Two years ago, I began coordinating the Twin Cities Zinefest. It’s a small, two-day DIY craft, culture and self-publishing festival in Minneapolis that offers affordable table space to exhibitors and often includes an art show, concert, workshops, documentaries and an open mic zine reading.
Throughout its history, the Twin Cities Zinefest has often been run by well-intentioned, creative coordinators with busy lives. It’s a model that is about as independent as its cause, since the coordinator has about as much free reign as any exhibitor making a zine. There’s no board, or committee, and hardly any volunteers. So it’s pretty common that after a couple years running the fest, whoever’s in charge just burns out or moves on to persue their own personal projects.
When I took over Zinefest in 2008, I didn’t have much guidance from the previous event coordinators. I mostly consulted with friends, visited other conventions, and tried to pick apart the attitude and events that make a good convention.
For better or worse, you can blame dumb luck for what happens at most cons, but there’s still a lot to be said for a maintaining and executing a well-oiled plan with core values when you’re organizing any public event. A con can change enormously depending on the strengths of its location and place on the calendar, but I’ve developed some general, useful ideas about conventions that other DIY, book and comic festival coordinators might want to hear.
As far as I know, there is no convention for convention planners, so we’re all pretty much going on old steam or starting from scratch, which is why I think “how to create a better convention” is a conversation that’s long over-due and well worth having, so I’m starting it now.
I’m sharing with you some of my ideas about what makes a good show, in hopes that other small press events consider my arguments, re-think old standards, and usher in a more exciting age of print-loving festivals.
If there’s room for one book event in your town, there’s room for two. Work with other organizers to cross-promote your events to both show-goers and exhibitors. No need to be greedy. Literacy shouldn’t be limited to the one game in town, and people will be even more excited about the events overall once they become part of a year-long, sustainable lifestyle.
- BE KIND, UNWIND
Ideally, everyone with the open checkbook is there because they wish they were on the exhibitor’s side, which they could be in just a few years. Give the exhibitors and attendees something to look forward to each year by hosting a show that puts exhibitors first, no matter their experience. Word will get out that your exhibitors are happy, and that’s the best kind of press you can’t buy.
- TAKE IT SLOW
When your show starts to snowball, don’t let it go to your head. A good, small show beats a large disastrous show. If it looks like moving the show will get in more exhibitors, at the expense of the exhibitors, my advice is to just stay put.
- LISTEN TO YOUR EXHIBITORS
If somebody has a good idea, or thinks something about your event sucks, you should take the criticism and advice very seriously. Some people stoke trouble for no good reason, but mostly they are just pissed because they didn’t have a good time. This translates to your fault, and should be avoided at all costs.
- HEALTH AND EMERGENCY
If you think heat stroke is a possibility, you could encourage people to dress down. If the venue provides an EMT at the event, all the better. It is worth while to be prepared.
- YOUR TABLES ARE TOO EXPENSIVE
How the hell is everyone still paying so much money for exhibition space at some of these conventions? Why do people stand for this? I think it’s insulting. Cartoonists are so poor already due to debt or disability (depression counts), I just think it’s outrageous that they have to pay so much for travel, lodging, food, and then their table space. Particularly when it’s so rare that self-publishers are able to make enough to cover table space at all, and it’s hardly ever an employer-covered expense. Make it a goal to have table costs below projected sales for each table, given the traffic your venue can accommodate or expect.
- PROGRAMMED TO WIN
Maybe panel discussions between favorite creators are so popular I can’t even conceive of it, but every time I go to a panel it looks pretty bare. It seems like convention programming is almost always geared toward fans, but I think it wouldn’t suck to have at least one self-help program per event, just for the exhibitors. Like “How to make your hobby a business and expense this outrageously priced convention” or “Account for yourself! An overview of QuickBooks, Peachtree and Quicken” or “Grant opportunities for self-publishers and artists” or “Health insurance for the self-employed or part-time cartoonist” or “How to plan and teach a comics class at your local library.” Conventions could be about taking ideas home and fostering outside community interest in comics, rather than huge binge festivals where all people do is consume goods and services and win awards.
- VEGANS MAKE COMICS
I am pissed off every time I hear about a vegan going on vacation and eating nothing but bananas. This is idiotic. If you want a diverse range of people at your event, look into the needs of your exhibitors and relate to them the opportunities that await them in your community. They are guests in your city. Don’t be stingy with the recommendations. Newcomers like recommendations. Tell the vegans where the freaking vegan restaurants are and how to get there. Sheesh.
- HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE
Having a volunteer at the door to help you with your boxes and usher you to your table is a truly wonderful experience. If you can make this happen for your exhibitors, then do.
- SHOOT FOR THE STARS
Every self-publisher is wishing after a few years that somebody else would do their self-promoting, shilling and overall dirty work. Having a publisher or distributor at your event will make it a million times better than having an exhibitor-only event. There’s a thrill in the air when you think someone in the room might make it big somehow with just the right connection. Make sure your publisher/distro on hand is kindly and bemused by most circumstances, is willing to listen and respond to strangers, and won’t be a total asshole and break people’s dreams. If this means requesting a lackey instead of the higher-ups for a small fest, there’s no shame in it.
- FIND THE GEEKY PRESS WRITER
Every city paper has some comic-loving nerd on staff. Look for the tell-tale signs in the focus of their columns, track them down, and send them personally addressed invitations and press releases. They will love the attention and if you are lucky they will write about your event. This will be easier in New York City. Brian Heater lives there.
If you’d like to talk more about event planning, or starting your own small scale small press show, I’d be happy to talk with you. Email me at smorean @ gmail . com
I hope next year, if you’re ever in the Twin Cities, you’ll visit our Zinefest. It is petite and cheap and really fun. zinefest.org
– Sarah Morean