Monday, November 11, 2013

The Con game...

A question I'm asked a lot when I do public appearances and convention panels is "What is the key piece of advice you would give to someone thinking about self publishing their own work?" A lot of my peers answer this question with things like "Make sure you proofread it well" and  "Don't expect to get rich". Me, I always answer "Have a marketing plan." To me, the fact that I had one before starting off on this ride was a crucial difference between success and failure. Success being measured as "My wife lets me continue" and failure being measured as "Weeping in the corner in the fetal position because no one loves me enough to buy book one".

Me, trying to look as "authory" as possible.
Okay, so maybe that's a little melodramatic... but I did have a plan going in, and it relied heavily upon having a presence at Science Fiction conventions.

Sci-Fi Fan conventions are in many ways, what makes me a "real" writer. It's difficult to describe what it is about scheduling an appearance at a convention that makes me feel more validated somehow as an author. All I know is that from the moment I confirm an appearance to the moment I sit in the coffee shop on the following Monday, I feel like my writing is more "career" than "hobby". It doesn't hurt that I make money selling books at the Convention, but it really isn't about that to me. I've been to a number of cons that I didn't even break even on, but still loved every minute of.

Writing by its very nature is a solitary art... and interacting with my fans is one of the few occasions where this does not apply. I have no illusions about my work... (I know full well that the Jake Price series is never going to win a Hugo award) but there is a personal satisfaction I get when someone tells me how much they enjoyed Dimensional Games that is really indescribable. It also happens when I see a fan has posted a quote from one of my books on Facebook, but to a lesser degree. Reading kind words on the internet about what I do is completely different than a flesh and blood person saying "I loved that book! When's the next one coming out?" in person.

Yeah, not quite as authory here.
Being a guest at a convention takes much more work, effort, and actual time than an outsider would generally think it would. My con prep work starts months out, with hammering out my travel arrangements, making sure I have stock of books, finding out what other authors and guests will be there so that I don't sell the same books they are, and working out what expectations the Convention organizers have of me. Do they want me to do panels? readings? is there a meet the guests event I need to plan on attending? Then there's the tricky discussion of compensation for my time and effort, which is always balanced by what the organizers feel that I bring to the convention.

That last part, in particular can be one of the most difficult parts of the process. I have no illusions about my role as a small but entertaining fish in a big pond, and my wife always insists I undervalue my efforts. My compensation varies form convention to convention, and I always try to be mindful of the convention's resources when I approach them. Some can only afford to give me admission to the con and a place to sell my books. Others can spring for a hotel room if they're feeling generous. A lot of times, I will attend a convention that can't afford to compensate me well simply because of the networking opportunities it will afford me. Writers on the next level (national recognition, publisher support) can usually ask for travel expenses and a per diem. Someday I hope to be in that club, but not yet.

Me, being entertaining solely to myself.
Closer to the con, I start worrying about the details, like is the tablecloth I have clean? Do I have enough business cards? Do I need a banner? Doing research for my panels is a big part of it. A lot of guests will wing their topics, but THE Rob Cerio will never show up to a panel without at least doing some research on the topic at hand. Allan Gilbreath of Dark Oak Press and I once had a long talk about the responsibility an author to the convention attendees, and he told me something that has always stuck in my head. "Once you agree to being a guest at a Con, you are no longer an author." He said, "You become an entertainer, and the Con has hired you to entertain their guests." And it has been my experience that he's right. Boring, unprepared guests seldom get invited back... and furthermore Convention organizers talk to each other all the time about how their guests were, how much of a draw their panels were, what they did to promote the con, etc. I like to think that I have a number of references I can present to new Conventions at this point when I fill out a guest application that will get me in the door, but after that it's up to me to prove that I deserve to sit alongside guys like Timothy Zahn and Larry Nemecek.

I will never deserve to sit alongside Niel Gaiman though... primarily because I would pass out in fanboy glee.

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