What’s the Big Deal About a Writer’s Convention?

Guest post
by Gordon A. Long

I’ve been in this self-publishing game for a couple of very informative years now, and tried out a lot of the stuff the marketing gurus suggest: Twitter, Facebook, webpage, blog. I’ve had varying degrees of success so far, and it’s been a steep learning curve. With “Why Are People So Stupid?” coming out before Christmas, I’m on a big push, so I thought I’d make a new attempt at slalom. I decided to attend a writer’s convention.

Was it useful? Well, like everything else, the answer is Yes and No.

The first thing that I found out is that, like books, there are different styles of festivals aimed at different markets. The Vancouver Writers Fest is a higher-level conference, mainly designed for fans to come and meet some of Canada’s top writers, like Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson and Dennis Lee. (Okay, Alligator Pie and Fraggle Rock aren’t so literary, but Dennis is very popular.) Most of the activities are discussions, panels, and “An Intimate Evening With the Author.” Except for a very active children’s section, there is a definite “literary” slant. Tickets for individual activities are $17.

The Surrey International Writers Conference, on the other hand, is aimed at writers who want to learn about their trade, and more oriented towards “pop” genres. You sign up for the whole festival ($589) or a whole day ($299).There are some panels, discussions, and feature celebs (Diana Gabeldon was a speaker and presenter this year), but most of the activities are workshops with titles like, “Improving Your Dialogue,” “Writing With Passion,” and “Future Funny: A Discussion of Writing Humour in Science Fiction and Fantasy.” That one appealed to me.

But I am a Starving Artist and both conferences were held the same week. (Why do they do that?) Since I’ve always wondered what was the big deal with Margaret Atwood, I decided to volunteer at the Vancouver Writers Fest.

Volunteering is a great way to see a whole bunch of the conference (albeit in fragmented form) for free. For the Vancouver Writers Fest, you had to sign up for at least 12 hours of 3 – 4 hour shifts, and competition was tough. Vollie enrollment is full least 4 months ahead of time, and it is imperative that you sign up for the shifts you want the moment they are offered. Other wise, the good ones get snapped up, and you end up with a dog’s breakfast. Well, perhaps we could be polite and say you get an “olio of choices.”

Since I was a newbie, I ended up on book sales, box office, and ushering, all jobs where I had little experience. I learned a bit on each one, and got some close-up observations of authors “on the circuit.”

I also learned what an aspiring author has to do: be shameless. Talk about your book, but not too much. Just like all your advertising, don’t bore people. Make business cards with your book information and cover graphic on them, and pass them out. They cost pennies to create, and if one in a hundred sells a book, you’ve made money.

Last and definitely not least, I got involved in a pilot project to video the authors for internet distribution, which I will be working on for next year. The Fest needs me!

The other interesting thing I learned had little to do with book sales. I learned why Margaret Atwood is the Grand Dame of Canadian Literature. Oh, sure, she writes good books. But that’s not the source of her huge reputation. She is recognized by everyone for what she has contributed to her country’s culture, in the form of helping others get published, being a spokesperson for her genre, and all sorts of activities that haven’t directly made her a cent.

So was my visit to the Fest a marketing success? Not a chance. A learning experience? Most definitely. And the best lesson had nothing to do with sales. Promoting yourself, while necessary, is a selfish activity, and your success is limited by the saleability of your next book. Contributing to your community is one of the keys to lasting success, as all the bloggers out there are well aware.

So what did I learn at my first writer’s conference? Volunteer your time and expertise, both in person and on the internet. Your career will be glad you did, and your Mummy will be proud of you.

Gordon A. Long is a semi-retired teacher, eking out his pension with writing, playwriting, directing, helping beginners publish their books, and giving drama lessons to children and seniors. He races on “Planet Claire,” the hottest 32-foot Division 2 sloop in the Seattle/Vancouver/Victoria area. Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and website. His book, Why Are People So Stupid? is available on Kindle Direct. The  dead tree version is coming in February.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

11 thoughts on “What’s the Big Deal About a Writer’s Convention?”

  1. Very interesting, I attend only one Author’s convention by my then publisher and walked away knowing what not to do at these things. I like your advise of volunteering, you will see what others do that works or doesn’t work! Good article!

  2. Volunteering at cons also helps introverts as they have something to do so while they meet a lot of people they may find it easier making conversation. Playing the volunteer card is also a great way to start conversations with strangers by asking how they are finding the con when you find yourself standing/sitting with strangers. Sometimes it gives you access to writers you might not normally meet. I volunteered as Boskone (sci fi convention) and worked the information desk which put me in the position of becoming a “familiar face” as I pointed guest speakers/attendees in the right direction which made it easier to converse with them when I wasn’t working.

    Great post. Good points.

  3. One of my observations at conferences is that many of volunteers get closer to vistting speakers and agents and more more significant contact with them.

    One thing I noticed immediately at the first conference I attended (I won it in a contest. All others I attended as speaker) was that agents are quite hard to get next to. They generally are there charging additional fees (often $50-100) for writers to sit and pitch them for 15 minutes or whatever. They got that deer-in-the-highbeams look whenever I’d try to chat them up. It was like trying to hit on a whore at a party.

    Once I was wearing a Staff badge, it was different. You could talk to other people with steenking badges.

  4. Thanks for the info, Gordon. I attended the Surrey Writer’s Conference this year and you’re right, it mostly dealt with the more technical aspects of writing. Everybody was very accessible whether it was agents or the published authors who were there as speakers, and that was a positive. Unfortunately, showing writers other options to get their work out to readers was barely mentioned (one speaker that I’m aware of spoke on his self-publishing experience). And, yes, it costs an awful lot of money to attend.
    Having said that, I probably will go next year too, the workshops on how to become a better writer taught me things that I could use immediately.

    1. They might be interested in having you as a speaker/lead a workshop/be on a panel to talk about self-publishing. Contact soon asking about it as they seem to do planning pretty early… If you are interested.

  5. Great post, Gordon, and good advice. Writers and authors can’t afford to ignore any opportunity to learn or get themselves noticed, and volunteering is a good way of gaining access. Also, people remember those who are willing to give their time for free.

  6. Hello everyone. I’ve attended (and volunteered at) a host of (English) conferences and have, as you’ve said Gordon, had mixed results, although mostly very positive (because I live and breathe writing). $299 sounds very steep for one day – you’d have to be sure it would be worth it. A one-day event in the UK is the Verulam Writers’ Circle’s Get Writing (formerly held every February but now changed to April which clashes with the Chipping Norton Lit Fest so I’m attending the former on the Saturday and volunteering at the latter on the Sunday). Get Writing has a mix of talks, workshops and agent pitches (and a great buffet lunch – so popular it had all gone by the time my editor got there from an overrunning workshop) for c.£60 (c.$100?) so excellent value for money. Chipping Norton also has talks and workshops over 3-4 days with a book-per-event format (usually <£10 each) because there are more events overlapping at various venues around the town. Really regardless of where you are at in your writing career, and unless you shell out a lot of money for not a lot in return, whichever events you go to are going to be beneficial and if you're anything like me, you'll just love being part of a writerly crowd, especially one where you already know some of the other writers. 🙂

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