This is the second of a series of interviews with British comic convention organisers over the next few months, which will be cross-posted on downthetubes, the Forbidden Planet International blog, Bugpowder and Fictions. Our aim is to give the conventions themselves some well-deserved publicity and also to, hopefully, spark a wider debate about what’s good and bad about the convention circuit in the UK.
(NB: Answers have been edited only in terms of spelling, punctuation and grammar, and not for style or content.)
In addition to being co-organiser of BICS, Shane Chebsey has been a leading light in the promotion and distribution of indie comic press titles in the UK for a nuber of years via Smallzone. He hosts several web sites dedicated to the cause of promoting comics of all kinds and print runs, including the Incoming forum (incoming.ning.com), an open community for readers, creators and publishers of small press and independent comics.
downthetubes: Please tell us a little about the history of your con/event and how it’s evolved over the years.
Shane Chebsey: The first BICS occurred in 2006 at The Custard Factory. Our biggest named guest was Michael Lark of Daredevil fame, and right from the beginning we had wonderful support from the UK scene including publishers and creators. This is something we've always been very grateful for.
We just wanted to put on the type of comics show we'd want to attend ourselves, and figured there must be some folks out there who wanted what we did. Since then, BICS has become the largest UK event devoted to the medium of comics, so I guess we weren't alone. Guests have included Mike Mignola, Dave Gibbons, Kevin Nowlan, Michael Golden, John Cassaday, David Lloyd, Alan Davis, Mark Chiarello, Olivier Coipel, Esad Ribic, Adi Granov, Mark Buckingham, plus many, many more top names in the industry.
downthetubes: How is your con funded, by ticket sales, the exhibitors, a grant from the council, some other means or a combination of these?
Shane: A combination of table sales, entry fees and our own pockets. Last year we did receive some minor sponsorship and this year we are looking to build on that. We've be also applied for some government funding to help us develop and expand the show, enabling the event to reach out to a wider audience and benefit more people.
downthetubes: What are the overall aims of your con/event?
Shane: We have both short and long term aims and objectives for the show.
As well as producing an enjoyable event for existing comic fans, our initial aims with the first three shows was to establish a successful formula for running a comics event in Britain that would be recognised by the UK comics industry including publishers, distributors and retailers, as a major event. This was so that we could build a platform to achieve our main objectives.
We have achieved these aims with the first three shows: we attracted over 2500 fans, press, creators and retailers to our last show and most western comics publishers now recognise The British International Comics Show as the major UK comics convention. These include DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Rebellion Developments, Markosia Enterprises (who launched new titles at the 2007 show) and Manga Entertainment (who allowed us to show the first official UK screening of one of their new films at the 2007 show) and Random House, who have previously been sponsors of the show.
- To provide an enjoyable and informative family event to the general public, allowing them to discover new comics and graphic novels they may not have previously encountered.
- To give new writers and artists access to both publishers and professionals working within the industry both here in the UK and overseas, allowing them the opportunity to receive feedback and advice on their work and to learn more about the international and national industry and about the medium of comics in general.
- To promote comics to the general public as both an educational and entertainment medium.
- To provide a secure and fun environment for all comic fans, whatever their cultural, religious or ethnic background, to enjoy the medium, expand their reading and to meet comics creators from all over the world.
- To give independent and small press creators the chance to promote their publications to the general public and to the larger publishers.
- To create sufficient revenue to make the show financially self sustaining.
Long Term Aims:
- To promote literacy and the visual arts in general
- To expand the reading of comics in the UK
- To support our national comics industry
- To promote diversity and originality within the comics industry
- To expand the show, attracting even more visitors to the event and to the City of Birmingham.
downthetubes: Who is the con aimed at? What sort of punters do you hope to attract? Are you family-friendly?
Shane: BICS is very family-friendly and we always aim to attract the full spectrum of attendees, from the young to the old, men, women, everyone! That's the great thing about comics. They are so inclusive almost anyone can enjoy them and create them.
downthetubes: How effective have you been in getting those kind of people to attend?
Shane: So far we've been very pleased with the varied representation of all groups attending the show. However, we continue to increase our efforts to attract even more diversity amongst our visitors.
downthetubes: Can you give a projected (or actual) attendance figure for your event?
Shane: This year we are aiming for 3000 people to attend the show over the weekend.
downthetubes: What lessons have you learned during your time (co-)running a con, in terms of marketing and advertising your event?
Shane: Lots of lessons have been learned. The hardest lesson would be that any expensive advertising must be very targeted to be cost effective. We have also learned not to announce any guests until they are 100% confirmed. We learned this after our very first show.
downthetubes: Do you use emerging technologies to spread the word about your con? Do you have a website or blog, or use email mailing lists?
Shane: The web is our most effective method for attracting both visitors and exhibitors to the show. We have an active presence on many forums, a great website, and a very large mailing list that helps us to keep folks informed of developments.
We also have our own forum that enables visitors to ask us questions about the show and to share their show experiences with other visitors.
downthetubes: What about print? Do you use print advertising, have a newsletter, anything like that?
Shane: We advertise in many print publications including SFX magazine, 2000AD and TOXIC. We also print up flyers and posters for events etc.
downthetubes: What's the mix in terms of exhibitors at your con? Do you even have exhibitors?
Shane: We have great mixture of exhibitors at BICS. This year there will be 162 tables featuring retailers, publishers, art suppliers, creators and distributors. There really is something for everyone.
downthetubes: What are your thoughts on the small press comics scene in this country? How do you try and support it (do you try and support it)?
Shane: I have personally done my best to support the small press scene since 1999 when I founded Smallzone [which acts as a distribution service for small press comics]. When I became involved with BICS I was determined to give small press creators a level playing field along with all the big publishers at the show.
We offer small press creators a £40 discount from the normal table price to try and make it easier for them to afford being part of the event. We are very proud of the huge diversity of genres and styles on display at BICS, all thanks to the UK small press scene.
downthetubes: How much are the tickets for your event? How did you arrive at that price? Please tell us about any concessions.
Shane: Tickets are £12 per day or £20 for the weekend. Children go half price and under 5's go free. We also offer family passes, and free access for carers.
We've based these prices on our projected attendance against the cost of our venue and other costs involved in producing the show. When you bear in mind the full program of events happening at the show as well as the comics fair etc., the entry fee is extremely good value for money.
How much is a 90-minute football match for all the family these days, or a visit to the cinema for two hours? At those events you don't even get to meet the players or the film stars. At our show you get to meet the stars of comics in a friendly and informal atmosphere. It really is a special opportunity for many fans and we love seeing the faces of young fans when they get their first signed copy of Watchmen or Planetary.
downthetubes: How much are exhibitor tables for your event (if you have any)? Again, how did you arrive at that figure?
Shane: Tables are £160 each for the weekend. We give discounts to small press comic creators and those making multiple table bookings. Again we arrived at this figure based on our costs, and based on the projected takings for the average exhibitor. We have tried very hard to make tables good value for money and provide steady through traffic for all exhibitors at the show.
Obviously it's up to the exhibitors to sell or promote their work or products, we can't do that for them. What we do provide is a state of the art venue filled to the brim with comic fans and those who want to find out more about comics.
downthetubes: Do you run workshops/events/panels at your con? Please tell us about those and how they are organised.
Shane: We have a full program of killer events running all through the weekend of the show. These include exclusive creator interviews, fun quizzes, live art events and professional demos from some of the industry's top creators. We host panel discussions on topical subjects concerning the medium and the industry. We also conduct portfolio reviews for aspiring comics artists.
downthetubes: Are there any external events connected to BICS? Educational stuff, talks, workshops, comics promoting, that kind of thing?
Shane: We are running an outreach program this year, which involves talks, presentations and workshops in libraries, schools and colleges.
If anyone is interested in hosting a talk or workshop and would like to find out more, they can contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
We are also presenting an exclusive IMAX Birmingham screening of Watchmen in September hosted by Dave Gibbons, with a signing before the screening. Places will be limited to just 300. More news of this on our website soon.
downthetubes: As you've been kind enough to answer these questions, please fell free to big your con up a bit. Tell us what you do well, what your event's main attractions are and why our readers should attend the next one.
Shane: If you love comics you simply must attend BICS 2009 in October. It's an essential event for every type of fan, whether you love manga, superheroes, small press or even if you're just curious about what comics are. BICS celebrates every form of the medium and is the event to visit in 2009!
downthetubes: Thanks, Shane, for answering our questions.
• For more on BICS, please visit the convention’s website: www.thecomicsshow.co.uk
• Read our Matters of Convention interview with Oli Smith about the upcoming London 176 Event
• Read our report on the 2007 Birmingham International Comic Show • Read our report on the 2008 Birmingham International Comic Show