It's that time of year again. Registration for RT is open, GRL is going to be upon us in a matter of days (OMG...), and people are making plans for the 2014 conference season. As expected, there are a lot of people asking themselves -- and their social networks -- if it's worth it to attend this or that conference. Or if it's worth it to attend conferences at all. Given the expense as well at the stress and time commitment, I'd say that's an incredibly valid question to ask.
So I thought I'd weigh in with my thoughts on the subject. I'm no expert by any means, just an author who has, for better or worse, attended a handful of conferences and plans to attend a few more in the future.
Do you make any money at a conference?
If you're a NYT bestseller with a hundred people waiting in line at your signing table, you might very well walk away from a conference in the black. The rest of us? Not so much. Between airfare (or gas), hotel, food, swag, books, and the odd pay-per-view, going to a conference ain't cheap. Yes, you'll probably sell some books. I usually sell quite a few, both at the signing(s) and just interacting with people throughout the event. But you probably won't sell enough to pay for all your expenses.
The thing is, though, you're selling books face to face. You're putting a face with your pen name and interacting with your readers. Plus you might be speaking on panels, giving out swag, and just generally being present and visible to people who may not have heard of you before. At the end of the week, you may have spent more than you made *at the conference*, but that doesn't mean it was a waste of money. Besides, it's a tax write-off. Quite honestly, I'd rather spend $X to go to a con than include it in my annual sacrifice to the IRS.
So is it worth it?
From a strictly financial standpoint, it's debatable.
But the experience? Yes, I think it's totally worth it. The panels tend to be entertaining if nothing else, and usually educational too. If you're a reader, you get to meet authors you enjoy as well as fans who might recommend authors you've never read. If you're an aspiring writer, just sitting down with some authors, readers, and publishers can be incredibly beneficial. If you're a published author, you're meeting your fans, your publishers, new readers, other authors who you may or may not know from the online world. Honestly, it's kind of like a giant get-together of your book-related social network, and you know what? It's fun. It's a lot of fun.
It can also be career-changing. I was rooming with Rachel Haimowitz at Authors After Dark while she and Heidi Belleau were writing the first Flesh Cartel book together. Watching that happen put the bug in my ear that co-authoring could be fun, and shortly after AAD, I was planning a co-authored book with Cat Grant, who I'd also met for the first time at AAD. A couple of months later, at GRL, I met Aleksandr Voinov for the first time, and that sparked the unholy alliance that has, in the space of a year, resulted in almost a dozen co-written books as well as two lengthy trips to Europe. Between GRL and AAD, I might have made a few hundred bucks off books I sold in person, but the long term benefits? Worth it. Soooooo worth it.
What if I don't like big social situations, or would rather not be around people? What if I don't like traveling?
Quite simply: Don't. And that's not meant to be snarky or dismissive. The thing is, cons are stressful. Especially if you're introverted or reclusive and aren't used to being around huge groups of people, it can be pretty taxing. The constant activity can be overwhelming. I can think of at least a dozen people -- myself included -- who have to make a point of disappearing at some point during the con just to quietly decompress for a little while. I enjoy cons a lot, but I have my limits, and I've learned to accept when I've reached that limit.
If going to a con is unduly stressful -- whether because of cost, anxiety, or any number of reasons -- then it's probably not worth it for you. If that's the case, don't go. Really.
So what if I go, and get stressed out?
You will. Guaranteed. I'm fairly mellow and not easily frazzled, but have yet to attend a con where I didn't have at least one period of "OMG I need to sit in a dark room and collect my thoughts." The trick is knowing how to cope with that. Know when you've reached your limit and how to handle it (step out for a cigarette, retreat to your room for a little while, grab a taxi and go to a restaurant on the other side of town, etc).
If I can offer one piece of advice that served me well at my first conference, it's this: Don't overbook. It's very tempting to sign up for everything. Every party, every event, every panel, the book signing(s), etc. Don't. The first time I went to RT, I didn't even do the book signing. I literally committed to nothing. If there was a panel I wanted to see, I went to it. If an event sounded fun and there was space, I went to it. I wandered around the book signing to get a feel for the vibe and the crowd, but could leave any time I wanted to. It was still an overwhelming event -- you don't realize just how big RT is until you're in the middle of it -- but I think it would've been a lot more stressful had I been signed up for seven hundred things.
When I went to AAD a few months later, I was signed up for several panels and a couple of readings, plus the book signing. It was stressful, and I had to scramble to get to a few things, but I was better prepared for it because I at least knew what a con was like. Take that for what it's worth.
Also, you're not required to attend anything.
Let me repeat that.
That big party where everyone is dressing in period costumes? Not required. The dinner that's on the other side of the hotel ten minutes after that reading you spent two days psyching yourself up for? No. The giant book signing that every author is supposed to attend? Nope. That trip to a karaoke bar at the end of a day when you really just want to have a quiet glass of wine in the bar? No way.
Pace yourself. Know your own limits. Allow yourself to do whatever you need to do if you get overwhelmed. Remind yourself it's okay to say no to invitations.
In closing, yes, I firmly believe cons are worth it, but I also acknowledge that they're stressful and expensive, and no one should feel like they have to go to them. If you do choose to go -- and I hope you'll give at least one a shot -- know what you're getting into, and know that going to one con does not obligate you to go to more. Avoiding cons will not kill your career. I promise.
And should you find yourself at a con, and you see me -- easily identifiable by the obnoxious T-shirt, the name badge, and the suited German gentleman with whom I'm joined at the hip -- come up and say hello. I don't bite. I promise. :)