Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Cosplacon 2015: Artist Alley Review

This was my second year at Cosplacon, located in Jefferson City, Missouri. My commute this year was much shorter so I slept at home and skipped the hotel cost.

Cosplacon is a nice show, friendly staff and homey feel.
Venue & Location
Cosplacon is held in the Capitol Plaza Hotel, same hotel as last year. It’s pretty easy to get to if you’re coming from the north. It two turns off the major state highway and you can’t miss it. However, it is in downtown – a smallish downtown—so expect weird traffic, lots of stoplights, and lanes the force you to turn.

The CPH has plenty of parking for the size of the convention, although you might find yourself parking around back. There’s also an underground garage but I’ve never been down there. The loading dock that’s in the back is ridiculously steep, so I suggest anyone who can go through the front doors to do so. Even that wheelchair ramp is pretty steep though.

The hotel’s nice, not lavish. Since I haven’t stayed here before, I can’t really provide a narrative on how the rooms and service are. However, they set up a hot food line in the dealer’s room this year which all sorts of tasty things. They had this taco salad from heaven made with Doritos… best part of my weekend.

Artist Space
Artists and dealers were in the same room again this year. There was plenty of room in the aisles for the crowds to move around in. The space was a 10x10 booth space in the contract, although I think they measure closer to 8x8. The space came with a 5’ table and two chairs. The tables were covered by this spandex material that wraps tight all the way down the sides of the table. It looks really cool, but the cover made it impossible to store anything under the table, or even push your chair in if you wanted it to stand.

The booths were back to back in several rows, with dealers around the perimeter of the room. Each space is separated by tall drapes and curtains in the back, and short drapes on each side. We were also next to the main events room and the music would bleed over. It got so loud sometimes that I couldn’t hear the person next to me. I was also on the side of the room closer to that wall though.

Sales for me were about the same as last year, which is to say good. Many other artists I spoke to said they did a lot worse than last year.

Friday started really early—9:30 AM. What?! I don’t remember if it was this early last year but I was certainly still waking up when they opened the doors. Fortunately, vendors weren’t the only ones tired that early in the morning. People didn’t start showing up for a long while. Traffic remained pretty light into mid afternoon, but sales were good. I made quite a few large sales on Friday. At the end of Friday, I had sold almost $500, which was more than half what I anticipated for the weekend. Unfortunately, it looked like I was abnormally lucky, because tons of other vendors said they were disappointed, even for a Friday.

Saturday started just as early and traffic was weak. It was mostly the same crowd that was there Friday, just meandering and hanging out. Some artists had no one stop by most of the day, while all the dealers were extremely crowded, although I think it was mostly people looking not buying. Once the costume events began, the room was dead. There would be blocks of hours that go by without a single sale. By the end of Saturday, I think morale felt pretty down. No one seemed to have done well, and many artists experienced only a handful of sales all day.

Sunday was no different, with slow traffic and mostly people killing time. Many artists and dealers packed up early because the room emptied out after noon and had almost no traffic for the rest of the day. Plus, a gigantic storm was blowing east across Internstate 70 so anyone headed towards St. Louis was advised to either pack it up mid-day or chance getting stuck until the storm blew over. By the afternoon, the room was half empty and the rest of us were just waiting out the storm and socializing. I’d say everyone I talked to did not do as well as they hoped.

For me, Friday was one hell of a fluke because I think I made more sales in one day than most people made all weekend. It was my saving grace, but I can’t speak for anyone else.

The Cosplacon crowd is all encompassing. Because it’s not an “anime” or “comic” or whatever convention, there’s no real niche that attracts a certain group. Cosplay is the focus, and you have families, teenagers, seniors, everyone dressing up and coming to enjoy the weekend.

The crowd is also really nice. You get the best of Mid-Mo who all just want to have a good time.
Staff & Volunteers
Cosplacon staff are always wonderful. The people who work it care about their guests and try really hard to make things run smoothly. Staff and volunteers came by to check on me several times each day. I was also able to request a new booth space to avoid one of my neighbors (because of product competition, not because of unfriendliness).

Final Verdict
I don’t know, my feelings are pretty mixed about Cosplacon. I’ve had 2 good years in a row and I love the cosplays. For me it’s close to home so I don’t have to travel much. Based on sales for everyone else though, I don’t think I can recommend it to artists and dealers that have high overhead. It’s still pretty small.

 When packing up and leaving, the humidity was insane. Just from carrying my print box from the hotel door to the car, the condensation built up thick within a matter of minutes. So gross -_-

Friday, August 14, 2015

FAQ Mailing Packages

Many of us have expanded out art from beyond our tables and into the realm of online sales. There are so many upfront decisions when making this leap. This article will be sticky, and I will continue to add to it as I learn more and get more questions.

My experience has largely been with USPS, although I've used UPS a bit when USPS was not an option. I've mailed thousands of packages, from gifts to product, through the mail system in the last five years, so hopefully some of my experiences will help those of you who are new or have questions.

Who can I use to mail my packages?
I suggest the United State's Postal Service for both domestic and international shipping. Unless you're shipping furniture or something equally abnormal, USPS's services will be more than adequate for your needs.
There are also private shipping companies available. UPS, FedEx, and DHL are fairly common in the US if you're not a fan of USPS. I prefer USPS because I find their extra services (flat rate boxes, signature service, insurance, etc) very straightforward and easy to use. Also, you can find a post office anywhere. Some regions won't have a FedEx nearby, or there's only a UPS drop box but no store.

Can I print my labels online?
Yes! On the USPS website, you can print labels for priority or express packages. But what if you want to mail your things via First Class (which is way cheaper)? Fortunately, there are subscriptions services like stamps.com that will allow you to print FC labels. However, that may be out of your budget unless you're a legit small business with lots of packages to send off.

What I use is PayPal. When someone pays via PayPal, you can be prompted to print a shipping label. However, if you're sending a gift, or the person paid without PayPal, you can still use their service by going to http://www.paypal.com/shipnow. TADA!

I suggest printing online when possible, because USPS actually offers a small discount when you print your labels online instead of going in to a post office. Oh, and free tracking on your package!

Do I really need tracking? How do I get it?
Tracking is actually called delivery confirmation by USPS, but don't worry, it will tell you as your package hits each hub and post office, as well as when it's delivered. Tracking automatically comes with any labels purchased online. If you go into a store, I think it's an extra $0.85 for domestic and you can ask for it when you pay for your label. I recommend paying for tracking for EVERY package you mail out. You want to know it was delivered in case a customer tries to say it never arrived and wants to scam you for a refund or a free product.

Your tracking number for each package will be available on your receipt.

If shipping internationally, tracking is hella pricy and generally requires you to ship via Priority or Express.

I heard USPS is unreliable and won't handle packages carefully.
All shipping companies are comprised of people. People can be assholes. However, I have had very few problems with USPS after thousands of pieces of mail. Maybe one in a hundred will be in rough shape upon arrival, but I've only had 3 instances ever where a package arrived completely obliterated.

Sometimes there can be a delay, which is why they quote that FC mail will take 2-5 business days. The mail must make it from your post office, through sorting centers, to the destination post office. If you or the recipient live in a small town, or further from one of the main hubs, you can expect an extra day or two to get tacked on to the minimum wait. I live in the middle of the country and rarely does it take more than 3 days to get anywhere.

During the holiday season, USPS gets swamped and the delays can get bad. When I lived in St. Louis, I never saw much delay in my packages, even the week before Christmas. Now that I've moved to a more rural region, sometimes I really feel it. Very few packages have ever gone completely missing, but it can happen and it's more likely if you don't get tracking or insurance.

Speaking of insurance, it's a good idea to get familiar with it and consider buying it for all your packages. I know, it's an extra cost, but sometimes it's really worth it just for the peace of mind. Also note Priority mail automatically comes with $50 of insurance.

How does insurance work?
So you mail a package and you pay for insurance and tracking. It arrives but your beautiful OOAK pendant has been crushed inside the package. Assuming you packaged it appropriately, you can take proof or the broken/damaged item (photos, or have the item returned) and your receipt to file a claim. You will receive your money back, minus the shipping I believe.

Do not lie about the value of your package. USPS will want:
  1. proof of damage
  2. proof of value
  3. proof of insurance
  4. completed claim form
Also, some items cannot be insured, such as coins and precious metals. Double check with your shipping company if you're unsure.

You will not get your money back if you packaged the item poorly. For proper ways to prepare mail, please refer to this article.

I've never actually had to file a claim before so this is just from my own reading and research.

Can I just write FRAGILE on the package? Will they purposely break packages with FRAGILE written on it?
This is new, but writing FRAGILE or any similar phrase on your package entails a fee; I believe $10. They don't always apply it, but don't get slammed with it. Some people have suggested writing things like, GLASS or PERISHABLE instead of fragile, but to me it's all the same. Just get the insurance or send at your own risk.

I trust my postal workers, I really do. I don't think that they're all out to be jerkbags and break my mail. However, it only takes one. And for all you know, it's not even a guy from your local post office, it's some jerkbag in the mail room on the other side of the country. There are countless tales of horror on the internet about fragile packages getting tossed and slammed and run over, but just remember that no one writes an article when mail arrives fine.

USPS Shipping Restrictions
Be aware that USPS, and other carriers, have a list of things you can't mail. This is usually for safety reasons. Click here for the USPS restricted items list.

Can I under-declare the value on an international package?
If you mail internationally, you'll learn that many other countries levy customs fees that you've probably never experienced here in the states. Some countries do it to maintain their import/mail services, others do it to exploit their citizens. Many people will request you to mark the package as a "gift" or declare a lower value on the customs form.

DON'T DO THIS. It's illegal, and not just like making-an-illegal-u-turn illegal, we're talking federal offense. I know, crazy. Did you know smashing a mail box will nab you a federal felony whereas beating the crap out of your ex could just end with a misdemeaner? Well, the mail system belongs to the feds, so any fraud or misuse ends with a federal violation. Fines and prison time. For lying on a form.

Tell your customers you will not lie on the forms even if they give the world's saddest sob story about how they can't afford the customs fees but really want that scarf for their dying mother's last birthday. If you accidentally mark it wrong and get caught, you'll want to be as honest as possible about your mistake. Seriously though, don't do it.

What happens if I send it to the wrong address?
If you misspell the street name or mix up one number but the rest is fine, your package should be ok. Let the recipient know that you made a mistake so they can either speak with their neighbor or postal carrier and try to nip the problem. Also, most carriers will know that Allison Bailey lives at 117 River Street, not 17 River Street because they deliver their mail every single day. Track it and chill.

However, if a large portion of the address is incorrect or the location doesn't exist, the package will be returned to you under most circumstances (return address is legible). It can take ten days to several weeks though.

If the customer provides the wrong address (moved, gave you an old one, misspelled), you're not in the wrong. You can request they wait until you receive the original back, or file claim if you bought insurance, before moving forward.

How do I ship a print?
Depending on the size of your print, you have two easy options: flat mailers or tubes. You can reinforce soft envelopes with chipboard, cardboard, or anything rigid. However, for prints larger than 8x10, I recommend tubes. You can get cylinders or triangles in singles or bulk from many different retailers. Slide your print in a plastic sleeve for protection, roll, and slide into the tube for mailing. It won't cost any more than if you shipped it flat. However, I know some people hate having their prints rolled so it's up to you.

Just make sure if you sell prints that are 11" long when rolled, you buy a tube that's at least 12" in length.

How do I ship fragile small items?
My jewelry is made from polymer clay and fairly fragile. I place the jewelry in a small Kraft gift box. Inside the gift box is a small cotton block, but I sometimes have to supplement with bubble wrap so the jewelry doesn't bounce around in there. Then I place the box in a 6x9 manila envelope with a business card and tape it closed. If your items don't fit into a small box, consider copious amount of bubble wrap and rigid material. If an envelope doesn't work, check wholesalers/retailers for small shipping boxes. I wouldn't go smaller than 6 x 6 x 6 (mug sized).

What is a Flat Rate Box?
USPS offers this awesome service to make things easier for us. There are several different Flat Rate options including several envelopes and many sizes of boxes. All the FR packages are sent Priority Mail domestically and internationally, with options for Express. You can fill each box as much or as little as you want for the same price. There are some weight limits, but you'd have to be filling the box with cement to even come close.

Best part is all the FR boxes are available for free. You can walk into into post office lobby and get as many as you need or want. Too busy? You can also order them for free online. Your mail carrier will bring them in 1-2 weeks and you never even have to change outta your jammies. Check out what they have here.

Do keep in mind that FR is more about the convenience than price. You'll probably still save money by manually calculating your weight and getting your labels the old fashioned way, unless you're shipping something heavy.

Another awesome use for the FR boxes is if you're mailing things to military. It's the same price whether you're sending it to Fort Benning in Georgia or Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.


Have a question I didn't answer? Want to make a correction? Leave a comment!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Anime Crossroads 2015: Artist Alley Review (Incomplete)

Sorry for the delay. During some chaos, all my notes for ACross disappeared and I've been trying to write this with what little other scratch notes I had taken.
This was my first year attending Anime Crossroads in Indianapolis, IN. It’s been going for a few years and I’ve heard that some years have been great, others not so great. Last year they had a winter storm over the weekend, which didn’t help the convention at all. This year we got about 8” of snow Saturday but fortunately it was all cleared by Sunday. I was afraid my little car wouldn’t be able to drive out of the parking lot for a bit there ^_^’

Located in the southwest edge of Indianapolis, the Wyndham Indianapolis West is just a few turns off Interstate 70. For me, it was a straight shot on one highway. There was a little bit of food if you wanted to drive, but not much else aside from hotels and gas stations.

The hotel was nice, we’ll go with that. It was small but the staff were very friendly and there was nothing extravagant, just simple little rooms and a small lobby. The parking lot was big enough to accommodate a lot of vehicles. The artists and dealers were able to load in through a set of side/back doors that were right next to the AA, which was nice. It was a bit tricky to find the ramp though, since it was aesthetically hidden behind a decorative wall. Decorative wall? Yeah.

Artist Space
Artists were located in an alcove-like room right around the corner from the main events room. Dealer’s were a further walk down the hall. So at first glance, it looks like we’re in a room because you walk through an open walkway to get into the AA, but at second glance I and other artists realized there were no doors. Each night, they lined up a bunch of chairs to block off the walkways but it was pretty much an open alley. I went ahead and left all my stuff behind the table and I don’t think anyone had any problems.

Fun fact: the maid cafĂ© was in the same space, but partitioned off by tables and tall drapes. The maids and butlers were the best I’ve ever seen at a con. Friendly, adorable, and very helpful. I absolutely love them.

All weekend it was cold. The wall that I was against was 90% window, like the really big ones that go all the way up. There were some heavy drapes, but we could only figure out how to draw one set closed (we pulled it really hard). Fortunately it had been a cold week anyway, so everyone had a coat somewhere and I even had an extra blanket.

The artist alley was very much geared towards crafters. Not that there weren’t very many print artists, but only one or two that were dedicated print artists. I did get to see some crafts that I’ve never encountered much of before like shadow boxes and some very different art styles.

Sales & Attendees
I had a fantastic time with great people and great sales. I had heard many ups and downs about AC from other artists, almost alternating each year. I know last year a big winter storm wiped out half the weekend and sales plummeted. Fortunately that was not the case this year despite our many inches of snowfall.

The entire weekend felt busy and the AA was pretty alive all weekend. You had your half hour here and there with nothing but in between the popular events, it was pretty crowded. I had quite a few opportunities to walk around and talk to other artists, even meeting some lovely peeps from AANI.

Staff & Volunteers
Aside from a few unanswered emails, I had no issues with any staff. They were polite and helpful when needed. I think it was a little bit disorganized since I didn’t get much information about load in, location, or policies and the way it was set up.