Monday, May 13, 2013

Conference Economics

Judging by recent posts, the conference season is getting into full swing. We arrive, across countries, across continents, even, by train or plane or after long, long car journeys, at hotels and conference centres of varying degrees of comfort. We collect our goody bags and head upstairs to see if we've got the room with the sofa and the extra table and the view of the lake or the one with the view of the car park, above the kitchens. The seasoned conference-goer then checks to see if the bedlight is working and if it's possible to get the shower to operate without a qualification in advanced mechanics.

The next thing, of course, is to scan the list of delegates – checking for friends, famous names, useful contacts, before heading down to see who's going to form the bar crowd, unless we decide to eat the fudge from a local supplier that came in the goody-bag first...

The conference opens. There are speakers, panels, signings. Contacts are made over breakfast, a drinks reception, even outside with the wicked smokers, in the hope that the social relationship may transform into a useful professional one. Everyone has a good time, meets a few keen readers, sells a few books – usually very few, unless the name on the cover also features on the best-sellers list. It's all great fun, and as we tell ourselves, totally tax-allowable.

Then there's the grand finale – the final ritual known as 'paying the bill.' It's always a lot more than we thought it was going to be. It was just a few sociable drinks, for goodness sake, but of course the craic was good and we couldn't be  party-poopers and head off to bed. But we go home with very bruised, if not actually bleeding, credit cards.

There are all sorts of good reasons for going to conferences. If you're on the best-seller list, you have to go so as not to disappoint your fans – and your publisher.  If you're a new writer, they're a great way to make writer friends; it's a lonely job and being in the company of others who understand can make it feel like a holiday and you go back to your desk refreshed.

There are often publishers and agents attending, and you could strike it lucky and find someone who is looking for exactly what you have to offer. You may get valuable advice about which publishers are good and which are to be avoided at all costs. If there are lectures, one of them may suggest the plot for your next book.  Sometimes you even have the lovely experience of someone – someone who isn't your mother – actually telling you that she loves your books and you are very possibly the best writer in the world. The whole thing can feel like a shot in the arm.

But there are so many conferences, and the number seems to increase every year. I've been to a few when there were far, far more authors than readers. The trade in books was basically us all taking in each other's washing, and sooner or later most of us have to do the math. When you realise that even if every single person at the conference bought one of your books, and another to give to a friend because they were so impressed, your royalties probably wouldn't even cover the bar bill.

Is it value for money? I don't know, except that I've got a bit pickier over the years. I go if I'm invited to speak, I go if I particularly like the place it's being held, I go if I know I'll see a lot of my friends. But pay to be put on a panel with another couple of mid-list authors, speaking to an audience of perhaps fifty people, to sign half a dozen books?  I'm not so sure.


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Yes, the economics are often painful.

But -- in my case -- I need to get out and be in the company of other writers. It helps me give as much focus to my "other career" as to my day job.

Melissa Sugar said...

There are so many conferences I would love to attend, but I can't justify the expense. I attended the San Francisco Writer's Conference in May which has led to some promising agent prospects, so I highly recommend attending conferences whenever you can afford it. I'm a new follower.

Aline Templeton said...

Good to hear it's been so successdul for you, Melissa. And certainly, meeting other writers does help to keep things in perspective, I find.

Charlotte Hinger said...

I'm frustrated that I can't get around to all the people I would like to see. For instance, Frankie and I just barely had time to say hello at Malice Domestic.