When I recently totted up the costs of attending Ytterbium, the name for this year’s annual Eastercon (the annual UK science fiction convention), it was rather disheartening to see that: petrol + car park fees + tickets for the con + table costs + hotel costs + food + drink = a lot of money (into the hundreds, anyway). As someone who runs a small press and who doesn’t see hundreds of pounds as merely small change it’s a lot to invest in an event when the return (in terms of book sales) will be negligible. (And that’s even without considering the costs of time invested.)
Though when fellow indie publishers and writers ask me if cons and literary events are worth attending I inevitably say ‘yes’ – with the proviso that they don’t bankrupt themselves in the process. Because, although it may seem as though the returns are invisible, I believe them to be substantial, and in many ways cumulative, building year on year, rather like compound interest.
It was Francesca Tristan Barbini of Luna Press Publishing who first made me aware of these “invisible returns”, pointing out that as small presses we don’t spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising. Attending cons is an effective – yet condensed – way of getting our books and our presses known, hence connecting our books to the readers most likely to want them. It also gets us out into the community to connect with writers and other publishers, and gives us the chance to catch up and let our hair down for an evening or two.
Getting a book deal
Attending this year’s Eastercon I was struck by the number of invisible and not-so-invisible returns that happened due to writers attending and getting involved in the spirit of the con. First, there was the experience of Arthur Chappell, who was launching his book Watch the Signs! Watch the Signs! (published by the ever-excellent Shoreline of Infinity). Since I was doing a reading alongside Arthur I got to hear the story behind the publication of his book. Two years ago he’d attended Eastercon and given a talk about pub signs that referenced science fiction, fantasy and horror. Noel Chidwick, Shoreline’s editor, had attended the talk and, wanting to know more, afterwards asked if Arthur had a book on the subject and could he buy it. Arthur didn’t have a book out, but Noel, having the ways and means of making the book happen, offered to publish it. Two years later, the book become a reality and Arthur went from enthusiast to published writer. (Having bought a copy I can genuinely say it makes for a great read and is, basically, the perfect gift for a pub-loving genre fan!)
Obviously, it’s not often that a talk given by an enthusiast will culminate in a book deal, but it does happen. Arthur’s is one of a handful of examples I know of in which a writer talks passionately about a subject at a convention or literary event and then goes on to secure a book deal. But the point is, it does happen.
Learning of new submission opportunities
As brilliant as social media and the online writing community is for spreading the word about submission opportunities, for those writers cutting back on social media (or imposing limits on their time spent online), there will always be opportunities that they don’t get to hear about. But also, the sheer amount of opportunities out there can be overwhelming and it can be hard to single out the most relevant and worthwhile ones. Yet, as a genre writer attending a genre convention, the opportunities presented will have a high chance of being relevant and timely.
This Eastercon, I learnt that Angry Robot (a well-loved and successful press in the world of SFF) would be opening their doors to unagented submissions for the whole of May. I got chatting to the new commissioning editor, Eleanor Teasdale, and was super-impressed by her professionalism, enthusiasm and drive. The attendees that visited the Angry Robot table came away with a book and this information – absolutely perfect for those writers with the right kind of manuscript looking for a good home.
Likewise, I got chatting to Francesca Tristan Barbini of Luna Press Publishing and we ended up talking about their latest submission opportunity – a call for papers for the current non-fiction book project entitled, Ties That bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction. Again, another perfect opportunity for a non-fiction writer to highlight their expertise in this subject as well as getting published by an award-winning and well-respected publisher.
Finding a critique group
Another bonus of attending conventions is chatting to like-minded writers who are just as interested in the genre as you, and then discovering that they live locally to you. I ended up talking to a few “locals” about genre writing and then the discussion moved onto support for writers in the area, local crit groups, and the fabulous Nottingham Writers’ Studio. To cut a long story short, if you’re looking for a SFF crit group in your locality and go to a con, you may well come away with a brand new writing support group!
Meeting your heroes
Catching up with friends at cons is wonderful, of course, but then meeting and making new friends is an added bonus. This year I was lucky enough to meet Christopher Priest, a writer-hero to many who are fans of science fiction and fantasy. He was as intelligent and erudite as I would’ve expected him to be, but also down-to-earth and very easy to talk to. We chatted for some time about topics as diverse as academia, parenting, writing, success, Scotland and salt (!) and I went away enriched by our conversation.
For all the hundreds of pounds spent on attending the con I came home buzzing with the experience and sure that it had been money well invested.