I went to my first science fiction convention in Halifax in 1979; Spider Robinson was the GOH, I was a star-struck fan. Over the years I’ve gone to Cons in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Boston, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Chicago. I nearly went to Melbourne in 1985 but had to cancel at the last minute so London World Con will be my first convention outside of North America. Cons have changed over the years and so have I.
For the first ten years, my interest was that of a fan. I had read hundreds of SF novels and stories and now I wanted to meet the men and women who wrote them. I had many memorable encounters and even made some friends. In the early 1990s, my interests expanded. I not only wanted to meet writers; I wanted to be one. I had already had some success as a playwright (theatre being my other great love) but now I joined a SF writing group and began to submit to magazines. My fan activities continued, of course. I organized writers’ workshops (I was the first to hire Robert J. Sawyer to run one – given his later success as a teacher, that’s a significant contribution to the field in itself) and worked on convention committees, including three years programming ConVersion in Calgary.
Then in 1996, I sold my first two science fiction stories and everything changed. Though conventions were still fun – meeting new people, browsing the dealers room, marveling at the costumes and the parties, oh, the parties – they now had another element. They were professional development. I was meeting and learning from more experienced writers, talking to editors to learn what they liked or needed, participating on panels to build a fan base. It was all still fun – but it was also calculated. Would this panel teach me more about being a writer or would that one? Was it more valuable to go to a party to meet editors or have supper with a writer I admired to pick her brains? The more I wrote and published, the less conventions seemed like leisure activities and the more they became extensions of the workplace.
Discussions moved from the general – what makes a good story – to the specific – what do I need to do to this story to sell it. Writers, editors and publishers enjoy being at conventions, enjoy mingling with readers and fans (and benefit from it in a variety of ways) but they also go there to do business. Writers meet with agents and editors; deals get made or at least explored. The offer to sell me Bundoran Press was made at World Fantasy Convention in Toronto; last week, at When Words Collide, I made a handshake deal with Edward Willett to buy a second novel from him. The contract was signed today. I also met with two authors and an artist to discuss edits and future projects. I discussed my own writing with a few people. As well, I sold some books, hosted a launch party, sat on panels – both serious and fun – met a lot of old friends and made a few new ones. As a book publisher and seller and an editor, I have to make a calculation as to whether the investment in time and money was worth outcomes, in terms of work accomplished and money made (and fun had). That calculation is part of what determines whether I go again. I make that calculation after every single convention I go to and before I sign up for a new one.
Recently, I posted on Facebook that I hoped all the work and expense of going to Fan Expo 2013 would be worth it. A fan took umbrage, suggesting such speculations were unprofessional. To me they were perfectly professional. I need to sell books – quite a few books – to justify, as a business, going to an event like that. I don’t need to make a profit (though that would be nice) but I need to approach breaking even. At Fan Expo, this is particularly important because I’ll be spending most of my time in my booth; the fun quotient is likely to be low. I also don’t expect to do a lot of other business – none of my current authors are from Toronto. Not making sufficient money to cover costs on a regular basis is a pretty good way to stop being a publisher. And I’d rather not do that.
So, for all those going to Fan Expo, spare a little thought to the retailers, publishers, artists and others who man the booths, away from the photo sessions and autograph tables. We do it for the love, it’s true, but love doesn’t pay the bills. So seek out your favorite table and drop a few of your hard-earned shekels. I would be nice if that was me – but I’m sure others feel the same way. Because we would all like to come back again next year.