I wrote a very earnest post about my feelings about conventions, in the vein of my last Publishing Journey post about social media and community, and then I realised I couldn’t post it, because I haven’t actually worked out my feelings about conventions. So the post had that scattered, evasive quality writing has when you either don’t know how you feel about a subject or don’t want to say it.
So here are a few rather simpler thoughts about conventions, as bulletpoints. They are about science fiction and fantasy conventions because those are what I know, but some of the thoughts probably also apply to literary/publishing events/meetups in general. Buttonhole me at a con some time if you’d like to hear the more complicated version — that comes in paragraphs!
- SFF writers tend to think conventions matter in terms of meeting editors, agents, other writers and potential readers. But they probably matter less than you might think. You’re not going to reach that many readers at a convention, and nowadays it is perfectly possible to get an agent and sell a book to a publisher without meeting them in person, much less showing your face at a con. In fact, that’s probably how most people do it.
- That said, conventions can be fun if you are a nerd who likes to be around fellow nerds. They are a nice way to feel part of the community. (SFF is a community, or rather a group of overlapping communities, as well as an industry. These communities are not perfect, but there are benefits to participating in them actively — some of them emotional, some of them professional.)
- A great upside to conventions is getting to meet people you have only known via the Internet. People are often even better in real life than on the Internet. It’s like how most people aren’t nearly as horrible trolls in real life as they might be in the comments of a Guardian article. In the vast majority of cases, if you meet someone who seems brilliant and nice and funny online, they are generally like that in real life, only even more so.
- A great downside to conventions is often also that you meet people, in kind of a weird pressurised environment where your personal/social decisions can have professional implications.
- You can do as much or as little con-going as you like. You might like it better than you think, so I’d recommend trying a couple of different ones on for size if you think you might like it or it might help your career, and you can afford it and there are some decent-sounding ones near you. For example, I actually really like doing panels and am pretty good at them. This is something I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t tried it out at a smallish con where I knew I’d have a couple of friends in the audience looking encouraging.
- The reason I suggest trying a couple of different conventions is that convention experiences will really vary depending on the convention, because each convention has a culture of its own.
- Conventions are confusing because they are a combo of: networking event; conference; gossip at a bar with publishing professionals; slumber party with your Internet friends; opportunity to cosplay; shopping trip. I find it helps to choose just a couple of these functions and prioritise them when you go to a convention, ‘cos then you can make decisions that will help maximise what you most want out of it.
- I once found myself part of a group of people at a con exchanging name cards. I was the only one who didn’t have any, and I got jokingly told off for coming to a networking event without any name cards. I said: “Well, I thought I’d just come along and if I was awesome enough on my panels, people would buy my book and google me if they want to get in touch.” This probably sounded arrogant/flippant, but I don’t think it was a bad way of approaching it. (My book did actually sell out in the dealers’ room. The trick is to bring a very small number of books!)
- But if you do have name cards, that saves on having to scrabble for pen and paper and write out email addresses when you want to keep in touch with someone.
- Things I do to ensure I will enjoy a convention (and I never go to a convention unless I think I will enjoy myself — life is too short):
- Make sure I have friends who are going. A few are better than just one, because then you don’t have to stick like a limpet to the one and annoy them by following them around all the time.
- Schedule in time for naps. There is nothing so luxurious as trotting back to your hotel room in the middle of the day and getting into your pyjamas while everyone else is trying to decide which of three panels they want to go to and battling huge queues for a celebrity autograph. The smugness is unbelievable. It will roll off you in sweet-scented, well-rested waves later when you rejoin your friends for dinner or late-night panels. Try it!
- Volunteer to be on a few panels, but not too many. This is because I like doing panels, but I also really like naps and hanging out in the hotel lobby chatting to my friends.
- Sometimes conventions do actually help your career in concrete ways. You feel less awkward emailing a well-known blogger asking if they’d like to review your book or host a giveaway when you’ve met them in person and had an excited conversation about your Pacific Rim feels.
- My story about this is that while I was still working on Sorcerer to the Crown, I went to a convention and did a few panels, after which an editor at a major SFF imprint pulled me aside and told me, “Send me your book!” This was hugely encouraging at a time when I was working through a challenging revision, and I see this type of emotional boost as a concrete career advantage in itself. I was going to say, “when it comes to writing” — but it’s probably true of all careers, actually. You need to be willing to fail to have a chance at success, but to be prepared to face failure in itself takes confidence. (So if that editor is reading this: thank you! <3)
Ha! you say. What happened after that? Well, as they say in Dream of Red Chamber, turn to the next chapter to find out.
Previous Publishing Journey posts
Mission statement: Ten things I believe about writing
Breaking through writer’s block, or, how I started writing and publishing short stories
How I published a short story collection
Writing with a day job, part 1: Why I don’t write full-time
Writing with a day job, part 2: Work/work balance
Networking, part 1: Social media and connection