Convention attendance is something that's been discussed here before, and while this isn't an exhaustive argument or list, there's an argument to be made that aspiring authors can't afford NOT to attend a convention.
In 2005, I had a few manuscripts finished - or so I thought. I’d actually been invited to submit one to a major international agency. I decided to attend Harrogate Crime Festival, as a reader, with one business objective: an agent speaking on a panel was someone I wanted to speak to, and after his panel I did get a chance to talk to him. When he heard of the interest from the other agency, he gave me contact information for two agents I could use his name with. Although ultimately, I never signed with any of them, major doors were opened that would not have been opened if I hadn’t gone.
I could tell story after story. In the wake of Bouchercon 2008, I want to address one of the most common things I hear aspiring authors say. I’ve lost count of the number of posts on discussion groups from people that say they can’t justify the expense of attending a convention until they have a book out.
To put it simply, this is faulty thinking.
There are still romanticized notions about being an author. Like becoming a Hollywood star, there’s still this notion of “It Can Happen To You” - in the movie scenario, you can be the waitress discovered by a Hollywood agent.
In the book scenario, you’ll send out that Great American Novel and have publishers fighting over you and pocket your millions. That’s the secret dream of many aspiring authors (and even some published authors) who allow the fantasy to become a distraction from some of the real, critical priorities of authors-in-waiting, beyond writing.
It should be noted that nothing you do will matter if you haven’t honed your craft. What I’m talking about here is the logical next step. If you’re thinking that you’d like to get published at some point, there are things you can do to invest in that reality.
But why should I invest? If you want to become a teacher, do you pay for college? What about if you want to become a master electrician? Any courses or apprenticeships involved? We all know the answer.
For some reason, when it comes to the arts, there seems to be an unwillingness to invest in building the career. While I can appreciate a certain amount of playing it safe, of being responsible so that you pay the bills and feed the kids, what I’m talking about here is not running away from the job and family. What I’m talking about is making choices that help you build a path towards publication if that’s your goal.
I’m not advocating recklessness, and this isn’t about the people who legitimately can’t afford to attend a convention. However, I was once asked by someone who lived close to the location of a convention if they should attend. They could only make it to one day of the convention, and weren’t sure if it was worth the expense.
My response was that if they were just going to hang out and get a few books signed, it might not be worth the cost. However, if they wanted to develop business contacts because they planned to be an author/work with authors in promotion/get involved in any capacity in the book business, they needed to meet people. People are generally more willing to do business with someone they’ve met, who carries themselves professionally and has new/innovative ideas.
In fact, flash back to that panel at Harrogate in 2005, and that’s one of the things the agent said on the panel. Sometimes, you’d read a manuscript and might like it but not be sure, so you’d meet the author and then you’d often see that they were or weren’t someone you could work with and market effectively.
I once thought that being an author would be great, because you’d writing books and stay at home and not have to deal with people. (Of course, that makes me sound anti-social, but that was part of a childhood fantasy, and I wasn’t nearly as adventurous back then.) The reality is, meeting in person and doing public appearances are almost essential components of being published.
But how will attending a convention help me? This isn’t a conclusive list, but there are a few points worth making.
1. One of the things I learned was what the demands on authors would be. I’ve attended five major conventions on two continents, and to be honest with you, every year I attend the pressures increase. Understanding the demands helps you avoid overcommitting yourself.
2. Watch the audience, not just the panel. Seriously. There are people at a Bouchercon who, upon hearing someone on a panel, will cross out their picture from the program book, because they were put off based on how the person carried themselves in public or on a panel. Watch how people carry themselves on panels and in public, and then watch how readers respond to them. From doing this you can learn the things to avoid doing, and the things that are effective.
3. Meet people. Meet reviewers, publishers, editors, booksellers, agents, authors and readers. Meet people who are passionate about the book business. Listen to them, and learn from them. Once you get a deal people will be writing to you for advice, and expect you to have it all worked out. The learning curve between getting a deal and being published is enormous and while you might be fortunate enough to have someone with a bit more experience give you some advice, but there are no guarantees. Whatever you can learn beforehand will help you more than you can imagine.
4. Understand the business. Understanding the pressures booksellers are under can help you consider best how to avoid inconveniencing them. When your book comes out you want booksellers to view your release as an asset, not a nuisance.
To be honest with you, unless you get enough money (or have enough money already) to hire your own publicist, your chances of getting a lot of guidance from the publicity department with your publisher are slim. You’ll be on your own, not only to pay for, but to organize book signing events, to try to drum up interviews, and sometimes, to make sure that review copies get into the right hands. Once you get a deal you’ll often be under pressure to do edits, deliver another manuscript to a deadline, possibly set up a website if you haven’t already, and thus begins the general madness of it all. The promotional aspects snowball, and when you don’t have any contacts in the business knowing where to begin can be daunting.
Does anyone really expect that twenty years along a person will open their mouth and sing better than Aretha Franklin, without any training or practice? Or step on to the basketball court and five minutes later have people drawing comparisons to Michael Jordan?
Nobody really thinks they’ll be walking down a winding, dirt road and someone will pull over in a car and offer them a job as CEO of a major corporation, right?
If you just want to have a book published some day because it’s a romantic notion, a dream, you’ve held for a long time and you don’t plan to do more than publish one book, that’s a different situation, but if you’re planning on being a professional author you owe it to yourself to treat it like a business you need to learn, and a career you need to prepare for. Conventions are great learning experiences. I’m not saying you have to attend one, but every time I hear someone say they can’t justify the expense of a convention until they have a book to sell I want to tell them they can’t afford not to.
Convention, conference, genre, non-genre specific, big, small. All have their advantages, and if you want to be published you should seriously consider what you need to do to prepare yourself for the future you’re dreaming of.
My 2 cents. Time for you to share yours. What do you see as the advantages or, going bipartisan here, the disadvantages?
Well, I hated my first Bouchercon. I'd spent the money (and effort -- let's not forget effort) because my agent recommended it. Nothing whatsoever came of this convention, though I tried all the recommended things: panel, readings, chatting up book sellers, signing, whatever. I was still an outsider. Nobody knew me, and nobody cared.
The second Bouchercon I attended was in Chicago. This time, I went out of my own free will, primarily because I needed a tax deduction and wanted to see Chicago. I had a great time -- still doing the expected things, but using the rest of the time talking to other writers, sight-seeing, and eating good food. Mind you, by that time, I already knew all the discouraging facts about book-selling.
Which brings me to a point I have made repeatedly: the publisher is the only one positioned properly to promote a book on all levels (booksellers, reading public, reviewers). Any effort made by the author is welcomed by the publisher, but it ultimately does little or nothing for the sorts of sales you need. It takes time, money, and a very thick skin to deal with folks who aren't inclined to buy a book just because you ask them to. You become one of millions of solicitors and spam distributors -- a nuisance.
Having said all that: go to conventions now and then; plan to have a good time; talk to your colleagues and to fans. You will begin to feel a part of the larger community. The rest is written in the stars.
I don't think anyone can discount luck as a factor in success in this industry, on the last night of Bouchercon 2008, eight of us - RJ Ellory, Linda L Richards, Ali Karim, J. Kingston Pierce and his wife Jodi, Peter Rozovsky, Brian Lindenmuth and I - had a spirited debate about luck in publishing.
My take on it is that it's like training for the Olympics. You follow the diet, you put in the training hours, you compete in other events, you work as hard as you possibly can doing all those things...
And then you roll the dice. Don't think so? Well, you might be better than all the people who made the last Olympic team, but if there are five people who are better than you you might not make the team. Or if you get injured, you might have to miss the event.
The problem I have with too much of the "written in the stars" philosophy is that it seems to be an excuse for a lot of people to not bother with anything. I completely agree publishers are the only ones really able to promote a book on all levels - AND I must stress that I think the most important thing for people to invest time and energy in is the writing, not the sales gimmick - BUT if your publisher see you as cooperating and working hard as well, they may be more willing to push your book. (Forget right or wrong - it's reality.) I made up a lot of review copies for What Burns Within from my own money, and managed to make a significant contribution to the volume of reviews the book received. The publicists knew I'd worked the book hard, so when I asked if I could buy extra ARCs of THE FRAILTY OF FLESH through the publisher (which would be cheaper than producing them myself) the publicist took it up the ladder and got me the books for free.
That didn't happen because I went in making demands or having unreasonable expectations. It happened because I showed I was willing to do my part to help the book succeed.
Here's something else you might learn at a convention: that the public side of life isn't for you. There's a gamble in this, but if you absolutely can't be good on a panel, if you have an impossible time meeting people, if you can't make small talk or can't conceal your disdain for signing books or suffering questions from readers, then absolutely DO NOT do public appearances unless you can take some public speaking/socialization courses that will help you deal with that.
You'll actually turn people off reading you or attending further events. I know of one author who was kicked out of the book room in Madison. There's something worse than not being talked about positively for days on end after a convention, and that's being talked about negatively.
Oh, and just another little thing to do if you are going to be on a panel: TALK INTO THE MICROPHONE!
And that means don't put your hand in front of your mouth as you answer the question.
(I think everyone should take a public speaking course before they're on a panel.)
"The publicists knew I'd worked the book hard, so when I asked if I could buy extra ARCs of THE FRAILTY OF FLESH through the publisher (which would be cheaper than producing them myself) the publicist took it up the ladder and got me the books for free."
You say that as if they did you a big favor. They should be doing that anyway. Seems to me authors are getting a raw deal and they're pretty much okay with it.
I think authors do get a raw deal much of the time. While I may agree with you in principle, in reality I got something a lot of other authors don't get.
I can also tell you that the publisher quadrupled the number of arcs they were producing, and sent out almost four times as many as they sent out for the first book. Compared against the ideal that'll still fall short, but it's a step in the right direction.
The thing is, John, authors are getting the best deal they can. This is what happens when there is virtually unlimited supply (new authors) and each author negotiates on their own. So they are as "okay" with it as they can be in comparison to their other choices.
Every day there are changes to the way things are done and authors get new choices.
The best deal they can? I get what you're saying, but it seems to me authors don't have much leverage with publishing companies, so the best deal they can get is whatever they're given. That's the impression I get from reading what other authors write about the industry. If that is correct (and if it's not, please correct me) then authors are settling for whatever they can get rather than fighting for what they're worth (or at least what they think they're worth). Again, that's just the way it seems to me as an outsider.
If publishers aren't taking an interest in their authors, such as putting an effort into promoting them, then how can they expect to get any returns from the authors? The whole industry seems broken to the point I wonder how it's managed to function all this time. I just don't understand why authors don't demand more from their publishers (and I've read plenty of complaints about editors too).
Well, "demand" and "fight." We like to think we're demanding the best deal we can and fighting for it the best we can. If there's another way to demand something, we're all ears. I'm guessing you're not suggesting some kind of closed-shop collective bargaining. This is capitalism, the people with the capital hold all the cards. Still, it's the best system we have so far.
But I don't really think publishing is broken. It's far more transparent than things like the movie business. Authors are paid royalties based on books sold. There's no "gross" and "net" like the movie business. I get a royalty statement that tells me how many books were sold and that determines how much I get paid. there's no advertising and promotion deduction on that royalty statement, no overhead that can be fudged by fancy, complicated accounting.
Now, there is of course, advertising and promotion costs and we can bitch about that forever, but because we can never actually be certain how much it really affects sales, a lot of that is just blowing off steam.
The thing is, no one can know for sure what books are going to sell how much. One publisher just laid off 15 or 16 people and one of the reasons given (among others, of course) was a huge advance (over a million bucks) and lots and lots of promotion spent on a book that didn't then sell.
What publishers usually do is put out a bunch of books they like and when one starts to get some buzz and make some sales, they put more promotion behind it. Sometimes it then sells even more, sometimes not.
This is in no way an exact science. It's all speculation and guesswork. At the end of the day it all comes down to individual people making their purchasing choices.
Exdellent post, Sandra. I'm still "pre-published' (as I was taught to say at Bouchercon) but everything you said matches with everything I saw.
Ihad been of the opinion that I didn't need to go to Bouchercon (or other major conference) until I at least had a contract. This year's Bouchercon was twenty-five minutes from my house. With no lodging or travel expenses to worry about, I fgured what the hell. One of the three most productive things I've done as a writer.
Like a lot of writers, I don't meet people well; it's hard for me to approach someone and break the ice. This is where writing reviews, posting comments to blogs, and participating in Crimespace discussions saved me. Several people I'd been hoping to meet actually approached me to say hello, recognizing my name from some other venue. I met Sandra after a fun and educational panel she moderated for pre-published authors with John McFetridge and Russell McLean. We had a nice chat and bumped into each other a couple of times during the weekend, and I'm wroking on a couple of ideas for non-fiction submissions to Spinetingler I would not have thought of had we not spoken.
A somewhat under documented feature of Bouchercon (maybe of all crime writer conference) is that once you meet someone who knows you're new, they'll go out of their way to intorduce you to others, and everyone is quite gracious about it, so long as certain common sense matters of etiquette are observed.
The web site I review for set me up with a couple of publicists, and Ieft Baltimore with some ARC for review and two interviews already set up. I discussed the current state of crime fiction publishing, traded agent and publisher stories, and confirmed that I'm not missing the boat altogether. I do have a clue, but things just haven't come together for me. (They might not, I know. I'll need some luck, which I'm hoping really is where preparation meets opportunity.) I've now made personal contact with quite a ew people I knew only virtually before, which makes it easier for all of us to support each other, regardless whether we're published, trying to get published, fans, or bloggers.
And it was a lot of fun. Writers as a group know a lot about a lot of different things, and aren't usually reluctant about expressing thier opinions. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, and felt myself become a member of a fraternity, which makes those nights trying to decide whether to use a comma or semi-colon when I could be watching a hockey game that much easier.
Conferences can be expensive, so for those in doubt i recommend finding one close to home, or, if none are too close, maybe one in a smaller toen, where some of the expenses won't be as great. More important, do your homewrk. Join discussions. (Intelligently.) Comment on blogs. (Intelligently.) That way people will know who you are, too, which moves the rest of the conversation along that much quicker.
I'm glad you found it to be a worthy venture - it was fun to meet you, along with many others who were at B'con!
And you made another good point as well, about getting new ideas and about people introducing you to others. At every convention I've been to I've met someone who's generated an idea or opportunity that may not otherwise have happened for me.
Of course my main reason for going is to have a good time. If it wasn't, it would be a drag and I'd be scurrying off as soon as any obligations were fulfilled. The crowds can be overwhelming at a B'con - although I didn't feel that this time so much. However, there are some who should consider a smaller event because they'll do better with them. That's why I started with Harrogate. :)
I agree with IJ--you should go to these convention with the idea of having fun as opposed to it doing anything for your career. Yeah, sometimes some break might happen going to one, but I think there are a lot of other things you can do other than going to conventions to increase your luck--such as working on your craft to write a better book, or studying the market to try to figure out how to write a more commercial book.
Like IJ I go to conventions to have fun. And I do. I prefer to sit in the audience than be on panels - that way I get loads of recommendations for new authors to try. And I definitely agree that how you act on a panel can be very important. At my first ever convention - LCC in Portland - I saw Judith Smith-Levin - an author I had never heard of before - on a panel. She was so interesting and such good fun (and seldom, if ever, said "in my book") that I and several others immediately rushed out to the bookroom to try and find her books. I go to conventions to catch up with oild friends, make new ones, and store up some hugs to last me until the next one :o)
As for luck - well, that's exactly what I have to thank for being published. A string of lucky circumstances and some lovely, generous, helpful people.