Apologies for being late this month. On my usual deadline I was on my way to the Romantic Times Convention in New Orleans. This was my first romance convention, and my first glimpse into that whole scene. I’ve been going to science fiction conventions since I graduated from Clarion West, thirteen years ago, and used to go to every WorldCon. So what do conventions have to do with the business side of writing? Well, first off, they cost money, and can sometimes cost a lot of money, so if you go to them, you need to consider whether or not they’re cost effective. How could they possibly pay back? Conventions are a good place to: 1) Network, 2) Gain new insights into publishing trends, 3) Attend and participate in panels, 4) Do some self promotion and marketing, and 5) Have fun and make good memories. So lets go over those one by one.
1) Networking. Here, and in all these sections, I’ll just use some examples from my own experiences, especially RT last week. At RT I had the opportunity to meet another submissions editor from Tor (I say another because I’ve met quite a few at this point.) and I spent time with a bunch of writers and an editor from Entangled Publishing. In past conventions I’ve met the people who invited me into my writers group here in New Mexico, had meals with magazine editors, and spent time with a whole lot of other writers. In fact, at science fiction conventions, I spend about 90% of my time hanging out with other writers and supporting them in their panels and readings. It can take years of networking for one breakthrough. One doesn’t go to a convention with a manuscript in hand and pounce on editors with it. One spends time with editors, talking about stuff other than writing and publishing, or at least things other than your writing and publishing, and this means that when you do have something to submit, you can sometimes submit straight to them. Sometimes you even bypass the slushpile. The same is true with agents. You rarely if ever close a deal at a convention – I don’t know anyone who’s done that.
Other benefits of networking include figuring out whom you don’t want to work with. You might love a publisher until you see the way their editors treat their writers, or you may have overlooked a publisher who catches your eye by being more professional and energetic than the competition. You can find other writers who are at the same stage of career as you and form friendships, or writers who are further along than you who offer support. Suffice it to say, you will not come home from a convention with an advance check that pays off all the expenses, but years down the road you will likely have made deals and had opportunities that got their start when you were at a convention. I can’t give hard numbers here, but I’d say make a point of going to your local conventions, at least, even if you don’t go every year. Stay on a friend’s couch if you need the money to cover the membership fee. It’s worth it to be connected.
2) Gain new insights into publishing trends. You do not need to go to a convention for this, but it’s one way to get the information, because it’s a whole bunch of people in publishing in one place at one time. From the general buzz you can gather information such as the resurgence of short stories. I learned that a lot of writers are now making more money from short story reprints than ever before. You can see if the independent authors are welcomed into the fold by the fanbase, or whether they’re still seen as wannabes. You can find out up to the minute information about who’s sold what to whom and hear from editors what they’re looking for. I wouldn’t go to a convention just for this purpose, though, because like I said, you can get this information from reading the trades and corresponding with other authors and reading up online, but it’s an added bonus if you’ve already decided to go.
3) Attend and participate in panels. Conventions are built around panels, which for the uninitiated are group discussions by a panel of individuals chosen to discuss a topic. They can be on anything from how to get more digital sales to whether or not Buffy the Vampire Slayer went against gender stereotypes or made use of them to make violence acceptable (so in other words, they can be on anything.) The value of the panels varies considerably based on the con. It’s not uncommon for a panel to not offer much on the stated topic – i.e. a panel on African origin mythology might just end up being a bunch of writers talking about how much they love Octavia Butler. Not useful if you want to know about African lore, but very useful if you want to find out more great books to read. You need to do some research both before and when you arrive at the con to assess this.
My local science fiction convention, Bubonicon, has a very skewed writer to fan ratio, so even if you don’t learn much about the topic of the panel, you’ll still hear from a ton of authors all at different stages of their careers. RT had a lot of very useful panels and presentations, and then some that were pure marketing to fans. Carrie Vaughn, for example, was on a panel that was set up like a game show in which the audience answered trivia questions about urban fantasy books. There were prizes and an open bar. Attending such a panel will likely do nothing for your writing career, but at least that ought to be clear from the program. To counterbalance events like that, though, there was a presentation by Courtney Milan on how to cultivate a digital readership – something she knows quite a bit about. There were panels with Mark Coker of Smashwords and editors of romance lines, who were well equipped to dispense useful information. Cat Adams and I did a panel on understanding author contracts (she’s a paralegal, as well as a USA Today Bestselling author.) This can make all the difference in whether or not your con membership is worth the money, so this is key when you’re deciding which, if any, conventions to attend.
4) Marketing and Self Promotion. The short answer to this is that you can do quite a bit of marketing and self promotion at a convention – but take some time to read the long answer. How you do this depends very much on the culture of the genre. You can also make a total idiot out of yourself and get blacklisted by editors. No, really. It happens. So look before you take the proverbial leap. RT had people marketing themselves far more aggressively than I’ve seen in science fiction, and I’ll do a whole post on their methods at a later date. In short, though, people had swag. They gave out free copies of their books. They walked up and down lines of fans waiting on an event and handed out promotional material, and watching this interaction, I would guess that this was likely effective. Readers were very receptive to it, and there were many authors who were good at engaging and having a dialogue.
Don’t ever try this at a science fiction convention. You’ll probably see other people doing it, but there are some key players in the field who frown on it. Editors are one group, and that’s not a group you want to antagonize. SMOFs (the masters of fandom who organize and run cons) tend to be very against it, and since they’re the ones who decide whether you participate in panels and get featured as a guest, you don’t want to antagonize them either. Last of all, readers in science fiction are a different kind of beast. They are more proactive in seeking out new content, and are one of the most loyal fan populations in the entertainment industry, and that’s the case not just in publishing but in film and television as well. You do not need to get in their faces and push your wares on them. The way you market yourself in science fiction is to participate in panels, and while on a panel, I’d recommend not making a little pyramid of your books in front of yourself. More and more people do this, but I do still hear grumbling behind the scenes. Do not spend time on the panel talking about your own writing. Try not to use examples from your own books. This may all sound very counter-intuitive, but to be entirely blunt, I was trained by the best in the business. More than once I’ve finished a panel and had people walk up to me and say, “I want to read what you’ve written. Give me titles.” At parties I’ve had agents and editors willing to pull me aside and talk to me, and they’ve remembered my name and asked if I’d written anything I wanted to submit through all the years that I had yet to produce anything sellable. The art of self promoting in this environment is to look like an intelligent, well read, interesting person, because this is a fan base who look beyond the books and into the minds of the people who write them.
One more note on science fiction: The indie community shoots itself in the foot over and over at conventions. Often it’s by utilizing aggressive marketing techniques. Now there are some very successful indie authors who will argue that you don’t need to impress the convention going crowd, but I’d say that it never pays to alienate anyone. The traditionally published community actually doesn’t consider number of sales the most important factor when they decide what they think of you. There are authors who are legendary who have struggled professionally, and if you have a million sales, you still may not be invited to the coolest parties. I’m an indie author myself, but you won’t see me with the others of my kind waving the indie flag. I love being indie and I’m very open about being indie, but I don’t rant and rave about being indie. I’m too busy enjoying the con. Know the culture and people won’t care one way or another how you make your money.
If you’ve got books out, your publisher will likely want you to participate in conventions, and you can sell quite a few books this way. More importantly, though, you engage with your potential fanbase and get your name and face out there, so even if there’s no direct correlation to immediate sales, it pays off in the long term.
5) Have fun and make good memories. No matter what other reasons you have for going to a con, don’t neglect this one. Always make sure to enjoy the experience!
So to go or not to go? My advice is to go to conventions, but plan your budget carefully and learn the genre’s culture. The most immediate payoffs will be social and artistic as you find new friends and have intelligent conversations about your craft. In the long term, this will also lead to commercial payoffs, but attendance at one convention won’t bring these to pass. Plan to go regularly, when you can afford it, over the years. Consider it a long term investment, much like meeting a word count every day. Feel free to share your comments pro and con below (along with any questions, of course!)