So it seems to be the time of year for discussing the relevance and/or purpose and/or importance of authors attending conventions.
There is this article from Sunny Moraine on the melancholy of non-con attendance. There’s this from Kameron Hurley, which opens with its own kind of sadness but ends with an urging, from the perspective of earned regard, to include those who aren’t already A Part Of in the convention experience. There’s the one from Chuck Wendig, which acknowledges a writer’s career isn’t dependent on cons but also goes on to name big professional reasons you better go anyway. There’s the cost breakdown from Marko Kloos, which makes the entirely relevant and under-discussed point that cons cost actual money that many folks simply don’t have.* And then there’s Harry Connolly’s take on convention attendance, which weighs the potential/implied/presumed social connections against the personal costs of convention attendance.
Also out there are numerous exchanges between newer pros and neo-pros who are, to varying degrees, afraid their inability to attend the same conventions as Big Name Authors and Editors will permanently and irrevocably damage their ability to thrive in traditional publishing because they’re not connecting properly. Alongside those conversations—parallel, rather than intersecting—is discussion of highly successful self-publishing writers who are, after achieving wide reader acceptance and earning solid money, considering attending conventions in order to see if there’s an advantage to it.
So let me tell you my little convention conclusions, from the perspective of someone who once wanted a trad-publishing contract and opted to quit, who came back to novel writing only because self-publishing was an option, and who has watched aspiring writers hunt down and dig up any scrap of helpful information for about twenty years.
“I met editors and agents and pro writers at conventions. Two years later, I signed a three-book deal. A dozen other writers I’ve met made similar connections and also signed contracts. Yes, the writing matters above all else, but it’s connections that lift you out of the slush.”
That’s a generic version, a mash-up, of advice I’ve heard on the topic over the years. Man, I took that as gold once upon a time. I’d go to some cons and meet new people! I’d talk to editors and agents! I’d get straight-from-the source information, and I’d put it to use, and I’d finally move from the form rejections to the personal connections! All I had to do was lay out more money in a year than I’d ever hope to make on an advance in the same time period. Because that’s how it was done.**
And you know what? I did meet some amazing people—some of whom have since found success, and a few who don’t at all remember the woman who, once or twice, hung out with them ten or twelve years ago. I also met a very small number of pros who were rude. Not socially awkward, but rude.
And I once spent an hour or so with a major editor who talked me through all sorts of industry and craft know-how. Yes, it was extremely flattering! Some months later, that same editor yelled at me about politics in a bar during another convention. And years later at yet another convention, he delivered a verbal rejection of a requested manuscript at a party, surrounded by other writers, and left me standing alone in their midst to both absorb the rejection and the embarrassment.
So… that’s what conventions did for me professionally, when I was attending them for professional purposes. In fact, that’s an uncomfortable variation of what conventions do for many writers who attend believing them to be professional stepping stones. It doesn’t matter that five writers who attend conventions over the span of three years later land contracts if a thousand writers who also attended did not. Believing otherwise is, as Connolly mentions, survivorship bias.
It’s why studying only those who succeed makes it exceedingly difficult for you to succeed. You’ll end up doing all sorts of things successful people did—and those will mostly be things that had nothing to do with their actual success.
Writing every day, writing only on the weekends, attending a workshop, working with a critique group, writing in total solitude, spending ten years perfecting a single novel, dashing off a first draft in three weeks, writing what you know, bullshitting through every chapter, worldbuilding with a binder-ful of charts, creating a secondary world by the seat of your pants, having a well-employed spouse, having a spouse who’ll take care of all domestic responsibilities, having no relationships, having no children, writing while breastfeeding an infant…
These are all things many successful writers have done. These are all things many successful writers will tell you are personal decisions best made with an understanding of your own process.
Such it is with conventions.
These days, I adore conventions. They became really enjoyable when I ceased to consider them activities required to achieve professionalism via relationships with industry folks and instead saw them as opportunities to learn alongside folks I like. Where once I looked at guest lists to choose conventions based on who I’d like to meet for professional purposes, I now choose conventions based on where I can meet up with folks I know. No elevator pitch at the ready (in fact, is that even still A Thing?), no practiced self-introduction, zippo. I enjoy the convention atmosphere, give my best on panels I’m asked to participate in, immerse in awesome conversations of craft after hours, and look forward to meeting new like-minded folks.
That’s not to say I’ve never gained a little while at a convention. MileHiCon resulted in, among other things, an invitation to be interviewed for a podcast. On the other hand, that came about via an introduction from someone I’d spoken with online, and that online introduction happened via another online connection. The podcast invite came about at the con, not because of the con.
And the number of professionally-positive happenings at conventions are dwarfed by the number that have and continue to come about due to online relationships. Come to think of it, nearly every person I’ve met at a convention is a person I’ve first met, in one way or another, online.
But convention attendance isn’t required to reach readers who will value your work enough to pay you for it. That’s not to say there isn’t an agent or editor out there who will give preference in some way to a writer whose convention chit-chat was enjoyable, I suppose. But again, the chance of being the one person among the hundreds (thousands?) of writers that editor might meet isn’t likely to be worth the hundreds (thousands!) of dollars spent trying to be in that editor’s orbit long enough to make an impression.
And in the end, there is but one thing—just one!—that all writers who either land a trad-pub contract and/or build their own readership through self-publishing did consistently.
They all kept writing stories and offering them to others until someone (in trad pub) or many someones (in self-pub) liked them enough to pay for them.
So if you want to go to cons, by all means, do so! Maybe we can meet up and have a good time! But if you can’t for reasons of money or work or family or health or preference or whatever, don’t worry about it! Plenty of writers land contracts without convention-connections. Plenty or writers connect with their readers through more consistent, readily-available, and cost-effective means. And many writers have just fabulous sales without a single book-hawking or book-signing event at a convention.
We, my darlings, have options.
And while I understand, deeply and truly, what a bummer it is to miss attending conventions (after all, I miss most of them!), I don’t want anyone feeling less-than-a-writer for the miss. I like y’all too much for that. :)
*This fact does make more amusing the assertion I saw a couple years ago that self-publishing was only an option for the privileged and well-off few who could afford to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on editing, cover art, printing, and storage.
**Perchance that’s the reason I was never particularly swayed by the anti-self-pub hand-wringing over the expenses of self-publishing. I don’t know what other aspiring writers and neo-pros heard over the last couple decades, but the advice given to me included familiar phrases like “don’t quit your day job,” and “expect to spend your whole advance doing your own publicity.”