Monday, June 9, 2008

To Con or Not To Con

by Kathryn R. Wall

Back in the days when I was practicing accounting, I worked with a client who had a pet expression, something he employed while weighing business problems: Is the view worth the climb?

On several listservs to which I subscribe, there’s been a lot of chatter lately about conferences—to go or not to go—especially with Bouchercon Baltimore just around the corner. Most of these discussions center around basically what my client used to ask himself: Is the expense and effort of getting there going to pay off in some meaningful way? It has been suggested that attending simply to enjoy the ambience and camaraderie is reason enough, and for some, especially fans, that may well be true. But I think those of us who do this for a living need to heed the oft-repeated admonition to remember that we’re running a business here. So I believe it’s a question both seasoned and newbie authors need to ask themselves before shelling out considerable cash for con fees, hotel rooms, airline tickets, or—these days—gasoline: Is the view worth the climb?

My answer? It depends.

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t attended hundreds of mystery conferences, but I never miss Malice Domestic if I can help it. Not only does it attract the kind of audience I envision my books appealing to, but it seems more like a family reunion than a professional gathering, at least after you’ve been there a couple of times. I also like that it’s in the same city, in the same hotel, and is held at almost the same time every year. I’m additionally fortunate that it coincides with the release of my new titles each spring. What do I get from it? The Sisters in Crime board meeting and breakfast, a chance to hobnob with people I don’t see any other time during the year, usually a panel which gives me an opportunity to hawk my new release, my books in the dealer room, and the sense that I’ve just reconnected with the reason I began to write traditional mysteries to begin with. To steal a line from the Mastercard commercials: Priceless.

For me, Bouchercon is another story. I’ve skipped a couple of those, primarily, like last year, because of travel considerations. The first one I ever attended was Las Vegas, which everyone kept telling me wasn’t the best on which to make a judgment—bad hotel, too much smoking, too spread out, etc. But . . . I had a wonderful time. Many of the attendees were household names whose books I’d loved, and I walked around in an awed stupor most of the weekend. No one had ever heard of me for the most part, even though I’d just been published by St. Martin’s Press, but I felt, finally, like one of the In Crowd. My husband came along, gambled a little, and we enjoyed some of the nightlife. In all, I wouldn’t have labeled it an unqualified success for me professionally—except that I found my agent during one of the panels. Was it worth it? For me, at that time in my career, absolutely.

My best example of a smaller gathering is the Cape Fear Crime Festival. Again, I was a newbie and scared out of my mind, but everyone was so kind and supportive. It was my very first con of any kind, so I basically wanted to get my feet wet, to pass through that initiation or rite of passage from aspiring to arrived. More seasoned, wiser authors took me under their wings, and I felt as if I had been welcomed into a caring community.

As a businessperson, I have to weigh all these intangibles against the costs—of both money and time. Sometimes, other factors like family health and deadlines make the decision for me. As someone else on a listserv pointed out, you have to define your goals and make certain you’re able to attain them by your participation in any given gathering, whether you’re an author, fan, librarian, bookseller, or publishing professional.

So . . . are conferences worth the time and effort? It’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. It depends. Only each potential participant can decide if the view is worth the climb—for him or her. But it’s certainly a good idea to examine your motives and aspirations before you start writing checks and booking flights.

Kathryn Wall is the author of the Bay Tanner mysteries set in and around Hilton Head, South Carolina. The 8th installment, THE MERCY OAK, was released by St. Martin’s Press in May. Kathy is also the national treasurer of Sisters in Crime.


Maryann Miller said...

Nice piece, Kathryn, and hopefully it will help other writers in making decisions about attending cons or not.

I especially like the quote from your friend, "Is the view worth the climb?" I think that would be a good measuring tool in deciding a lot more than just whether to attend an event. It is certainly something I am going to be more mindful of.

Dana said...

A question I continually ask myself. Practically speaking, I can't financially justify going to a lot of cons, it costs too much in money and time off the job. Still, writing is such a solitary occupation that when I do go, it's a joy to be around other writers, people who speak my language, and it's so nice to meet the fans who actually read the results of my sweated labor. In the past I've tried to get the biggest bang for my writer buck, but there are now so many conventions out there in so many different locations that it's becoming increasingly easier to choose something closer to home.