Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Reflecting on mystery conferences in the cyber age.

Barbara here. As several bloggers have already mentioned, two weekends ago marked the final Bloody Word Mystery Conference, which has been an annual celebration in the Canadian mystery scene for the past fifteen years. Most of the time the conference has been held in Toronto, but twice it ventured to Ottawa, which isn't very far down the road, and once to Victoria, which is across the country. It was one of the few opportunities for Canadian lovers of crime fiction to celebrate together and put Canadian writers in the spotlight. British and American writers and readers also attended, but the focus was Canadian.

Down the river on Wolfe Island near Kingston, Ontario, another uniquely Canadian mystery conference, Scene of the Crime, has also come to an end after about twelve years. This one was smaller and more intimate, shining the spotlight on a few featured authors and giving readers the chance to meet and chat informally with them as well as listen to readings and panels. In both cases, organizer burn-out was the cause rather than falling attendance and disinterest. The conferences continued to be hugely popular, with many attendees coming year after year (including me). Unfortunately, no one could be found to take over the conferences and commit the time and energy needed to run them.

This is a huge loss for the Canadian crime writing community. Increasingly, most of a writer's time is spent alone on our computers, either living in our own imaginations or in cyberspace. If we are not writing, we are keeping up with emails, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites, or various other research or promotional tasks. These conferences were our chance to get out of our garrets and talk to each other in person, to network, share stories, seek advice and inspiration, talk to readers and share our passion for our books with readers. I have made a tremendous group of friends, both readers and writers, through Bloody Words and Scene of the Crime, friends I may only see once a year but who I connect with regularly through Facebook and email.

No more. Not only will it be much more difficult for me to see these friends, but it will be harder for me to make new ones. And for new writers coming on the scene now, there is no ready vehicle to plug them into the national writing community. No ready channel through which they can connect with the avid readers, librarians, booksellers, and other book people who will help their success.

In fact, over the past fifteen years since I got into this business, this personal contact and connection between writer and reader has been slowly eroding. When my first novel, Do or Die, came out, I piled my box of author copies into my car and went on an Eastern Ontario bookstore tour, visiting all the bookstores in Ottawa and within a reasonable day's drive from the city. I introduced myself to the owner, offered a reader's copy, and asked if they'd be interested in a signing. I developed good relationships with the bookstores, who promoted my books to their regular clientele. With each successive book, however, the number of bookstores dwindled and the opportunities to connect with existing readers and introduce myself to new ones dwindled with it. Signings in the big mall stores are not the same. Customers are not regulars and the constant staff changeover makes it difficult to cultivate supportive relationships. I still do the occasional bookstore signing, but the delight of meeting readers and talking about books face to face is largely missing. Most of my communication with readers now is through emails (which are always delightful. Never be shy to write to an author!) or through social media.

Our solitary life has become a whole lot more solitary. That's one reason I love speaking to book clubs. Besides escaping my garret for a few hours to meet a great group of friends and share food and drink, I get to talk about books and about my own books. Not only is it encouraging, but readers teach us so much about our work; their insights into our characters, our plot twists and even our own psyches is instructive and often entertaining. This is why we write - to share our stories – and without readers we would have no reason to do what we do.

Bloody Words was like one big, long, marathon book club. I only hope that in the future, other book lovers will pick up the mantle and create a new version of it. Perhaps one every two or three years, perhaps in different cities across the country, perhaps on a more modest and manageable scale like Scene of the Crime. If not, our Canadian crime writing community will be the poorer for the loss, just when we are truly beginning to hit our stride.


Eileen Goudge said...

Interesting take, Barbara. I have had the opposite experience. As my book touring and conference-ing shrank, my social media expanded, introducing me to a whole new slew of readers and other writers. Now I'm part of a big community - some of us even host our own get-togethers, or "mini conferences" if you will.And, oh, how I resisted social media at first- I'm no youngster. Glad I stuck with it.

Barbara Fradkin said...

I have had that experience as well, Eileen. Social media has connected (and re-connected) me with lots of people all over the world, and that's thrilling. But I'm still of the age that craves real-life talking, laughing, dining. Maybe it's a sign of our times in general that we are more connected through machines than in person. Love the idea of mini-conferences. Often small is better. Bouchercon, for example, can make you feel lonelier than the worst day in your garret.

Donis Casey said...

I've heard so many great things about Bloody Words, and though I have to pick and choose and never made it up there, I'm sorry for everyone's sake it has gone the way of all flesh. Is there any possibility that it may be resurrected in the future?

Eileen Goudge said...

I'm old enough to miss the human contact, too. But I'm loving that I can make my own "conferences." Helps that I live in NYC where my author pals come for BEA each year.Although we did organize a weekend at the beach in CA."Build it and they'll come."

Patricia Filteau said...

Libraries have taking on a renewed vigour in stepping up to the plate more and more to feature new books, visiting writers...I have noticed an increase in including writers forums at summer festivals. Cross marketing can be very effective in encouraging readers to buy a book, read a book, download a book, discuss a book at the same venue as enjoying music, theatre, summer fun, food and frivolity, winter jazz, ice sculptures and skating. It seems book clubs are vying for the visit from a local favourite author booking them months in advance to have the pleasure of the real maccoy. All we need is Chris Hadfield to champion our own literary satellite. Imagine the reach our new gems & jewels would have – 3 times around the globe today – the galaxy beyond in a decade. Yup and we could all meet up to chat real time or virtually. The mystery is in how this universe will unfold. We will still have to trip over and duck under a few bodies along the way.