Answers from a convention organizer

There's been some chatter on the Sisters in Crime discussion list about conventions.  I posted a long answer to the list earlier this week, and I'm sharing it with you all here today.  I realize that this is coming in on middle of a conversation, but I think that this will still make sense out of context.  If you're not a member of SinC and/or you're not on this list, I'd urge you to join both -- these are interesting and useful resources. (SinC website)

"Is there any panel organizer on the list who is brave enough to tell us the criteria they use to assign authors? "

Is it just me, or does this question sound somewhat hostile to you too? As co-chair of Bouchercon 2009, I have of course been following the comments here about conferences with more than a little interest. It may just be the circumstances that I find myself in -- sacrificing far more than I can afford on a job that's turned out to be way more difficult and distressing than I expected. I went into this process believing that an all-volunteer fan conference such as Bouchercon is a "we're all in this together" experience. That belief is being tested over and over again, each and every day, not just in the messages here, but in many aspects of our planning.

I don't think that the author who asked this question means to be hostile, nor do I think that most folks who comment about conferences mean to be hostile. At the same time, it is sobering to see Rosemary write "believe me, there are still people who give me dirty looks because I didn't do enough to get them to Murder 203." I know what she means, though. A programming decision that I made earlier this year has already cost me several twenty-year friendships.

Your Bouchercon 2009 program committee is right now deeply engaged in trying to find a way to give over 400 writers some kind of opportunity to be a part of the formal schedule. The answer to the question is really pretty simple: we schedule the participants that we believe are most likely to be of interest to our audience. To be sure, we look at popularity -- of course the big names are big draws -- but we also look at author's books, recall what we've seen authors say on lists like this one, visit websites (our browser histories for the last few weeks are dominated by your web pages), and solicit and heed the suggestions of folks we trust. We've all read widely. We've been to conferences. As program chair for Magna Cum Murder, I've already worked with hundreds of writers over the years.

All of this research and all of these experiences go into assembling the program. If you're not on the schedule, ultimately, it means one of two things: 1) despite our best efforts, we just couldn't find a way to include you or 2) we didn't think you would be as big a draw as other folks. It's pretty much as simple as that, so simple that you probably didn't need me to tell you that.

To the extent that it's called for, bravery lies not in saying "we did our best but couldn't find a spot for you" or "in designing program, we're looking for ways to reward service to the genre" or even "we found someone else more interesting." That's all kind of obvious, isn't it? Bravery (or foolhardiness -- it's often hard to tell the difference) lies in being willing take up the challenge in the first place.

Will we make mistakes? Of course we will. We'll get the mix of people wrong. Someone will turn out to be a bore. We'll miss out on a topic of importance. We'll meet someone whom we didn't schedule and find him or her so charming that we'll wish we did. I've told my committee -- which is working harder right now than you can imagine -- that we must not be afraid of making mistakes. We'll do the best we can and hope that we got more right than we got wrong.

And then we'll just have to learn to live with the dirty looks.

If one approaches a convention with an entitlement mentality -- i.e. the convention owes me a spot on the program or owes me XX number of book sales -- one will inevitably be disappointed. Nothing we can do as convention organizers can ever live up to these kinds of specific demands. No program assignment will ever be good enough. No quantity of book sales will ever be sufficient. I've written before (perhaps even here?) that if your convention experience depends on the few minutes that you'll speak to an audience as one-fifth of a 55-minute panel discussion, then please don't even think about registering for Bouchercon 2009. That's a bad attitude, and while we welcome everyone, we don't welcome bad attitudes.

I fully agree with Pari, who writes "even if a writer gets a crappy panel (and I've had my share), there's still the hospitality room and the bar and the restaurants -- even the darn hallway or lobby -- all places to make connections for current and future sales." As a conference bookseller, I've often heard folks say that they made the decision to buy a book because they chatted with the author at lunch or at the bar.

And more generally, I strongly agree with Barbara who thinks "the key to a good convention experience is remembering it's about extravagant love of mysteries and the reading experience, a bonding of people who are quite honestly a little obsessed about a genre and like being among their peers."

I would add only that we need to remember who our peers are. At a conference like Bouchercon, every one of us is there first and foremost as a fan. We may identify ourselves as writers, librarians, booksellers, agents, publishers, etc. But we all come to Bouchercon because we share a passion for our genre, and for books themselves. Sandy asks "why not cater to writers and to fans?" My feeling is that fans are the ONLY constituency that matters because we are all fans.

A few comments on some other points:

ON THE MONEY, PART 1 - PAYING PEOPLE: This may not be the ideal way to run a railroad, but Bouchercon has grown up around an all-volunteer model. What that means is that no one is paid for their work on the event -- not the organizers, not the presenters, no one. In fact, like presenters, my co-chair and I are paying for the privilege of hosting Bouchercon 2009. We wrote the first and second registration checks that Bouchercon collected. We needed to. At the time we got the ball rolling, we had not yet received any pass-along funds. The first expenses that the committee incurred -- making up flyers, application fees for the corporate stuff (such as non-profit status), copying and mailing registration acknowledgements -- were literally paid for out of these first dollars kicked in by the core members of our committee in the form of registrations. This is the model we're working with. Would another model, one that allows Bouchercon to pay staffers and presenters, be better? My feeling is no, that having everyone (other than guests of honor) kick in their own registration and expenses preserves the fan nature of the event. It's an arguable proposition, but until we take the time to have that argument, we're doing the best we can with the model we have. Bouchercon 2009's ability to attract so many people, including some of the biggest names in the genre, suggests that the model still works.

ON THE MONEY, PART 2 - BUYING BOOKS: I wish that more people recognized that the booksellers who are willing to stock and staff tables in the dealer's room are providing a valuable service. Instead, booksellers often feel like punching bags, having to endure complaints from writers who haven't thought about just how hard it is to be a bookseller at a conference. Think for a moment about the 20-copy number from Murder 203. In terms of sales, Liz writes that this is "a lot or a little." However you may look at this as an author, it's not a little thing for the bookseller, who might be contemplating a list of 400 writers at 20 books each for a total of 8000 books -- even before scaling up from Murder 203 attendance to Bouchercon attendance. If booksellers are cautious, if booksellers expect returnability, if booksellers ask for a 40% discount, don't automatically assume that booksellers are lazy or incompetent or greedy. Think about the quantities, about the hours to order, to haul and to return, and about all the sunk dollars in inventory before you lodge a complaint.

ON THE M ONEY, PART 3 - CONVENTIONS ARE EXPENSIVE: I'm glad to see folks try out low-cost approaches to running a convention. But most low-cost alternatives do come with other "costs," such as kid-sized desks in a school setting. I'm astonished by how much things cost at our host hotel and at the other venues we're working with. But if you want a nice setting, you have to pay the price. Our A/V costs alone will be over $40,000. While you’re sitting in our lovely hotel in the heart of Indianapolis’ lovely, convention-oriented downtown, think about that number. For the 1600 - 1700 or so people we'll have at Bouchercon, that means that about $25 of your registration dollars will go just to microphones, an occasional projector or two, etc.

ON FREE BOOKS AND WASTE: You will not receive a load of free books at registration at Bouchercon 2009. Instead, we are designing different opportunities for readers to get free books. We're doing this for a lot of reasons, but avoiding waste is a big part of our planning. We believe that the mass distribution of sacks full of books on arrival is a really poor use of resources. Especially in this brutal economy, we are all trying to be smarter and more efficient about everything -- including the ways we make free books available. As for extra books, Bouchercon 2009 will be working with Feeding Body and Mind to take care of leftovers -- and we will be soliciting donations for this group from all attendees. The bag, incidentally, costs about $4000. We are grateful to the Mystery Writers of America for sponsoring the Bouchercon 2009 bag.

ON ALTERNATIVE PROGRAMMING: Pari was kind enough to note that I've been experimenting with new ideas at Magna Cum Murder. I've been fortunate to work with an inventive and energetic group of authors, and to work with a conference chair who gave me complete freedom to innovate. We'll be bringing a lot of these ideas to Bouchercon: continuous conversation, resolutions, "one conference, one book," a first novelists' round robin, etc., and we'll be doing a few new things, such as a craft room and the Bazaar. You can read about some of this stuff on our website. The overall goal is to foster connections. I agree with Hope, who says of writers that she wants "to listen to them speak as normal people, not someone famous." I think that "one conference, one book" is especially effective for this as it gives everyone a common place to begin a conversation. One thing we won't do is just put a single writer in a room with no topic -- "15 minutes of fame" or whatever other events call this. Though these sessions can sometimes be effective -- and they're a great way to do a bookstore event -- this feels to me too much like an "it's all about me" approach to a convention. Really, no convention session should be all about an individual writer -- other than the few guest of honor feature sessions.

ON INVOLVING GROUPS: Reed notes that organizations such as SinC, MWA and ITW "have vast experience with conferences large and small" and that they "represent the interests of their members." I fully agree with his suggestion that conference planners engage these groups in the planning process, and we have in fact given these and other groups the opportunity to design and sponsor sessions on our program. I have reached out in many different ways to many different organizations and companies because I know that they're capable of bringing different experiences and expertise to the table. In most cases, folks have been eager to find ways to partner with us. Sisters and Crime is doing some extraordinary stuff, including the pre-conference SinC into Great Writing, an incredible value for writers, and a tea that honors librarians. Our vision is simple: Bouchercon doesn't belong to any one group or constituency or point of view, it belongs to the genre as a whole. In bringing in these groups -- and more -- we are trying to make that vision a reality.

GETTING INVOLVED: We've been watching some old episodes of The West Wing at home, and a line from a first season episode has been stuck in my head lately: "decisions are made by people who show up." Leslie urges folks to volunteer to help with conventions. I do too. Show up, participate in making decisions, and help keep these conventions vibrant. These events are important resources that help keep our genre great, and they need your help!