Friday, July 24, 2009

Conferences...Learn Something New? by Chester Campbell

My high school alumni association holds a monthly luncheon at a cafeteria not far from where I live. The largest attendance is from classes in the 1940s and 1950s. That makes sense as most all of us from that era don’t have to worry about day jobs. It’s always fun to reminisce about what we did “back then,” as well as chat about what the grandchildren are doing. We usually have a speaker on some subject of interest, and Thursday it was a woman who had written a book on discounts for seniors. She made an amusing talk, but as we were leaving my wife asked me, “Did you learn anything you didn’t already know?”

Very little, if anything, I was forced to admit. It got me to thinking about mystery conferences and conventions. Do I learn anything new when I go to one those?

In the past I’ve attended as many as six in a year, ranging from Florida to Indiana to Texas to Las Vegas. With the current economic climate, I’m cutting down to three in 2009, including one just across the county line to the south (Killer Nashville). The other two are SleuthFest in Florida, a perennial favorite, and Bouchercon, an easy half-day drive away in Indianapolis.

During the first few years, I took copious notes, digesting all sorts of useful information on writing, publishing, marketing, and a slew of other subjects that go into the mix. I also made lots of contacts with other writers, a number of fans, bookstore people, agents, editors, etc.

Now, rather than learning new things about the business, I find I am more often reminded of things I learned in the past but have not been putting into practice. Conferences have become more like a refresher course. Dialogue? Break up all those quotes with a little action. Sure, I knew that, but had I been paying enough attention to it? That’s just a minor example.

I chat with old friends and meet new ones. It’s an opportunity to put a face to those names I’ve been scanning in the emails. I might find somebody new who’d be willing to blurb the next book. And there’s always the chance of picking up a promotional idea I hadn’t considered, or unearthing an interesting way to jazz up a book signing. You’re never too old or jaded to learn something new. It’s just that there aren’t all that many things out there you hadn’t encountered before.

In earlier days I was always concerned about getting my books in the Dealer Room. I still like to have them available. But I’ve learned that lacking a household name in the mystery world, the chances of selling more than a handful of books at a conference are pretty slim. Especially at a major event like Bouchercon. I’ll never forget my first one in Vegas when I sat at my table in the signing room like the proverbial wallflower. The vacant table beside me had a line winding out into the hallway. I later learned they were waiting for James Lee Burke. One guy said he meant to come by my table but he didn’t want to get out of line.

Now I mostly choose small conferences, where you get a chance to meet most of the people and interact with those who are really interested in reading your books. Killer Nashville is one of those. This will be the fourth year, and it’s developing into a nice venue with some great speakers and interesting panels. And it’s fairly inexpensive. If you haven’t checked it out, here’s a link.

Bottom line, conferences have important values, whether you learn much new or not.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Interesting, Chester. I'm all for attending smaller conferences. Thanks for the info on Killer Nashville.

Mystery Writing is Murder

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Sometimes a refresher is needed - our brains can't hold all information at all times and still remember!
I learned early on never to go with the hopes of selling books. Writers who attend writer conventions don't buy books. (Odd, huh?) Book festivals are different, though, and I actually prefer those.

L. Diane Wolfe

Chester Campbell said...

I hope you can make it to Killer Nashville, Elizabeth.

I agree with you on book festivals, book fairs, and such, Diane. Those are the places to sell books. I've done best at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort.

Donna M. McDine said...

Making connections and big and small conferences is important. I tend to like the smaller conferences. The setting is not as intimidating for me. I've found too, with anyone you connect with at conferences you should check in now and then to see how they are doing. Makes a great network.

Children’s Author
Write What Inspires You Blog
Donna M. McDine’s Website

Ben Small said...

Chester, as you know, I attended Killer Nashville last year, and was so glad I did. I found it offered, as you say, a much better opportunity to talk to other writers and fans in a smaller environment, where one didn't have to rush off to find some panel in the hinterlands, and where the people putting on the conference were so engaging. I am just sorry I can't attend this year. Killer Nashville is a good one, and nobody runs a better conference than Beth Terrell Hicks.