Bouchercon rocks

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I’m home from Bouchercon and as always, not very happy about it, the being home part. I haven’t been able to settle down all week. Pages are being written, newsletters are being sent, my taxes got done, even – but I am not entirely back, in my own mind.

And today is my Bouchercon blog. Where to begin?

Living in California for so long, especially my years in NoCal, I’ve heard a lot of Neal Cassady stories over the years from people who actually knew him. (Cassady was Jack Keroauc’s friend who served as the model for Kerouac’s legendary character Dean Moriarty.) And one thing I’ve heard from all kinds of sources that seems true rather than legend is that the man had an uncanny ability to pick a conversation up exactly where it had left off, even if years had passed since he and the person he was talking to had seen each other.

That’s to me what Bouchercon is like. There are a LOT of people in this community who feel like my best friends in the world, the people who know me best (and me AT my best) – who I only see once or twice a year. But the connection is deeper than most of what you get in the real world, because first – as writers, we KNOW each other. We know exactly what all the rest of us do just about every second of every day, we know how we feel about it, we know what makes a good day and what makes a bad day, we know each other’s exact fears and our exhilarations – we all have the same operating system, basically. So when we see each other there are no preliminaries necessary; we pick up the conversation where we left off, and take it deeper and further than it can go with someone who is not of the same world. Not only that, but the layers and puns and references and jokes are so much more interesting than ordinary conversation; writers are hilariously funny people and we love wordplay; it’s like fencing (or dancing!) with someone of equal skill.

We work so hard all the time, and this is our chance to play.

Of course there have been a lot of BCon wrap-ups on various blogs and lists this week, and I was kind of surprised to find that not everyone is a fan of this conference – it’s my hands-down favorite, the most fun, the most inspiring. Now, I totally get that it can be intimidating – lots of people, easy to get lost or bowled over by the sheer star power walking around those halls. But even if no one ever talked to me I could still never miss it because of all I learn. I don’t understand the people who complain that the star authors get all the attention, that it’s hard to get a panel, that midlist authors get lost. Well, of course the star authors do get a LOT of the attention. I’ve always figured that when I’VE written – oh, twenty-five beloved books – I might get that kind of attention, too. But let’s get a grip! While I’m working on those books I can go to panels where I can hear people who HAVE written dozens of beloved books talk about their process, their passion, their own inspiration, and I can get better. Maybe even get worthy.

At the San Francisco Bouchercon, in the very same day, I saw Val McDermid interviewing Denise Mina, and then Robert Crais interviewing Lee Child. Excuse me? Those two hours ALONE are worth the whole price of admission. And as I sat through those two hours, a bunch of ideas I’ve had for a long time suddenly coalesced into the storyline for Huntress Moon.

If I had been totally anonymous for that whole conference, if I hadn’t sold one book, it wouldn’t have mattered in the slightest. I got not just one book, but a whole SERIES out of that one afternoon.

And I don’t think it was any accident that this year I was put on a panel with, yes, Val McDermid – AND Elizabeth George – two authors I admire so much I was actually afraid I wouldn’t be able to speak, but there I was, able to thank them publicly and professionally for how they’ve inspired me.

I think attitude might have a little to do with what you get out of the experience. I noticed, for example, that our own lovely Sarah Wesson had no problem joining conversations with any number of star authors, and people were delighted to have her. Yes, she’s a librarian and probably knows that all authors worship at librarians’ collective feet, so maybe that’s not a good example – but actually I think it is. Sarah has paid her dues, is paying her dues. That is, I think, the actual price of admission. We have to do the work before we get to play.

Speaking of playing – the theme of this conference was Cleveland Rocks, and it really did. It’s one of the most exhilarating things to me about this community that so many authors are musical (and total hams). Did you know Lee Child plays guitar, bass AND sax?  That many talents in one package – I mean, person – is almost too much to take. Did you know that Joe Finder was a Whiffenpoof (the legendary Yale a cappella men’s group)?  Classic Bouchercon moment: Paul Wilson and I were standing at the bar at the Hard Rock party talking about performing “The Lime in the Coconut” together (well, and just that, there – I am in a universe in which F. Paul Wilson can randomly turn to me and say, “We should do ‘The Lime in the Coconut’…) and Joe suddenly starts singing it beside us in this gorgeous second tenor voice – and I never, ever knew that about him. It’s just magical.

My friend and idol Heather Graham has roped a whole lot of us into – I mean generously provided an outlet for us to exercise those talents with each other on a regular basis. This year, she hostessed a party at the House of Blues where her Slushpile band, which this time meant Heather, Paul Wilson, Dave Simms, Matthew Dow Smith, Greg Varricchio, Shane Pozzessore, and I – were able to perform with really anyone who felt like coming up with us: Daniel Palmer, who did a smoking harmonica solo to finish up his original “Bouchercon Blues”, Don Bruns doing his best Jimmy Buffet impersonation, Joelle Charbonneau, equally lovely at torch and opera.

I can see this party, and the band, growing into a regular fixture at BCon as it is at Romantic Times and Heather’s fabulous Writers for New Orleans conference (in December this year, and everyone should come!) and it’s one of the best rewards I can imagine for keeping my nose to the grindstone for most of the rest of the year.

Bouchercon is also a place for me to get a feel for what’s really going on in our business. This year, of course, the tension between indie publishing and traditional publishing was an undercurrent, in conversations with agents, publishers, and on panels as well.

Case in point, the “Heroes and Villains” panel, featuring Murderati’s own Martyn Waites and Alafair Burke, Mark Billingham, Karin Slaughter and John Connolly.

Fantastic panel, roll-on-the-floor funny, I always love this particular combination of authors. But I do have to address John Connolly’s interesting rant at the end of it – I guess loosely filed under the idea of “villains”.

I’m a huge, I’d even say rabid, fan of Connolly’s and I understand that there was a specific subtext to all of this – but I can only deal with what was said aloud and what I and the rest of the room heard.

He was basically accusing people who have been successful in e book sales as wanting to “destroy the printed word.” I don’t know who HE might know who actually feels this way but I certainly don’t know anyone who wants that. Certainly not Joe Konrath, the obvious person Connolly was talking about.

I used to teach in the L.A. juvenile court system, teenagers, almost all gang kids, and there was a very sweet kid who took it on himself to look after me in the lockup camps, and the one time I ever saw him get truly angry was the time he pulled me out from a fight between two guys that I was trying to break up and he yelled at me – “You don’t NEVER get in the middle between Crips and Bloods.” So maybe I should just stay out of this now.

But by couching it in general terms the way he did, Connolly was grouping me into this “hatred of the printed word” category, too.

I spent some time at Bouchercon talking with other authors and being very specific about the kinds of sales I’m making with e books because I want other authors to know that there is this alternative to traditional publishing, that it is doable, that it is a whole lot easier and more logical than some people say, and that it is a much more viable living than I and a lot of my midlist – I should say “formerly midlist” – friends were making with traditional publishing.

As a screenwriter and a former Board of Directors member of the Writers Guild (including organizing for the writers’ strike) I’ve seen every kind of way a writer can be exploited. And we are. We are easy targets because the people who cut the checks know oh so very well that we will write NO MATTER WHAT. We will strive to do our best work NO MATTER WHAT. Insult us, demean us, cheat us, fire us, underpay us, don’t pay us at all – we will still write.

So when Joe talks about his sales numbers I see it as a political act, and I am grateful. Traditionally published authors have often been circumspect about how much our advances are and how much we’re making a year because it was appallingly low. Pointing out HOW low, compared to what e publishing can net a talented author who is willing to do the work, is breaking a long, long taboo that did not serve us.

I’m sure that Connolly wasn’t trying to say that authors who think about and talk about what we’re paid for e books are crass or base or somehow not real artists, but – perhaps because he wasn’t being specific about what he really WAS saying – that’s how it ended up sounding.  And to say that any of us are “out to destroy the printed word” is just specious. I happen to read almost exclusively on my Kindle now because it’s so much more comfortable to hold and move around with for the five or six hour stretches I often read. But the books I read are the SAME BOOKS – no matter what the delivery system. The fact that authors get more money for those same books because of the delivery system is a good thing, if you ask me.

I could go on and on – obviously, I kind of have – but THIS is what Bouchercon does for me. It puts me in touch with myself, my friends, my colleagues, my idols, and my business.

I don’t know… sounds like a winner to me.

Thank you, Marjorie Mogg and all the fantastic volunteers who make it happen, every magical year.



Okay, it’s October, the busiest month of the year for me, because

1. It’s Halloween, and I write spooky, and

2. It’s the month before NaNoWriMo, and by now I feel almost a sacred duty to prep people for it instead of letting them just launch into the month on November 1 with no clue what they’re going to be writing.

So I’m doing a NaNo prep series on my blog that you can join in on here:

But also this week, I’ve made the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbook FREE on Kindle, so if you haven’t grabbed a copy by now, here’s your chance.

AND – for Halloween, I’m giving away 31 signed hardcovers of either The Unseen or Book of Shadows, your choice (and yes, if you win and you’d rather have an e book of something else, that’s totally fine, just say so. 

Sign up to enter here.

Happy Halloween!

27 thoughts on “Bouchercon rocks

  1. Martyn Waites

    Great post, Alex and, as always, great to see you. There is a point that needs answering about my panel, though.

    Yes, we were talking about him. We made a conscious decision beforehand not to mention him by name. Two reasons. Firstly, a lot of the audience might not have known (or cared) who he was. Secondly, we didn't want to give him what a previous, hated British Prime Minister when talking about terrorists, called the oxygen of publicity. Now I realise that by writing this I might actually be doing the same so for the purposes of this response I'll call him by the name that another writer gave him at a previous Bouchercon based on his style, deportment and general coherence of argument: the Unabomber.

    If the Unabomber doesn't want to 'destroy the printed word' then he shouldn't be talking disparagingly about 'dead tree publishing', or 'legacy publishing' or any of the authors published by them. And he certainly shouldn't allow himself to be photographed burning books as he was on the cover of Crimespree magazine. It's words and actions like that which mark him out. Crass is as crass does. He's a pathetic individual.

    Mark was also talking about him since the Unabomber called anyone who signed the letter of a few weeks ago agreeing not to use sockpuppets either to praise their own work or, more importantly, anonymously attack others as 'whiny little bitch boys'. He claimed it was a witchhunt and MacCarthyism in action and that everyone on the list was only doing it because we weren't selling. Considering the list had names such as Lee Child and Ian Rankin, that kind of blows his argument apart.

    So, as demonstrated by his own actions and words, the Unabomber's in favour of burning books. The Unabomber's in favour of anonymously attacking other writers in an attempt to undermine or even destroy their careers. And of course, whenever anyone attacks him he falls back on the arguments of the irredeemably stupid and terminally deluded: They're angry with me because they know I'm right. No. People are angry with him because he's an asshole.

    Interestingly, I had a couple of self published authors come up to me after the panel and say they agreed with everything we said and that they wanted nothing to do with him and didn't want to be considered alongside him. So his message isn't working as well as he claims it is.

    John wasn't talking about you, Alex, or anyone else trying to make a living from ebooks. It's hard enough to make a living from writing as it is, however you're published. Ultimately, ebooks are just another delivery format. We were talking about the Unabomber and his tedious acolytes who have attempted to hijack the conversation and turn it into self-promotion for themselves at the expense of other writers. There is a conversation still to be had about this but assholes like him shouldn't be invited. He's invalidated his opinions by his actions and comments. He's irrelevant.

    But as I said, it was great to see you and a great weekend. And lest anyone reading this think it was all arguing, I haven't had a drink all week in an attempt to let my body recover.

  2. PippaW

    Thank you for sticking up for books – regardless of format. I love words, I love the way they look and taste in my mouth. My kindle is just the most practical way to get those tasty words inside me. I still read books too, but the medium is practical – I'm not replacing books on my kindle yet, but I'm certainly reading MORE and buying a lot more.

    Glad you had a good conference!

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, Martyn, you're a theater person. Joe comes out of improv. I haven't seen the Crimespree cover, and it might appall me – I disagree with Joe on a lot of things, privately and publicly, including how he responded to the paid and fake reviews. But I can't believe YOU are this outraged over obvious theatricality.

    Then again, you don't have the political tradition of Abbie Hoffman – and the Boston Tea Party (not the current Tea Party from hell) over there. Then again, you invented the Pythons.

    I'm sorry, but by not being forthright about what that diatribe really was about, you – well not you, because you didn't say any of these things, but Connolly – undermined your argument with me. If the real issue was that Joe "called anyone who signed the letter of a few weeks ago agreeing not to use sockpuppets either to praise their own work or, more importantly, anonymously attack others as 'whiny little bitch boys'," then say so instead of saying he's out to destroy the printed word.

    And I was particularly disturbed by Connolly's implication that real writers aren't concerned about the money they make or don't make because it should be all about the writing (I'm sorry, I don't remember the exact phrasing). This is EXACTLY the argument that's always been used by our employers to guilt us into accepting less than we're worth. To have a beloved author parrot that bullshit is heartbreaking.

    Talking AROUND the real target was not having an honest conversation, is what I'm saying, and obviously it's still bothering me a week later.

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Pippa, me too – I buy and read a lot more now that I have a Kindle. Instant accessibility to any book I want is just intoxicating. And it is just SO much more comfortable to read virtually anywhere, in any position.

  5. Jake Nantz

    I just did my happy dance! I always love reading reports on Bouchercon, and yet I'm always sad because I can't afford to go unless it's ridiculously close and we have family in the area I can stay with.

    Then I looked to see where the next few are, and BOUCHERCON IS COMING TO MY HOME TOWN!!!

    So wait, you're telling me I can put in a sub and miss work to experience Bouchercon AND STAY AT MY HOUSE? SCORE!!

    If I also happen to be published by that point, it'll be Divine Intervention. No other explanation for it.

    Alex, not entering your contest because I already own all your books, but I hope the freebies get you some new loyal readers. Wish I could've seen Bob Crais interview Child, though. I'd have paid the entire conference fee just to watch that.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Gordon, always great to have you here.

    But come on, guys – I just clicked through that link and the photo is hilarious. I know burning books isn't funny – please! But comedy and satire are always about things that aren't really funny. Do you really not laugh at, oh, Saturday Night Live?

  7. Gordon Harries

    Hi Alex,

    I’m a Brit so, sadly, cut off from the comedic glory of Saturday Night Live. (I am one of the few people that liked ‘Studio 60’ though, which I understand was somewhat inspired by it.) Anyway, I don’t find the cover particularly unfunny or funny. It’s just designed to get under people’s skins.

    To be honest, I’d only seen that picture of Konrath and heard his name mentioned (usually disparagingly) before the ‘scandal’ over the letter broke and his theatrics in the immediate aftermath didn’t really endear me to him. He also seems to present the e-book as the natural home for the author oppressed or held back by traditional/dead tree/legacy publishing quite a lot too, which for me is just a little too close to GCSE level socialism.

  8. Nancy Martin

    I have long felt that maintaining radio silence about money in publishing is a little like keeping authors barefoot and pregnant–at a disadvantage for what we do naturally. Being coy about income might come off like gracious discretion concerning filthy lucre, but it's also deceitful. How does anyone know what's fair unless we share?

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Gordon, I can completely understand where you're coming from if the letter was your first real introduction to Konrath. I wasn't too happy with him that week, either, and spent more time than I should have arguing with him online – usually I manage to avoid getting sucked up in the internet like that.

    But I more often agree with his tactics calling attention to serious problems in traditional publishing – including, let's not forget – collusion and price-fixing.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hi Nancy! Couldn't agree with you more. In Hollywood studios deliberately keep screenwriters from talking to each other – divide and conquer. In publishing, we seem to do it to ourselves.

  11. Lisa Alber

    Wow, great conversation on this post…but I'll not join in the Unabomber aspect. I just want to say: Elizabeth George!! I'm bummed I missed out on visiting with her; wish I'd been there for that and for so many of the reasons you state.

    And how great was that to be on a panel with her!

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    It was a little surreal, Lisa. She's wildly funny, of course, in a really dry way. I am SO BUMMED that on another panel she was going into this incredibly intricate analysis of how she sets up her stories and characters, very left-brained, and the moderator actually cut her off. I was devastated.

  13. Lisa Alber

    Oh then, you must read her writing book, WRITING AWAY — it's all about just that, her left-brained process. And believe me, it is her process because I was lucky enough to attend a week-long writers workshop with her at Maui Writers Conference before that conference imploded into nothingness. I learned SO much, especially about developing characters. In fact, I still use her character analysis crib sheet…In the midst of developing a character right now, in fact…

  14. Sarah W

    I'm going to carefully skirt the Connolly-Konrath kerfluffle (word chosen for alliterative purposes only), and say that Bouchercon was an utter blast.

    I wrote up my panel highlights on my blog and yours is featured, Alex–you rocked it. And from the little I saw at the House of Blues, there, too!

    I loved talking with you and Zoe and Ms. Graham (and Tim Hallinan, Matt Clemons, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Jaden Terrell, Duffy Brown . . . *everyone*) and all the other writers, readers, and fellow librarians (I ran out of business cards by early Friday). My only regret is not spending more time with Cornelia Read (I had my hotel bars crossed) but someday.

    I probably talked too much and too long through sheer fangeek excitement, but sometimes you have to play your strengths, right?

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sarah, thanks, I'm just grateful to Daniel Palmer for setting such a hilarious tone for that panel that we all just had to jump in.

    It was great to hang with you a bit! You know you're coming to Albany, don't even think you're not.

  16. Bobby Mangahas

    Hi Alex.

    Great round up on B'Con. It sounds like it was a good time. I have been itching since Baltimore to go to another one. It's just a bit costly for me. I really hope it comes back to Boston at some point soon (the last time B'Con was in Boston was in the 70's I think). Although, Albany may be a possibility (or so I hope).

  17. Reine

    Alex, brilliant post. Nancy brilliant comment on brilliant post and state of the art/craft.

    I've been in the pit lately, but I'm climbing back out. Thank you. xo

  18. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Good God, that sounds like a ton of fun. I'm so bummed I missed it. Second Bouchercon in a row (although I had a good excuse before – I was in Ireland and Scotland.) This time it was just regular old money and time issues that kept me away.
    Sure would've loved to see all the folks. I would've been singing the coconuts with you, Paul and Joe for sure.

  19. Fran

    I'm sorry, Alex, but when I look at that cover, all I see is smugness burning the books I'm trying to sell. Buggy whips or not, it's my profession and passion, and I love it, and I'll keep at it as long as I can. I get theatre, I get satire. But something about that photo is seriously off-putting to me. Maybe because I don't see the humor of burning any book, but that could just be me.

    That being said, I hear B'Con was brilliant this year, and I'm definitely sorry I missed it! Fingers crossed for Albany, since I suspect that one's going to be fantastic fun! And I had NO idea Joe Finder was a Whiffenpoof! How totally cool is that?

  20. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Fran, I understand the discomfort, but you do see that in the photo, Joe is reading from an e reader that I automatically assume contains all the books that are being burned. So the point is that the BOOKS are not being burned – the BOOKS are on the device. It's the delivery system that is being burned, and it matters not one iota to the BOOK – that's still perfectly available, and is in fact right there in Joe's hand.

    That's the message I get, and I think it's a point that some people are still having trouble assimilating because they haven't actually tried e readers.

    Smugness I'll give you, but if you could for one second feel the the RELIEF it is for some of us not to be dependent on the people who traditionally controlled all distribution, I think you'd have no problem understanding.

    I continue to hope that authors and bookstores can work out some way for you to distribute e books directly.

    Yes, Joe Finder, Whiffenpoof. Just charming! And yes, you must come to Albany.

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