A number of artists talked to me about this topic at previous conventions I’ve attended, so I decided to write this article. It might sound a little biased here, but if you want to argue with me, I hope you’ve actually tried this stuff before stating your opinion about it.
When I mean fanart, it means that you do not own the Intellectual Property/Copyright of the characters in the image. Let’s ignore America’s leniency with with dead copyright holders, historical art, parody, and journalism use for this topic. You are basically taking a preexisting character, and then you make an image with them on it, in your style of art. Some people use quotes or logos from the series. And some would make an obvious innuendo of a character’s design on their work (such as fanart hats, hairties, etc). That’s pretty much how people would determine fanart for artist alley. Simple as that.
Then you have ‘original art’. This means that you are the creator of that intellectual property or own copyrights to the characters in the image. In simple terms, you made it, you named them. Maybe it’s a comic–you made the comic yourself with your own characters. Or maybe they’re crafts and plushies–you designed those characters.
The problem with selling original art for MOST (because i know it doesn’t apply to every single one of you), is that fanart often deters away from your original art. Let’s face it–fanart sells, that’s why we’re at artist alley, and we need cash to survive. Sure, you love when people compliment your work, or cheer you on, but in the end, you can give yourself a huge pat on the back when you check your wallet after the convention. But…if you’re not selling fanart, there’s the deep root of fear that you may be end up loosing a LOT more money than you are gaining at these conventions. It’s a legit fear. “Those tables can cost a lot! What if people don’t like my original art?”
Well, I’m here to tell you my experience. I’m not going to happily say ‘yes it’s the best thing ever and you can do it’ but I’m also not going to go ‘no don’t try it at all’. These thoughts and decisions are for YOU to decide. I can’t tell you if you are going to like it or not. But what I can tell you is that if you don’t TRY it for a while, you won’t experience it.
So, I’ve grouped my experience with artists into three groups. I’ll tell you honestly that I have gone through phases of all three of these groups, back and forth. Yes, humans change their mind, and so I’ve changed my mind all the time on this issue. It’s a very fine line between these ideas, and there are exceptions to all of them, but I’m grouping these artists up in three categories to make my explanation easier. You will find that you may be jumping in and out of your work, your decisions on selling what kind of work, and even regretting your decisions. THAT IS OKAY. IT HAPPENS. No one is perfect, and there was never a set of rules about what’s right or wrong in these situations. I’d like to emphasize that if you have not been in all three of these categories, you should not be judging other people who are a part of the other categories; everyone goes to artist alley for different reasons, and yours might be different from theirs.
Category A: I stand firmly by the belief that fanart is pretty much the only way I can earn money at the convention or promote. People in this category are here to boldly make the dough, and they know that fanart does the trick. Maybe they like a niche and love to celebrate it with their other fellow niche lovers who don’t see much fanart of it. There’s plenty of reasons to be in this category. But in the end, it’s mostly for financial success.
Category B: I mostly do fanart, but I’m kind of scared to sell original art! You’re probably doing a great job selling fanart already. You might sell a few original pieces of art on their table, but it’s almost entirely made up of fanart. Maybe your original art isn’t selling very well, so you eventually take it off the display. But in the end, the fear of an empty wallet or strong criticism is keeping you from doing much more than those few pieces of art, or making more space for it at your table.
Category C: I’m here to promote; here’s my original work! If you’re in this category, it’s likely that you are there to promote MORE than you are there to profit. Maybe you accepted the fact that you don’t earn that much at artist alley anyways, or have a second means of income that keeps your project going. Your table is mostly or entirely made up of your original work. Maybe just earning enough to keep that table in artist alley will suffice, as long as people are buying your art and checking out your sites.
Tip: Get a second job. You’ll have to work harder, but you’ll have funding for your projects.
Talking to various artists about conventions, the main problem I think about trying to promote original art is that the investment is often high, and the fear of never being able to make back that money holds people back. Unfortunately, that’s just the gamble you’re going to need to take if you want to promote your work. But if you’re really serious about showing your original content, then NO ONE will be able to see it if you don’t make it!
Make the sacrifice, and make the majority of your table (if not all) your own personal work. I’ve read various articles of professional artists who stop selling fanart at conventions so that they can promote their personal work. Always make sure your priority is the work you want to create for yourself, not others. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF DAMMIT. What’s the harm in doing that?
You will likely do poorly the first time in sales, but that does not constitute as a failure. I know I earned significantly less money after I stopped selling fanart at my table. But I REALLY wanted to promote my horror comics and CONventional. I’ve never sold so many of my comics before until I put the fanart away from my table. All eyes on the prize, I suppose. But that still didn’t mean much profit for me. The conversations I have about horror manga artists, convention etiquette, and etc. are SO FUN! I manage, and I am very proud of what has become of CONventional, when people walk up to me and talk to me about the comic even though we’ve never met before.
What can you do to make your big leap to selling original art easier?
Get rid of the fanart: Make room for your personal work, so people can see it on your table clearly. This is the biggest sacrifice, but when people come to your table, it will be all eyes on your work, and your work only. If you’re super duper scared, you can leave one or two pieces of fanart there. There’s no rule to how this works, and I haven’t experimented enough to give anyone a solid answer on how to do this ^_^;
Share tables: I am very sure that if you are Category B and want to transition to Category C, you won’t have much to sell on your first few times. THAT IS OKAY! That’s what table sharing is for! I shared tables on my first time trying it out, but the next convention half a year later, I had enough time to fill up the other half of the table!
Indie Artist Tables: Some conventions have a specific space for artists that aren’t selling fanart to promote. They often cost extra, but tables are larger (which are perfect for sharing), and often put in a more comfortable spot at conventions, next to other artists who are selling original work. When the artist to the left and right of you aren’t selling fanart, nothing deters the attendees from walking away from your table; there’s no competition of art whatsoever. From personal experience, the feeling of competition is almost non-existent compared to being sandwiched between tables with walls of fanart prints.
Have Confidence: You won’t hit it big the first time. Or second. Or third. Treat your first time like it was the very very first time you tabled at a convention. No one has seen your art before, but that doesn’t stop you from being at that table to show them what you got!
What did I lose and gain from selling only original art at my table?
The main thing is that I lost was a lot of money. It’s thanks to a day job and a patreon that keep me going right now. I am not sure what the right word to describe the feeling I gained from the experience, but it’s a mixture of ‘confidence’ and ‘dignity’. CONventional is a free comic, but it has become my most successful work, as they are freebie comics in all the Krakencon swag bags, as well as the one time at Kumoricon where they were giant signs for the Black and White ball. I always leave a tip jar to fund the printing of the comics, and it has always helped keep the project going. One of the happiest things that have happened to me recently was a fan of my original horror comic actively looked for my table at Krakencon so that he could check out the second comic in the series! These are feelings I have never felt just selling fanart at conventions. So I lost something, but I gained something else from these experiences.
Just because you sell original art at artist alley, that should NOT keep you from drawing fanart anywhere else. In fact, most of the stuff I post on the internet is all fanart! It’s only at conventions where you see the majority my original works. I’ve gotten confused behavior at conventions when they find out I’m not selling fanart, but it is often followed by curiosity of the other stuff I make!
You don’t have to make every single convention a convention where you only sell original art. I only put an effort to do this at two specific conventions, since the audience is the broadest. The other conventions are for-profit for myself (since they’re local and most people know me in that area), and I will put up my fanart at those conventions (i still promote my original work though). But I emphasize that you need to be brave if you want to promote your work. I traveled all the way to Austin and Seattle just to promote my comic! It was so worth it….and so was the food….yummy :3
Just because it’s original art, it doesn’t mean everyone will like it. This applies to fanart as well. Some people will like it, some will not. It’s not like everyone will love my horror comics (nor should any kid under 13 be reading them). Nor will they like my weird sculptures. Don’t assume your audience. But know that if you are making what you personally enjoy, then you will attract the right kind of fans who want to see your work.
If you want to only sell fanart, go ahead. I really don’t know why you read all the way to the end if you weren’t interested in this topic in the first place :P
Like I said, I only ENTIRELY get rid of fanart on my table for just a select few conventions. I might have something lingering here or there, but the main highlight on my table are all my comics.
Anyways, whether or not you want to try my advice is up to you. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to ‘take the leap’
I met this guy at Sakuracon a few weeks ago. He was so shy, that when i asked for a photo of his table, he didn’t want to be in the picture! Actually, a lot of artists are like that, and I emphasize that this is one of many reasons you should ASK before taking photos at artist alley.
Okay, moving on, we met properly at the end of Sakuracon’s ‘Artist Meet and Greet’ event, and had a semi-intellectual conversation with another artist who was at the event, Eva about this topic. Will he pursue his dreams? I don’t know, but I’ll root for him if he does. I wrote this article about four months ago, but have been really hesitant about posting it, in fear of how harsh and biased it might sound to other artists, but these two really showed me that I’m not the only one who’s been in that boat for so long. Also, I’m very inclined to go to Sakuracon next year just to meet up with them again :D