seems to be jumping on that idea since MorrisonCon, which got ripped at the time for being elitist and too expensive and exclusionary. Can't please everyone, and comics fans are notoriously, well, cheap. Unless it's for $4 comics or pricey action figures and variant covers...
- Lanyards: This is a more practical tip. I loved the nametags at both shows. They were large and had my first name printed bigger than my last. OSCON's included my Twitter handle and were held up by two connecting points across the top, which plugged into both ends of the lanyard. Those tags never turned around. It was always name front.
- The lanyards at OSCON had one other neat trick: They were extensible. There was a table filled with banners you could stick to the bottom of your badge. I chose ones for languages of my interest. Those might be cool at a comics convention, if you wanted to fly the flag for your favorite company/character/genre. Maybe the publishers could hand out the banners for their interests.
- I didn't mention it earlier, but at the lunches at OSCON they set up half the tables with themes. Signs were posted at each table with specific interest groups (Perl, Ruby, Data Nerds, Women in Tech, Java, etc.). You were invited to join a table of particular interest, meet new people, and strike up interesting conversations.
What do we take away from this? First, that no matter what I'm doing, it all circles back to comics somehow. Second, con badges that don't turn around and have names printed in large type are awesome. Third, recording con panels is something that should be done. Fourth, power strips are awesome and a lifesaver.
But all of this is helped by bigger ticket prices that the comics community has proven unwilling to pay. In the end, they're two wildly different communities. That's not to say we can't learn from one another. Let's start with those nametags...
LEAVING SAN DIEGO
I sympathize with Chuck Rozanski. I really do. The convention in San Diego has been a big part of his life for decades -- longer, in fact, that I've been alive. It was the centerpiece of his summer and a business booster. I linked a couple weeks ago to his earlier post when he said he needed to pull in $50,000 in sales to break even. If you saw the documentary "Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope" from back in 2011, even, you knew times were getting tougher for a comic dealer on the show floor. Rozanski was the point of view for that angle.
We've all seen the once popular quarter bins and discount booths pack up and leave in recent years, as the con floor space shrinks to fit those huge booths from Hollywood, while the audience for comics moves away from actually buying comics at the show. I can remember in 2006 at San Diego wanting to find a copy of "New Warriors" on the show floor for a signing by Mark Bagley or Fabian Nicieza. I failed miserably. Dealers eight years ago were already coping with the new realities of the convention floor and specializing in the higher end materials, or leaving all together.
Rozanski must not have had that big sale this year that I guessed he might need to break even. Without that, selling $5 to $20 books for four days and getting past $40,000 proved impossible.
Rozanski is pointing the finger at the publishers, who have begun in recent years to sell their own books at their booths. Variant covers have become the big business there, and I can't blame the publishers. They need to afford the floor space on the show floor, too. Marketing budgets aren't what they used to be, even for companies who make billion dollar movies. This is the publishing side of things. Nobody supports that part. Selling those variants keeps publishers coming back, staff in hotel rooms, signings happening, and more. It stinks, but that's reality.
It's more than just the publishers, though. That might be the straw that broke the camel's back, but the problems with selling comics on the floor of the convention in San Diego are legion. There might be 150,000 people there, but what percentage of them actually read comics? What percentage of them want to pay a premium for printed comics when they can download the same material for a buck or two on-line?
What percentage of them want to bother carrying all that stuff home, particularly at a time when it costs $25 to check a bag on the airline? People used to carry an extra bag with them to the show just to have room for all the comics. When I was going to San Diego (1999-2006), I had an extra half-empty piece of luggage I brought with me, knowing I'd be taking home lots of stuff. Back then, you didn't need to pay $25 per bag. The 50-pound limit was there, and I did run afoul of that once, but they let me offload some comics to my backpack I was carrying on and I snuck in under the limit. (European hardcovers are beautiful books, but heavy.)
For better or worse, conventions have changed. I can't totally blame Hollywood for this, though there's no doubt they impact things with their gargantuan booths and deep pockets. But the audience at a large show like San Diego isn't exclusively there for the comics. You pay as a booth owner for 150,000 pairs of feet on the floor, when the reality is that a large number of them will never look at you or care you exist. Rozanski is right -- doing smaller shows is the better way to go. Being a big fish in a smaller, more focused pond, is the right business decision. Ironically, that's also a big tenet of web advertising -- narrow, focused markets can draw bigger premiums for the right audience over more generalized sites that attract an unknown variety of visitors. The same thing that makes web advertising work is what will make Rozanski's business work. That just means not dealing with shows like the convention in San Diego, which is no longer comics-focused.
I wish him well in his future endeavors and hope that maybe he can talk himself into going to the convention next year as a fan. Maybe he can walk around and enjoy it, see a few panels, and buy a couple comics for himself. It might make the show exciting for him again, in a new way.
One thing I'd put a wager in on, though: Those seven booths of prime wall real estate at the convention next year? It won't be a comic seller filling those up. They'll have no problem fitting people in there -- there's a waiting list -- but I'm betting they'll be taken by non-retailers. If we're lucky, it'll be something comics-related. But with a gigantic space like that opening up, it'll be hard not to fill it with tall Hollywood dollars.
COMIXOLOGY GOES MORE DRM-FREE
ComiXology's announcement of "DRM-free backups" was a curious choice of phrasing. They really want you to use their Guided View and their web page/apps, so the thought of calling their comics "DRM-free downloads" was too much. "DRM-free backups" gives the on-line view primacy. But you can still download PDFs or CBZs directly from comiXology where the publisher allows. If you have a preferred reader, you can use it.
The web page to handle these back-up files has a filter to show only the books you haven't downloaded before, but still lacks a "Download All" button. Without that, nobody with a library of hundreds of comics to back up ever will.
Of course, Marvel and DC are still not stepping up to that plate, so this is still a baby step. It does, however, make me feel more comfortable with buying other comics from comiXology now. Hopefully, industry pressure will force Marvel or DC to make the next logical step.
- That leaked Deadpool footage is awesome. I'd watch that movie in a heartbeat. Maybe once "Guardians of the Galaxy" hits huge, it'll encourage the people in power to greenlight another light-hearted superhero movie?
- Watching Rob Paulsen sing "Nations of the World" in his Yakko Warner voice Never. Gets. Old. Ever. Here's another outing, from Los Angeles, 2012. I was lucky enough to see him pull this off at a San Diego convention once, and I treasure that video, even from the relatively low-fi camera that I had at the time.
- As for the rest of the news breaking out of San Diego: I didn't find much to get super excited about. News of IDW's European line came out before the show, and even that is only announced with one book so far. That one has the most potential for me. The new S.H.I.E.L.D. series at Marvel sounds like it might be fun. John Cassaday drawing a "Star Wars" comic has great potential, but I'll wait for a collected edition to insulate myself against the inevitable delays the book will have. Gal Gadot looks spiffy as the new Wonder Woman, which is likely an unpopular opinion in comics fandom. It's not worth fighting over. "Absolute" editions of "Transmetropolitan" and "Y the Last Man" sound nice.
- Next week: Back to The McSpidey Chronicles again. We left off in "Inferno" and will be getting to the shark next!