Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Are conferences worth the money & time?

Sandra Parshall

A popular mystery writer once said that her agent told her she could either be a “conference slut” or she could pick one or two conferences to attend each year and spend the rest of her time at home, writing. She chose the second course, and it certainly hasn’t hurt her career.

I remember her words when I see a newly published writer struggling to attend as many conferences as possible and still get the next book written.

As I wrote last week, mystery conferences are fun, and they give us a chance to see friends and take a break from the isolation of writing. But the number being offered is staggering. Some are strictly for fans, with published authors trying to be entertaining enough in their panel performances to send the audience first to the book room, then to the signing line. Others are aimed at aspiring writers who want to learn from published writers – and again, the authors participate in the hope of selling some books and making themselves better known.

In virtually every case, writers have to pay their own way. A lot of mystery writers out there, especially first-time authors, are spending their entire advances and much more on travel and conference fees. It seems to make sense – after all, if you don’t get a rave review in the New York Times and your publisher won’t buy big splashy ads for your book, you have to get the word out somehow, don’t you?

But does it benefit the average writer’s career if she turns up at half a dozen or more conferences every year? Will she sell many books at those conferences, or will she always sit at her signing table, twirling a seldom-used pen and watching the bestselling author across the room autograph tall stacks of books? I don’t know the answers, not even for myself, since Malice Domestic and Bouchercon are pretty much it for me.

I’d like to hear from other writers – and fans – about this.

If you’re a writer, how have you chosen the conferences you attend? Do you think those appearances have given your career a boost? Do conferences take you away from your writing?

If you’re a fan, do you feel as if you see too many of the same writers year after year, or do you look forward to seeing familiar faces? Have you discovered any new-to-you writers at these events?

For both writers and fans: Which conferences are on your must-go lists, and why?


Vicki Lane said...

Hi, Sandy, I've been pondering this question myself. So far, Malice and Bcon have been must-attends for me (though I skipped Bcon last year because of the costs involved and the sky didn't fall.) But as travel grows more and more expensive, I suspect that I'll pay even closer attention to the bottom line (not to mention the carbon footprint.)

It's always a joy to connect with readers and other writers. But I personally need lots of time at home to produce that next book.

Vivian Zabel said...

Sandy,due to physical limitations and the cost of traveling now-a-days, I attend maybe two or three conferences and/or book festivals a year. One I attend each year because it is close to home, has excellent speakers, and is less expensive than most even though it offers more than most.

I use email groups to make connections and to share information between conferences.


Anonymous said...

As a fan, I have found mystery conferences to be addictive. My first conference was Bouchercon in 1998. I felt as if I'd died and gone to heaven as I met some of my very favorite authors. I usually attend three or four conferences a year. Bouchercon..every year since '98 and Malice and Mayhem every year since 2000, and most years I also attend LCC. It's a huge expense (especially adding my book purchases and shipping them home), but those are my vacations. And also a chance to talk with friends..both other fans and writers. I'd have a lot more money if I didn't go to conferences, but my life wouldn't be as much fun.
For me, attending those conferences is almost like "coming home" and being surrounded by "my" people who love the same genre I do and with the same passion. Heck, I know I can't take my money with me, but I can savor the memories and the fun of these conferences.

Michael Haskins said...

I have attended SleuthFest in S. Fla. for a few years and found the networking well worth the price. Of course, I live in Key West, so the travel costs are down compared to flying (well, maybe not now with gas prices). My first novel has just been published and this year's event I made it onto a panel, which was interesting and was a little more "accepted" by other published writers. Two other S. Fla writers and I are talking about doing signings together next year in Florida and California and end up at a conference in Hawaii. Will it sell books? Short run, probably not enough to match my costs, but it will get me noticed and maybe my next book will do even better. I wouldn't let conferecne attending cut into my writing time, I agree with you there!

Sandra Parshall said...

Someone complained online last week that some of the authors she expected to see at Malice weren't there, so the conference was a disappointment. I have to admit that kind of statement makes me nervous, since I don't attend a lot of conferences.

Every spring, some writers go from Malice to the mystery festival in Oakmont, PA, then to NY for the Edgars events -- a week or more spent traveling. I've done Malice and Oakmont back to back and I was exhausted. Add Edgar Week and I'd keel over dead!

Sandra Parshall said...

Congratulations on your novel's publication, Michael! Welcome to the club.

Karen said...

Hi sandy,

Conferences are energizing, but they're also expensive. I try for 2a year and pretty much keep to local or regional ones. In fact I met my nonfiction agent at a very small local conference and it was a great investment. Still looking for a fiction agent, however!


Terry Odell said...

As an author with two small presses, I find the face-to-face opportunities at conferences invaluable. When possible, I try to do a workshop, sit on a panel, and participate in book signings, since it's still very hard to walk into a bookstore and see my books on the shelves. Having to request the book at the Customer Service desk is one step too many for a lot of people.

For the most part, I try to hit local ones, but I try to budget for at least one 'biggie'. This year, I was at SleuthFest for mystery networking, and at Southern Lights in Jacksonville for romance. Both are within driving distance, which keeps costs down. But I also went to Pikes Peak Writers Conference, which was a general conference. OK, I confess I have family, including a new grandson in the area, so the idea of a tax-deductible plane ticket was very appealing. And I'll go to RWA Nationals this summer.

Bill Cameron said...

As a writer, I think you have to treat them as pure, existential pleasure. It's so hard, perhaps even impossible, to quantify the promotional value of anything we do, but certainly few writers can make a clear case that the cost of conferences is offset by the promotional value gained from them. They're just sooooo expensive.

That doesn't mean they aren't valuable. I love 'em. For practical reasons, I'm probably down to a maximum of two per year for the foreseeable future, but I would go to more if I could just because it's so fun to hang with the tribe. I go as much as a reader than as a writer, if not more so. I go to talk to the writers whose work I love, to discover new writers, and if I happen to gain some readers for my own stuff as well, wonderful.

Certainly they help you to take the pulse of the community as well, but there are all kinds of ways to do that which are far less costly.

So I say go to as many as you will enjoy and can afford. But don't go out of a sense of obligation or a belief they are make-or-break career-wise.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Sandy, I think every conference is worth going to - but it's hard to predict in which ways. You're not going to sell enough books to justify the expense, but that's not the point. Attending genre conferences puts your name out to the genre communities, attending library conferences puts your name and work out there to librarians, you'll pick up a lot of signing invitations and reviews by going - all truly valuable aspects of building a career.

I've learned to make my conferences do double duty - for example, I always rent a car and do up to a dozen bookstore drivebys while I'm in a new town for a conference - that way I feel like I'm opening up a new market for myself. And these days I'm saying yes mostly to the events that offer to pay at least expenses - BUT - I wouldn't be being offered those if I hadn't been actively on the conference circuit for my debut year.

In other words, you have to make the conferences work for you.

Anonymous said...

If this isn't too personal a question do those of you who attend more than one conference a year mind sharing how you handle the cost? Do you consider these your vacation? Do you budget a certain amount of your writing income for this type of thing or do you subsidize it some other way?

Ilana said...

Thanks for bringing up the topic. As a writer who just finished her first WIP (just about to query). I've found myself wondering the same things.

Also, would you advise new authors seeking to publish to attend as well? Is there anything special we should do while there?

Terry Odell said...

Another excellent benefit to conferences is the agent-editor appointment, if offered.

This is a fantastic chance to meet these folks in person instead of sweating the "perfect" query letter.

In my experience, they'll almost always be willing to ask for pages, so you get to skip that first step.

And don't forget -- expenses are tax-deductible.

Neil Plakcy said...

I agree with those who've considered conferences like vacations. My partner doesn't like to travel and I do-- so going someplace where I'll be among lots of friends and those of similar mindset is very appealing.

As an author, I also want to get out and network with other writers, and meet all kinds of mystery fans. Getting your name in the program and perhaps being quoted on a blog or two is good publicity.

I am fortunate that the college where I work sends faculty members to one professional conference a year-- so I've been to Sleuthfest, Bouchercon, Saints & Sinners, and Left Coast Crime on their nickel. Since I go to two or three a year, I'm glad to save money when I can.

For published authors looking for fans, I think the best cons are Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, and Left Coast Crime, simply because they're the largest.

Sandra Parshall said...

We have to distinguish between fan conferences, which are showcases for published writers, and workshop-type conferences, where published writers teach aspiring writers and, in many cases, editors and agents are on hand for appointments with the unpublished attendees. I never went to one of the latter, but I know a lot of people who have been helped enormously by them.

As for fan conferences, I think new writers should try to attend at least a couple the first year they're published, because it really does raise your profile. But don't be the girl (or guy) who can't say no -- don't end up doing so much promotion, and traveling so often, that you have no time, energy, or concentration to write.

After you've made a name, however small, for yourself, you have to think about the way you work, and the amount of uninterrupted time you need to produce a new book, and don't do anything that will interfere with your writing.

Sheila Connolly said...

Yes and no. I think whether a conference is valuable to you depends on where you are in your career arc and how you feel about crowds (friends or strangers).

Those of us starting out welcome the chance to put faces to names, and to accept compliments from people who have finally, actually read our work (so far nobody has come up and told me how much I got wrong--anybody else have an experience with that?). I can see that it could get old eventually. But for many of us writers, we don't have a lot of opportunities to get together face to face, so it's nice to meet under "party" conditions.

But some people hate to travel, and hate to stay in strange places, and hate to walk into a room full of strangers and make nice, and for them the whole thing might be too big a drain to be worth it. Their time would be better spent writing, and promoting on-line from the comfort of their home.

My agent and editor concur that only a couple of the bigger conferences are important (Malice, Boucheron, maybe Sleuthfest). You can sprinkle in smaller, regional conferences that meet your comfort level and budget (and I don't want to open my next Visa bill!).

Chris Roerden said...

These days I attend the cons where I know I'll get to do a workshop or be on a panel. Not until 2-3 years ago when I began attending Malice, Bouchercon, and Sleuthfest did I ever have to pay registration for the privilege of presenting! It was a shock, because for the past 30 years I'd been presenting at cons for publishers and regional cons for writers, which always provided at least 3 often 4 perks out of the 5: meals, accommodations, mileage, registration, and honoraria.

After 2 years at Malice, I decided I'd go every other year because of cost (primarily hotel), though of course I missed not seeing the friends and colleagues who attend each year. Instead I accepted an invitation for the same weekend to a small regional writers con (not mystery). I paid only for my mileage and was treated like royalty--even given my own 2-bedroom modernized cabin and allowed to spend an extra night there to simply relax. It's unfortunate that the big mystery events are held where hotels are so pricey, but I guess that's the tradeoff.

Vivian Zabel said...

Visa bill? Oh, no! Well, I have a month to prepare.

Do I think attending a conference is worth the cost and loss of writing time? One I attended this past fall wasn't, but the book festival and conference held the past three weeks were. It all depends, but what's sad, is one doesn't always know until the money and time have been spent.

Patricia said...

Hi, Sandy

I highly recommend the annual mystery writers conference sponsored by Book Passage bookstore in Northern California (Marin County, across the bay from San Francisco). It's a wonderful mix of panels and workshops, a cozy, collegial atmosphere with some of the top mystery writers in the U.S., as well as agents/editors, and forensics folks. Many up and coming mystery writers like Cornelia Read and Sheldon Siegel are alumni and now faculty. I've been nine times and always make new contacts and pick up tips.

It's pricey, but the intimacy and face time with well-known writers et all make it worth the price.

I also consider it a mini-vacation, an opportunity to think about what I'm writing and writing in general without having to consider what to serve for dinner or if the dog needs another walk.

Cheers, Pat

Michelle Gagnon said...

I only started to go to conferences in the past year, but since then have attended a half dozen, and it's been quite a learning experience. I agree with Bill and Alex, I think it can make a tremendous difference in getting your name out there and there's always a lot of fun to be had consorting with the tribe. I wish I'd gone to more when I was trying to get published, I think Thrillerfest in particular (where this year over 35 agents will be hearing pitches) can really expedite things (and as a debut author at thrillerfest last summer, my books sold out on Day 1, which was fantastic!) But I have been disappointed by some of the smaller regional conferences, I felt that as a non-local it was much harder to get on panels. I second the recommendation for the Book Passage conference, which is where I first met Tim Maleeny and Cornelia Read when we were all in the early stages of our manuscripts. It's really a nice one, with a lot of one on one time with authors and other industry professionals.

©Hotbutton Press said...

I hate hotels and conferences, so I go to the closest one to home that has a theme I desperately need in order to proceed with my writing at that point in time; and I make myself go to one at least every three years if someone remembers to put a gun to my head. LOL. Too much of that in the previous career, I guess.

I must admit a good writers conference is the best place to pitch a book to agents and editors. In fact, that's the only really fun part of a conference to me. You'll meet some very, very nice folks that way, most of them smart, personable, and more than willing to help.

Gosh, I sound like an old fuddy-duddy, don't I? Har! Mich will have to party for me.