Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Should SPX be free?

SPX 2010 haul

I remember talking to a 60 year old woman at my first Small Press Expo in 2000. She was a teacher and had heard that comics were being used in some classrooms. Somehow she heard of SPX, and decided to see what the fuss was about. I was stunned. In 2000, this was not a familiar conversation for me. It is one of my favorite comic book show experiences.

SPX is an amazing show and has influenced my work more than any other comic book show. With that in mind, I wonder if it’s time for the show to drop its admission fee and reposition itself as THE East Coast comic book show.

According to Publishers Weekly paid attendance for this year’s show was a little over 2000 people. Meanwhile, TCAF’s attendance level this year was 12,000 according to Chris Butcher.

SPX began in the 1990s, during one of the worst financial periods in comics history – the speculator market had collapsed, all of the major comics distributors folded (except for Diamond), and Marvel declared bankruptcy. SPX was a beacon of hope in this dark time, and in my mind it was a precursor of the state of the industry today. It welcomed genre work like David Lapham’s Stray Bullets and Frank Miller’s Sin City. It celebrated creator-owned works like those of the Spirit of Independence tour (Jeff Smith, Paul Pope, Steve Bissette, Dave Sim, Rick Veitch). It offered comic book creators and fans an alternative to Marvel and DC’s superhero, corporate-owned melodramas. Located near New York City and its traditional publishing houses, it was a showcase for literary and art comics, and contributed to the rise of the graphic novels that are so prevalent now. For many years it exhibited with ICAF – an academic and international comic conference that championed comics as an art form. In addition to showcasing cartoonists’ talent to new fans, creators, and editors, SPX became a venue for many publishers to promote new business models like Top Shelf and Oni’s graphic novel-based lines or Highwater and Picturebox’s art and design-conscious work.

This year, I have done shows all over the country. It seems like there are three shows every weekend – from small regional dealer shows to extravagant pop culture events. I have been surprised at every show by the level of enthusiasm and the size and diversity of crowds.

Book publishers, movie studios, Walmart, G4, the internet, libraries, artists, writers, and cartoonists have been banging the drum for the last decade that comics aren’t just for kids anymore. I think that message has sunk in.

A lot of the success of comics today can be traced back to SPX. It is a brand with history, value, longevity, and a great location (I mean the East Coast and Washington DC, not any particular venue).

This show hasn’t changed a lot in the last 10 years, while the comics industry (like many industries) seems to be in a constant state of flux. As more and more specialty retail stores close (like Giant Robot in New York), I believe trade shows will play a bigger, more prominent role in the immediate future. With San Diego’s assimilation into LA’s hype machine, SPX could become THE comic book show.

So my question is, would it be feasible for SPX to hire a PR firm, and see about getting its attendance up to 10,000+?

*I know part of SPX's charter is to raise funds for CBLDF. But I think if the attendance were to double, triple, quadruple, or more...that the lost revenue from free admission could be made up in extra table sales (there's always a waiting list), extra fundraising events (membership drives, auctions, etc.), merchandise sales, etc. Not to mention raising overall awareness of the CBLDF and its mission.


  1. I setup at Fanaticon in Ashville and it had free admission. The flow of people was pretty incredible and it defiantly has a different vibe.

    I think free admission is a neat idea but the volume of people doesn't always translate to sales.

    Some dirty calculations could hash out a possible solution. If you count the 2000 attendees buying one day tickets for $10 then that is $20,000 in revenue that would have to be recouped via tables. They would have to add 55 or so tables at $370 per table. The way tables sold out this year I'm guessing they probably could sell that many tables. However the expanded size would cost more money also.

    So it is feasible to have free admission if they expanded the show to regain the lost admission money. But I'm not sure that it would result in a better show for all the artists.

  2. I (think) I respectfully disagree with you, JCC, if only that I think expanding the show would be a GREAT thing, especially if it were free. I didn't make it to Fanaticon (next year!) but TCAF is free and there was definitely that same feeling of BRAND NEW people being in the room, not the same people who come every year. Being free means more families come too--if you were going to bring your kids to something, wouldn't you be more likely to if it were free?

    I think more aggressive marketing--SPX is not the best marketed show in the world--sponsorships by larger comics publishers, and more aggressive charity outreach at the show itself, besides the auction, would help make up some of that money. It was packed this year--comfortably so, but packed with PAYING customers. So imagine the crowd if it were free--I think there'd be a lot more money in the room if it were free admission.

  3. I am a total advocate of freeness for comic shows. Buuuuut I am not sure making SPX free would necessarily translate to more people walking in off the street. When I step outside the Marriot in Bethesda I don't see a lot of foot traffic. It's all cars filled with people trying to get to Bed, Bath and Beyond. I think if the show was back in downtown Bethesda or in DC or Baltimore the free thing would be a tremendous move. And I agree with Dusty that they could make-up those lost ticket sales by having more auctions(come to think of this, this is the first time they didn't seem to have an auction) and T-shirts, and maybe charging for panels and the animation thing that had. blah blah blah. lost my train of thought.

  4. TCAF is held in a public library, on a busy street, in a thriving downtown district, near the local university; SPX is held in a hotel located in the middle of an upscale suburban wasteland. You have to want to go to SPX to get to it, no one wanders in off Marinelli Drive. The old venue had a chance for that, but not so much with the Marriott. I might agree with you if they moved the show to a more downtown area, but then tables would be $600 a piece.

    Your typical SPX attendee, someone who's willing to pack up the car and travel to a comic-book show, expects to pony up a couple of bucks for the convention. The web comics convention held down the street from SPX, Intervention, charged $45(!!!!!!!) for the privilege of looking at who knows what. Now did SPX attract everyone it could? Not likely, but I don't think it was the $10 cover charge that kept folks away.

  5. Jim-

    My prescription for small press comic shows, personally, is accessibility. As Cheese and Chuck point out, we get a lot of the general public through the door, people who want something to do for 3 hours, and not necessarily buy comics so much as just look at'em. That's a big part of _why_ we try and curate the show as closely as we do... we really need to decide if a) someone's work is going to really appeal to that crowd, or b) they're famous enough that they'll bring their own audience and it won't necessarily matter.

    SPX is, and has been since I've been going, a destination show. No one stumbles over that event, and I don't think they engage the surrounding populace at all, unless they're already comics fans in-the-know. It's not what I want out of my show, but as a model, it's not necessarily bad, either. What they do need to do, if they're going to follow the destination-event model (and only in my opinion of course) is do more to draw that initiated comics crowd, and from further away. Bigger guests, stronger debuts, better marketing, and offer something that Mocca or TCAF or APE or Stumptown or MECAF or Brooklyn or whomever aren't offering. 2,000 people is not a good crowd number if you've got 200-300 exhibitors, that's only a 10:1 ratio over the course of the whole weekend, and probably significantly lower than that at any given time. Just as a point of reference, the webcomics pavilion at TCAF in 2010 was set up to accommodate a 10:1 ratio of exhibitors for the whole weekend, and was up around that number for about 4 hours on Saturday and 2 hours on Sunday. The main floor? Even busier.

    I think you're on the right track here, definitely, but the show would have to significantly and fundamentally change to make going free make sense to their model. I personally think it's The Way To Go, and that's why we do things the way we do, but I can't see them adopting that any time soon.

    My 2 cents, sir!

  6. As an SPX 2010 and 2011 attendee, I'm really surprised to hear how unfavorable the attendee-to-artist ratio is. I really enjoyed myself, but it's weird that SPX has the paradoxical problems of being both overcrowded and under-attended. I'm really glad they're getting more floor space for 2012. I have friends who left early because the crowd was unbearable, which is sad because there's sooo much to see. Having a comfortable environment to browse and talk to artists should help sales.

    I like that it's in a "suburban wasteland", actually, because I always find downtown conventions a pain to drive to.