A Cartoonist at the Library Conference

About a month ago, Dave and I heard that the American Library Association’s Annual Conference was offering free Artist Alley tables to cartoonists, in exchange for a piece of original artwork for their scholarship auction. 2011 has already been a busy year of touring for me, and I’m on deadline at the moment, but Dave convinced me this was too good an opportunity to pass up. So, we put in our table application, booked a hotel and flights, and headed down to this year’s host city, New Orleans. Even though I attended ALA for an afternoon last year when it was in Washington, DC, we still had no idea what to expect. Artist Alley was a new concept for ALA. Would people buy books? Would they simply want freebies? How many people would we talk to? How would it compare to the comic conventions we usually exhibit at? Would we be off in a forgotten corner, wishing we were closer to the action?

The calm before the storm

ALA’s show floor opened on Friday and, similar to Comic-Con’s Preview Night, it was only open for a few hours. We set up our table in the Graphic Novels Pavilion and resolved a communication issue involving not having any chairs. Besides Dave and myself, there was Ryan Sias, Rod Espinosa, David Hutchison, Darren Gendron, Ben Hatke, Dan Santat, Alexis Fajardo, Jim Ottaviani, Eric Wight, Carla Speed McNeil, and Chris Schweizer. Not everyone attended the entire show and a few people failed to show up altogether, so there was always an empty table or two. By the second day, I repositioned my Smile banner so that it could be seen from the center aisle of the hall, as well as from anywhere in the GN Pavilion.

Drawing on the Graphic Novel Pavilion stage

The GN Pavilion itself had a nice, centralized location on the show floor, and a huge banner/backdrop announcing its presence could be seen from just about anywhere. My table was right next to the pavilion’s stage. The other exhibitors in the area included BroDart, holding a $20,000 Graphic Novel Library giveaway; Top Shelf Comics; Archaia; Boom Studios; the Unshelved guys; and the CBLDF. It was good company, and small enough that we could all refer to and recommend one another to conference attendees. The only downside: our table was directly beneath a massive air conditioner, so we were freakishly cold during show hours (not the worst thing, considering how hot it was outside).

Over the course of the weekend we did fairly steady business. Smile’s name recognition really helped our sales—this was my single best show of 2011 thus far, and the best I’ve done, sales-wise, since last spring when Smile debuted. The book itself was by far my best seller at ALA, but plenty of people sprang for T-shirts or Baby-sitters Club books, too.

Photo by Matt Dembicki

The most amazing thing was the outpouring of enthusiasm for Smile. Close to a hundred people came by simply to share their appreciation for the book. I heard many stories, but there were constant themes: Reluctant readers love the book. We cannot keep this book on our shelves. This book has touched a lot of kids. Many girls are drawing their own comics. Never just one girl, but rather, EVERY girl is a fan. Boys like it, too. It circulates like crazy. This book is routinely “stolen” or “lost” by the kids. Librarians wanted to simply shake my hand and tell me thank you. I never had more than 10 minutes of downtime over the course of the entire weekend. I was completely boggled by this response. I continued to be approached by people on the streets, in hotel elevators, and up until our last late night in town, telling me how much they and their patrons enjoyed Smile.

Dave’s Astronaut Academy was also popular, and even though his book has only been out for two weeks, he already has fans among the librarians who were happy to quote their favorite lines or talk about their favorite characters.

We did almost no hard-selling, and very little convincing, two things I find myself needing to do a lot at comic conventions. Librarians are already convinced. In many cases they were buying an extra copy of Smile for their library (“the first 5 copies we bought have been read to pieces”) or a personal copy, or one for a special 10-year-old girl in their life.

Monday was definitely slower than the other days, but I’m glad we stuck it out. I signed at Scholastic for an hour, and made some great last-minute connections during the final hours at our own table. The show closed at 2, and we crashed pretty hard afterward.

Raina and the fabulous Emily, at the Scholastic booth

The whole weekend was full of parties, breakfasts, and dinners. I got a chance to connect with lots of old friends, as well as make some new ones. (Shout outs to Mary Ann, Mr. Schu, Grace, Ethan, Heather, Katie, Antonio, Teenage Heather...) Dave and I snuck off on our own for beignets at least three times over the course of the weekend. In the end, we enjoyed New Orleans, and obviously a big part of that enjoyment was tied to the conference itself.

So, will we do ALA again? Absolutely. It’s in Anaheim next year, and since the show moves around, I assume it gets a higher presence of local attendees in each place who can’t necessarily travel away from home for the conference. That means fresh faces every year. My still-untitled new book should be in galleys by then, and Dave will have Teen Boat. So, we’re looking forward to it.

But what about the other cartoonists tabling in Artist Alley? We sat next to Ryan Sias, whose comics are aimed at early readers, and seemingly a better fit at ALA than they are at most comic shows. Ryan said he would have liked to sell more than he did. Ben Hatke had been placed in sort of a weird spot (behind the GN Pavilion stage) and might have benefited from being in our aisle, but still sold artwork and books. Some of our friends weren’t able to be at their tables the whole weekend, and a few were focusing on promotional giveaways rather than trying to sell books. If you’re willing to put in the time, and you’ve got a product that would go over well with children’s and teen librarians especially, I think it’s a show worth doing.

Ryan's table

Eric Wight, who never sleeps

Alexis Fajardo

Lovely Carla

Darren keeps it real

To everyone we met at ALA this year: thanks for making our experience a great one! Looking forward to seeing you again in 2012.

(Full photo set is here.)

Raina Telgemeier