Zinefest: the only good party I ever threw

Categories:  Events, Features
Toby Jones and Madeline Queripel

Toby Jones and Madeline Queripel

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.

  1. CROSS-POLINATE
    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.
  2. 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.
  3. People reading comics by members of the International Cartoonist Conspiracy

    People reading comics by members of the International Cartoonist Conspiracy

  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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

Lacey Prpic Hedtke dazzles the crowd at the 2009 Twin Cities Zinefest

Lacey Prpic Hedtke dazzles the crowd at the 2009 Twin Cities Zinefest

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13 Comments to “Zinefest: the only good party I ever threw”

  1. chuck | July 17th, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Awesome! Awesome! Awesome!

    This is the best thing I have read all week. You said a lot of things that seem like common-sense about these conventions but no one ever talks about them. As I was reading i was thinking, “Yeah! These tables are expensive! How the hell am I affording this?”

    I love your ideas about useful panels too. I never go to panels and it’s probably because the internet is already full of people talking about comics everyday. I don’t really need to see it in person.

    Anyway, I liked the article.

  2. Dustin Harbin | July 17th, 2009 at 11:05 am

    AWESOME post, I love it! Great advice, I will be thinking of all this next year when I’m building the 2010 HeroesCon/Indie Island.

  3. Daniel J. Olson | July 17th, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Great post Sarah. Thanks for coordinating this event, it was really great.

    I really like the idea of panels targeted at exhibitors. Especially “making your hobby into a business.” I feel that it doesn’t take much to open up Excel and document your expenses vs. profits, yet so little of us do it. Almost every self-publisher is losing money, so we might as well get some credits back for it!!!

    Again, thanks for the event.

  4. smorean | July 17th, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Thanks, you three! Makes me want to do a follow-up from the exhibitor’s perspective. Perhaps I shall.

  5. Argel | July 17th, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    When will those table prices go down?! I’m sure I would enjoy reading the follow up as well.

  6. François Vigneault | July 17th, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    Good thoughts Sarah! I’m looking forward to chatting with you in the future about DIY festivals… I esp. agree with you on the “yawn” quality of so many panels… striking the balance is key. Also, how much were your exhibitor spaces this year? We’re struggling to keep our prices low in the face of mounting costs. Anyways, congrats on what seems like a successful show!

  7. Crazy Dave | July 20th, 2009 at 9:00 am

    There are conventions for convention planners.

    In the UK there is ConRunner, and in the US there is SMOF con.

  8. Anna Bongiovanni | July 22nd, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Sarah, you did an awesome amazing job at Zinefest this year and I think it’ll do people good to listen to your advice.

    I especially like the part about keeping table prices LOW, I went to MOCCA this summer and could barely afford it even though I was sharing the table with three other people. Now the table prices have gone even HIGHER and it’s no longer an indie-comic convention because the indie comic-makers can’t afford the table price. I’m hoping that around the same time as MOCCA next year there will be a smaller, more affordable convention in NY, truly aimed at the small comic publishers. Y’know, something like Zinefest.

  9. François Vigneault | July 23rd, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Just a head’s up, the NYC Zine Fest just had their maiden voyage a couple of weeks ago, and I am sure that next year they would be delighted to welcome indy creators who have been priced out of MoCCA: http://www.nyczinefest.org

    I would imagine that a convention for conventioneers would be a bit like the event planning class I took last year, which is to say, awful. Although some of the broad points can be helpful, the thrust of the event planning industry has almost nothing to do with grassroots events along the lines of SF, NYC, or Twin Cities Zine Fests.

    I just want to also pipe in about table fees… Although I totally agree that a lot of “indy” shows are getting ridiculous (I have personally been priced out of MoCCA, for sure!), I think that its important that exhibitors (myself included) keep in mind that these events take a huge commitment to put on, in both money and time. If you keep the table fees bargain basement, then you have to run an all volunteer operation (which as Sarah mentioned, leads to severe burn out and heavy turn over, both of which I see as very bad things for the fest), and it becomes very hard to afford the basiscs (esp. in expensive cities like SF and NY), much less a rental space that’s a bit nicer, or perhaps is more centrally located, leading to more foot traffic, which leads to more sales for the exhibitors, etc. Just a thought. I think, like Anna said, the main thing is to have venues for all different kinds of creators, from zine fests up thru MoCCA & APE and beyond.

  10. smorean | July 24th, 2009 at 10:10 am

    In MoCCA’s defense, they are hosting the MoCCA Art Festival as a fund-raiser for their non-profit organization/museum. So that’s being built into the rising table cost and admission fee structure, I’m sure.

    However, if that’s the case, they should call a percentage of each table cost a tax-deductible donation, yah? Maybe that’s not possible, but it’s just a thought.

  11. Meghan Hogan | July 24th, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Sarah, THANK YOU for mentioning vegans on your list! Last Fall when we exhibited at APE the only vegan option was (you said it) bananas and also fries. There were no restaurants around the convention site to look for alternatives.

    At APE, we shared a table with Tessa from Tessa’s Braces whom we hadn’t met before…and she was also vegan! She opted to pick the meat and dairy out of her convention sandwich.

    The list of vegan comic artists is big enough to warrant planning around. So, for all of you who plan conventions, please listen to Sarah and remember us.

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