Sunday, May 04, 2014

Are Conferences Losing Attendees?

I used to be a fairly regular attendee at mystery writing conferences. As just about all of them were out of town, I incorporated a short vacation with most and got to see Anchorage, the big island of Hawaii, and Las Vegas. Of course, these events all cost big bucks, so I had to stop attending. After the 2008 economic crash, I noticed that a few conferences had folded. Two in Canada have or soon will close their doors this year. I don't know all of the reasons, but I do have a few observations about the conferences that I’ve attended over the years.

First, most of the conferences were fan-based events attended by readers who were there to meet authors and, in particular, have their books signed by the famous ones. The large Bouchercon always attracted its share of famous mystery authors, however, at smaller conferences it often felt that there were as many authors as attendees. Those of us on the bottom rung of the fame ladder barely sold a handful of books and paid our own way to the conferences. Sure, the networking opportunity was great, but as a business decision (and for me writing is very much a business) it was a disastrous financial move.

Aside from finances, another reason I stopped going was that some of the conferences refused to allow self-published authors participate on panels. At the time, I was a self-published author and to this day I still feel it was a stupid decision. These same organizers were more than happy to take the money of self-published authors to attend, yet the authors weren’t even allowed to sell their books in the dealers’ room unless one of the booksellers would take their books on consignment.

While it’s true that not all self-published authors behaved professionally and not all self-published writers had enough experience to give others advice, there were plenty who had a long list of writing credentials, and who had experienced traditional publishing as well. By the same token, there were plenty of traditionally published, insecure, ego-driven authors who behaved like idiots. As it turned out, there were also panelists who were outright fakes.

I recently read a piece by Lee Goldberg addressing this topic. Mr. Goldberg is a writer with a long list of writing credits as a novelist and TV script writer. Last year, he found himself on a TV mystery writing panel with one of the fakes. The panelist didn’t know what he was talking about and, after a little research, Mr. Goldberg found that the guy had no writing credentials whatsoever. Yet the fake writer was continually invited to speak at writing conferences by organizers who apparently didn’t have enough common sense to check his credentials. Writers and readers are paying good money to travel half way across the country to learn from some of the best, and they’ve been hoodwinked. Wouldn’t you think twice about attending conferences organized by people who can’t be bothered with a little due diligence?

But here’s one more reason that more conferences might be shutting their doors. Readers like me are changing our book buying habits. Frankly, I’m far less inclined to seek out a famous author for an autographed copy at a conference than I am to stay home and download his or her book on my iPad. So, will we see more conferences close their doors in the future? Possibly. Lord knows, some of them really should pack it in.


The Daring Novelist said...

There's another reason, I think.

Many of the smaller, regional conferences weren't for fans as much as for writers. These smaller conferences fed into the bigger ones.

Writers often went to the conferences to network. Many conferences had editors and agents in attendance, so the writers went to meet them. And because writers -- the lowly unknown writers -- tend to bring a lot of energy with them, the more writers, the more successful the conference.

Also, many conferences made a whole lot of extra money letting the unknown writers pay huge fees to get a manuscript read or set up a meeting.

As more writers turn to self-publishing, conferences are of less and less use to them.

IMHO, it would be nice if conferences became all about the fans again, they could revive, but they'd have to wean themselves from the extra cash cow of exploiting writers who want to get into traditional publishing.

Debra Purdy Kong said...

Excellent point! I didn't know they were charging so much extra to get a manuscript read. The only time I used this option was at the Surrey International Writers' Conference and they never charged us for one-on-one meetings with agents or to have a manuscript read. Mind you, the fee was high to begin with. You're right. I'd like to see more fan-based conferences. Thanks for sharing!