Conventions: Should I? Which Ones? How?
A rundown of what to consider when you're contemplating conventions
A reader asks:
Cons! Are they for me? How do I know which ones? How do I make good use of them?
I suspect this question is geared toward the SFF genre — other genres certainly have cons, but to my knowledge they generally don’t have the overwhelming extent of convention choices that would prompt a question about how to pick which ones! SFF does indeed have a wealth of convention choices, which is great but also… well, overwhelming.
I talked earlier about ways to get on programming at cons, but let’s attack the rest of this question!
Are Cons For Me?
Cons can be helpful — but here are some things to consider before you sink a lot of money into travel.
Know your genre. Cons are much more useful in some genres and categories than others — leverage your communities to figure out if your genre is one of them.
Figure out how useful they are for you. This might depend on where you are in your writing career, and also on how well you feel you do speaking in front of others or in social situations where you can professionally network. Keep in mind that the cons you choose might differ based on those factors, as well (see below).
Consider your budget and location. Travel is expensive, and sad to say, but there’s a lot less available outside the United States than in it. Depending on where you live and your finances, it may not be feasible to go to cons. And you know what? It’s okay if you can’t. Though cons can contribute to a career, and it sucks not to have a chance at one more industry access point, they’re by no means necessary. I got my book deal while I was living in Japan, before I’d ever set foot in a con as a writer. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend straining your financial situation in order to go to a con — they’re a bit helpful, but they’re not so helpful that they’d be worth getting in money trouble over, and unless you’re specifically going because you’re great at handselling books in the dealer’s room, the ROI (return on investment) is more likely to be nebulous or long-term rather than immediate.
Want more specific advice? Feel free to write in with your exact situation and if it’s something I feel I can offer thoughts on, I will!
How Do I Know Which Ones?
When I was first starting out on the con circuit, I scoured the Internet trying to list EVERY POSSIBLE science fiction and fantasy con, and then sent the list to my publisher asking “Which ones???”
This was a bit overzealous, but hey, I’m a completionist. My editor sounded somewhat taken aback and said something to the effect of, “definitely not all of those.”
And then my publisher told me which ones they wanted me at. So that was easy! I also added a couple for my own reasons, according to what I’d heard about them and how much I thought I’d like going. But nowadays, my travel is limited by my health, so I’m not planning con appearances outside the ones my publisher pays to send me to, and they pick their top priorities. Which likewise makes the decision easier.
That is to say: If you’re traditionally published, talk to your publisher about this. They will have opinions!
If you’re not published yet or you’re self-published, or if you want to add on more cons to your publisher’s recommendations, the choice becomes a bit trickier. There are two main career reasons you might choose to go to a con — to advance yourself professionally, either via craft or professional networking (i.e., you are going to meet other writers), or to market material that’s already published (i.e., you are going to market your already-available books to readers). Of course, many people want to do both of these things, and they often overlap at the same con.
But there are certainly cons that skew one way or the other. For example, my publisher is pushing the big media cons for me — the Comic Cons — and those are great places to talk to readers. A little networking with other writers can happen, but it’s not the main thrust of those places. Whereas places like Readercon or the Nebulas are well-known for being able to meet people professionally.
Depending on where in your career you are, you may want to look for cons that also stress craft or agent networking — Thrillerfest, for example, has an optional CraftFest people can sign up for if they want to work with professionals to level up their thriller writing. And if budget is a factor, you may also wish to sort geographically.
So first, identify your goals in going to conventions. Then start asking around to see what conventions in your genre might best match those particular goals. It’s hard to know without having been, but if you ask around, people are very generous about giving the scoop on individual cons so you have an idea what the vibe is.
And, finally, you may also want to pick some just because you think you’d enjoy them. You’re allowed to have fun and still take a tax deduction for it!
How Do I Make Good Use of Them?
This again depends on your goals! If your main reason for going to cons is to learn, you may find going to panels and workshops and meeting other writers to fill your cup to the brim. In that case, the most important part is picking the cons that will be most helpful in those areas, and then you can attend the programming there that gives you the biggest knowledge boost.
If, on the other hand, at least part of your reason for going is promotion, you probably want to be on programming yourself. I’ll link again to the post I did on advice for getting on panel programming. You can also put your name in for readings and signings, and there are other types of programming as well, depending on the con, such as solo presentations or kaffeklatsches. Personally, I find doing programming really fun, so I’ll generally take as much as they’ll give me!
For people who want to sell actual books at the con, there are also often dealer’s room tables. You have to sign up for these in advance and they generally cost something, and you’d also need a way to take sales. I do know some self-publishers who have this all figured out and manage to handsell in decent numbers at conventions. Because of the time and money investment, though, it’s not something I’d recommend across the board.
There’s one last piece to making good use of cons, and that’s the nebulous “networking” people talk about. But my general approach to “networking” is never to think of it in so pointed a way. You’re at a con with fellow people who have a lot of common interests with you — chat when you have the opportunity, show genuine interest in others, geek out together and celebrate each others’ successes and aspirations. Basically, the same things you do at other social functions! It can be a bit intimidating to hobnob with agents, editors, or big name authors, but just remember that they’re people too. Don’t be pushy with someone you perceive as powerful or famous, but nor do you have to avoid having perfectly lovely social interactions with them.
And the most important interactions are probably, honestly, not with the big name or powerful people. They’re the ones that will help build up the connections of your writing communities that will give you that web of support and lasting friendships as you keep moving forward in your career.
Of course, you can mix and match any of the learning and promoting for a very rich con experience. Cons can be intense, so be kind to yourself, don’t burn yourself out, and if you’ve never been to one before, let yourself find your feet without pressuring yourself too hard to take advantage of everything around you.
And remember to enjoy yourself! Cons are fun!