So You've Decided To Attend A Professional Conference: An On-The-Ground Report Of Stokercon 2023 (Part 2)
Photos via the author
Previously, I talked about three things for those new to the whole professional conference game. 1: Remember that everyone’s an introvert, 2: the aphorism cons really happen at bars is true, and 3: FOMO is bullshit.
Before I wrap this up, I did want to explain the difference between professional conferences and other cons.
Prior to Stokercon 2023, I’d attended two professional conferences—one for (college) journalists (hullo, there), and one for English teachers. In both instances, I was a complete newbie—I hadn’t gotten my teaching license yet, and I’d fallen into being a journalist because my college girlfriend’s RA was an editor.
By the time Stokercon 2023 happened, I’d been published dozens of times and had seen my name on the cover of four books (ahem—Bones Are Made To Be Broken, Standalone, How We Broke (with Bracken MacLeod), and Everything Will Be All Right In The End: Apocalypse Songs). I wasn’t a newbie, anymore.
At fan cons, the writers are working, hawking their wares, trying to get those fans (hence the name) to buy their stuff. While a dealer’s room is at both types of cons, the emphasis isn’t on them at professional one. Put another way, professional cons are where writers relax amongst peers, and fan cons are where writers are actually working.
Anyway, here’s “Wonderwall”—I mean, my final three suggestions if you intend on ever attending a professional conference.
4. Yes, Networking Is A Thing, But...
You’ve heard the stories, can probably imagine them—movers and shakers, wheeling and dealing amongst themselves in various corners of the conference. Informal events that have lasting impact after the attendees shake the dust of the host city from their boots.
One writer connects with two others about a bookstore reading opportunity. ARCs of much-hyped books are handed out. Editors tell writers they’re chatting with to email them some work. Marketing plans are blue-skied over drinks.
All of these things and more happened in my presence, but, the tip here isn’t to feel unwanted when you’re not a part of them. As far as I observed, these instances are the natural evolution of con get-togethers. Business happens, mainly, I think, because ideas spark among those who’ve been to these types of events before and have grown comfortable and familiar with each other (the whole “introverts” thing from last article).
But say you’re like me and have never been to one? Then you’re probably not going to be a major component of these business deals and networking; sure, it can happen, and I saw it happen, but it might not. However, you shouldn’t try to manufacture those moments, and that’s the warning section of this tip. This rule and the next rule go together because...
5. ...Don’t Be An Opportunistic Dick
...combined, they could be labeled “Don’t Be A Starfucker.” Those business dealings arise from natural, true connections. Friendships. That’s the real secret of networking that’s irritatingly hard to either remember or articulate (depending on the situation, I guess). In the vast majority of business dealings I saw, it was between people who’d known each other for a while, years, and those few moments where it wasn’t, the fortunate recipient had legitimately been in the right place at the right time, in front of the right person.
Everyone can smell a starfucker coming, those opportunistic dicks who weasel their way into conversations with folks they think are “known” or can benefit them immediately, or who name-drop said names in order to cultivate an air of importance. It all smells like a compost bin under the hot July sun. Let me put it bluntly—it’s fucking obvious when you do it, when you’re so transactional you’ve forgotten what the word “authentic” means.
I didn’t have lunch (and, later, dinner) with Michael Bailey in order to convince him to keep publishing my work; I just wanted to meet the man who I’ve worked with for a decade.
I didn’t accept Dacia Arnold’s offer of lunch so I could manufacture a moment for Brian Keene to offer me a guest slot at the next Authorcon—actually, that’s an excellent anecdote to relate when I talk about authenticity. I’d wandered into the hotel bar for two reasons—to see if some actual friends were around and because I was craving the kitchen’s macaroni and cheese. Previously, I’d workshopped a friend’s pitch with them to go before a publisher, and I had time to kill before they finished.
I can’t even remember the circumstances of meeting Dacia Arnold, only that she had two tables filled with writers I knew, and she’d invited me to sit at the second table, along with Keene, Wes Southard, Robert Ottone, Wile E. Young, and others. Over the next hour and a half or so, we talked writers, music, comics, weather, Keene’s recent wedding with Mary SanGiovanni—everything except business. It was at this lunch where Keene told me that people know who I am (he has a copy of the novella Bracken and I wrote together, I learned) before the conversation rolled on to other things.
The lunch had absolutely no benefit for me beyond getting some good food and shooting the shit with peers. Y’know...connection.
6. Always Say “Yes” (Safely)
I went into Stokercon with this as my Golden Rule, and I followed it, so I end with this piece of advice. Want to have dinner at this hole-in-the-wall sushi bar? Yes. Want to raid the cookie table at the Bram Stoker Awards? Yes. Want to come to this secret after party that you can tell people about, but if any of said people suck Keene’s gonna blame you? Lemme have a cigarette first—then, yes.
I availed myself to the conference itself and didn’t adhere too strictly to my Scribd schedule. While prepping for the con, I debated signing up for the pitch sessions just so I could write about them—I had a few things I could pitch, I realized—but wound up signing up too late to do it. Didn’t matter—I wound up attending the preparatory panel, anyway, taking notes for this article and joking with one of the writers in the audience (every panelist gave contradictory information based on their own wants, and I found it hysterical).
Later, Jonathan Lees and I wound up apparently having the same internal cigarette break time, so we had a running conversation of interviews we’d conducted, exchanging anecdotes of interviewing Harlan Ellison. In another instance, I wandered the massive author signing initially with John Langan (The Fisherman) simply because I wanted to see what it was like (spoiler alert: chaos).
It might appear rudderless, but here’s a final anecdote. Because I was rudderless, I wound up at Keene’s Bram Stoker Award afterparty on Saturday night. Before the room broke out in “Happy Birthday” for the child of Cynthia Pelayo (Crime Scene, which she’d won the Stoker for earlier that night), I found myself in a corner with an associate editor for a fairly well-known mag.
The associate editor was new, too, to the whole conference thing. As we talked, I decided, fuck it, and, making sure it was okay with them (I understand social anxiety, if you have it), began taking them around the party, introducing them to everyone I already knew or had met over the weekend. Watching them emerge from their corner—it wasn’t shyness, just the overall newness of the experience—and dive deep into the social circumstances was one of the real highlights of the entire weekend, including when they joined in on the song. I helped get them out of the corner.
Here’s hoping I just did the same thing for you.
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