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?