How Do You Choose the Best Conventions and Writers Retreats?

Header image via E. Hebishy

As conventions return to normal schedules, there are a lot to choose from, whether you are a writer, reader, fan, or reviewer. Depending on your goals, the best conventions for you may differ from someone else, but generally speaking a “good” convention is one that delivers for all parties involved.

There are a number of factors separating the successful events from the ones that fall short. Knowing in advance which will be winners is tough work, but not entirely impossible. Still, there is an unavoidable element of trial and error. Not every author is going to do well at every convention. A particular convention can be excellent one year and be an entirely different experience the next. Brand new conventions can be exciting and the organizers responsive to vendors and attendees. They can also be chaotic. Over time a convention can grow into an established and well-organized event. In the process, it can become less responsive and lose some of the qualities that made it great in the first place. The number of stories of vendors trying to hunt down someone just to give them a wifi password is staggering.

I discussed the differences between good and bad conventions with a number of writers, both new and experienced; regular attendees as fans and readers; and others who experience conventions and retreats from different points of views. From these discussions, I gleaned the best practices on finding the best events to attend.

Purpose of the Convention

Understanding the stated goals and focus of an event and its organizers is a good first step toward knowing if it is going to be a good fit. There is no guarantee they will achieve their stated purpose, but it will give a good idea of where their priorities lie.

Some conventions are focused on fans and selling. Other conventions are industry and networking events. Either can be valuable to the writer or attendee, depending on what they want to get out of the weekend. The closer the match between the attendee and the purpose of the convention, the more likely everyone will have a great experience.

Cost and Distance

Unfortunately, this is the number one factor for many when it comes to attending events. It also limits the number of conventions you can attend, raising the stakes for the ones you do. The cost of a vendors table or ticket, the rate of the convention hotel room, meals, and travel costs all factor in. Do you need to fly versus drive? If you’re vending, do you need to transport your books? If you choose to drive, is it a multi-day drive adding to hotel and travel costs? Maybe you are limited to events in your immediate area. Sharing travel expenses or staying in less expensive accommodations offsite can mitigate the cost but can also impact the experience.

Testimonies

Feedback from people who have attended an event in the past can be invaluable in judging a convention. This does not mean the quotes shared by the organizers on their website. Useful reports usually come from private conversations or messages. Everyone’s experience is subjective, of course. The more conventions a person has attended, the broader their point of comparison will be. Two people can have polar opposite opinions of a convention, leaving you to wonder, but if the majority of the word-of-mouth is negative, you’ll start to get a clearer picture. If the reports are conflicting, you may have a situation where an event is centered around a tight clique of individuals who cater to each other, leaving newcomers out in the cold. Events can change greatly from year to year due a wide number of things, many of which are behind the scenes, so you’re still taking a gamble.

This does not work for brand new events that might be great, but have no track record. Testimonials about the organizers themselves or other factors from this list can be used in the case of a new event.

Who Will Be There?

This includes who the official guests are, but also the other vendors and attendees. Going to an event full of people you know can completely change your experience. Even if those people are peers you met online or from social media, seeing them in person and having someone to hang out with can be very reassuring.

Celebrity guests at a convention can shade your experience. If that’s who you want to meet, then great. If you are selling your own wares, super popular guests can draw crowds, but might have many attendees tied up for hours waiting in line. Their money might be spent before they make a quick pass through the vendor room. Many authors stated on an anecdotal basis that big conventions with big guests often result in less sales. The value of the draw of guests split the opinions of the people I interviewed right down the middle. You’ll have to draw your own conclusions on that.

Promotion

This is especially tricky to judge. You might see a convention talked about everywhere online, but it might just be other authors, not potential buyers and attendees. If you see readers talking about an event, then that might mean something. If the event has an active Facebook group with a lot of involvement or a long history online, that can be promising. Some conventions mentioned over and over as great by multiple people I interviewed included clearly defined leadership that stayed in contact throughout the year with videos and posts. An old Facebook page with wide gaps between posts or posts from the page admin only tells you something, too.

A huge factor in recent successful conventions has been the level of local advertising. Regardless of region, city, or venue, the conventions that put in the footwork to advertise the event at surrounding businesses and in local media tended to have the highest levels of attendance.

Fit to Your Current Goals

If you want to see your friends, that is the factor that impacts where you go and why. If you are there to make money, the type of convention and who attends will play the biggest role. If you are transitioning between genres or are promoting particular new releases, then the genre focus of the convention matters. Many writers in transition have to leave behind conventions they attended in the past for ones more closely tied to the types of stories they are currently writing. 

Sometimes the panels or workshops at particular conventions help with the experience. Their relevance to the attendees and their interests helps. For most people, this only applies to a degree. If one particular panel is included or not, it probably doesn’t significantly change the whole experience. If they are poorly organized or poorly attended, that doesn’t help. No one seems to be picking conventions based on exactly which panels are included or not.

Invites

Reaching a level of success where you are invited as a guest to a convention is quite a milestone. It can change how you are treated and your overall experience. It gives you a chance for a different level of exposure. Being a guest at a bad convention or one that is poorly attended can still be a bad experience, though. There are conventions that call almost everyone a guest. There are conventions that call you a guest, but offer no perks, or expect you to cover your own costs as if you are a regular attendee. It’s a hard honor to turn down, but you have to take a step back and decide if being a guest at a particular convention is worth it for you.

Off Brand on the Off Chance

This is a risky strategy that sometimes pays off. Being the only bookseller at a comic book convention, a heavy metal event, or some other type of convention can mean you get attention from people looking for something different or it could mean you get ignored. Going to a convention focused on a different genre might be a worthy gamble, too. If you are a horror writer who includes elements of sci fi in their work, then you might do well at sci fi and fantasy conventions. If the convention in question is expanding into related genres and supports your exploration, that can be especially beneficial. A romance convention that invites horror authors because paranormal romance fans have requested it is a great opportunity. Know that every genre has its own rules and customs around conventions. It’s very easy to be a fish out of water. It benefits you to contact vendors or attendees who can show you the ropes and help you navigate a slightly different literary culture successfully.

Give it a Shot and Decide if it’s Worth Going Again

Ultimately, you just have to give it a shot. You can then decide if it is worth attending again, attending two or three years down the road, or never again.

Other Dividing Lines

• Professionalism and Organization

Everything the organizers and volunteers can do to make an event run smoothly increases your chance of having a good experience. Good leadership was mentioned over and over by individuals from all different backgrounds when asked what makes a convention great. An unprofessional or rude organizer can ruin a weekend in a moment. You can sell a lot at a chaotic event, but still have a bad time. A streamlined event might not be a success for you in particular for other reasons. Given the choice, an organized and professional experience is always preferred.

• Responsiveness and Treatment

Conventions can be notorious for being slow to answer questions, which is frustrating when you’ve paid them money for a table. If you have a problem at an event, you want it addressed in a timely manner, even if they can’t give you exactly what you want. If you are ignored or treated as an afterthought, it sends a clear message that you and your experience are not important, just your money. On the other hand, it really only takes a little bit of kindness and consideration to make you feel appreciated.

• Quality of Facilities

Sometimes ceilings leak in nice hotels. But they leak a lot more in cheap hotels. Rundown hotels are less expensive for the organizers, but quickly make an event not worth your money. Elevators past their inspection dates are not ideal. A vendors room that is hidden in some maze of interconnecting rooms with discolored walls is not conducive to sales or a positive experience. Lack of air conditioning isn’t going to encourage potential customers to hang out for a chat about your books.

• Attendance and Quality of Attendees

A convention where no one attends is not going to be a success. It might be a fun story at the bar at better conventions, but that’s hardly worth paying for. Worse is a convention supposedly set up as a fan convention that is only attended by authors. You just end of staring at each other and trading books instead of selling anything. Having lots of people at a convention is ideal. Still, a medium to small crowd full of interested readers can be far more lucrative for you personally than a crowded con where no one glances in your direction.

• Financial Return

Vendors often only break even at certain conventions. Especially starting out. Once you include all the costs of table, room, and travel, it’s very common. At a certain point, if writing is your career, streamlining your convention choices might be a priority.

• Atmosphere and Safety

Atmosphere and safety are really two different ideas, but they work together to create a feeling of welcome, comfort, and belonging. This touches on the importance of good leadership again. The people running the event, the volunteers, the guests, and the attendees all play some part in an atmosphere being positive or negative. Safety is mostly on the organizers. Bad planning can create confusion or even unsafe situations. A few bad individuals with bad intentions can ruin everything, but the proactive and reactive work of the people running an event decides how far a bad player gets in doing harm to others and their experience.

Networking

Some conventions are designed around the idea of networking. Often, professional connections are made at conventions where this isn't the primary goal. Book deals, informal mentor relationships, and awareness of an author’s work by gatekeepers are all in the cards at the right event. Much of this happens in social situations or informal gatherings after the official scheduling of the day is over. A good venue with a bar, restaurant, and seating areas can contribute to these moments.

John Wayne Comunale, infamous for the number of conventions he vends at, pointed out that while sales is an important metric for success at an event, much of what he seeks to accomplish requires building connections. Some of the great conventions for him included ones where he didn’t quite turn a profit, but built relationships with supporters and peers that resulted in rewards later on.

• Formal vs Pop-Up Events

Much of this column is centered around formally organized conventions following traditional patterns. More and more writers are mentioning less formal events as being important to their career and convention schedule. Local pop-up events can include book signings organized by the authors themselves, small local festivals, events at breweries or readings at bars, drive-in theater horror nights, independent film screenings, and more. Many of these pop-up events are dependent on the authors putting them together. You can organize something yourself in your area or connect with other authors already putting events together.

• Your Personality

A number of authors I interviewed mentioned particular authors who seem to do well no matter which event they attend. They’ve developed communication skills and a persona that attracts people to their table. They interact well and pitch their books in a concise way. They might perform well at readings or endear themselves to attendees during panels. These authors say they have learned a lot about using their own personalities to make conventions more successful for themselves.

Writers Retreats

Separate from fan and networking conventions are writers retreats. These are gatherings of various sizes focused on taking time to get writing done. Authors mentioned a number of different things that make these types of events work. Some of the bigger and more formal bootcamp or learning academy style experiences for writers were good because of the instructors who were there. In many cases, writers said they enjoyed retreats that were smaller and more intimate. Some included sharing samples of work and critiques, but a number of writers mentioned not liking this as much, saying they used weekly writing groups for that sort of feedback and preferred writing time and interaction in a shorter, more intensive retreat settings.

Many authors said they have started organizing their own private writers retreats with close colleagues. This allows for more writing and social interaction after a day of writing. Whether formal or informal, the private discussions on craft and the business of writing were considered quite valuable by attendees, and was second only to the time spent writing without the usual distractions of everyday life.

Like with conventions, many of the factors listed in the sections above are still in play. With writers retreats in particular, testimonials of past attendees were even more helpful in knowing whether a particular event was a good fit or not.

Conclusions

There are no guarantees. No single factor sets up an event for success. Gather as much data as you can and before deciding what conventions to attend. Once you’ve made that choice, do everything within your sphere of control to maximize your experience. Good luck and have fun.

Jay Wilburn

Column by Jay Wilburn

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in beautiful Conway, South Carolina. He is a full-time writer of horror and speculative fiction. Jay left his job as a teacher to become a full time writer and has never looked back. Well, that’s not entirely true. He wants to be sure he isn’t being followed, so he looks back sometimes.

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