My Experiment with Pay-What-You-Want Print Comics

Last week, I was a special guest at AlleyCon, a small English Language nerd-culture convention in Gwangju (South Korea’s 6th largest city.) I’ve sold at a number of Korean conventions, to varying degrees of success, but I was excited for this one. I’m a nobody in the Korean teen comic crowd but English-speaking nerds? Those are my people! Surely I could interest a few of them in my wares.

But there were only 200 attendees! I’d been to cons with thousands of people where I sold only 3 books, so I was scared of another long, awkward day at a card table not selling anything.

I was more interested in sharing my work than leaving rich anyway, so at the very last minute I decided— what the heck. I would try something new. A name-your-price table. I’d had great success online, but when selling real-world objects that cost money to produce, it’s risky business! I was just excited to meet some fellow foreign nerds in Korea and show them my comics, so I went forward with the plan.

I put a bunch of books in my table and decided to see what the market thought they were worth. Would they be more generous than me? Or would I end up losing my shirt after everyone grabbed up my books for less than it cost to print them?

I found out when I arrived that I wasn’t alone in taking on the experiment…

photo by Waygook Photography
I was just across from a pay-what-you-want Banana Bread table. (run by Kiki!) And a few floors below a guy who does pay-what-you-want iPhone repair. Good company to be in.

First of all:

Holy shoot. Everyone at AlleyCon was so amazing. It turns out I wasn’t introducing them to my work- it seems I taught at least 75% of the people there learned how to read Korean with my weird Hangeul comic. I had so many people come up and say such nice things and make me feel like a celebrity and holy shoot that was one of the best days of my life.

It feels kind of crass summing the whole thing up in terms of dollar amounts, but everyone there seemed to enjoy my ultra-nerdy numbers-filled talk about being an independent artist, so I’m sure they’d enjoy this super-ultra-nerdy breakdown of they money that I made there in the building.

So how did I do?

I sold $200 worth of comics (at cover price.) I made $300.

That’s 150% of what I would have charged.

Even better, that’s $1.50 per attendee at the con, including the ones that bought tickets and didn’t show up. 300 bucks might not seem like a lot of money, but that’s like making 2.76 million at San Diego Comic Con.

How to people decide what to pay?

It really did seem to work as it was supposed to. People paid according to the value the book gave them.

The most expensive book at my table, Aki Alliance— which I normally sell for 4 bucks, was the least-earning book. It usually went for around a dollar or two. That’s because it’s translated into Korean, so wasn’t worth a whole lot to an English-Speaking audience.
The cheapest book at my table, Learn To Read Korean in 15 Minutes— which I usually sell for 2 bucks, was the highest-earning book at the table by a WIDE margin. People were paying 5, 10, 15 bucks for that sucker, and getting doubles for their friends. That’s because most visitors had come to my table to thank me for making that very book. They’d already read it, but the purchase was often treated as a sort of tip for helping them adapt into Korean life.
The little card-sized minibooks, that I usually sell in 3-packs for 2 bucks got almost no buyers. Likely because people felt awkward paying less than a dollar while I was looking at them, and didn’t want to spend more than a dollar on something that tiny.
The most generous sales happened right after my panel on how to be an independent international artist. Once again, it seemed to be as a ‘thank you’ for the (hopefully useful) information I’d given them. People were also more generous when asking to buy books at the after-party or at the hostel the next morning.

Did guilt have something to do with it?

Yes, but not as much as I’d expected it to. I made it a point not to take anyone’s money myself, but rather have them throw it into a big red bucket while I made eye contact and pretended like I didn’t peek. People were still generous!

People were even generous when I was nowhere to be seen! Occasionally, when I had a panel to run or an event to get to, I would leave my table unattended with a sign that said just to throw money in the bucket and I would always come back to find it full of more money.

What did I learn from this?
I think what I learned is that every convention is different.

This was MY CON. Many were already familiar with my work, so they placed value in getting it directly from the creator. They are all trying to adapt to Korea, so they place value in a comic that teaches them to read Korean. It was almost entirely attended by college educated adults working as teachers. Therefore they place value in education. Many told me they were stationed in small rural towns. Therefore they had money to spend on geeky things that weren’t available where they lived, and placed value in having geeky things come to them. The convention was largely gaming-focused, so people were familiar with pay-what-you-want projects like The Humble Bundle, so they placed value in seeing it experimented with.

I think the real test would be to try it at, say, Busan Comic World. The reason my cover prices are so low is because that’s where I usually sell them. Those attendees seem to be in their early teens, without jobs or money of their own, from a culture without tipping (service workers are simply paid a higher wage by their employer) and that has no idea who in the heck I am except that weird foreigner who’s always there. They come to the show to get fun, cheaply priced merch from their favorite fandoms. They usually buy bookmarks or stickers, so they’re used to spending less than a dollar. So my weird unfamiliar comics don’t have as much value. If I let people name their price there I would likely end up with a lot more coins than bills. (though I’ll totally give it a try.)

There have been a lot of think-pieces lately about ‘what’s killing cons’ and I have to say that— nothing’s killing cons. There are smazing conventions everywhere, from major cities, to small towns. Each one has its own culture. Some focus on fandom, some on indie creators, some on gaming, some on anime, some on cosplay, some on tv and movies.

Everyone goes to conventions for different reasons and it’s totally cool if noticing you exist doesn’t even factor in at all. People spend buttloads of money to attend cons and no one gets to tell them what they have to care about. If you don’t do well, maybe it’s because you aren’t offering something those people put value in. Maybe your approach needs tweaking, or maybe it’s not the con for you!

Look at the con, the culture, the people who are there and the things they place value in and if what you have to offer doesn’t fit into that equation, try another con! Who knew the most best con I’d ever go to would be a tiny Gwangju, South Korea con that just one year ago consisted of 60 people playing board games in a bar.


(if anyone from AlleyCon is reading this, THANK YOU SO MUCH for making me feel like a star! And if Kiki is reading this, let us know how your banana bread experiment worked out!)

My Nana. 1918-2014.

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Leatha Deane was an awesome lady. She lived 96 years, and made every one count. She survived two husbands, brought a whole bunch of supercool daughters into the world, who brought her a whole heap of grandchildren, and the great grandchildren multiplied exponentially. But even with all those offspring, she made a difference to every one of us in ways that changed the lives that we already owed to her. Probably not a day went by that she wasn’t helping someone in her family go to college, get a house, fix a car, get medical treatment- and instilling us a sense of appreciation for what we had because we know the work and sacrifice she put into every penny she shared.

When I was in college, I had the good fortune of being able to play odd couple with my Nana when I moved into an apartment attached to her house. Me, the one so messy and careless I would amass a mountain of disgusting dirty dishes that I would throw away every 6 months instead of washing… and her, the one so intent on making the most of everything she had that I had to sneak into her apartment at night to steal cans of beans that had expired 7 years earlier and throw them away before she ate them.

But living with her, and listening to her stories, I learned to appreciate what I had. Granted, sometimes the lessons drove me crazy… like when I offered to buy new towels to clean her kitchen with and she rushed to her basket of old clothes and made me scrub the floor with my dead grandfather’s used underwear. It was the grossest day of my life, but it was equivalent to making a naughty teen smoke a whole pack of cigarettes. I got the message. Make everything count, make everything matter. From days, to years, to interactions with the people you love, to cans of beans and old pairs of underwear.

I appreciate being able to introduce her to my wife Hyun Sook Kim over the phone. She’d tearfully welcome her to the family every single time, and tell me how happy she was that I found someone to love. But she couldn’t quite grasp the pronunciation of Korean names. We never told her- and every time she was SO PROUD that she’d finally mastered it. And every time, she’d call Hyun Sook something so wildly different from her actual name that it became a new nickname. Shi Tzu, Shee-shu, Chubby Chip, Sunka and Nooka have all become part of our vocabulary.

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But as much as I love, respect and honor my Nana, I am going to do something now she wouldn’t like. I am going to tell you her biggest secret. The thing she wanted no one to know. Something that her own family, the people she was closest to still don’t know.

Leatha Deane was a closet Everybody Loves Raymond fan.

I cannot begin to imagine why this was so secret, but it was. I lived just below her. There was no door between us, just a stairwell. And every day at 5:00 I would hear those tennis balls at the bottom of her cane scuff the floor as she walked over to her chair, turned the tv to CBS, watched Everybody Loves Raymond, and laughed at the jokes.

Each of the dozens of times I went upstairs to see her during her show, she would freak out like I’d just caught her watching porn. She’d fumble with the remote and say “oh, I don’t know how this got on, I was just flipping the channels. I don’t watch this show. I can’t get this remote to work. Can you change the channel?” and every time, knowing she wanted to watch it, I would reply “Oh, I like this show. Can I watch it?” And we would watch together.

I’ll miss her. I wish we hadn’t been so far apart so that I could have introduced her to Chubby Chip in person and we could have all watched Everybody Loves Raymond together.

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The #novictimshamingvow

Horrible things happen to people who are victims of crimes that go far beyond the original crime. Especially if that victim is not a white male. People go out of their way to shame the victim. To accuse them of lying. They’re threatened with physical and sexual violence. Their personal information is released. Their character is slandered.

I want to make a vow right now, and I hope others will join me.

I will never purposely cause harm to another person. But if I’m ever accused of doing so I AM TOTALLY OKAY with you giving the accuser the benefit of the doubt.

I would much rather be wrongly slandered across the Earth than see any awful, victim-shaming bullcrap done in my name.

Even if the accuser is straight up lying, accusing them of such without being involved in the situation and knowing the facts makes it more difficult for actual victims to come forward and get help.

Do not demand proof. Do not say ‘he would never do that.’ Do not engage the accuser at all. Come to me. Ask ME what the hell is going on. Let me explain. Once you have heard the evidence presented by both parties you can choose who you believe. Let the law handle the punishment. If you think the accuser is a liar, let me deal with it.

If you agree, make it known. Take the #novictimshamingvow