The Pros And Cons Of Pro Cons (For Writers)

SEE WHAT I DID THERE?

PROS CONS OF PRO CONS.

I tickle myself inappropriately.

Anyway, so, last week Authorbeing Marko Kloos wrote a post about the cost of his trip to Confusion, an SFF con in Michigan. His estimation of cost: $1880, though he notes with more frugal spending that cost could’ve easily been knocked down to under a thousand bucks.

Still, a thousand bucks is no small amount of cash. With that you could pay rent, make a car payment, buy a month’s worth of groceries, or finally afford a long relaxing weekend with your own personal SEX PONY. Is that an actual pony with whom you make love? Or a person dressed like a pony who just hangs around being sexy? I have no idea! I don’t want to know your peccadillos! I’m not here to judge!

The question, particularly for genre writers, becomes:

Is it worth it?

Is it worth going to a convention or festival not just as a fan but as a professional writer or a writer seeking professional connections? Are some conventions better than others? After all, a genre convention (SFF or mystery or YA) will be different from a more general writer convention (conference) and those will be different yet from a comic-con or book festival.

Do you need to go to one?

Let’s just get the tl;dr out of the way right now:

Nope, you don’t.

THERE I DID YOUR WORK FOR YOU NOW GO HOME.

Wait! I was kidding, don’t go away. Unless you’re going away to get me some French fries. You’re not? Then fine, plunk your BOTTOM REGION down on that CHAIR-SHAPED ENTITY and listen because I’m not done talking, goddamnit. No, you don’t need to go to any convention…

But you may still find value there. You are not required to go — meaning, at no point is your professional career hinging entirely on WHO YOU SCHMOOZED AT THE BAR THAT NIGHT AT WANGLE-DANGLECON. Your writing career hinges on writing good books that an editor likes and a publisher thinks they can sell and that readers want to read and also, there’s a hefty dumpster-load of luck at play, too.

Though, let’s talk a little bit about that luck factor, shall we? If we view luck through the lens of an RPG, your Luck Stat can (by most rules) be used to boost your chances at, say, finding more treasure or managing a critical hit while attacking a VILE DISPLACER GIRAFFE. If we view life as one big ongoing RPG, then your Luck Stat is there to boost your chances in various life arenas from the romantic to the financial to the professional. Very few things rely entirely on luck — but many things can be influenced by luck. Writing and publishing included.

You can not create luck, really. But you can maximize it.

Bringing this full circle, going to a convention or conference or festival can help maximize your luck in this space. Meaning, maybe you cross paths with an agent or editor who will remember you later when your book crosses their desk. Or maybe you’ll meet another author who is likelier to take a look at your book to blurb it when the time comes because they actually remember your face. Or maybe you attend a panel where four authors say a bunch of smart and dumb stuff that combines like IDEA VOLTRON in your head to form your next book. Again, none of this is essential, but a lot of it has the chance to give you a boost in a variety of ways.

That’s the upfront tl;dr –

No, conventions/conferences/festivals are explicitly not “required.”

But they can be worth it.

Let’s now hash out the actual pros and cons, yeah?

(Disclaimer: this post is just my opinion, and does not comprise anything resembling fact.)

The Pros About Cons!

+ You will meet people. These people can become your friends. Not just resources (as in, “HUMAN CHITS YOU WILL SPEND TO BUY UPGRADES TO YOUR CAREER”) but actual human beings inside writing or publishing that you think are rad. And they think you’re rad. Friendship is good. Friendship can be a life preserver flung to you in the tumult of the storm-tossed publishing sea. The friendship can begin at a con and can continue for literally your whole life after. That’s a pretty special thing.

+ You will meet other people. They will not become friends, but they are part of the community at large, and it’s good to be aware of the community at large. Just being connected to something has value — it sounds stupid, but if you’re going to live in the woods you should probably take some time to walk in the woods. Take a look around. Learn the smells. Get a vibe, take a pulse, whatever. Most genre communities are far smaller than you think. And those various communities overlap, too. It’s good to be there. It’s good to make yourself present and mindful. Later on, your connection may have echoes. It may yield fruit.

+ You might learn really good things. A lot of panels can be amazing. Creativity is strengthened through agitation — meaning, we grab a bunch of polarizing ideas from outside sources and jam them into our head and shake our skull around like it’s a rock tumbler. It polishes what’s already in there and breaks apart other, lesser ideas. Agitation leads to revelation. The old chestnut is always write what you know, but the unspoken follow-up to that is you can always learn more stuff. Cons are a good place to learn more stuff.

+ Cons are also great teaching opportunities. Share what you know! CONTRIBUTE IDEA GOOP TO THE GIANT GLOB OF IDEA GOOP AND INCREASE CREATIVE SYMBIOSIS.

+ I have routinely left most cons feeling professionally and creatively energized. I love this.

+ Commiseration! Writing is hard! Publishing is harder! It’s good to get together with people who GROK YOUR MOJO and with whom you can speak at length about stuff you could (and should) never put on social media. This isn’t just about letting off steam, but rather, about helping to talk-through solutions and to hear about the experiences of others.

+ You will meet industry people. Said it before but it bears repeating: sometimes meeting an agent or editor or publicist or whomever can have unseen value in this gig. Just the simple fact that they might remember you later (ideally as the nice person who said something funny rather than the fucking dong-hole who said something incomprehensible while slobbery drunk) can be a really good thing. Plus, these people might share straight dope about the industry. Never underestimate the value of scuttlebutt.

+ You will meet fans. Maybe you have a new book out. Maybe you published one short story. Maybe you’re a writer with a dozen books on shelves. You probably have fans. No, really! In genre in particular, the audience is smaller than you think and better connected than you expect. Someone there may have read what you wrote. And they loved it. Go meet them!

+ You will make fans. Being on a panel or just talking to people can endear you to them. You get up there and say something smart or crack wise in the right way and someone in that audience may convert — the ideal moment is the one where they think, I need to read what this person has written. Every moment at a con is an opportunity to make new friends and new fans.

+ You can be a fan! Never fail to be a fan inside the industry. I am a fan of other writers — both writers whose work inspired me to be a writer and present peers whose work inspires me alongside my own work. It’s really good to go and just be amazed by the really rad people doing this thing that you love to do. I am incredibly happy when surrounded by talented writer-folk. I think that’s true for most of us. I mean, sure, some of them are fucking dong-holes, but if I’m being honest? They’re few and far between. Most people in this business are pretty cool and I feel lucky to be a part of it.

+ You might actually sell some books.

+ It’s tax-deductible as a professional expense!

The Cons About Cons!

- You might not actually sell some books. Every con is different — the best thing is when a con has a dedicated bookstore associated with it (like Mysterious Galaxy, for example) running the book sales. But a lot of cons (even some big ones, like Gen Con or DragonCon) do not have an easy flow between panels and book sales. See, here’s the thing: when you get on a panel and you do your sexy panel dance and then the audience is like SWEET SLIPPERY JESUS I NEED THIS AUTHOR’S BOOKS, that is a window of opportunity. But that window closes. As most people are traditionally like goldfish, they will remember your name and your book for a short time and then, after an hour unreminded will go off to get tacos or see another panel. In a perfect world there is a flow between panel and bookseller that is easy and unobstructed. (Festivals tend to be very good at this in my experience. Conventions and conferences, less so.)

- The ROI on selling books will almost never make up the expense for going. To cover $1000 cost, you would need to sell — *does quick math* — A SHITLOAD, SQUARED. And given that most bookstores will show up carrying fewer copies than that squared shitload, well. You do the math. I mean it. You do it because I don’t want to. Hey, I didn’t get into writing books for the math. THE GREATEST TRICK THE DEVIL EVER PULLED WAS MATH CLASS.

- Some cons will allow you to bring your own books and sell them on consignment. This is a good way to make money. It’s also a good way to do backbreaking labor because books are the heaviest substance known to man and if the con isn’t in driving distance now you’re hauling ten boxes of your dumb books through an airport or sending them with UPS and the cost of that probably obviates any money you’d make anyway.

- It’s weird going to cons where you don’t know people. It’s hard to connect to a community when you don’t know that community. And you run the risk of feeling weird when you just walk up to a pack of pro writers and stand there, staring at them. Never mind the fact writers can be socially awkward, anyway? I know I can be. (Here the best solution is to go to their events throughout and introduce yourself after a panel or in a signing line and then later you can pop by again and say hi.) Just know that it can be tricky!

- Cons can be stressful and may cause you to spend more spoons than you possess. Meaning, if you are a person with anxiety or depression or other social stressors, then a con can amplify them. I generally believe most cons to contain welcoming, awesome people. But that is not universal, nor is it always easy to access the welcome, awesome people.

- Mentioned already, but cons can cost real money. Hotels, travel, con fee. Not as hard if you’re in driving distance, and easier if you can bunk up with people. Still: money is money, and conferences can be seen as a luxury rather than an essential. Cons thus favor those privileged enough to afford them. (Note: many festivals are free. And free is good.)

- Not all the information at cons is good. I’ve gone to panels and heard writers talk about marketing and promotion or other topics and have literally felt like launching up with my arms flapping about to warn everyone away like I’m Charlton Heston in Soylent Green. THEIR ADVICE IS MADE OF STUPID PEOPLE, I would cry, and then in a crossover would point to the unburied beach head of the Statue of Liberty and something something damn dirty apes. Generally, I love panels at cons. Sometimes, though, you get a real weird mix, and it’s vital to take all the advice with not just a grain of salt but an entire subterranean salt mine.

- Also some cons have really weird niche panels like FURRIES VERSUS STARSHIP CAPTAINS and HOW TO SELL YOUR OCTOGENARIAN EPIC SEX FANTASY and you might start to feel like, wait, why did I pay to come here, this isn’t helping me at all.

- Some cons make it hard to get on programming. You go and you pay and then you get one panel on a subject to which you are only barely connected. (“Why am I on a panel called WRITING ABOUT SUPERNATURAL HYPERSPACE NINJA TRAINS? Because I once mentioned a train and a ninja in the same chapter? Uh, okay?”)

- Also some cons make it hard to get hotels. The name of one of the Circles of Hell is “hotel lottery.” Some cons are in cities where you can comfortably stay outside of town for less money.

The Other Things You Should Think About!

* Social media is a semi-meaningful replacement for cons and festivals. Wildly imperfect but a partly-functional facsimile thereof. Even still, sometimes the relationships you form online are really only cemented when you meet in person. (Though the reverse can be true, too.)

* Going to cons is not essential but it is useful — that said, its usefulness is of diminishing value. Some writers go to a whole lot of cons and that’s fine if it’s not on their dime. If it’s on their dime, I’d argue they’re putting in more than they’re getting out — meaning, the ROI is borked. Choose one or two cons that really represent what you care about and about which you have heard good things. Then go.

* If you cannot afford the total package, BARCON is a possibility — meaning, you can not pay to go to the con but you can hang out in the bar where the writers and publishing people will almost certainly be. Even when we don’t drink we’re like animals at a watering hole, man. And really, don’t worry if you don’t drink. One writer (cough cough Brian McClellan) goes and brings a whole fucking cake and just sits there and eats it and shares it. Which is bad-ass. I actually demand that cake be a vital part of all my con-going from here on out. Brian knows what the fuck is up. I bet Brian has ‘cake’ in his publishing contracts.

* At a certain level, publishers may offer to send you to these events. SAY YES. This is what you want: a publisher spending money on you, your career, and the promotion of your work.

* Going to cons is more about networking than about selling books. Networking may feel like a crass unpleasant affair, because mostly, it is. So don’t really do that. Go and just be with people. Be a sponge. Absorb. Contribute your own thought matter where appropriate. Go not to MAKE CONNECTIONS but go to HANG OUT WITH AWESOME WRITER-PUBLISHER PEOPLE. Again, don’t view people as what they can do for you. People are not outlets for your plug. Real connections are about something deeper than professional exploitation, mutual or otherwise. Being with other humans is a life skill. Cons are good practice for it.

* (I am just now reading a good post by Sunny Moraine about how writing is a solitary activity but also cons are useful and essential and hey go read it when you have a chance.)

What Cons Can Do Better For Writers (And Everybody!)

(Time to talk a little to the cons, now!)

• Get yourself a nice, easy-to-find, easy-to-understand, and most of all easy-to-enforce anti-harassment policy. Writers like safe spaces for ourselves and more importantly, for our fans.

• Be disability accessible. This is 2016. Acknowledge that not everyone has the privilege of being in perfect mental or physical health. I know this isn’t easy and it may cost you money but others have done it and and you need to do it, too. Get on the ball.

• If we are invited as more than just a “person attending,” and we’re anticipating being on panels or doing workshops or whatever, then bare minimum, comp us the cost of the conference. If it’s a conference we wanted to go to in the first place, that’s good. If not, then it won’t be enough. (Consider that it’d be like your workplace saying, “You can come to work today for free — we won’t even charge you for the elevator ride.”)

• Echoing what I said above, but I feel it’s important — published authors come to cons and they would really like to PUSH THEIR WORD-DRUGS ON THE UNSUSPECTING MASSES — uh, I mean, we want to sell our books. Help us do that. Book sales, ideally, will be near to where we are speaking or doing panels. There exists that aforementioned precious moment during and just after a panel where people who are unfamiliar with us may be convinced to try a book by us . That moment is not permanent. They leave the waters of Mnemosyne and we are lost to the river of Lethe. While cons are not all about selling books, we still wanna do it. And our publishers really want us to do it. (It’s kinda why they like us.)

• Don’t make us sell our own books. Some authors want to do this, and them having the option is great. I like to sell my books through bookstores because I want bookstores to be rewarded.

• COOL CENTRAL BAR OR GTFO

• I like when cons offer a green room or separate space for the attending creative people. It’s nice to get to meet a cross-section of other folks speaking and such.

• At panels, I like having water. This is usually a problem but once in a while it isn’t and it needs to be. Though I loathe the waste, bottled water is nice because I can take it with me, and sometimes the pitcher of water on the table has been sitting there since the Mesozoic Era and if you look close enough you can see skin cells and mosquito eggs just floating around in there and ew. What I’m trying to say is, clean hydration is key, goddamnit.

• Also, moderators for panels are an important consideration. Erm, not that you have them (you should, but you already know that), but that they don’t suck. Most moderators are awesome. Some moderators think they’re part of the panel rather than shepherds of the panelists, and then speak at length instead of letting the panelists have a say. YER NOT A WIZARD, ‘ARRY.

• Too many people on a panel is not so good. You get more than five people, it’s like — nobody can really say boo about shit or shit about boo. You get one answer to a question and that’s your time. You hold the mic to your mouth, and breathily answer “yes” to the one question and then it’s over. This is less of an issue if the panels are longer than 50 minutes. But many are understandably not!

• Panels at writing events only about writing drive me nuts. Like, here’s the thing: yes, we need those, and yes, the audience wants those, so yay. But I’m also a huge fan when you have panels on like, random shit that writers can use. A forensics panel at a mystery con. A panel on space travel at a SFF con. Random panels on smart stuff. And, here is the key, not all panels need to be staffed by writers. Staff them with specialists with regards to the specialty. (Admittedly, some authors are specialists, so, fine.) I mean, don’t put me on a panel where I have to be smart about stuff. I AM IDIOT DO NOT TRUST ME. The other thing about a lot of writing panels is that they’re very 101-level stuff. It’s good to offer a variety! Variety is the spice of life. Paprika is also the spice of life. And we all know that the spice must flow.

What Cons Do You Like?

I have thoughts about specific conventions, conferences and festivals — though that will have to wait for another post, I think, as this one has already gone on way too damn long. Just the same, your time to chime in is now — what, if I can ask, are your favorite conventions, conferences and festivals? Anything counts, whether explicitly genre-based SFF or mystery cons, or comic-cons or writing conferences or book festivals or that time I invited you into my basement and I tricked you into talking with me about my extensive Garbage Pail Kids card collection.

SOUND OFF IN THE COMMENTS, WORD-NERDS.

* * *

ZER0ES.

An Anonymous-style rabble rouser, an Arab spring hactivist, a black-hat hacker, an old-school cipherpunk, and an online troll are each offered a choice: go to prison or help protect the United States, putting their brains and skills to work for the government for one year.

But being a white-hat doesn’t always mean you work for the good guys. The would-be cyberspies discover that behind the scenes lurks a sinister NSA program, an artificial intelligence code-named Typhon, that has origins and an evolution both dangerous and disturbing. And if it’s not brought down, will soon be uncontrollable.

Out now from Harper Voyager.

Doylestown Bookshop| WORD| Joseph-Beth Booksellers| Murder by the Book

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(Also now out in audio! Narrated by Ray Chase.)

100 comments

  • I’m a veteran of writer’s conferences back in the early 1980’s when I attended my first local one as a fledgling writer and spilled coffee all over myself and others. I wrote about it in a lst person article subsequently published in Writer’s Digest called “Flying Lessons.”
    Life intervened, so did expenses and opportunities. The publishing world changed in 30-some years. With an empty nest and freedom to write the novels in my core, I started going to more WC’s–ten in the last few years. The Industry had changed AND was still evolving faster than smartphones. I write mostly romances, more in the historical, time-travel/mystery genres. My hubby goes with me and if we can afford the double con expense, he takes notes at my 2nd-choice sessions. We also wrap vacations around the WC if we haven’t been in that ROI before–and while that adds to the expense, research of the area is a bonus for prospective settings.
    MAJOR LEARNING CURVES:: Some Cons will ALWAYS be better organized than others. MOST offer water and snacks AND decent meals. Book early, unless you want to end up at an alternative hotel which may be cheaper but could bite into traveling time. Some sessions are redundant OR titled wrong. Forget about selling any books to authors who want YOU to buy their books–unless you happen to be Diana Gabaldon–who has line-ups a block long. Self publishing is no longer a dead end for the rejected. After a full day (one was 17 programmed hrs. long) don’t expect to have the energy to network at a bar. (Most attendees are happy to get some rest.) In fact, moving between programmed sessions affords little time to network and find friends–outside of mealtimes. Organize and collate notes taken before you forget! And finally, when you feel you can’t learn anything at a con that you could learn in social media, save your money, and join a Writer’s Group.

  • I’m on the con runner/attender side of the world, and I say “Bravo!” as I agree with almost everything you’ve said.

    Cons are easier than ever to find. Just go to Google – type in the name of your nearest city and “SF con” or “science fiction” and see what you find. locusmag.com publishes a long con list: http://www.locusmag.com/Resources/Conventions.html

    Pick your cons wisely. For example, Worldcon (about 5,000 warm bodies) is as large a con as I would want to attend or work on. I would HATE SDCC and Dragoncon and the like so I do not go to the super large cons. If you’re new to genre cons, most cons have one day memberships. Buy a one day membership and drop by one in your area and see if you like it. Attending cons without paying is a real drain on conventions. Most conventions are not rolling in dough, many lose money. The more people who drop in without paying, the more money the convention loses and the more likely it is to go under. And this happens every year.

    Nebula Awards Weekend, while more expensive than most cons, can be a very helpful event to attend.

  • I, too, am on the con runner side of things…and in addition to your excellent look at the pros and cons of SF cons…might I put in a plug for fan run conventions, as opposed to the “Pro” cons like ComicCons, etc.

    Although some artists apparently don’t like it, conventions, and especially SF fan conventions are ultimately social events. I’ve done just about everything on a convention committee from being a gopher to Chairing a con, and the thing that keeps me working on them is meeting people. And this is reflected in the book oriented con I just retired from running, CAN-CON. It’s aim is to be a smaller event, a few hundred people. It is a book and author oriented event. We purposely don’t have a Green Room because our aim is to have the guests interacting with the other attendees. We attract a large number of writers, with something like a third or more of our attendees are either writers, or want to become writers. Thus a lot of our programming tends to be oriented to writers, rather than just about writers. We regularly bring in experts to give writers (and fans!) information on things that help make fiction more realistic and readable. That includes experts on blood splatter analysts, History professors who specialize in the history of Venice, personal combat/self-defense instructors, and blacksmiths, to name a few.

    Yes, we have a lot of good programming, but, we also provide a safe, hospitable environment to attendees so that people feel comfortable with the social aspect of the event. And it is that social aspect that keeps people coming out year after year. Guests of Honour, programming, and venues change over the years, it is the social atmosphere of an event that keeps people coming back year after year.

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