Monday, May 19

Writers' Conferences

I just read a great article by Daisy Harris called "Self-pub, Conferences, and the Limiting Factor of being YOU."  

The article was well timed to my life, and not just because Ms. Harris opens up with an anecdote about about how she and her husband almost bought a fixer-upper in a formerly questionable neighborhood in Seattle. As most of you know by now, my husband and bought an old fixer-upper in a not-quite questionable section of Detroit. (Our neighbors are lovely and we're very happy and anxious to move in--but let's be honest, I'm a hop, skip, and jump from Highland Park and I know it. For those not from around these parts, Highland Park is a very unsavory neighborhood).

But the bulk of the article was about something I've been giving a lot of thought to lately, that is, how many conferences and conventions can I a) afford to go to and b) are actually worth attending. I posed the question to a Yahoo! Group of fellow romance writers and the responses were nearly unanimous across the board: 

  • You don't go to these things with the idea of making back your airfare and hotel room at the conference (something I already knew, but was glad to see it was indeed conventional wisdom).
  • You go to these things to receive intangible rewards: making friends, meeting people you've only conversed with online, possibly meeting new readers (assuming you're like me and perfectly comfortable talking to people--although I think the pay off here is for people who have more than three novels out). 
  • You should think of these things as vacations more so than marketing opportunities--but at the same time, they ARE marketing opportunities and more or less necessary to success.

I also have to admit, with my background in science fiction and Pagan conventions, I have a hard time ponying up $300 for the privilege of a badge that says "AUTHOR" and the further privilege of sitting on a panel--you know, those things science fiction and Pagan conventions use to entice people to come. I'm used to being, if not paid to teach, having my membership reduced because of the hours I put in to preparing for the lectures I give and panels I am a part of. Or, at the very least, not paying EXTRA to be on those panels. 

(I am endeavoring very hard to accept gracefully that in the worlds of science fiction and Pagandom, authors and guests are paid to attend, while in the world of romance, authors pay more than attendees to be there. It's just the way the world works; unless I want to start my own convention, I'm going to have to deal with it--but oh, can I just see some of my favorite Pagan authors heads' spinning at the notion of paying to attend a conference which, really, they're going to so they can further promote and sell more books, just the same reason I'm considering going to GRL....)

And no, this isn't really a rant against GRL or RT or any individual conference. Truly it is just the way that world is set up--and no, I do not want to start my own conference!  

What I'm really getting at, in a meandering sort of way, is that while it's very early yet in 2014, it's actually time for most of us to start looking ahead to 2015 and deciding which conferences we want to attend. GRL in particular books up super fast, especially if you want to go in with an AUTHOR badge. My understanding is that last year, the Author slots were gone in a matter of minutes after registration opened. (I was bummed about not even putting it on the "maybe" list for this year because the conference is in Chicago, VERY close to home, but I'd already decided to take the year off to pursue other things...and then plot bunnies struck, but that's another story.) 

I have promised the family that we will absolutely attend Dragon*Con next year, a two to three thousand dollar commitment when you add up travel expenses, hotel costs, and food at the con--plus we've decided to take our daughter's beau because he's been so awesome with helping us fix up that old house we bought. ;-)

Now, I may be able to weasel onto a panel or two at Dragon, but it's one hundred percent a vacation. It's about meeting up with old friends, having fun, and sight seeing. Which is pretty much what it seems like GRL and RT and all the rest seem to be about. (Bear in mind, I've never attended one of these; I only made it to the Rainbow Book Fair in New York a couple of years ago and an LGBT Book Fair in DC last year). It's also a matter of, while my family is VERY supportive, it seems unfair for my "working vacations" to use up all the vacation money for the year, which is what happened last year and the year before (although admittedly, we weren't in the position to shell out two grand on anything. Buying that fixer-upper changes our finances considerably--you know, assuming nothing major crops up *knock on wood*). 

I have put my foot down that I want to get to my publisher's yearly conference next year; it's not about marketing or selling books, it's a chance to meet up with friends, meet people I've only interacted with online, and for me, at least, get charged up and inspired to go home and write up a storm. This year, I *really* could have used that (I wasn't able to go this year). Yes. I know. I'm taking a year off. The Muses got the memo; the Plot Bunnies didn't. So while I've had ideas coming out my ears, I've had very little "umph" to sit down and write more than outlines. 

I'm also committed to at least one Pagan event (possibly two, depending on how life pans out--although there's a third I'd like to put on the list of "maybe" because of those personal projects I took the year off to work on, which got quickly supplanted by the house, project, but are still kicking around--but that third one has more to do with meeting up with a very good friend who's on the planning committee and will be there, so even there, these things seem to be more about making connections than selling stuff!)

Which brings us back to the topic of just how useful are those other events, RT, GRL, Rainbow Book Fairs, etc.  Honest answer is that I'm not sure. If I can get a few other authors to join me for the Rainbow Book Fair in New York, I might consider getting a table because I have a friend who lives in NYC and it's a great excuse to visit her. We sold a ton of books at Media*West in Lansing, MI, two years ago and that's close to home and seems worth the investment (partially because it's in my comfort zone of how things work--i.e., I paid for my membership and table, and got to sit on whatever panels they had room to put me on without paying extra for the privilege). 

I really, really would like to get to GRL just once--or maybe Rainbow Con, which I had to pull out of last year due to finances. GRL and Rainbow are the only conferences which cater specifically to LGBT romance (and GRL specifically to M/M). Of course there's also OutlantCon and GayLaxicon--not romance, but definitely LGBT. Or now that my kid is old enough to go with me, YaioCon might be fun...but probably out of my price range (it's on the West Coast; the travel expenses would kill). 

But there's another expense to consider as well. Swag

When I look at the amount of money my friends and colleagues put into promotional materials for GRL and Rainbow Con and RT and the rest, it's kinda scary. (There was a great post-GRL or maybe Rainbow Con blog by someone else about promo materials; the conclusion wasn't anything I didn't know already: Paper gets pitched; people keep things like lip balm and--sometimes--pens and other useful items--items that cost quite a bit to produce. Pens can cost a dollar or more a piece; lip balm and hand sanitizer is a bit less, totes and T-shirts can run considerably more unless you find better deals than I ever have. By my accounting, someone could easily spend several hundred dollars per convention to produce the kind of swag that doesn't automatically end up in the trash--or hundred dollars or so in stuff that's almost guaranteed to end up in the bin, probably on the way out of the dealer's room). 

At what point does any of this ever begin to pay off? 

So maybe it's wiser for someone at this point in my career to stick to local conferences or "craft" conferences (that is conferences that focus on the craft of becoming a better writer, like what the Detroit Working Writers put on--conferences like the Dreamspinner author's workshop where we authors aren't expected to bring anything but pen and paper to take notes). 

Questions, questions, questions..... 

Please feel free to comment below, I'd love to hear your thoughts. 

(And as you can see, I'm slowly coming out of winter's hole and promise to get a newsletter out soon!)

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