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Creator Tips and Tricks #19: Creators at Conventions - Networking

ArtCrumbs Community • Sep 27, 2022

Our last article of the Tips and Tricks series covered advice for creators while at a convention behind the booth or artist alley table. While tabling takes a lot of organization, and sometimes finances, there are lots of options for creators who still want to attend a convention as a creator. There's always more than one way to be productive, and sometimes, using your time for meetings, lunches, visiting tables, panels, and reviews can produce a lot of results.

Networking, networking! I can only imagine we all know that networking is important, but how can we network if we aren’t at a booth? In my personal experience, I find networking far easier when I’m not tabling. Without a table, you are free to go see your friends at their tables, maybe meet up after the room closes for dinner, go to a portfolio review, and maybe see a panel or ten. These are some of the ways that you can network.

Networking isn’t just about whom you know, it’s how and how well you know them. Being at conventions is fun, but it’s also work. Knowing how to be a polite guest, especially as a creator interacting with other creators, is incredibly helpful.

So let's dig into some tips and tricks for networking at conventions.

Portfolio Reviews

Portfolio reviews are some of the single best things that you can do as a creator to grow AND network at conventions. They can also be planned or unplanned. In the image above, I was able to get a short and quick portfolio review from Terryl Whitlatch on one of my character designs. She was offering to do some sketches after purchasing a book. So I asked her if she'd be willing to draw one of my own characters, and she drew him for me (Amat from my Godsbane manga).

I was able to discuss with her, while she drew bits of character design, and get feedback on his and other characters I had. It really was a very important moment in my own manga's development. It was completely unplanned! I didn't even know she'd be at this convention (Denver Comic Con 2016), but I was able to participate because I was prepared with a sample of my work I had brought anyway.

Publishers and studios will host these portfolio reviews both as a way to scout for new talent, while also getting better acquainted with their communities and audiences. This is a fantastic way to meet some of the staff of a possible publisher you’d like to work for, and then doubles as a way to get some industry level feedback.

Here are some things to consider when looking for portfolio reviews:

  • Be prepared for criticism and critiques. This seems rather obvious, but you shouldn’t go into a review and expect only to get praises. There are times when you should be proud of your work, and times you can defend your choices. However, a portfolio review isn’t usually the time for this. If it goes very well, it might be full of compliments! If it goes poorly and your reviewer is grumpy for whatever reason, it might not go the best way. You need to be prepared for both instances. No matter what is said, take it with grace. You don’t have to roll over and allow yourself to be bullied, but not getting too defensive is also important.
  • Something that has helped me is to jot down notes. Usually I’m too busy writing down my notes to think about something objective to say, and it helps me focus on what is being said and remember later what was discussed. It can actually make a good impression on your reviewer if you take notes. It shows you really care about their feedback, which brings me to the next point.
  • Reviews aren’t just about your art. It is just as much a review of you and your self-presentation. How do you feel talking about your work? Are you able to take feedback well? How is your body language? How well are you able to listen? Are you dressed well? It’s fun to dress up and cosplay at conventions, and it might be alright. But if this is a professional review, it might be best to have a special change of clothes just for the review.
  • Listen, then Respond or Ask questions to clarify what is being said about your work. Each reviewer you sit with will have a different set of experiences, backgrounds, and perspective on your work. Asking why can help clarify what angle they are taking with their feedback. It can also help give you direction on how you could improve your work for the next portfolio. When you ask why, be careful not to fall into the trap of becoming defensive. If the reviewer asks why, then you can offer it.
  • The elevator pitch is going to be essential if you are showing comic or manga work relating to a story that you are working on. An elevator pitch is a theoretical situation where you imagine you are standing in an elevator with the one person who could make your comic a reality, publishing, making a show, whatever. It’s your one moment, and you get the time it takes to go from one floor to the next, typically about 8 to 10 seconds to explain your work. Practice this over and over until you get it down by memory. Don’t be afraid to change it as you learn and your work grows/improves, but try to be consistent every time you talk about it, it’ll make it easier to remember.
  • Pay attention to the recommendations for bringing in your work. If they ask for a short portfolio with x-number of art pieces, don’t be surprised if that’s all you get time to review. I usually suggest that you bring in copies for a reviewer to look at if there is extra free time, or they specifically ask for it. There is almost nothing as awkward as a reviewer asking for a sample, and you don’t have one to review. This also means bringing business cards, or a leave behind. I wouldn’t offer one though unless asked. They have other reviews to do that day or all weekend, don’t burden them by trying to use up more than your allotted time.

Hosting a Panel

Hosting a panel can be a fantastic way to raise awareness about something important to you, your series, or collaborative that you might be a part of. The first panel I moderated was at Anime Expo in 2018. Belive it or not, I wasn't actually supposed to be a moderator or on the first panel at all!

However, when one was needed, I volunteered and it went very well! I ended up moderating both panels on both days. Paneling might not seem very helpful in the long scheme, as it doesn't pay money usually, however this panel changed the course of my career. Afterwards I was offered a residential position by Wacom and Graphixly/Clip Studio at San Diego Comic Con and CTNXpo that same year! All by taking a chance and joining a panel!

Generally, a panel about a smaller indie creator and their work generally might struggle to have a large audience, and attendance is counted. So being broad at first, usually with a host or team of panelists, can keep it more interesting! Be sure to pay attention to what type of convention you are hosting the panel at. You wouldn’t host a Star Trek panel at an anime convention. You could, but it might not get the best results.

Here are some other tips for hosting panels:

  • Arrive early, be ready when it is your turn to set up for the panel. Depending on the size of the convention, you might have 5 minutes or 15minutes+ to set up and prepare your panel. If the time is sparse, being prepared will make the process smoother. When your panel is over, don’t linger inside the room. If you’d like to talk with guests who attended your panel, step outside and talk to them there.
  • Keep questions and answers short. Preparing some answers in advance for predictable questions can help with this one, but it can be hard to predict what people will ask you. That said, keeping your answers as short and efficient as possible will allow you to get more questions in, something I think everyone can appreciate.
  • Unless the panel focus is trivia, try to avoid it if possible. It can lead to arguments and disagreements which can completely derail a panel. Not good for anyone involved!
  • After the convention, follow up with any really important connections you made. Don’t send these out on Sunday or Monday after you get home. A lot of creators and publishers are rushing back to work and are going to be quite busy. Usually sometime within the week after the convention is fine. From there, keep in touch! Play it by ear, and you might be able to get some new connections or friends. Be genuine.

Other things to consider

Attending conventions is far more than about making money selling comics, art, or whatever. It's about establishing a presence within the industry. Taking a chance at an opportunity and being ready for that opportunity is part of the social game that we play as creators. The above image is a list of some of the amazing things that I got to do as a result of taking a chance and moderating at the panel that I mentioned at the start of the article. I've gotten to tour animation studios, been hired for promotional artwork, and I've been a resident at one of the largest conventions in the world at one of the biggest names in the art tech industry. I've been able to do more panels, host webinars, and even more things.

I'm not saying all of these things to gloat. When I agreed to moderate that panel in 2018 at Anime Expo, I had no real understanding of the possibilities that could follow me after that panel. However, I'm so glad that I took that risk. It's been worth the fear and anxiety I felt on the stage. It was worth the many years it took to be able to do the internship that got me a spot on that panel in the first place.

Conventions are some of the best ways to network and get noticed, but you have to put yourself out there to get those opportunities. Here are some other things that you can do at conventions, or things that you should consider:

1.) Attend panels of other creators, publishers, and advice-based panels

There is always something to learn. Not being behind a table could give you a chance to meet your favorite creators or learn something new. After the panel, you can always see if there is a chance to get to talk to a panelist, but always be sure to respect their time. They might need to get back to their booth or have another panel/event to attend. You can always try to find them at their booth later, and thank them for their time at the panel!

2.) Carry your portfolio, samples of your work, and business cards/leave-behinds with you

I find a story folder or binder works well to protect them, no wrinkles, to bends, keep it all as pristine as possible. Try to carry your work in a bag so that you are less likely to drop it, and it’ll protect it from being bumped, scraped or bent squeezing through isles. You literally never know when you’ll get an opportunity that could end up becoming a big break for you! Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it, and I have one personal example to share:

When I interned at a manga publisher in 2018, I was able to attend an industry party, by chance I had some sample pages of a manga I was working on at the time. At the industry party, I was introduced to some staff from a much larger manga publisher, one of the largest in the United States. After some casual conversation, I was asked who I was with and after telling them I was an intern, they asked if I was also a creator.

I took my opportunity and said that I was, and gave my short elevator pitch. They asked if I had any of my work on me that I could show, and I did. I was able to get feedback from one of the originals curators at this publisher, though I didn’t know exactly who they were until after they gave me their feedback. It was an incredible experience getting such feedback! All because I came prepared. Now, I have multiple connections at said publisher, and I can contact them as friends or for professional industry advice!

3.) Bring a card binder or rolodex-iqsue container for business cards you keep

I’ve been doing this since 2014, and it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I’m able to keep track of whom I meet and at what convention and what year it was. I’m also less likely to lose an important card by storing it right away, or later on, depending on the flow of the conversation. It also makes you look prepared and later on, when you reach out to someone you met before, you can remind them how you got to have their information. I find others are more likely to work with you if you can establish a personal connection before you ask for anything.

That said, don’t get offended if you aren’t remembered! We meet so many people at conventions, it might be hard to remember everyone!

That's a wrap!

Conventions take up a lot of time if you plan to table. By not grabbing a booth or table, you might miss out on some of that income, but you can be able to work on something a little bit more valuable, networking. This can bring new friends, new connections, and new job opportunities as it has done for me.

It could also be a wonderful place to grow, get feedback, or maybe even discover a new IP that you can fall in love with without the pressure to perform well by selling your wares. Take advantage of everything a convention has to offer, and next time, maybe skip the booth.

As always I have resources and references here for you below. I hope this was a valuable read, especially with Baltimore and New York Comic Con quickly approaching. We'll see you all soon for another update. Don't forget to read the first half of this article listed below!