Does Convention Visibility Matter?

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen many successful writers make mention of the issue of visibility – the connecting of interested reader with published story.  These writers were not happy with their current visibility, and all commented about how difficult it was to know what would and wouldn’t work to increase success.  And these writers are trade-published, having the same conversation self-published writers have every day.

Gen Con’s Writer Symposium was quite educational in that regard.

A panel on how to get reviews was very specific in how writers were to approach reviewers, with all emphasis on demonstrating proper etiquette and expecting nothing in return.  The writer should submit a request.  The writer shouldn’t expect a response.  One panelist stated publishers didn’t do the reviewer-approaching for most writers anymore and the other panelists nodded agreement.  The consensus was that all but the most-publicized writers should expect to actively seek and collect their own reviews.  Whether the trade-published author was expected to send the reviewer an ARC and/or eARC at their own cost wasn’t clear to me.

As the panelists went into greater detail on the methods of gaining reviews and properly reacting to reviews, I was thinking to myself it was great information.  I’d love to approach other reviewers and–fingers crossed!–achieve a little positive visibility.  Here was the roadmap, right?

Nope.

Most of the panel made it quite clear they’d assume any self-published writer approaching them for a review was lousy and would approach their review accordingly.  One warned that the author “better be prepared” for such a review.  Since there were (I’m estimating) perhaps thirty or so folks in the audience, I was left wondering how many of the audience were trade-published novelists, and how many were self-publishers who learned only that the panelists were inimical to all but traditionally-published books.

(Aside: The stance of those reviewers saddened me. In addition to my writer-self disappointment, my reader-self is fucking sick and tired of reading “professional” reviews of the same books and the same authors over and over and over.  Once upon a time, reviews were a form of discovery.  Lately they seem to be nothing but confirmation of the well-known.  I can stand only so many Read The Same Blockbuster As Everyone Else Because Reasons! reviews.)

I did, however, think the Symposium panel on self-publishing would be… oh, I don’t know… perhaps supportive and informational.  Alas, a great deal of time was given over to discussing the struggle of getting one’s self-published print books into physical bookstores, and whether Kindle Select was worth the exclusivity.  It felt more like an awkward attempt to fulfill a requirement than a panel of folks interested in the topic.

One of the panelists even announced he was there at the organizer’s request to be “devil’s advocate” about self-publishing.  Why?  Well, I can only guess it’s because self-publishers just might get too excited.  Or something   Truly, he wasn’t necessary since there was very little supportive and informational content overall.  Or perhaps the conversation was stunted by knowing the panel had been set up to have a negative response to any possible advantage put forth.  (Yes, that’s mere speculation based upon available knowledge.)

With about two minutes to go in the panel, an audience member asked about publishing “services” like Author Solutions that would “take care of everything” for you.  The clock ticked down as mention of Writer Beware and other resources were speedily rattled off  Ye gads.  If it were up to me, if a convention has only one panel on self-publishing, it danged well better include discussion of scams versus services, online support resources and communities, legal/business issues, and expectations.

Back to the topic of visibility.

My second lesson in publisher-supported visibility came from the swag bag given to Symposium attendees.  Publisher “A” provided a multi-page booklet of a new and much-publicized novel.  Publisher “B” had included a paperback—a volume from a popular series by a popular writer.  And the bag contained the usual assortment of slick postcards and bookmarks.

The Symposium scheduling booklet, given to every attendee, also provided advertising opportunities.  Publisher “A” had a half-page ad for the same book as the printed excerpt mentioned above.  Publisher “B” had the back cover to promote one of their events, not any of their authors.

The remaining half-page ads were not very effective due to poor design.  In most, the cover art was so reduced, the writer’s name (and usually the title as well) was difficult to impossible to read.  The small presses that went with full page ads did a good job with composition and readability.  One Big 5 publisher had a full page ad, and used it to promote three books by a single author.

Now, maybe the 2500+ attendees of Gen Con’s Symposium certain to see the advertisements (and the additional fifty thousand attendees who might see them) aren’t considered a large enough audience for publishers.  But, considering the number of novels released around the time of Gen Con, and the number of authors who could use even the smallest sales boost, I think it’s ridiculous—from a writer’s perspective—so few publishers chose to promote even fewer writers.  Frankly, it’s the perfect opportunity to promote a writer not considered big enough for more expansive publicity.  Instead, publishers appeared to promote their already-bestsellers.

Guess how much it costs to promote via the Writer’s Symposium.  Really.  Guess.

Here’s a hint:  It’s inexpensive enough I can do it for less than my monthly electric bill.  If I want to do the most expensive thing—be THE big sponsor for events—the bidding would start at two grand.  Now, that’s more than I want to pay, but it is not excessive.  It’s well within the budget of self-publishers who have achieved “midlist” success.  Everything else falls in between.  Here are the actual numbers for interested parties.

So I’m totally curious what promotion there might do for me.  On the day the 2015 Symposium advertising packages went live, I sent a note to the coordinator expressing my interest.  I’d like to purchase a half-page ad because I’ll have both the sequel to Sand of Bone and a new rural/urban paranormal* out by that time, and I’d like to purchase a second half-page for donation purposes.  Since the advertising page says the Symposium is “accepting applications,” I’m interested in what sort of response I, as a self-publisher, will get.  Will I be acceptable?  Stay tuned!

Don’t get me wrong: I do not believe Gen Con’s Symposium is against self-publishers per se.  Rather I think Gen Con provides the perfect encapsulation of the transition underway.  Years into it, self-publishing is still considered by many the oddity to be examined from afar lest it prove unsavory.  It is still known in the traditional world only by its most prominent figures (If Hugh Howey is the only self-publisher one can name… yeah.), with all other self-publishers looked at askance unless otherwise known to the organizers.

It is still considered by some convention organizers to be the realm of outsiders–the place trade-published writers might play a little on the side, where gems might sometimes be uncovered, but filled with the otherwise unworthy.  It’s also a growing segment of the SF community that those focused solely on the trade publishing model know little about.  Thus those convention organizers are more likely to invite and place on panels writers who have published a single novel via the Big 5 (even if the novel hasn’t yet hit stores) than writers who have published a dozen novels that sold in the tens of thousands.

So what can and should be done?  Eh, nothing, really.  Some conventions are more interested in conforming to the most popular and well-known.  Other conventions are more interested in expanding what’s popular and well-known.  (Wiscon, for example, welcomes self-publishers, and saw the Tiptree awarded to a small-press author whose first print run was under 800.)  It’s all a matter of perspective, really.

But it does leave me with questions.  Would increased participation in conventions also increase the marketing visibility of self-published writers?  Might advertising to the convention-going crowd result in increased sales and cross-industry recognition?  Are self-publishers disadvantaged by low participation in conventions, or does it not matter?  Could participation bring about a swifter end to the “I know you are but what am I” snarkfests that crop up between devoted trade-publishing professionals and equally devoted self-publishing professionals, or would it result in greater divisions?

While I’d love to see the convention atmosphere I love be open to the form of publication I adore, I don’t see it happening for a few more years yet.  And I don’t think we’ll know if it matters until that time comes.

Once again the answer is… Stay tuned!

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4 thoughts on “Does Convention Visibility Matter?”

  1. I think conferences, in general, have been so pro-traditional publishing for so long that it’s going to be a while until we see significant change in regard to true inclusion of quality self-publishing panels, etc. At the moment, it’s more like, “Hmmm… this self-publishing thing might bring a few people in. Let’s throw them an unfocused, poorly planned bone.” 😉 And, when most major sponsors for conferences are trad publishers, they’re certainly not going to want to give time in the spotlight away to their main competitor.
    I attended two conferences this year and hope to attend each again this year (Liberty State Writer’s Conference in NJ and BookCon in NYC). I’ll be curious to see how and if they’ve made concessions to the growing popularity of self publishing. You can only give it lip-service for so long, especially when you have self-published books frequenting the top 10 on a regular basis (Bella Andre, Russel Blake, John Locke, Barry Eisler, Joe Konrath, Bob Mayer… just to name some non-Hugh Howeys).

    1. I’ll be interested to hear what you find at those conferences! Wiscon was quite open to all forms of publishing, both in their dealer’s room and on their panels. Were there pushy and whiny self-published writers, along with smart and helpful self-published writers? Yes. Were there pushy and whiny trade-published writers along with smart and helpful trade-published writers? Yes. It was quite balanced. 🙂

      It’s an odd thing, watching the industry shift and evolve. I’m just not certain yet that conventions are actually helpful to the career, or if they are simply enjoyable venues.

      1. Haha… I think conferences are what you make out of them, and what you expect out of them. For me, I’m more interested in craft and marketing related events, as opposed to the “how-to-get-published” and look at how great this one author is events anymore. And, part of the enjoyment is simply being among writers (even the pushy and whiny ones). 😉

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