WHAT I EXPECTED, WHAT I GOT

I need a deadline to create artistic work efficiently. Without a deadline, without consequences, my efforts fizzle out and I lose interest in the primary project and pursue the next shiny thing. With a deadline, I get shit done. This is my most efficient workflow as an artist. This year’s deadline for many projects was PHX Zinefest, Sunday 9-18-2022. I set this goal some months ago. I am proud to say that I finished all of my work on time. More than anything else, this was my goal.

When I was researching what to do at zinefest, I looked for articles written by vendors at cons or craft fairs on what they did right and wrong. I found a few good ones, but decided I should write some version of my own. This post is partly journal, partly advice, mostly just my POV when it comes to this experience. Hopefully, you, dear reader, will either get a glimpse behind the curtain, or gain some tips for your upcoming booth.

Skip the Headless Rodeo stuff and take me to what Shut Eye Press wrote

THE WORK, AND THE MONEY

Labor is ‘free’ aka my limited time on this earth. I spent a lot of money to make stuff (not that much money in the grand scheme of things, which I touch upon later). I wouldn’t have been able to pay for everything without the stimulus money we received from the pandemic… I might have only been able to afford printing stickers two or three times a year because that expense would have cut into my Oreos budget.

I’m considering the entire experiment of Headless Rodeo for the calculation of costs. Zinefest was a big symbolic deadline. It was bigger than just getting a few zines printed on time before the show. It was to represent myself and Headless Rodeo as a realized entity. It was an opportunity to leverage an event to play upon my own necessity of deadlines.

THE COST

Just to itemize the moneys a little bit for the sake of honesty, reflection, and for anyone reading this to compare their own projects with mine (Phoenix AZ USA year 2022 BCE dollars):

Thing Cost
Zines 5 titles in black and white, 5 sheets per unit, 20 copies of each title, printing cost ~$75 (I found a printer with great prices at 5 cents per b/w sheet. Standard prices in my area are 11c per sheet)
Stickers 6 designs, total of ~$475 (purchased over the course of 2 years since the stimmy money)
Poster and tabletop easel for the sign, table decor ~$30
long-arm stapler $20 new (already owned but including as a general expense)
vendor sign up for the event $25
misc. things I can’t think of $x
“Total Cost” ~$625

I’m not supremely business minded, so take anything I say with a grain of salt. I know I’m taking everything I say with a grain of salt. From my tiny chicken-nugget-addled brain’s perspective, there are a few ways to think about where I stand when it comes to expense.

  • The expense kinda sorta “doesn’t exist” because it’s still all unexpected windfall stimmy money. So I’m deep into the black. “Hurray and high-five!”
  • The expense objectively exists, because I paid real money for things, so I’m still deep in the red. “Boo! Do more to get into the black you potato-shaped loser!”
  • The expense exists and I’m still in the red, but it’s forgivable and negligible for a variety of reasons; one, most businesses don’t turn a profit for the first few years, two, in the grand scheme of things we’re not talking about huge sums of money, AND three because even if I were to call it a hobby’s expense, it’s still not that expensive of a hobby because that’s like only 7 AAA videogame titles with no DLC and I don’t play videogames.

No matter which way I look at it, I shouldn’t feel terrible any which way about the expense, and just be happy that enough people found my stuff weird, funny, good, or intriguing enough to buy it. The value of the objects isn’t going anywhere; I’m not throwing any zines away and the stickers aren’t going to ‘go bad’ any time soon. So it’s not like I’ve lost the expenses forever.

EARNINGS

I sold much more stuff than I expected, and left the event with around +$250.

Overall, that puts me at net -$375. Throw on another hundred bucks that I forgot to add to the table above for business cards and that makes -$475, and let’s round it up to a nice -$500. At this rate, it would take me another two years of identical success without incurring any other costs in order to break even. However, I will always be working on new projects, and making zines and stickers is really fun, so, at this rate, I will never break even. Making new objects allow opportunity to make new moneys, but ultimately I’m behind the 8-ball. Nobody’s getting rich on zines. And, at this point in my life, that’s okay with me.

I still think my time at zinefest was a success. I sold completely out of a title, sold way more items than I expected, met a lot of cool people, and though it may have just felt this way, it seemed that during the hours of the event, there were customers reviewing my table open to close without any breaks.

WHAT I THINK I (and my tablemate) DID RIGHT, FROM THE VENDOR’S PERSPECTIVE

I didn’t have a ton of time to wander around for the sake of comparison. I know that I could have gone shopping; my wonderful wife was there and could cover for me, as well as my tablemate and trustworthy friend. But there was a regular stream of people checking out the table, and I was having fun talking to everyone and pitching my zines, making new friends with common interests. In my quick gander around the room, here’s what I noticed that we were doing differently than other people. I want to point out that there were other all-star booths that were fucking slaying it and I was definitely not the top dog in the room or anything. This is just the stuff that I think contributed the most to our success. While it is advice, it’s not prescriptive! I’m not the zinester police. If you’re showing up with a few zines and a card reader, that’s a big success. Having your stuff done and showing up to the event is 95% of the battle. If you find this writing unhelpful, commit it to the flames.

Observation 1: We looked the part.

My tablemate Shut Eye Press spent a lot of time crafting a brilliant tablecloth, and had eye catching table decorations along with their wares, and had professional-looking displays. I brought a bright orange jackolanter halloween tablecloth we bought, a bunch of strings of fairy lights, a 3-foot poseable skeleton decoration, and I made a big colorful posterboard sign with examples of my stickers. I spent a lot of time on the sign, for better or for worse, sketching things out and trying to make it look as professional as possible. My hand-lettering isn’t terrible but it ain’t professional, but I did my best.

Point being, both my tablemate and I decorated our tables to the 9’s, albeit with quite different aesthetics. Shut Eye Press looked really smart and slick and professional, Headless Rodeo looked more OTT carnie-core, but both of us stepped up our game and really looked legit and looked like we were taking it seriously.

Both of us brought a lot of stuff to sell to completely fill our tablespace. At the start of the show, there was barely a square inch of our shared table that wasn’t either decorated or populated with “product” for customers. I think this makes a difference… if you think about a retail setting, it looks better when the shelves look full than if they look like it’s been cleaned out by zombie apocalypse preppers and there’s one sad dented can of tuna left in the whole store for you and your grubby found family to quarrel over.

Observation 2: We said hello, and broke the ice.

We said ‘Hi’ to basically every single passerby. Generally speaking, people are shy or don’t really know how to talk to complete strangers. Now add to that general shyness not wanting to be put in a position where they have pressure to buy anything just because they’re looking. It seemed beneficial to find a way to break the ice with strangers in order to make it less awkward to approach your table and have a look or have a chat.

Both of us (Shut Eye Press and Headless Rodeo) flexed our charisma muscles and came up with methods to draw people to us and break the ice, and remove the pressure to buy anything.

Shut Eye Press had this brilliant idea of creating and bringing a stamp that said something along the lines of “zinefest 2022” & “shut eye press,” and they brought some blank bookmarks they made so that anybody could come over and make a free bookmark. Every person who glanced toward their booth got an invitation to make a free bookmark. Even if they don’t buy anything, the visitor has walked up to them, interacted with their table, and is leaving with a keepsake that has Shut Eye Press on it just in case they got curious to looked them up later. At least two people came to the table and said, “Oh yeah, I know you, I’ve bought your stuff before!” I can’t imagine a better compliment as a vendor.

I watched a video or read a blog post somewhere about authors at a convention. One author spent a lot of time working on a pitch or ways to describe their books, and the author just said to attendees, “Hey do you like Brandon Sanderson? My books are like that,” and the point of the story was that the second author was just as successful.

I didn’t have a great freebie idea like Shut Eye Press, but a lot of my content revolves around the horror genre and horror related pop culture. So, anybody who glanced my way or looked at my sign, I called out to them and asked if they liked horror movies. Or if they seemed really hip, I’d specifically ask if they liked Jordan Peele. I knew(or, I hoped) that my fanzine about the movie Nope would be popular because, Jordan Peele rocks, the movie itself rocks, and the movie just came out so it’s fresh in people’s minds. I was channelling that second author.

Both Shut Eye Press and I found a way to break the ice. It’s less awkward for an attendee to come over and say hello. Even if they don’t buy anything, they can just talk to me about movies or horror, and honestly, that’s great by itself.

A lot of people answered my question with “No,” as in, “No I do not like the thing that your whole store basically revolves around.” But, they still came over to talk to me about it. I have a few things that are not horror content, so I could talk to them about other stuff like poetry or the feature film Romeo Must Die. Again, I didn’t approach this as a cold-hearted sales tactic. I went into it as if everyone could be a cool new person to talk to.

If you’re introverted and reading this hoping for some insight on doing well at a similar event, think about it this way: You’re tabling at a zinefest(or a convention, or insert-event-here) with a self-selected group of people. That means every single person who walks in has at least at least one thing in common with you. Every single person there could potentially be your friend. So saying hello to someone walking by checking out your wares isn’t just a sales tactic. You could truly make a new friend. And I’m not just being sappy–I really believe that.

Observation 3 I brought bags to give customers for their purchases.

Honestly, this is so basic that when I thought of it, I felt stupid that it took me so long to think of it. As an artist or writer or zinester you’re worried about the important stuff like getting all of your work done, making sure your stuff prints right, making sure the design isn’t a dumpster fire. And focusing on that means that you just might overlook some of the most basic ideas.

I forgot it, so I figured other people forgot to bring bags too. I put it on my sign that I was selling my bags separately for $1, but I mentioned it was free with every purchase. But after a while, I would notice And when we arrived there, I saw a lot of people walking around with a handful of zines and no bag; a person in a wheelchair with a bunch of zines haphazardly balanced on their lap, someone awkwardly holding a stack of zines in their hands. I gave up charging anybody for a bag, and would just give it to people for free. Money-wise, I believe it mathed out to 45 cents per bag, but that’s okay… Just like, be a human and offer some help. The “smart business thing” to do would have been to stamp or brand my bags somehow so that they would have a reminder of Headless Rodeo when they would go to recycle it or reuse it or something. That’s for next time.

Observation 4 I took multiple methods of payment and had a bunch of ones and fives for change

Another simple one, but people wanted to pay several different ways; some people had cash and we brought like $50 in mostly ones with some fives and a few tens. A lot of people used Venmo, and I printed out my QR code on a piece of paper and set it underneath my sign. And Shut Eye Press had a card reader, and they offered to let me use it and they’d send me the cash after the fest (forever grateful). If you’re reading this in the future and venmo sucks or is outdated, just make sure to cover the most popular methods of payment and be ready for it. Purchases were an even split between the three, so I’m really glad that I was ready for that.

Observation 5 The hardest thing in the world: pricing work

My friend Shut Eye Press had been to a zinefest before, and recommended that stuff at the lower price range sells well. So, I listened to my friend and priced low. That was an easy call, because it matched my expectations about what I want with Headless Rodeo. I priced them lower than I would on my Etsy store because I don’t have to handle and ship any of them–remove the cost of shipping and they were actually priced about the same.

I made all of my profits by selling lots of lower priced objects, as opposed to a fewer number of deluxe objects, like a nice art print or a finely crafted and bound art book. This “strategy” really just reflects my goal and aesthetic; I want to be the sticker machine as opposed to the art gallery. I want to put out lots of fast, affordable, and possibly dirty zines as opposed to a few luxury objects. It’s the kind of stuff I like to buy and collect. My zines are black and white 20lb copy paper, folded and staple bound in my living room. My stickers were high quality and lux, but still didn’t price them as high as I could have.

  • My zines individually were priced at $4.
  • There was one title I decided to price down to $2, a decision I made after the event already started because, idk, I wanted people to have it, and it was slightly smaller in size compared to the others. Ironically, it’s the title that was the most expensive to make; it was in color, and because I was an idiot and went to Office Max to print copies (I didn’t and still don’t own a color printer), this smaller zine that I decided to steeply discount for the event was actually by far the most expensive to make. Excluding the hours of creative labor (ah, to be an artist) these $2 zines cost roughly 50 cents a piece to create. The other, larger, longer zines cost 25 cents to print and make, for comparison.
  • My stickers’ prices were in a range from $1-$5, most were $3, but on average I’d say $4. I go to a really high quality sticker maker (Sticker Mule) that puts out professional stuff. All of my stickers are on my water bottle and have survived hundreds of hand-washes and none of them have peeled at all or faded even a little bit. An individual sticker cost me between $1-3 dollars per sticker to make, in minimum batches of 50. In this instance, you get what you pay for.
  • I ran a deal called The Buckaroo Bundle which was comprised of any two zines plus any two stickers for a total of $12. When it breaks down, depending on which stickers customers chose, they would save $2-$4. While that may not sound like much, at a zinefest, an extra $2 could be another zine.

Here’s a business 101 lesson I’ve learned from this experience. A discounted bundle is sort of an “everybody wins” scenario. The customer obviously gets a discount on stuff, and as a seller, while I make less profit on an individual item, I sell more of those items. I’ll take it! That means that this person gets more of my stuff, which makes me feel great. If they bought the bundle, I would even tell people the most expensive stuff to include in order to get the best deal and save the most money. I tried to be a human about it. It seems noteworthy that my $12 bundle was less expensive than some individual zines, art prints, or even high quality luxury items around the space.

How the fuck am I supposed to value my own stuff though?

Great fucking question. The question of “what your art is worth?” is gut-wrenching to me as an artist because, the real question is, what is it worth to whom? When it comes to valuing my own arts and crafts, a better, more relevant questions to ask myself seems to be, “What is a complete stranger willing to pay for this? And how much do nearly identical objects cost in its same genre/part of the store/event?” You have to try and think about where your object fits into the mosaic of value for someone interested in buying it. Paying $1 for a single page center-cut zine feels great. Paying $5 for the same single page center-cut zine makes me think… dang this better be the best center-cut zine ever, or written by someone really really famous. You know what? Sometimes you need to be honest with yourself and recognize that you put out a premium product and it deserves to be priced highly. And other times, you need to be honest with yourself to admit that while it took a hundred hours and lots of money to make, people probably aren’t going to pay $25 to buy your deluxe Gunsmoke fanzine.

There’s a thing with publishing and minimum word count expectations for genres– if your book has fewer pages, it feels like people are getting more bang for their buck if they buy a longer book. It’s illogical on its face, but it’s how a lot of people’s lizardbrain works.

I noticed that my price per object seemed much lower than other booths. And if I’m going to be totally brutal and throw shade, I… no, I don’t think I’ll do that. But let’s just take a simple thing like size. I saw a lot of small, rough-and-ready looking zines at higher prices than mine, which were bigger. Maybe my size-to-price ration in comparison to others was advantageous to me. It’s hard to know for sure.

Observation 6 Overpack for the elements.

Pack for Murphy’s Law. What I mean is, think about the physical environment and pack for all potential obstacles. Zinefest provided the tip that lighting is dim in the venue. How dim is dim? Hard to know. But based on their tip, we brought two sets of battery powered colored rainbow fairy lights. I thought two of them would be plenty, but my wife threw in a few strands of battery powered little vine-light-thingies we had stowed away with the holiday decorations. I thought it would be overkill, but it couldn’t hurt. I had the thought, maybe I should bring tapenah I what am I going to need tape for?

Let me tell you how dim it was; it was dim, goddamnit. In addition to the dim ambient light in the room, we were seated in such a way that my giant fucking sign cast a looming shadow over all of my zines and stickers. But we brought all those lights! We should be good… shouldn’t we? Well, guess what, I forgot the remote for one of the rainbow fairy lights, and that ignorance rendered it unusable. The second set of rainbow fairy lights looked great, but wasn’t good at actually illuminating any of the text on my sign or anywhere else. Look who comes to the rescue! The little battery powered vine strands that I considered superfluous. Even then, it was not optimally lit, but at least everything was legible. I’m just really glad the organizers warned us of the darkness in the first place.

We were seated right under the AC vent. If you were scantily dressed, you got cold and uncomfortable. And, guess what else, my big fucking sign started swaying in the wind and wouldn’t stay on the easel. Man, you know what’s good for this kind of thing? Tape. Thankfully some zinesters at another table saved my skin and had a roll.

The organizers told us to bring snacks, so we brought some granola bars. The fest is only for 5 hours. We ate beforehand. I have a layer of fat that I keep for long winters. We should be good. But by hour three, I had plowed through the granola bars, ate some generous granola bars from the zinesters at the next table, and I was still starving. As it turns out, standing up and shaking hands and talking non-stop for a constant stream of people is exhausting and requires refueling.

The organizers gave a great guide about all of the potential snares and physical challenges, and we even accounted for them and felt like we barely got by. There was no way of knowing that we’d be seated under the air vent. They said it was dim lighting, but how dim was dim? Hard to tell. Even with warnings, there were a lot of variables beyond anyone’s control and there were hurdles waiting in the blind spot.

If you’re doing something like this, overpack. Bring more product than you think you’ll need to keep your table looking bountiful. If they say “hey, might want to bring lights,” bring five lights and spare batteries. Bring clothing for different temperatures to change into if turns out the AC breaks, or if you’re seated directly under. Bring more snacks than you think is possible for a human being to consume in the allotted time and watch yourself turn into something more than human to consume those snacks. BRING WATER. Make a long checklist for the day-of and run through it that morning to ensure you brought everything. If you need, bring a caddy or a dolly so you don’t pull a back muscle the second you arrive before the event even starts. I’m really, really glad we packed for Murphy’s Law.

Final and most important observation of what I did right: Listen to your fucking circle

Basically all the successful things I did were suggestions from my friends or my wife. Straight up. I’m not smart. I just surround myself with smart people that I trust. The hottest selling zine was something my wife told me to make. A sticker that I specifically designed for Zinefest and thought was going to be flying off the shelves like hotcakes was a complete dud. You know what people bought? The sticker that I made just for myself that I thought nobody would get or understand. I didn’t display one of my zine titles because I ran out of space and figured people wouldn’t like it anyway. My wife said, “You’re dumb put it out” and guess what sold just as much as anything else? That one.

GOOD LUCK

I hope this information helps. It was good to review the event and put things into perspective.

Shut Eye Press

(I sent a draft of this over to my homie SEP for review because I didn’t want to misrepresent them, and this was their response. While I made edits based on their feedback, I am reposting their words in full for posterity)

Yo, I love all this processing and I appreciate you and you sharing it!!! It’s really good. Thanks for being patient with me getting back, too.

I think this is a really helpful and specific look into what worked and didn’t work for you, and people will really appreciate it—it was helpful to my thinking, for sure. It’s interesting that you calculate loss and profit solely based on zine fest income! (I think of it more in terms of what sold because the remaining inventory will roll over). Everything I have to say in agreement or response, is, of course, just my situation and set of priorities, so it shouldn’t necessarily sway where you’re headed (not that it would):

For me, I didn’t sell a ton, but I also never do at zine fest—I just get that my aesthetic is not the right fit for it! I table for a number of reasons:

  • I love PHX zine fest, its organizers, and the attendees, and the tabling fee is worth it to me just to support a really great community event.
  • I’m invested in making letterpress feel accessible to people; I don’t want it to seem like an ancient or fine printing medium that can’t do weird zine-y things.
  • Any money is good money.
  • The deadline does help me get moving on projects.
  • It gets my face and name and contact info out there, so while a lot of people walk away from my table never having bought something, they may still pay for my services in the future, or follow me on insta, or refer people to me, or even just vaguely remember me so that when I cross their paths again, I seem that much more friendly and established in the community!
  • Most people are going to look at my books and items for a split second, and not “get” what they are (so they walk right past), whereas an illustrated photocopied staple book is going to immediately register and also let them know what price range to expect. While I DO want to make some cheaper, faster zines where I can, I also know that I love crafts and special touches—it’s really hard for me to invest myself in making a straightforward book form. This is just what I do, I naturally spend soooooo much time and money and energy doing it, for better or for worse. And there are always a few people who DO get it, who love that I do something different even if it is more expensive. I like having my art appreciated even when they don’t buy; I totally get that a $10 purchase is a lot. I price my stuff as it is because of the materials and extensive labor that goes into it—I could go lower since I’m not focused on profit, but I don’t because I don’t want to wholly undercut the value of that kind of work.

Okay, so I say all this because I don’t expect to be one of the popular booths there, or to make anything close to a profit. I love that you closely examined so many factors in what makes a success, and I think anyone could benefit from the advice. I don’t have much feedback, only a caution about like 2 points in your blog piece that pointed out others who didn’t do the successful things we did with our tabling. By saying you/I/we did something that really worked, I think it already suggests that not everyone was doing it—specifically pointing to bad examples feels repetitive at best, and at worst could feel judgey or superior. Others have severe social anxiety, and/or may not have the luxury of all the free time that went into my shit, and I think it’s inspiring just to see someone at a sparsely decorated table representing their art. They could really benefit from your advice, and I’m sure more sales would be better! I guess my point is that all of what you wrote about is of course super valid and helpful, but my only caution would be with the examples of “what not to do” coming across as somewhat flippant. But then again, maybe that is the vibe you’re going for! I dunno. Maybe I’m too protective of my fellow precious art babies. take it, leave it, bop it.

LOVE,

(S.E.P.)