Saturday, 23 May 2009

Conventions - for and against


Various bloggers have been reflecting on the pros and cons of crime conventions in the wake of Crimefest, and this debate mirrors many of the conversations that go on in the book rooms and bars wherever conventions are held. Two of the main reservations from the perspective of writers and readers are these. For authors, arguably, conventions sell very few books for the panellists attending (other than the star names.) For readers, once you have heard a writer a couple of times, and attended a panel of theirs on a certain topic (‘the importance of setting’ is an example), future panels on such themes can turn out to be samey.

There is truth in both these points, but there are also strong reasons why I really enjoy conventions, long after my first visit to the 1990 Bouchercon in London (when I wasn’t even a published writer.) As a mid-list novelist, attending a convention may not work out on a strict cost-benefit analysis, but I think there are hidden benefits in terms of profile-building – all the more important at a time when market conditions are so dire. From a fan’s point of view – and I’m still very much a fan, as I hope this blog illustrates – there is much fun to be had from attending panels, even on familiar topics. Though I think it makes sense to be selective. Back in 1990, I attended every panel I could. Now, short as a convention is, I tend to take breaks. This does mean I miss some treats – for instance, at Crimefest 2009, I made a mistake by missing the translators’ panel, which everyone seemed to like. However, I did enjoy, among others, the Hakan Nesser interview, and the panel chaired by Maxim featuring the likes of Paul Johnston (a terrific writer, who deserves to be better known) and the witty Declan Burke.

I’ve mentioned before the pleasure of meeting old friends, and of getting to know others for the first time. In the breaks I take, very often away from the melee of the convention hotel, I enjoy having the chance to get to know one or two people better. For instance, from last year’s Crimefest, I recall a thoroughly agreeable lunch with Natasha Cooper. This year, I had a long chat with Chris Ewan, a fellow lawyer and highly promising author, and also got together with Russell James, who wasn’t involved in the convention, but lives close to Bristol and had travelled in for the day. Russell is an interesting writer, whose fiction is very dark, and who has recently diversified into non-fiction with much success – Great British Fictional Detectives is his latest title, and it’s packed with tons of information. I’ve known Russell for years, but we’ve never talked at such length before, and I found him fascinating and informative on the life of a full-time writer after years as a self-employed business consultant.

So are conventions worth it? In my experience, the answer is an unequivocal yes. I’ve never been to one, either here or in the US, that that didn’t teach me a good deal and wasn’t great fun.

11 comments:

R. T. said...

Just as insurance sales representatives, automobile dealers, school teachers, and military officers all benefit from the collegial sharing among peers at their "conventions" and professional seminars, so too do writers benefit from similar gatherings.

Dorte H said...

For someone who could not be there, it has been a treat to read all these very different posts on CrimeFest in Bristol; the bloggers, the writers, the translators, and how they all experienced the various panels.

And from a reader´s point of view, it is good to hear about writers who are also ´fans´ :)

bookwitch said...

What I found last year, was that it was great to all meet on an equal basis. I would never have dared stop 'famous' people where I found them, and introduce myself. In that respect CrimeFest was the 'equalest' event I've attended.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. Bookwitch, I do agree. I think it's fair to say that a lot of authors are themselves rather reserved people, who don't always find it easy to strike up conversations with strangers, and the chance to meet with readers at conventions is actually as much of a pleasure as persuading them to read one's books.

maxine said...

In the scientific sphere, which I more perpetually inhabit, conferences are the life-blood. People always say that the "networking" is the most important aspect - by which they mean the posters and the informal chats outside the main presentations.
Lovely post, as ever, Martin.
Your comments do make me wonder, though, that if these conventions aren't about sales (apart from the dealers who swoop in to Michael Connelly's signing but don't attend the rest of the meeting), and the panels can get samey, should the format be refreshed a bit? Maybe how to do this would be the topic of a future blog post.

Ray said...

Having never attended a convention I can't comment. However, had I turned up at this one I would have loved the panel on forgotten authors. I mean Frances Iles brilliant 'Malice Aforethought' and Francis Clifford's 'A Battle Is Fought To Be Won' and 'The Naked Runner' all hark back to my early years. Add Julian Symons and John Dickson Carr aka Carter Dickson - and I was pleased to read that Ross MacDonald was highlighted.
I suppose to an extent that a convention can be a market place - but isn't it more about what a reader or writer learns and what the individual gets from listening to others.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, I think refreshing is a very good idea. I don't think a convention can be totally transformed each year, but it's always good if there are some new things to encourage past attendees to return.
Ray,you're absolutely right. And I, for one, wished the Forgotten Authors panel could have gone on for another hour - there was so much mroe that panellists and audience members could have discussed....

seanag said...

Haven't been to any sort of crime fest, but I did attend a writer's conference last year. I found it interesting, but I do think it would have been more interesting if I had felt even a little bit of an insider--not to feel important, but just for the social side of things.

At that conference too, there was panel after panel, which worked well in some cases, but not in others. The times when it really didn't work was when you wanted to be able to hear a particularly interesting author go a little further, but there was never time for more than just a ten minute presentation, and rarely enough time for questions and follow up, etc.

It was an interesting experience, but frankly not one I have any huge need to repeat.

Martin Edwards said...

Seana, the first time I went to a convention I was a complete outsider, and I felt like it, so I do understand what you mean. But the more I went to, the more people I got to know and the more I enjoyed the experience.

seanag said...

Yes, I can see how going back several years in a row would make a difference. Crimefest does sound like fun.

Chris said...

I mean Frances Iles brilliant 'Malice Aforethought' and Francis Clifford's 'A Battle Is Fought To Be Won' and 'The Naked Runner' all hark back to my early years. Add Julian Symons and John Dickson Carr aka Carter Dickson - and I was pleased to read that Ross MacDonald was highlighted.The times when it really didn't work was when you wanted to be able to hear a particularly interesting author go a little further, but there was never time for more than just a ten minute presentation, and rarely enough time for questions and follow up, etc.