Of course writers spend a terrific amount of time by themselves. There’s really no other way to write a book. But from time to time every year, we’re faced with the dilemma: do we actually go to a convention? Someone told me once that writers’ conventions are where they take 2000 people who would rather be by themselves and make them talk to each other. Frankly, I’m not quite sure that’s funny.
It’s kinda true.
But going to a writer’s convention or a book convention or reader’s convention can change your life. You never know who you might meet, or what you might learn, or who might make a difference. Each convention has its own personality. Some are focused on fans and some are craft-oriented. But there are basics that can guide you no matter where—helping you pick the perfect one, and knowing what to do when you get there.
Research the convention first
Bouchercon, the world mystery convention, takes place in a different city every year. (I am a guest of honor this fall in Dallas.) It’s huge, thousands of people, and chaotically wonderful. There are panels, and signings, and free books, and lots of writers and readers. Are you hoping to sell a lot of books on site? Unless you’re a superstar, it’s not the place for you. Are you hoping to see everybody whose photos you’ve seen on book covers? Then Bouchercon is perfect. Are you eager to network? Then Bouchercon is the place.
Thrillerfest, in the heart of New York and fast-paced and craft-centric, is bustling and exciting. If you only care about cozy mysteries, this is probably not the first choice for you. If you write thrillers, it’s absolutely fabulous.
Malice Domestic targets traditional mystery. Smaller, and lovely, and glorious for writers and readers alike. The Agatha Awards are given here.
Crimebake and Left Coast Crime. Sleuthfest and Magna. And so many more: regional and terrific—with a much more low-key atmosphere, and much more time to spend with individual authors and fans. Go to their websites, see how they feel. Clue: look at photos from past events.
And those are just the crime fiction conventions!
Writers Digest, Romance Writers of America, Horror Writers, ALA, PLA, BEA, AWP—research your genre and see where your colleagues gather. Some conventions are focused on pitching, some about craft, some focused on self-publishing, or young adult, or historicals—and some are focused on fans.
Point is: If you’re going to spend all that money on travel and registration and hotel (and it can be expensive!), know where you’re going.
And book your flights and hotel rooms as soon as you can. Hotel blocks often sell out, and you do not want to miss the lower price or be forced to stay in a non-convention hotel.
On arrival: Instantly register
After you get your room, going to the conference registration desk right away will give you that all-important name tag. Wear it! It will also give you a convention bag of loot. Go upstairs to your room, dump out that bag, and find the convention program. Take five minutes and flip through the pages, check the panels you’d like to attend, and circle them. Then look through the author bios and see where your favorites are appearing and when. If you take this 10 minutes to organize, it will change your convention life.
Do not overpack
When I was a teenager, and worrying about what to wear, my mother would say to me: Honey, no one will remember what you’re wearing!
She was right. Unless you dress like a slob.
Good convention address advice? Dress like the person you want to be. Career authors dress their brand. You’ll be on the receiving end of lots of first impressions, so how do you want to present yourself? You will see people in grubby-not-cool jeans, and ratty T-shirts. What do you think when you see them? Business casual (difficult to do but necessary) is probably best if you are in doubt. Some events have glossy banquets, so make sure, before you go, if there is such a thing.
One suitcase should do it. Seriously. But there is always room for a phone charger.
Your gorgeous stilettos may look lovely at a cocktail party, or sitting down, but remember you will be walking around through long hotel aisles and convention floors for hours and hours. And hours. Uncomfortable shoes will make you miserable.
Don’t be shy
Every single person at that convention is there to connect with people. Whether it’s the lofty and famous authors talking to their fans, or the most eager newbies looking for new readers, or readers eager to meet their favorite writers.
But no one is there to be hounded, or pitched, except for agents, and there is a special time for that. And no one is there to be followed or stalked. Sure, talk to your favorite authors. Tell them you enjoy their books, thank them, and go. If you see someone standing by themself, someone who looks lonely, go up and say hello! You are all in the same convention boat. And the secret is: you can always ask: “Are you a reader or writer or both?” And depending on the answer, then go on. Ask what they’re reading. Or writing. The rest of the conversation will easily take care of itself.
You don’t have to do everything
Convention brain will set in very quickly, where are you forget where you are, and forget what day it is, and say “so happy to see you” to the same person three or four times. Pace yourself! You are not obliged to go to every panel and hear every interview. That’s why planning with your program is so important. And also why convention-goers sometimes block out an hour a day or so to hide in their rooms. Rest rest rest. And your feet will love you for it.
Yes, you will get an astonishing amount of free books at every convention, and wise convention-goers learn to curate their own greed a bit. But booksellers, too, come to these. They’re making a huge effort to be there and offer you their wares. Support them! If career authors don’t buy books at conventions, who will? We are all a community, and it’s imperative that we support each other. Buying books is a great way to do that.
And here’s a secret: almost every convention has a shipping room, where a shipping company will box up your loot and ship it home to you. Whether that’s the good news or the bad news is up to you.
Bring your business card
You will never be able to remember everyone you meet if you don’t ask for their card, and handing someone your card is the easiest way to stay connected. Bookmarks? Well, yeah, if you want. I always bring too many, and swear never to do it again. But they’re a good conversation starter. Remember, though, everyone has them.
(Swag? It’s heavy, it’s expensive, and you know what? Probably does not sell books. If you need to bring your engraved shoehorns or jar openers or cello-packs of candy with your book title, sure. But I bet next time you won’t. )
Keep a stash of food in your bag: a bag of nuts, or granola bars, or something like that. There will be moments when you are starving, and you want to keep your energy up. Eat breakfast. And stay hydrated, too! You’ll be inside for two solid days, possibly, and drinking water will really help.
People drink. They really do. And the bar scene at night is fantastic. Not for the faint of heart! But that’s where a lot of friendships are made, and networking is done. You don’t have to drink alcohol to be welcomed. (And if you, do, beware. No one wants to rue that night at the Hilton.) And as I said. Drink water. ALWAYS take the water.
Go to the hospitality suite, see who’s there, get a cup of tea. Hang out in the lobby, because there’s always a gathering. Go to the coffee shop. Who knows who you might meet over a latte?
Because you are career authors, we don’t have to tell you to respect people‘s privacy. There are always those who push the limits, pitching agents in inappropriate places, or hanging around their favorite authors, or asking people for blurbs. Or (and I have actually seen this) pulling out whole manuscripts from their bags, and handing them to potential agents.
Do not do this.
It is not a good idea. It will never help you. Respect people‘s boundaries. Convention proximity and camaraderie makes these requests so tempting—but don’t push it. You will regret it.
Someone is always newer than you, or timider than you, or shyer than you, or more terrified than you. How can you help them? And don’t forget to have fun.
What convention tips do you have? let’s talk about it on Career Authors Facebook page! And see you in the lobby!