Saturday, October 11, 2008

Tough Times.

By John Ramsey Miller

Well, I missed Bouchercon again this year. The one and only Bouchercon I attended was in Chicago a few years ago. I was tempted to go when it was held in Alaska, but if I ever go up there, it will probably be to collect red meat for my game freezer. In Chicago I met a lot of authors I wouldn’t have otherwise have met, and I enjoyed the social aspects like exchanging writer-war stories over a scotch on the rocks, and I learned a lot about the lives of other people who do what I do. I was on a couple of panels with other authors, and attended panels manned by other authors, which is always beneficial in that it gets me to think about our craft and see things from a new perspective. But, despite everything that was positive, I left Chicago unconvinced that the weekend sold any more of my books than I could sell by speaking at a book club in a small southern town. But you never know what creates sales and what doesn’t. Networking with people involved in the industry is almost never a waste of an author’s time or money, just like talking to readers is never a waste.

What I saw in Chicago was a large number of authors who were marketing their books (mostly) to other authors. But I suppose there were more readers, librarians, and fans, in Chicago than I’ve seen at most other conferences since. Don’t get me wrong, we authors buy books, and probably read more than most non-writers, but most authors are a lot more interested in promoting their own books than the books of their fellow authors. I’m not saying we authors don’t promote each other, because most of us do just that, and we are in turn promoted by authors who enjoy our work. There’s certainly no more rewarding audience than our peers. Money is tight for most of us, but think about conferences as an exchange of experiences, and that can make it worthwhile––plus you can write conference expenses off on your income taxes. By finding out what expenditures have worked for others, and what financial outlay didn’t, makes us money, by saving us money we’d otherwise waste as our brethren did. While our children may not choose to learn from our experiences, we are smart enough to learn from other author’s mistakes.

This year I’m only attending Thrillerfest and Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana later this month. I chose Magna because it’s not just more fun than most and far more intimate than Bouchercon, it’s like meeting with family and I learn something worth the outlay every year. Did I mention that it’s far more fun for the buck than most other writers conferences? Plus the folks at Ball State know how to put people together and make it a learning party. I plan to attend Thrillerfest every year, not just because it’s all about authors who write what I write. I’ll go to Thrillerfest until I have to walk to get there. The thing I like about conferences is that best-selling authors socialize easily with the authors who are not best-selling brothers and sisters, and they are happy to share the secrets of their success. If nothing else, it’s amazing to see so many talented people assembled in one place.

We are living in interesting and (of course) frightening times, and as belts tighten fewer new authors will be published as publishing houses become more careful about which books they can take financial chances on. The industry is going to be changing, and we are all going to have to be smarter to survive. With the economy in the shape its in, people will either be reading more to escape reality, or they will be reading less because they can’t afford to purchase books like they could before. I think we will all have to be a lot more intelligent with our future promotion dollars. We may have to forget bookmarks and start thinking about placing ads on knitted cozies that fit over the stocks of assault rifles, or on matchbooks that go into K-ration packs. Maybe it won’t be Mad Max time for a few years yet, but I’ll be working on new ideas as things change. Mad Max sprang to mind because we’ve had gas shortages in the Southeast since Hurricane Ike when people were actually following gas tankers on their routes in order to buy the gas at the stations where the loads were dropped off. I wish I were kidding, but when men and women can’t get to work or take their children to school, there is nothing humorous about it. I didn’t see many people reading novels while they waited in long lines at the pumps.

Attending conferences is expensive, and most of us can’t afford to attend the number of conferences we have attended in the past, or would like to attend. I’m having to decide which organizations I can afford to belong to, despite the write-off factor. Do you know how many laying hens you can buy and feed with $100.00? I do. Up until last year I belonged to several writer’s groups, but I decided to take a hard look at the yearly dues I paid. The ITW became smarter and found a way to forgo the yearly dues by using its members’ talent to generate those necessary membership funds. I feel confident that the ITW is doing what’s best for its authors, and operating smarter. If the ITW can do it, and offer the benefits they do, other organizations should be able to follow suit. It just took effort, vision and thinking outside the box. When I look at the dollars I spend on professional memberships, I start to wonder what those organizations are doing for my career in return for my money, and how flexible and innovative they are. We also have to look at what we can do for those organizations that are actively promoting its authors, and we should put our efforts and dollars where they do the most good. Now when I write a check for membership dues, I’m more critical and I look harder at what the organizations are accomplishing.

We will all have to learn to survive in a changing world, and to be smarter about how we do things and spend our hard-earned dollars. We're all going to have to make choices we didn't have to make before. We are going to be living in leaner and hopefully more interesting times than we’re accustomed to, and I’m not sure it will be a bad thing for any of us …in the long run.

3 comments:

  1. You’re right about belt tightening. I skipped Bouchercon this year for just that reason—my budget. The same reason book tours are gone for now. Once I figured how many books I must sell to pay for a tank of gas, things got a bit foggy. I’ll be at ThrillerFest for sure, and MWA’s SleuthFest since it’s only a few miles from my house. But the rest are off the table for 2009. Writer’s organizations are the same. What do they do for me after I send in the check? No question about ITW being the smartest choice. And Authors Guild. Where else can you keep a literary attorney on retainer for $100 a year? I strongly feel that the other organizations I belong to need to become much more creative and innovative. I think the days of sending in the dues and getting little in return are gone.

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  2. No B-con for me this year, either, but because I had a schedule conflict, not because of any decision not to go. I'll be at Magna in a couple of weeks(attention other authors: Magna Cum Murder is the #1 best conference you'll ever go to if your mission is to meet and bond with readers), and next year I plan to be a fixture in many others, but as you say, John, the mission of any of these things should really be to sell more books. Can you do that by schmoozing with other authors? Probably not--at least not directly. But I do think that the more you attend these things, and the more con-goers you meet, the better your chances of gettinig on the really good panels with the guaranteed large audiences.

    They say all business is personal, so I figure it can't hurt to meet and bond with as many industry insiders as I can. Like all conferences for all businesses everywhere, though, the real business is all conducted in the bar.

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  3. I just returned from Bouchercon, and I have to say that the past two I've been to have been the most valuable conferences I've attended (and I went to a lot of them this year- too many, really). I love Thrillerfest, and will probably go again in '09, but it does seem to be becoming more of an aspiring writers conference without many fans. Bouchercon, on the other hand, is full of fans and both panels I participated in were packed. Also, there are always a number of editors and booksellers from other countries there, which I think can be invaluable for landing and selling foreign editions. And you never know what might turn up, a friend of mine ended up landing a graphic novel deal last year thanks to someone they met in the bar at Bcon. So I'd recommend considering Indianapolis next year. I'm also thrilled that that 2010 conference will be in my hometown, no question I'll be at that one...

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