Oct 15, 2015

Thoughts From a First-Time Conference Attendee

While sorting through some files on my computer, I came across an article I wrote 20 years ago after attending my first-ever Bouchercon. I was a newly published author, venturing into the world of other published authors for the first time. I'd never been to any large writer's conference at the time, so the whole thing was a new experience to me. 

In the years since, I've been to several large writer's conferences and even presided over one during my year as President of Romance Writers of America. I've written 30-something books and seen many of them published around the world. I'm pleased to say that most of my observations have stood the test of time. And so, here they are, seeing the light of day for the first time in two decades: 

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Seattle.  This was my first national convention of any kind, and I don't mind admitting the idea of attending this convention of over 1600 authors, agents, editors and fans--of which I knew not one living soul--made me a little nervous. But I'd spent a lot of money on airline tickets and hotel reservations, and I decided not to let it go to waste. 

As I battled my fear of the unknown, I realized that unless I brought something back, the trip would be a waste. So I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath, and acted like a big girl. 

I had a wonderful time. I spent a lot of time watching others, much energy meeting new people, many hours smiling--and even more money. I met Marcia Muller in the Dealers' Room. I met Tony Hillerman in the lobby. I met my agent, my publisher, and several editors from my publishing house. I smiled for pictures, ate too much for dinner, plugged my book and admired the view from various places. 

I met wonderful, exciting new authors who've written wonderful, interesting books. And I started a list. Things I want to remember. Things I'll do differently next time. One or two things I'll do the same. In case you're interested, I'll share my list with you:


Register early enough to get a room at the conference hotel.

Always Wear Your Name Tag

Use Your Pseudonym. That's the name you want people to remember. 

Writers who have achieved true success don't talk about how well-liked they are or how talented they are or how well-liked their books are.

Many writers who haven't, achieved real success do talk about those things--a lot..
Even million-sellers are insecure about their work.

Many authors refuse to show their work to anyone except a spouse or significant other. (At the time, I thought it was because they were afraid someone would tell them their plotting or characterization was weak. That might be the case with some authors, but having gone through several different seasons in my own work, it may also just be that they are in a place with their career where they need to pull back and keep their work to themselves.

Editors are anxious to find good books. 

Nobody can clearly define what a "good book" is. 

Published authors don't attend many workshop sessions. 

Work the Dealers' Room. (Or whatever they call the bookseller area of your conference. Meet the people who will be selling your books.

Be on a panel (or give a workshop. Like anything else in life, ultimately you'll get out of the experience just what you put in.)

Go to everything your publisher sponsors--they'll usually notice if you're not there.

Don't believe anyone who tries to convince you otherwise.

Don't tell editors how nice it is to discover they're "real people". They don't seem to like this much. 

Read everything your publisher puts out in your line.

Make friends with writers who are at the same stage of their career as you are. (Don't try to crash the "big kid" table. Just like school, if you stick with it, one day you and your colleagues will be the big kids.)

Don't be shy. (Yes, I know that most of us are introverts and it's often painful to act extroverted, but being a wallflower won't accomplish anything. Show an interest in other people. Don't waste so much time thinking about yourself. It's not all about you.

Don't be pushy. (It's still not all about you.)

Invest time and effort in your career.  Arrange signings, attend conferences, accept speaking engagements. 

Mystery writers can't agree on technique or style any more than any other group of writers can.

The private parties are the best.

Make an appearance everywhere. Your editors will be looking for you.

Readers and most unpublished authors are willing to listen to anyone speak. They'll listen to you, too. They're anxious for tips, insight into the writer's world, and in technique.

Published authors only really listen to authors who sell more books than they do.

And even then they don't pay much attention--they've got an editor who likes their work and they're not real anxious to fix what's not broken.

The people at your publishing house want your books to sell as much as you do.

I heard a vicious rumor that some publishing houses are going start to requiring video tapes of potential authors to see how promotable you are. (I don't know if anyone ever did this, but being promotable is still a thing

People judge your work by the image you project.

Be approachable and accessible. People will remember you next time.

Be familiar with other peoples' work. (Again, not all about you.

Spend time in the hospitality suite.

Sell yourself -- tastefully.

Remember names!

Send thank you cards to everyone.


Have I followed every bit of this advice over the years? No, but I still think most of it is valid and I'll review it before I go to my next conference. So there it is for you, whatever it's worth.

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