With a limited budget, I had decided to do just one big show towards the end of the year, and finally I settled on the Lakes rather than Leeds. Last year's Thought Bubble had been excellent, with my best sales yet (128 books), but I was wondering if I would reach many new readers with the same book for a second year in a row, plus there was the cost of travel and hotels - with no new book out this year some of the financial support given by my publisher in previous years would be lacking (though they still generously contributed a bit), plus my father-in-law, who had provided a welcome waypoint en-route, had moved away.
Despite being a brand new festival on the scene, LICAF showed obvious ambition and professionalism from the very start. Right away you could see they were modelling themselves, to some degree, on the world-famous Angouleme festival, where the whole town is integrated into and supports the show, alongside some local authority funding and assistance. In addition to that it had the feel of a literary festival - treating its subject seriously, its guests as VIPs, and with a well thought-out and full itinerary of events. There was a real buzz about LICAF from very early on in the year. But could all that promise live up to reality?
One thing that put me off was the distance - a 300 mile, 5 hour journey from West Sussex by road. Public transport is out of the question with the weight of the books I have to carry (one box of 22 Complete Rainbow Orchids is 15kg). Thankfully, Colin Mathieson of Accent UK helped to break up that journey by letting me stay at his house in Manchester - still a 4 hour drive, but a lot more achievable in a single run. Plus - any time spent with Colin is an added bonus, his taste in comics and his interest in history can keep us both nattering away for a good few hours!
Kendal - here we come
So after a good night's sleep after a long day's drive, Colin and I set off for Kendal on Friday morning. Arriving via the main route into the town we were instantly greeted with signs and banners announcing the festival. This was not going to be a show that was hidden away, hard to find, or available only to those in the know - this was a town festival, and one all about comics. A walkabout revealed shop windows full of comic characters, art and information - you could not ignore this festival!
The Town Hall, aka the Comics Clock Tower, complete with Batman flag and LICAF banners.
While looking for a suitable place to grab some lunch, Colin spotted Waterstones, and as I was the first signing of the day on Saturday, we decided to have a look. Having been told the signing had been well-promoted I wanted to see where and how my books and others' had been displayed. I was a little disappointed not to see anything in the window, but with so many comics around, and with me not being a big-name creator, that wasn't totally unexpected (at least there were comics in the window - already better than the usual state of affairs in bookshops). Inside there was a lovely table of graphic novels right at the front of the shop, as well as some decent shelf-space nearby in a prime location. Excellent stuff - but no Rainbow Orchid. Perhaps it was in the kids' section? After all, I am usually marketed as a children's book in the UK. We went to the back of the store to find an extensive children's area, but again no Orchids - not even alongside the Tintin and Asterix books. My heart sank. I'm afraid it sank even further when I enquired and was met with panicked expressions and learned that my book had not actually been ordered in. A batch was hastily ordered and I was told they would be at the shop in the morning, in time.
I don't know what went wrong. As well as the graphic novels table, they had a display for another author who was signing in-shop the following week, complete with flyers, which is the kind of thing you expect for an author signing. This has happened to me once before, attending a Rainbow Orchid event at a shop to find no copies of my book, or promotion of any kind - not surprisingly only one person turned up ... the author's nightmare! Luckily it's a rarity.
Sorry to start with a negative - it is not at all representative of the weekend as a whole, as you shall see!
After a sandwich, Colin and I made our way to the town hall, rededicated for the weekend as the Comics Clock Tower, where we both had a table. There was another slight disappointment as early on in proceedings both Colin and I had requested we have our tables next to each other, but the actual floor plan revealed Accent UK on the first floor, and me on the ground floor. This wasn't a big deal, and I'm not going to criticise the unenviable task of the organisers in having to layout a floor plan to keep as many people as happy as possible, let alone organise a festival the size and complexity of LICAF! We were both very impressed with the venue, it had oodles of character.
The ground floor room where I was about to set up my table in the Comics Clock Tower - also the Town Council Chamber. My table was directly in front of the Mayor's seat.
The first comickers we bumped into in the street were John Freeman and Jeremy Briggs of Down the Tubes. We all made our way to the Brewery Arts Centre to get our lanyards, and soon enough more and more recognisable and friendly faces were coming into view - I won't even attempt to list everyone! After booking into the Premier Inn (where the reception staff were dressed as superheroes) we had a lovely meal at a little Italian restaurant with the other half of Accent UK, Dave West, and his family - and then it was off to bed where I, unfortunately, had a very bad night's sleep and a complicated dream sequence, perhaps triggered by some slight anxiety about the upcoming first day of the show (not something I usually experience).
After breakfast (the Premier Inn was full of comics folk) it was off to the Clock Tower to finish setting up, and then, just as the doors opened to the public, I had to make my way to Waterstones for my signing. I wasn't too keen on abandoning my table just as the crowds came in, and I have to admit that a naughty thought entered my head ... "I won't mind if they don't have my books." As I entered Waterstones I saw a table with my name on, but no books. They still hadn't arrived. I gave the manager my mobile phone number and she said she'd contact me as soon as they were in and I could come back and sign them, either at another signing session or just for stock. I was quite happy to get back to my table at the Clock Tower, and I got right into a number of sales and book signings on my return. I never did hear from Waterstones, but perhaps it all worked out for the best. The only regret is not having my books available in the shop.
I had excellent table neighbours for the weekend. On my right was Shane Chebsey of Scar Comics, who I have known for a number of years - as a publisher he had a full 6-foot table to himself. I was a creator so was sharing a table with another creator, the talented Kristyna Baczynski, delightful company and a very interesting artist.
The table I shared with artist Kristyna Baczynski.
There's not much interesting I can say about manning a book table for a full day. It is always absolutely lovely to meet and hear from people who enjoy my book, in fact I even think it's vital as far as my continuation with the series goes thanks to the first-hand feedback and enthusiasm received - a great battery recharger. Getting to introduce new people to The Rainbow Orchid, whether they buy it or not, is also an important aspect.
And here was one of the best things about LICAF - the variety of people coming into the Clock Tower. Most comics shows are for already-existing fans of comics (nothing at all wrong with that!). We've been spoiled this year with the excellent Stripped strand of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where comics and a mainstream audience crossed paths, and the same happened at LICAF. Many families with children were present, more than you usually see at a comics festival, and I spoke to a lot of Kendal locals who came in to see what all this comics stuff was about. Most were impressed, and some even bought a copy of my book.
Whether this is something that can be built upon, to attract families and non-comics people from slightly further afield, will be an interesting challenge for future years. It's exactly the kind of thing we need to expand the readership of what has become, over the past few years, a very strong, lively, and diverse scene.
Saturday night saw another meal with the Accent UK families (Colin's wife had now joined us), this time at the Premier Inn restaurant (and very good it was, too), and then to bed, this time a much better night's sleep after a very full day.
The weather for the weekend was dull and rainy, but not cold. Sunday in the Clock Tower started more slowly, but after a couple of sales things started to build up again, and the second day got under way. On Saturday I seemed to be selling mainly to people who already knew and loved comics, whilst on Sunday there seemed to be more of the 'public' around - many of them buying their first comics since childhood, or ever. Sunday also saw a few of the VIP comics guests getting a look around, and I made a few sales there too - which is always a pleasing experience. (I would prefer if everyone with a lanyard had their name on it instead of, or as well as, 'creator' or 'publisher' - I often know the names via online social networks but not always the faces).
The question amongst all those who had a table in the Clock Tower was "how's sales?". Some reported doing very well, a couple I spoke to were very disappointed. The majority seemed to be reaching their thresholds, just making it worthwhile - myself included. Of course, these shows are not all about sales - there's much more to gain from them than that, as already stated. When I got home I took stock and found I'd sold 52 books in all. I tend to hope for 60-70 or more for a two-day show, but there were so many other positive aspects to the weekend, and I got a lot more out of it than what went into my money box.
Some fabulous Grandville cosplay from a representative of the
excellent Crooked Dice Game Design Studio.
I must make special mention of all the LICAF red-shirted helpers. Several times throughout the weekend they appeared at our tables to ask if we needed anything, often bearing bottled water, cups of tea, and even cakes and fruit! And all with a smile. A kitchen was available for sellers with refreshments freely available. The organisation and attitude of the entire festival was first class.
Finally it was time to pack up and get all my stuff back to the car. As well as the help of the always-generous Jeremy Briggs, I had invested in a fold-up trolley that proved very useful on its first official outing.
Jeremy, Colin, Colin's wife, and myself all went for one last meal, this time at Pizza Express (I'm afraid I did make the bad joke of a 'an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman (and Scotswoman) walk into a ...' well, not a bar, but a restaurant. Yet another very nice meal was had (it must be the company), and the festival ended with Jeremy leading me out of Kendal's complicated one-way system. Jeremy might have to become my approved comic festival usher, as he provided a similar role in Edinburgh, walking me to my bus stop at the end of the day.
My journey back to Manchester was through very heavy rain, but I made it safely back to Colin's for one more night, before my four-hour (plus half-an-hour lunch stop) journey back home. (That's the longest I've been away from my children - four nights - and it was lovely to get a huge hug and much dancing and laughing from my two-and-a-half year-old daughter when I appeared at the front door; even my 6-month old did a double-take when he saw me again, before breaking out into a big grin. Choke!)
Overall, the Lakes International Comic Art Festival was a very worthwhile trip. I had more time for social interaction than I did at Edinburgh, made decent enough sales, met a lot of interesting and interested people, had some lovely table-mates, and had a jolly good comicky time. There's an indefinable something extra that makes a successful comics show - something to do with the atmosphere and general feeling, and LICAF had that positive aspect on top of everything else.