(Full disclosure: The organizers of MICE are personal friends, though I was not involved in the planning of the show.)
This Saturday just past saw the first of what looks to be a new annual convention in Boston: The Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo (MICE), organized by The Boston Comics Roundtable. I’ve been eager to see a show like this in Boston for a long time, and have honestly been quite baffled that no such show existed. We have a large comics-making community, a tremendous student population, and multiple truly excellent comics shops with strong independent comics stock (I’m thinking in particular of Million Year Picnic and Comicopia). So it seems a no-brainer that our little city could easily make an indy comics show a great success; and I’m happy to report that it seems I was correct in this belief.
MICE was a relatively small show—only 47 tables, total—taking place in three modest rooms and a hallway at The Art Institute of Boston, but suffered none of the usual drawbacks to small shows: there was a pretty constant movement of people through the exhibitions, great attendance at panels, and a wonderful variety of comics, of satisfyingly high quality. I heard no reports at all of organizational missteps. A bit of confusion would have been forgivable, considering this was a first time out for all involved, but it seems there was nothing to forgive. The space was set up attractively and efficiently, doors opened on time, and a lunch delivery was even arranged for the exhibitors, just like at MeCAF. When the show was over, break down went very quickly—easily two dozen exhibitors happily volunteered to stay after to help with the clean up.
The focus of the show was entirely on truly independent creators—almost everything at the show was self-published, with a lot of mini-comics and small-scale projects. This is a type of show that’s getting harder and harder to find. The first couple of years I attended SPX, it had a similar focus, but more and more the mini-comics seemed to get pushed aside in favor of more traditional bound books. MoCCA took SPX’s place in serving that type of material for several years, but since the move to the new location, I’ve seen a similar transition in the types of work that do well at the show. I attribute this to the steadily rising table costs—mini-comics creators simply have no hope of making their table fees back anymore, so they don’t go. Which means the audience that’s interested in buying mini-comics is beginning to dry up there as well. I very much hope that as MICE grows, it will keep its focus solidly on the individual creator, rather than publishers. I’ll say more about sales later in the post, but as a mini-comics exhibitor, if I were choosing between MoCCA and MICE to display at, purely on the basis of profitability, MICE is the clear winner.
One fear I did have going in, knowing it was a small show put on by a large group, was that too large a percentage of tables would be dedicated to BCR members—not that I have any problem with BCR member comics; I’m a BCR member, and I know just how large the BCR is these days, and how many incredibly talented people can claim membership. But from the standpoint of the long term sustainability of the show, if it seemed like too much of a vanity affair, it would be hard to draw attendees from outside the local area. My fear here was unfounded, I’m pleased to say—certainly, there were many BCR folks represented, but also a great many folks from outside the group, and many whom I had never before met.
There was a pleasant buzz of activity throughout most of the day, a steady stream passing through the exhibit rooms. The age range was pretty wide, and I’m tempted to say I saw more high school and college age attendees than I’m accustomed to seeing at indy comics shows. Admission was free, which I’m sure helped contribute to the large and energetic crowd—I heard rumor that a noticeable portion of attendees were actually walk-ins who spotted the show from the street and just decided to see what it was about.
The show also featured a nice selection of panels, across a range of topics. I wasn’t able to attend an panels as an audience member, but I served on two panel. The first was a panel on Writing Comics, which I presented in collaboration with Jerel Dye. It was the first panel of the day, at 11:00 in the morning, so we went in expecting a pretty small audience—on this point, we were mistaken. The room filled up quickly with an engaged group of aspiring writers, making for a very enjoyable session. They happily joined in our prepared writing exercise, asked good questions, and offered each other good advice as well.
Later in the day came the Connecting Comics and Education panel, which for me was a particular treat. At first it appeared that this was going to be a disappointingly small audience, but folks trickled over the course of the first fifteen minutes, until we had a much fuller room. The discussion went far beyond the usual “give comics to reluctant readers” refrain, due in large part to the wide variety of experience on the part of the panelists. All present were teachers, working with students from elementary school up through college, and teaching across several subjects: science, math, composition, social studies, not to mention the remarkable educational exchange program Marek Bennett has set up between his school in New Hampshire and a school in Nicaragua. Dr. Jenn Cook offered some wonderful ideas for having students pre-write their memoirs as three panel comics as a way of organizing their essays—and idea I will very likely steal the next time I teach a composition class. All told, I felt like I learned more than I contributed on this panel, and the audience too was very interested—when moderator David Marshall proposed extending the panel an extra half hour, panelists and audience gamely agreed.
As for sales: I should state first that I don’t generally expect high sales. I’m not well known, and I don’t have very many books, and not all of my books lend themselves naturally to a comics show. But, of course, anyone selling mini comics is likely to be relatively unknown and have a small number of books, so that’s who I hope these figures will be useful to.
To MoCCA, I brought the following materials:
Bring Your Daughter to Work Day (32 pages, $4.)
Gingerbread Houses 1 (32 pages, $5)
Gingerbread Houses 2 (32 pages, $5)
Character Design for Graphic Novels (194 pages, full color, $25)
Parens, a play (98 pages, $8)
The play has little impact on the sales numbers, as it doesn’t fit the usual material at a comics show, but routinely sells exactly one copy at each show I attend.
The only change I made at MICE was to add Gingerbread Houses 3 (36 pages, $5), and I offered a bulk deal where anyone who purchased all three issues of GH got a free copy of BYDTWD.
All told, I sold a total of 21 books, for a gross income of $137 at MoCCA. At MICE I sold a total of 25 books, for a gross of $126 (free copies of BYDTWD are not included in those numbers). The higher income for fewer books at MoCCA is a result of the character design book—two copies sold at MoCCA, while none sold at MICE, which fits with my theory that higher-priced items with traditional production values are a better fit for that show.
BYDTWD technically sold better at MoCCA, where I moved nine paid copies, as opposed to only two at MICE, But, of course, my freebie offer cannibalized sales of that book considerably, so that’s not a fair comparison.
The biggest difference was in sales of Gingerbread Houses—at MoCCA, most people who looked at the mini put it right back down as soon as they heard the $5 asking price—they were unwilling to pay that much for a self-published mini. At MICE however, browsers who got as far as asking the price were far less put out by it—there was much less debate as to whether to buy a copy, but instead a debate as to buy just the first or all three. Most decided on all three, with seven full sets going at MICE, plus one additional copy of the first issue. At MoCCA, of the 6 people who bought issue 1, only two decided to buy issue 2 as well.
Of course, 21 books vs 25 books, or $137 vs $126 doesn’t sound like a significant enough difference to be worth analyzing, but there are two additional bits of information that need to be considered. First off, table cost: my half table at MICE cost me $25 dollars, as compared to the $105 I spent for a mere quarter table at MoCCA. That makes my net profits $32 from MoCCA, as compared to $101 at MICE.
And the other detail is that MICE was just a one-day show, while MoCCA was a full two days. It’s impossible to know how a second day would have gone, but even so: selling as much in one day at MICE as I did in two days at MoCCA is certainly a far better return on my time investment no matter how you look at it.
The only question I’m left with is whether I want the show to expand to two days next year. Certainly, my sales numbers argue for putting in an extra day at this show, but I can’t help suspecting that attendance would drop considerably on a second day. As much fun as the show was, it was pretty easy for attendees to see everything there was in a single day, making return attendance less likely. Although, a counter argument to that would be the enthusiasm I saw for the panels—if the second day’s programming were to be as robust as the first, that might draw people back. But that’s all speculation, as I know little of the dynamics of drawing crowds to cons.
Regardless, I’ll be very much looking forward to displaying at MICE again next year.