Check out Ejen Chuang's photography in “Cosplay in America: Ejen Chuang's Portraits from Anime and Comic Book Conventions.”
In 2010, Ejen Chuang self-published Cosplay in America, a photography book filled with images of cosplayers from six conventions across the United States. Almost immediately following the book release party at Royal/T last May, he headed up to San Jose's Memorial Day Weekend event Fanime, where he set up shop in the convention's artist alley. He sold out of copies of the book in one day.
“I didn't expect how high of a demand there is,” says Chuang, noting the difficulties of using Facebook to gauge the actual interest in his work.
“Five people leave comments but, maybe a thousand could have seen the image, the video or the book or whatever,” he continues. “I kind of was underprepared, but I had never done anything like this before so I was kind of learning through the same process how to navigate this.”
Since then, Chuang has traveled from convention to convention next selling his book, including Florida Supercon, Anime Weekend Atlanta and Anime Los Angeles. He keeps in contact with fans by updating his social media sites with photos from the booth, maps of the exhibit hall floors and, afterward, video taken during the cons. Sometimes, he's set up in the artist alley. Other times, he shares a space with vendor Epic Cosplay, where he runs a photo booth in addition to selling the book. Frequently, he attends anime conventions, a given considering that his book focuses on cosplay within the anime fandom. Other times, he travels to comic book and multi-genre cons.
This week, Chuang be at Anime Expo sharing space with Crunchyroll, the video site that broadcasts subtitled anime series shortly after they air in Japan. It will be the nineteenth convention he's attended since last May. He is confirmed to attend six more by the end of the year, including San Diego Comic-Con later this month.
“Some vendors do this for a living,” says Chuang.
“I don't know how they would do it,” he adds, “because I would be exhausted.”
Throughout his tour, Chuang has gained an interesting perspective on convention culture. Since he's in his booth the whole time, he says, he doesn't get to check out the panels or other events that bring thousands of people to a weekend-long event. Instead, his experience revolves almost entirely around the community that exists inside artist alleys and dealer halls. He likens it to working on a film set.
“You come together as a family for a few days, a day, or whatever, and then you break apart and run into each other again on other film sets,” he says. “I feel like it's the same thing here, except that it's nationwide instead of just the city itself.”
Inside the convention centers, he's met a costume designer who carves prop guns from wood, a duo that sells handmade dolls and well-known comic book artists who can draw crowds of young artists asking for advice. He's learned the ebb and flow of sales as well as a few tricks to help people find his booth inside crowded halls.
For many artists and vendors, working the convention floor is good business and Chuang is no exception. He says that, while he hasn't kept an exact count of how many books he's sold at such events, he estimates that it's around 1200 copies. Many of those sales have been to fans who follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Sometimes, it's to vendors who will stock Cosplay in America in their own portable shops.
“I think it sounds so weird that people want to meet me, but I've met a few people who said that they wanted to get it at a convention so that I could sign it and they could meet me,” he says.
Chuang likens the experience to being a musician.
“I feel like a band traveling around the country, performing and saying 'Hey, buy my CD and t-shirt.”
He mentions the scene surrounding independent music and film in the 1990s with bands who toured relentlessly with stockpiles of music sold at shows and filmmakers who traveled to college campuses across the nation to screen their work.
“In a weird way, I'm kind of doing the same thing with the book.”
Of course, Chuang has the benefit of working the age of social media. The weird thing about social media, though, is that its success can be reliant on real world interaction. Chuang may now have fans in many cities he hasn't visited, but part of the reason that more than 60,000 have clicked the like button on his Facebook page is because of his IRL work.
“Every time I go to a convention, my numbers go up because I give out tons of cards that has all my information,” he says.
“One day, I want to start counting how many people I talk to at conventions because I don't know,” he continues. “It's a lot of people. My voice is usually shot at the end of the convention.”
It's been a year and a month since Chuang began his tour and he still sounds surprised by the attention he's received since he first headed to Fanime with copies of Cosplay in America.
“I thought, I'll just make a book, put it out there, I'll sell it in a few years and that's it,” he says. “I didn't expect people to start following me, to start singing to me at conventions, to recognize me.”
The experience is one that will remain with him for a long time.
“I don't know if I'll ever be able to duplicate that again. I feel like this is one of those once in a lifetime things for me.”
Find Ejen Chuang at the Crunchyroll booth inside South Hall at Anime Expo. Follow @cosplayamerica for updates throughout the convention.
For more Anime Expo news, follow @lizohanesian and @ShannonCottrell on Twitter.