You don’t have to passively sit there and wait for people to stop at your table. Well, you can if you want to, but you’re missing the chance to sell something to impulse buyers, and let’s face it: most artist alley sales are to impulse buyers. It’s fairly simple, too: be friendly. Make eye contact with passers-by, smile at them, and say hello. Ask them how their con has been, or compliment their cosplay. Talk, laugh. If you look like you’re having fun, people will want to come to you.
If you don’t feel awkward, you can develop patter, calling out at people walking by:
“Cutest keychains at the con!”
“Come see our doujinshi!”
“Hot cheap men!” (if you’re selling pictures of bishounen, for example)
Patter that makes people laugh, like the last one, is usually more successful than plain patter. If you can think of lines to say that make people answer you back, you’re golden. I haven’t figured out anything interactive that works really well with the items I sell at conventions, but I used to work at a Renaissance festival where I had good interactive patter. I worked a game booth where two people would balance on a log and whale at each other with pillows until one or both fell off. One of my successful interactive patter lines for that played on gender stereotypes: I’d spot a male/female couple walking nearby, catch the eye of the woman, and yell in an outrageously fake British accent, “Come on, love, show him who’s in charge!” When the woman inevitably laughed and said “I am!” I’d turn to the man and yell “Are you going to let her get away with that?” It usually ended up with both laughing, and quite often they’d detour to the booth and play the game. If you figure out something like that for your art, go for it!
Something that attracts people, although you’d probably never have guessed it, is to stand up behind your table. If you don’t believe me, try it out for yourself! I don’t know the reason for this, but I theorize that it has something to do with looking more approachable than when you’re sitting down barricaded behind the table. Standing up can feel awkward if you’re a bit shy, but I tend to get around this by kneeling on or leaning against a chair. You’re probably going to get antsy and cramped sitting in one position for hours anyway, so you might as well liven it up a little and rotate between standing, kneeling on a chair, and sitting.
Determine which items draw people’s attention and make them visible. I have one print, a humorous one, that will catch someone’s eye from twenty feet away, and provoke them into dragging their friends over to look at it more closely. I discovered this accidentally, by leaving it out and noticing one day that it attracted more attention than anything else. So experiment with your prints and items and see which ones exert magnetic power.
Also, determine which items actively repel people, and keep them hidden. You’d think that anything that repels people wouldn’t sell so you wouldn’t want to carry it, but there are some exceptions. I have a print that features two bishounen wearing bunnysuits, complete with fake ears and fishnet stockings. It’s a parody, but that’s not immediately obvious to a lot of people, and anyone who is yaoi-phobic glances at it, assumes my entire table is like that, and drags their friends off before any of them look at my things. However, the print sells to people who think it’s funny, so I want to keep it. I make sure it’s hidden under other prints, and the yaoi-phobic aren’t run off before they look through my stuff. If I were at, say, Yaoi-Con, I’d probably make sure it was visible, since in that case it would attract buyers, but for regular cons it stays hidden.
Naturally, after looking through your portfolio the shopper probably won’t turn it back to the print you want featured and you’ll have to rearrange the prints so it’s back on top. But this is a Good Thing! Movement attracts attention. If someone’s walking by, fiddle with stuff on your table. You’re going to be constantly tidying up the stuff on your table anyway, as stacks of items start to slide around and people drop trash on the table, so you might as well fuss with it when someone’s looking in your direction and use the movement to catch their attention.
If you like taking photos of cosplayers and have a camera, call cosplayers over and take their photo. If they’re in the mood for shopping, often they’ll stay for a while and look at your stuff. My writer and I also found out that giving them chocolate for posing for us tended to make them stay a bit longer at the table. We’re not doing it solely to make sales, we’re doing it mostly because we love cosplay and taking pictures of cosplayers, and, hey, might as well see if they want to look at our items while they’re over here. If they don’t, no big deal: we end up with nifty photos, so either way the encounter turns out, it’s a win situation.
If a cosplayer shops at your table and you have a picture of or an item relating to the character they’re portraying, point it out. It’s usually a good bet that they like that character and might be interested in stuff featuring him or her.
If you’re a cosplayer yourself, cosplay at your table. It attracts more people over to you. If you don’t want to go all-out with the cosplay, you can still dress to impress. Are you a hot-looking guy? Dress in a way that features that. Are you a girl with impressive cleavage? Feature it. Companies exhibiting at professional conventions hire booth babes for a reason! Provided that you’re comfortable with personal display, of course – you don’t want to dress in a way that makes you self-conscious and defensive, because that will ruin your fun time and turn people away from your table. But you can do other things to attract attention, like dye your hair a funky color or wear a hairpiece or wig. Wear a nifty hat. Put on a hilarious T-shirt. Wear an awesomely tailored pirate’s coat. Goth or loligoth yourself out. Don a pair of boots covered in buckles. If you’re into historical costuming, wear a piece from your collection. The steampunk movement is gathering momentum right now, and a pair of cool steampunk goggles, glasses, or other accessories can bring people to you. If you are selling knitted hats or other items, wear some of your merchandise. Or if you don’t like attracting attention to yourself, grab an outgoing friend and get him or her to act as booth babe for you.
If you’re shy, cosplay or even dressing in something different than your normal clothes can help you come out of your shell a bit. Actors and cosplayers know that by putting on a costume, in a sense you put on a character. It becomes easier to say and do different things: in this case, it can make you a bit more outgoing, and lend your self-confidence enough support that you can talk to strangers and enjoy yourself. It’s sort of like a small version of the effect often given by alcohol or other drugs, only you don’t embarrass yourself as much Downing a shot to steel your nerves for a day of talking to strangers is pointless when putting on an awesome hat will do the same thing (and, over the long run, is far cheaper).
Bring a colorful or otherwise memorable table cover. You’ll want a table cover anyway, as most hotel tables are kind of nasty, and you can’t be sure that the hotel will supply a cover. If you bring the same one to every con, people will remember it and spot you from far away. You’ll be the tie-dye, hot pink, or otherwise obnoxious table standing out from a sea of blandness.
If you offer commissions and can work while being watched and interrupted, do commissions at your table. Even if you choose not to do commissions, make things at your table. Lots of people are curious about how artists and crafters work and will wander over to watch you draw, knit, or sew, whereupon you can start talking to them and perhaps influence them to buy a commission or one of your items.
Offer free or cheap con sketches. There’s a group of people who buy nice sketchbooks and bring them to conventions, asking artists to draw on a page. At the end of several conventions, they have a very nice book of souvenir art. If you can whip out a simple sketch in very little time, consider offering them for free or just a couple of bucks. It gets people over to your table, gives them something tangible to remember you by (put your URL on the sketch!), and makes them favorably inclined towards you. You can keep a pile of cheap sketch paper for those people who don’t have formal sketchbooks. If you can do a quick sketch with a Sharpie, offer to make free sketches on the backs of their con badges.
Do you know how to critique work without offending people? If so, offer portfolio critiques. There are any number of wannabe manga and anime artists wandering around the convention. Bring them over to your table by offering to look at their work and tell them how they can improve and what they’re doing right.
Can you run a How To Draw workshop, or have something to contribute on another subject? Volunteer to speak on a panel or to run a workshop at the con. Many of the people at the panel or workshop will come by your table afterward, to get a chance to speak with you personally.