Thursday, May 31, 2018

CON CHOICE: On Picking Events and Building Great Genre Experiences

By Damon Suede, @DamonSuede

Part of the Indie Author Series

Thank you as always to Janice for letting me chat with y’all about the challenges of promo and genre authorship. Today, she suggested we take a look at event selection: how to choose the venues best for your work and how to maximize your conference budget.

When I talk about cons I refer to conventions, conferences, and any large gathering of genre folk focused as a community on the books they love and we write.

Now, because I'm an obstreperous creature I'm going to state a few heretical beliefs that just keep right on saving my bacon in this crazy thing we call genre fiction. Some of this may fly in the face of things you've assumed or heard about author events. I make no claims as to provenance or wisdom, but these harsh truisms spring from over 30 years earning my crust in professional entertainment and the wild, wicked world of genre gatherings.

Heresy number 1: Con folks are not your average reader.

Whether you are a rank beginner or a grizzled pro the readers you encounter at a convention are not simply a cross-section of your audience. Each convention attracts its own breed of reader.

I think this myth probably springs from traditional publishing. The fairytale goes something like this… Writers are introverts who only face their readers rarely. Cons give everyone in the genre fiction jungle a chance to interface with each other in a friendly, funky environment that's book friendly and market positive.

The truth is, the cost of attending a convention means that most of your time will be spent with people who are hard-core about their genre.
Yes, locals attend at a much lower cost. Yes, some super fans do budget their entire year around that weekend. But a con is an odd, delicious, rarefied Shangri-La and you would be wise to treat it as the mystical netherworld it is.

This is why every year I try to introduce one new event in an untapped market just to keep things fresh and forceful. It's all too easy for us to settle for comfy routine until our ruts become our graves. Don't be afraid to let go of events if you outgrow them and also don't be afraid to help up and comers looking to shake the snow globe for your genre. Like all things in the arts, it's a balancing act and you're the rope.

Heresy number 2: Cons are not where you sell books.

Baby authors will often inform leery conference organizers that they plan to pay all their expenses for attending an event via the heaps of books they will sell at the big signing on Saturday... as in, "Just give me a table and a velvet rope and my fortune is made." Yeah, no. Not only is that not what genre events are designed to do, it flatly ignores basic mathematics, geography, and human behavior. Depending on the kinds of fans your work attracts, you may sell a bunch of books and the money involved can get serious, but relying on hand sales to generate the 2 to 3 grand it cost to attend a conference is lunacy.

Just to put that in perspective: the average number of books sold at RT's big signing on Saturday is 0-1...that is to say, most authors who attend that massive signing sell no copies at all. And of course those are the precise people who believe they're going to magically generate a couple grand by sitting on their butts behind a folding table for a couple hours.

At best, conferences represent a unique opportunity for market research on the fly. What cons offer is INFORMATION…direct, personal contact with the kinds of mavens and influencers who love to spread the good word on your behalf if you can inspire them. No place else can a genre author get live, raw feedback from their colleagues and fans so immediately and directly. That has huge value for all your promotional efforts, and can even help you make decisions about the kinds of projects you plan.

Moreover, because of the way social media and online culture operates, a con’s events, parties, anecdotes, and shenanigans can generate a seductive shimmer around your work and the people who celebrate it. Pictures I posed for three years ago continue to generate clicks and sell copies. Networking and interaction on the ground will help you find new readers and like-minded colleagues. Parties and panels allow you to anchor your reputation as a generous, positive, supportive presence in your community.

That's priceless.

Heresy number 3: No con is right for every author.

Some authors collapse in large groups. Some authors excel at limelight and shenanigans. Some venues favor tête-à-têtes while others seem skewed toward giant teaming faceless hordes. Some organizers have a knack for canny programming, others can barely populate a panel. The critical thing when choosing to attend an event is to make certain you know what your goals are for that event and that the event actually supports those goals.

When you're considering a con, do your homework.
  • Who are the organizers? What are their history, experience, professionalism, and credible associates?
  • Which of your colleagues are already attending? Even the first year of a conference the names and nature of the attendees signals what you can expect.
  • What's the focus of the event? Is it purely professional? Strictly fan service? Some loving hybrid? Look at the scheduling so you know what to expect.
  • What is the venue? Consider ease of access, facility, appearance, reputation, reviews, local appeal and the like.
  • When are things happening? Always give yourself double the time to plan and allow for contingencies. Last minute is always expensive and too late.
  • Have you heard any verifiable negatives? Writers gossip and not always truthfully, but if you get a bad vibe or hear enough dish, steer clear for your own sanity.
  • What does this event provide that no other can? Make sure there something special about it so that you, your colleagues, and your fans have ample reasons to attend.
Ask hard questions up front to save yourself hard lessons on the back end. Protect your own sanity and solvency.

One lesson it's taken me forever to learn, "No, thank you" is a complete sentence. You cannot attend every event no matter how glamorous or flattering. You have books to write and these things require a significant investment of time, energy, and resources.

Learn to analyze the return on investment at the end of each year when you're doing your taxes to make sure you receive commensurate reward for all that outlay.
Ditch the events that cost too much of whatever resource. Respect your time, your audience, and your career by only saying yes to the things you love that make a difference.

Heresy number 4: With any con, you only reap what you sow.

When I have lines or sell massive piles of books at those big signings, it's because I spent an entire week working the con like a one-legged sprinter. I show up and give my full attention to the people who expect it. That's my job. I'm not a tourist or a bystander. I don't take days off or stand around griping about other people. I take sanity breaks and a multivitamin to keep myself healthy, happy, and hopeful. I check in with my A-gang every day because I rely on them as much as they rely on me. I volunteer whenever it's possible and if I spot a problem I either solve it or find a way to bring it to the organizers attention gently. When organizers include me they know I give great con, because I understand their job as well.

If you show up at an event expecting to ride anyone else’s coattails or harvest someone else’s work you will end up fertilizer for more diligent souls. There are no magic bullets, no shortcuts, no secret passwords. The way you succeed is by working like hell so that you can exploit opportunities when they present themselves. Sometimes those come at cons, sometimes they come months later as a result of a chance meeting or lucky break.

The sad truth is that most people pretend that a con is either a moneymaker, a surefire shortcut to fame and acclaim, or a magic bullet that can transform the trajectory of their career. Nope.

The fact is, I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all anything, especially when it comes to a creative career and the business we call show. No two authors, books, careers, or conference experiences are the same. Every attempt to homogenize and generalize will inevitably elide critical truths and traps particular to you.

Here's the deal: every con is actually many small gatherings lashed together under one giant tent...a thousand ring circus. Whatever experience you have at the con is the experience you created for yourself, your colleagues, and your fans. Harsh truth: if it sucks, that's on you.

This is precisely why ask the hard questions before I go and this is why I'm always happy to strike a unprofessional, moribund, or sloppy events from my calendar. When I say I love a con it's because I know the con gives me all the raw materials I need to create a great experience for my people.

Create the cons you want to attend so your readers can find you exactly when they ought.

Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year.

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About Verbalize

Verbalize: bring stories to life & life to stories

Fascinating fiction starts with characters who make readers care. This Live Wire Writer Guide presents a simple, effective technique to sharpen your hook, charge your scenes, and amplify your voice whether you’re a beginner or an expert.
  • Most writing manuals skirt craft questions with gimmicks and quick fixes rather than plugging directly into your story’s power source. Energize your fiction and boost your career with
  • a new characterization method that jumpstarts drafting, crafting, revision, and pitching.
  • skill-builders to intensify language, stakes, and emotion for your readers.
  • battle-tested solutions for common traps, crutches, and habits.
  • a dynamic story-planning strategy effective for plotters and pantsers.
  • ample examples and exercises to help you upgrade fiction in any genre.
Blast past overused tics and types with storycraft that busts your ruts and awes your audience. Whether you like to wing it or bring it, Verbalize offers a fresh set of user-friendly, language-based tools to populate your pages and lay the foundations of unforgettable genre fiction.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound |

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