Should I Stay Or Should I Go (to conventions)

*Sorry to post so late.  I kept telling myself I needed to finish this before caffeine and… well…*

Years ago I woke up prissy and wrote a post for this blog called Wither Conventions.  (Which attracts more spam than any other post on this blog, I guess because the title sounds so important and businesslike.)

Part of the reason I wrote that post is that I had a weird feeling, and part of the reason that post is kind of wishy washy is that I couldn’t say what I wanted to say.  I couldn’t say it, because I had nothing to base it on, except my strong gut feeling.

Now I do.

The proof came in a weird way.  I don’t know how many of you are aware that engineering students, at least in Colorado, have to take business courses.  So, younger son is stuck with business courses and needed to write an article on a business development.  Being who he is, he went with indie writing.  He needed an article to take of from, though, and Cedar Sanderson was kind enough to give me a link to the WSJ Article on Hugh Howey and Wool.

I skimmed the article before I gave it to kid, but it wasn’t until kid asked me to check his assignment for typos (he makes as many as I do, and of the “autocomplete” type and this was the FIRST time in his life he asked me check) that it jumped out at me – the point I’d wanted to make in “Whither conventions”.

The money quote is this:

Mr. Howey recalls feeling anonymous at a science fiction conference last summer in Chicago. He got excited for a moment when a woman approached him—he thought she wanted his autograph—but she was looking for the bathroom.

Nearby, fantasy writer George R.R. Martin, author of the best-selling series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” was signing hundreds of books. Mr. Howey went up and introduced himself. When it became clear that Mr. Martin had never heard of him, Mr. Howey told him his novel was No. 6 on Amazon’s list of science-fiction and fantasy best sellers, behind Mr. Martin’s five books. Mr. Martin gamely signed a book for Mr. Howey, inscribing it “To # 6—Keep trying!”

A few months later, Mr. Howey landed at the top of the list, just ahead of Mr. Martin.

I know they thought they were being pithy or ironic or something.  What they are actually exposing is something else.  Cons and publicity through cons have become an arm of the “official publishing” complex.  The people who stayed in cons, run cons, are part of organized fandom, are the people who were content with the directions traditional publishing was going in.

Yes, part of it is political, though it’s not even easy to define the politics as either of the two parties.  If anything they’re to the left of any party in the US, including the Greens.  They’re usually trendy, oikophobic, hyper feminist, pagan, etc, etc.

The people they take to their bosom are usually, like any other human group, either people like them, or people more like them than they are – i.e. people who stake out an even more extreme position.

But because they’re human and aspire to trendy it’s also possible to gain massive popularity in the con circuit by having a movie made about your book.  Or a T.V. series.

If you fall into either of these categories, then cons are a good way to amplify your  reach, increase your fandom and their fervor and, generally, make your career better.  If you don’t, it’s always been doubtful whether it would do you any good.  There was a method of publicity – the con blitz – where you went to a con a weekend for a couple of years, which could help even otherwise total unknowns.  Provided you could carry yourself with an air, and had the ability to make the normal con people like you, either by being somewhat like them, or just by being really, really nice.  There’s also the thing that if people meet you everywhere they start thinking you’re someone special.

I confess I was always prejudiced against that method.  First, because we didn’t have the money.  Second, because we didn’t have the time.  Third because I’m not very fond of being out in public that much.  I can enjoy it in small doses but every weekend seemed like a form of torture I didn’t want to endure.

When I wrote that first post about conventions, I was already iffy on whether what I was doing – going to a few cons, because that’s all I could do – did any good.  Part of it was how the game was set up, and part of it was my realizing cons were changing.  On panels I was as likely to share space with a NYT bestseller traditional means, as with a self published author who’d brought her book out last week.

This made the audience and the panels fluid – ie. Who were the fans who were there for the authors, when the authors had been fans last week and were still completely unknown?

I also noticed – everyone here has, right? – the steady drift towards media/costuming/gaming of cons, which were less and less INTERESTED in writing.  It was possible to attend a massive con and find the panels for books attracted two people.

So I was wondering how worth it they were.

The quote above tells you – they’re not.  Not unless you are the type of writer who would naturally have done well in the con environment.  If you are, and particularly if you’ve long been involved in fandom, they will give you a boost.  But if you’re not, then…

Then you have to ask yourself why you’re aiming at the center of traditional fandom.  It is clear the two don’t mesh.

Look, guys, the man who was selling almost as much as George R. R. Martin was a non event at a con.

That means the fandom Hugh Howey was selling to doesn’t attend cons, vote for awards or, in general, belong to the whole dog-and-pony show circuit.

So, if you’re an atypical SF writer?  Ignore the cons if you want to.  Go to the ones you want to.  (I’ll always go to Liberty con, because I and my family enjoy it.)

I’d recommend either belonging to a writer’s group or hitting a largish con a year, just so you can talk to or see other writers.  But that’s me.  You don’t even have to do that.

Cons are expensive, and if you’re going out of a sense of obligation don’t do it.  That said, if you always wanted to be on a panel and all, do it.  If you love cons, go.

But don’t do it for marketing.  It might help a little on the margins, but you neither need it – i.e. there’s a whole audience you can reach out of it – nor will it be especially good for you unless you fit a certain profile.

And meanwhile, let’s work on reaching that massive fandom, which like the submerged portion of an iceberg looks to be much, much bigger.

My novel in thirteen weeks post is up at PJM, btw.

50 comments

  1. I’m a big believer in your theory here Sarah. Part of the problem _might_ be the authors themselves though. I once went to a con that had the same gentleman on pretty much all of their writing panels. I know he did two series that he talked about. One was about Snow White. The other was about orcs. I don’t remember the guy’s name but here’s the thing:

    He never once mentioned the name of either his books or his series. I’m not good with names and I never have been. I probably would’ve remembered the names of his books though (I’m like that). Here’s my point though: How am I supposed to be this guy’s stuff if I don’t know what it’s called or what HIS name is? He seemed like a nice guy and his stuff sounded interesting, but (and this is _key_) HELP ME OUT HERE!! (Him, not you)

    1. Usually the authors at our con will have a book that they wave around when they’re on a panel.

      It’s helpful, I think. Then you get the cover art, too.

    2. Aaaaaand that’d be Jim HInes you’re talking about. One series with fairytale princesses, and his first series with a goblin who has to save his people from a dungeon party, etc.

      I think Livejournal and Facebook is responsible for some of the “echo chamber” effect.

  2. Thank you SO much for this one.

    Thing is, not only am I writing in an odd genre, but there is no way in H*LL I could find the energy to do a convention. I did one – Bouchercon in 1998 because it was in Philly and I could go home to sleep.

    I barely have enough energy to get some writing done every day, and now, someone with EXPERIENCE, tells me it isn’t necessary.

    Fun, if you’re the right kind of person, and healthy, and maybe an extrovert, but not NECESSARY.

    I feel the same way when someone says Twitter or Facebook is not NECESSARY – and explains why.

    I’ll figure it all out, do what I can (entirely different marketing plan from most people), but I don’t have to feel wishful about not being able to do crowds.

    It always sounds so exciting and so energizing – but I’m not going to be able to benefit. Thanks for reporting back.

    1. What seems to work is sending your book to tons of reviewers.
      The suspicion of this freed me a lot too, and now I have at least anecdotal confirmation it will even more. I will go to cons when I feel like going and not when not. If it’s “fun for the whole family” and we get to see our friends (Liberty con) we go. If not… pfui.

  3. BTW – on PJM article: GORGEOUS photos – I have hair envy, and small waist envy, and…

    I loved your image of not being able to see yourself jump. It fits.

    But you can FEEL yourself jump. And for a split second, until gravity takes over, it is enough.

  4. Writers are, somewhat by nature, introverted creatures. It takes a certain amount of extroversion and charm to “work” a con, and especially in SFF, we don’t always have it. And, with the exception of people like Mr. Martin, most don’t have recognizable faces. I mean, I know of Mr. Howey’s work, but if he lived next door to me I wouldn’t know him. So, yeah, if someone doesn’t have it in them to be at a convention and work it, work themselves as if they were a PR Manager… conventions may not help.

  5. I’m on the staff at our con and my feeling is that the authors come mostly to socialize with each other. The fans come because they enjoy the con. But they’re also saturated… and by that I mean, they really aren’t looking for more books to be put on the “to be read” pile. Who has the time or the money? The people who attend a con might pick up a new author but for the most part they don’t count as an unreached audience.

  6. Gee, given the chance to go have fun, or to be lectured by PC authors, they don’t pick the author?

    Your stuff would probably get attention if it’s treated as fan stuff— hook up with some webcomic folks of similar philosophy and get attention that way. Some George t-shirts wouldn’t be amiss, nor the Hoyt’s Huns stuff. *grin*

  7. I go to one con a year here in Maryland. Capclave is very book oriented, and I go to author readings. I found a new author that way.

    I know precisely one person there, a friend of a friend, and we always say hi. I just like being around that many people who all like science fiction.

  8. I’ve been to a few writing panels at cons before. Mostly I don’t bother because of my experiences on the ones I went to.

    The industry panels regurgitate information that is generally out of date and is generally stuff they say by rote without even thinking about it anymore. “Just looking for the best writing you can send me.” etc. If they get passionate about anything, it’s some rant about how people are out of their place and they HATE when people don’t know their place.

    So no industry panels. They were the first to get off my list.

    Specific-author panels… I only went to one. And I realized they’re not really for someone who hasn’t read all of that author’s works. Because I had more spoilers for series great and small than I’d ever run across in the wild frontier of the internet.

    So if I intend to read the author’s other works (which I nearly always do), no specific-author panels for me.

    Multi-author panels with a general topic? Well, first up… they too get asked the usual questions of “how did you break into the industry? What tips do you have for a beginning writer?” and so on, and though they usually answer with more enthusiasm/passion/humor than the industry panelists, it’s usually rote and they can’t wait to move on to another question. It’s always variations on the same. I know there are lots of beginning writers in every panel, but I know that so many of the people asking the question are really looking for a shortcut. Sort of the way people ask you how you got good at art and they don’t want to hear “practice and dedicated study”, they want to hear, “I ate lima beans every Saturday and suddenly I was awesome”.

    And specific-topic multi-writer panels generally aren’t much better, though it usually means fewer writer-hopefuls looking for shortcuts. In these, it’s like spreading two paragraphs of actually useful information over an hour’s worth of talking. Though if you’re lucky, the majority of the rest of it will be interesting tangents rather than panelist in-jokes or grumbling of tech problems (mic not working), complaints (hangover, chair uncomfortable, con too crowded, weather, out of water), or meandering anecdotes about other conventions that have nothing to do with the panel subject.

    Yep. Even when they don’t lecture about issues I’m not interested in (which is why I don’t go to “women in fantasy” or “girl hero” or “gay and transgender in YA” panels) – I’d much rather spend time going to making-games panels or making-comics panels than writer panels, because they’re much more likely to stay on-target and skip the tedium. And I’m starting to skip even those type of panels since it’s usually the same 101 questions and info.

    So costuming it is!

    1. well — my panels are usually fun. Sometimes I NEARLY have to clobber the other writers to make it so. You wouldn’t believe it how faced with a topic like “How to avoid Deus ex Magica” which we’ve done a bazillion times, people will act like i’m murdering their baby when I say “First off, we’re not doing that topic. It’s stupid. Instead, let’s tell bloopers of the times we did make it Deus ex-magica and how crazy it got.”
      See, my goal is to make the audience LAUGH.

      G-d deliver me from “Strong women in SF panels” which are second only to “Heinlein panel” in making me wish I had been able to fly with my pocket knife. (And I think that would be way entertaining for the audience too, but… well… probably not a good thing to do. PROBABLY.)

      1. I would think you’d love a Heinlein panel? I’ve only been to one, and it was lovely. It was at an absurd hour of the night, but still.

        1. Sigh. For some reason, locally, they always stock them with priss-faced people who start in on “Heinlein was sexist and homophobic and… and.. and…”

          1. That is when you ask, “Have you ever read any Heinlein, you dumb broad? How about any history?” While probably not providing any useful information, it will at least provide quality entertainment to the audience. (even moreso if they are out of splatter range)

            1. Of course they haven’t read any Heinlein. Might interfere with their preconceptions. Man was so far ahead of his time with transgendered characters that he turned some people off in the sixties and seventies.

              Suspect a lot of “Religious” types today would freak if they read his stuff.

              Sarah mentioned Card a while back, and the misunderstanding of his views on gays and lesbians. A while back Card was talking about how to portray a gay character, and he said that at first he couldn’t get a handle on it, then he realized that if he took the character, and showed him being attracted to a man in a similar manner to the way a woman was attracted to a man, it would work. That was in the excellent Elements of Fiction Writing – Characters & Viewpoint.

              Point being, if people don’t read the person’s writing, which most don’t seem to bother doing, their opinions are trash.

              Wayne

          2. Two thoughts, mostly about my Daughter Stephanie:
            She is part of the staff at Dragoncon in Atlanta, and works on the “literary SF” track, which centers on books anad authors with a more scholarly view. That seems to work for her, as she isn’t so much into the lesser fandom areas. The con is big enough she can spend the whole weekend doing writing things.
            Also last year the con had a “Heinlein” panel, which she was on, and I think you would have not gotten a bad taste from.

      2. Oh sure, you I could trust to make an interesting panel. I don’t necessarily know which writers would and wouldn’t, though. Even some of my favorites being on a panel doesn’t make it automatically “interesting”. I think it depends entirely on how many ways the different panelists are “pulling”. But I’d go to one you were on because even if you couldn’t pull it in an interesting direction or upend the apple cart and make it entertaining, at least afterwards we could grab a drink and cheerfully bitch. 8D

        1. usually a third into the panel all the other panelists are trying to keep the microphone out of my hands… 😛 And the audience is in stitches… (I once had occasion to describe a chihuahua male impregnating a boxer female — he climbed on something — during a panel. That’s all you need to know. I THINK it was a panel on Shakespeare…)

          1. Now, see, THAT’S a panel worth going to! Seriously, the point of a con is to entertain the con-goers. Any time the person on panel or staffer decides the message or format is more important than the audience, they’ve lost the point and the plot.

  9. OK. Here’s a patented bit of Wayne insanity.

    Sarah, you are still going to cons. It’s just that the con you are going to runs 24/7/365 over at AccordingtoHoyt.

    Think about it. And you have a heck of a lot of fun doing it too.

    I used like doing cons, before my body gave out. Saw a lot of people that I only see once or twice a year. Now I can mostly keep up with them on the Internet through LiveJournal, Facebook, Twitter, and my blog. I don’t need to do cons to keep up, and considering where I live, I have to drive six hours just to get to a decent airport…

    So keep running your own private con, and keep on having fun. That’s what life’s about.

    Wayne

    1. No, I know that. The first virtual con I attended was on sff.net site, on author’s conferences. And I have my writers’ group on the other end of the computer keyboard. But people are still going to cons to “promote” — I don’t think it’s that effective.

      1. Agreed. I attended Ad Astra for the first time in nearly twenty years this spring, and really, there wasn’t a lot anyone other than Jim Butcher and Robert Sawyer got to do. Sure, there were a few attempts by other writers to get things moving, but they looked really ineffective.

        I can’t see cons as being a cost effective marketing vehicle, at least compared to the internet. Which won’t stop me from hitting the odd one when I can. I do like seeing people 🙂

        Wayne

        1. The expense vs. results is the most marked thing. I might — MIGHT — do worldcon, depending on how the money stuff looks by then, because then I get to see EVERYONE.
          And I do Liberty Con because Dan and I and the guys take it as our vacation. The others (even local, if the weather is bad or I am mid-novel) can get cut.

          1. I volunteered at Torcon 3, because it was probably my only chance to attend a Worldcon. It was great, met Alexis Gilliland, writer of the Rosinante trilogy, and got to tell him how much I liked it. Had a great time. It was worth going to, it really was.

            Now? Hell, considering how much it hurts to walk, I generally try to avoid going anywhere. Sitting isn’t much better.

            I do try to get out when I can. One of my writing partners lives in another small town an hour south of here. I visit her when I can (traffic tends to be one way, because she doesn’t drive) but that depends on how functional I am, and I never know ahead of time.

            That makes conventions a nightmare. Some dimwit set off the fire alarm while we were at Ad Astra. Had to walk down eleven flights of stairs carrying my laptop (wasn’t going to leave my work computer in a hotel room which might catch fire). False alarm luckily, but my body screamed at me for the entire weekend.

            At least with the Internet I can try and get comfortable, and do things. If all else fails I can go lie down on a king sized beds with the cats and dogs to keep me company and read.

            Besides, it just costs way too much. $60.00 gas each way to Toronto if we take the car, $100.00 gas each way with the van, and $100.00 per hotel night, plus food. And there isn’t a single hotel that is comfortable, at least not for someone with chronic pain. The beds are killers. Never mind the tubs. It may sound stupid, but the flat floored tubs are livable, the rounded floor ones put pressure on your spine, and up the pain quotient by 25%.

            Wayne

  10. I am a an odd congoer. I don’t have any real desire to attend any panels, unless there is someone I like as a person on the panel. I don’t like attending readings unless there is a person doing the reading that I like. Notice I said persons, not Authors. My only con is Liberty, I go there to visit ‘Flies,and now Huns. I will attends few panels but, more for the social part than the fan part.

    1. It’s stalled till we have a site. Wayne Blackburn is working on the site. Also, this writer has been falling to pieces all year. I need to delegate.

      1. I’d volunteer to help in a second, but I’d probably need more supervision and explicit instructions than would make me actually helpful.

  11. Well, this certainly has me thinking about my own experience with cons. I really enjoyed the local one here in Austin, (which they aren’t having this year because WorldCon is just down the road in SA), largely because I found a group of interesting people who happened to be authors, and hung out with them in the bar. (Not my natural habitat.) Met Lou Anders and found out that he was a fan of Atomic Robo.
    And there’s a certain con in Maryland I’ve been to a few times because of the big new media community in the area which was also a lot of fun, but it’s really expensive to travel from Deep In The Heart of Texas to Maryland.
    I think it’s a matter of what your goal is. I still learn a lot, and I think I’ll continue to learn as a fan and an aspiring writer-person.
    Next week, I’ll be buying my WorldCon tickets, and hope to meet a couple of authors there.

  12. “Mr. Howey recalls feeling anonymous at a science fiction conference last summer in Chicago. He got excited for a moment when a woman approached him—he thought she wanted his autograph—but she was looking for the bathroom.”

    This reminds me of a thread on a forum I read several years ago in which an author recounted his early book store signing experiences. Someone asked if he ever had to endure annoying people trying to start dumb or pretentious conversations during these. The writer responded that when you’re a virtual unknown sitting alone at a table in a large shop where everyone is just walking by, displaying no interest in you or your books, you would be absolutely elated if such a person stopped by to chat.

    I still have to complete writing a book first before I worry about stuff like this, but, being an introverted nerd who would rather not do a lot of conventions, the topic of this article is something I wonder about every once in a while. Thanks for this article.

    1. The point of bookstore signings might now be gone. It was so that the bookstores wouldn’t return the books — they were signed.
      Nowadays they return them signed or not. And the bookstores as such are a fraction of the sales. The NORMAL experience even for bestsellers was to sit there ignored. We tried to go to each other’s signings locally, so that people thought there were a ton of fans…

  13. Very timely, Sarah. I’ve just moved to central PA and blundered into a local SFF con (2nd Annual!) that starts in a week, twenty miles away (Altoona). Haven’t been to one for decades, and never as a writer — hardly know what to expect any more.

    And me with my business cards not yet updated… 🙂

    1. In a week you might have trouble getting on panels. And why would you need business cards? Take some bookmarks for the freeby table. They probably won’t help, but who knows?
      Business cards were for the publishers, and I presume you’re not doing that. (Not saying you shouldn’t — just read the contract carefully. But assuming you’re not.)

      1. Can’t really get bookmarks published that quickly either. ‘S OK — I’m going for the mise en scéne anyway.

        I’m my own publisher, but Perkunas Press IS a business, and so I have business cards (just out of date ones this week).

        1. Fun fact: a lot of art showing, small-company theater, and photography business cards I’ve seen lately are 4×6 photo-sized, done photo-quality with beautiful images.
          When the person needs more, they just go online to walgreens, send the file, request 20 or 50 “photo prints”, and pick ’em up like any other printed digital photo about an hour later.

  14. You know it would have to be a freaking big con…

    Think about it. For a lot of us, the magazines were out entry into SF&F. We knew about the conventions, and went to them. What about the writers who never read the magazines?

    They don’t have a clue. And there’s a hell of a lot of them. My guess is that if all the local SF&F/Horror/Paranormal/Weird/RPG writers showed up at a con, there wouldn’t be room for the attendees.

    This is based on an admittedly unscientific survey. But I suspect it may well be correct.

    So who needs cons? Most of these writers are doing well without them.

    It’s just we have an emotional commitment to something that we really used to enjoy. Maybe we should loose the emotional commitment.

    Wayne

  15. The Lunacon experience with da Monkeys and the Hoyt clan may have scarred a lot of people for life. It was fun on some panels, but yes, less readers and more con-goers than I would have liked.

    1. It was great fun, and once I win the lottery — which you must know I plan to do — I shall bring you and Mrs. Monkey out at least once a year so that we can scare and shock some con. But I’m not sure it’s a SALES tool.

      1. I very much doubt it amounted to anything new sales wise – but in terms of ‘rewarding’ some loyal fans who do get a lot of pleasure out of meeting, and laughing at the antics, and who then go on promoting us, some value.

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