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.