Since today is the first day of Bouchercon 2008 (and that’s where I am, so if I don’t get back to your comments, please forgive me), I thought I’d share my experience with the first Bouchercon I attend. And for those readers and aspiring writers wondering if you should go to a conference, I’ll let you make your own judgment after you finish reading.
It was Chicago, 2005. My first novel had been bought by Ugly Town the previous February, and had been scheduled to come in October, a month after the conference. Only in August, Ugly Town ran into some business problems and had to suspend operations. This was the time between when Ugly Town shut down and two months later when Bantam Dell would buy my contract from them. So as you can imagine, it was a very unstable period for me. I thought I was going to have to go back to the beginning and start sending out queries again. Hell, I thought I was going to have to shelve THE CLEANER and write something new.
I had already signed up for Bouchercon at the suggestion of the Ugly Town guys, but was suddenly unsure if I should go. What was the point, I thought. Jim Pascoe talked me into it. He said go learn what I could, and to talk up my book. (At that time Ugly Town was still hoping to maybe – stress maybe – bring it out in the spring of ’06.) So, based on this, I decided to go.
I was nervous as hell. I only knew one person who was going to be there, Nathan Walpow. But he wasn’t going to be around that much, plus I hated the idea of relying on him to smooth my way through the conference. So I ended up keeping mosly to myself.
When I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t even sure how many people were going to be there. Because of work commitments, I didn’t arrive until after lunch on Thursday. (NOTE to those thinking about attending Bouchercon in the future: come in on Wednesday as things get rolling first thing on Thursday morning. I’d actually make this a blanket suggestion for all conferences to come in the day before, because you can hook up with a lot of people that evening when things are still manageable.)
Where was I?… Oh, so I come in Thursday afternoon and find the conference in full manic mode. There were people EVERYWHERE. And I mean TONS of people. I check in and get my conference materials (schedule, badge, etc.) and this big bag stuffed with books! BONUS! I had no idea I’d be getting so many free books. I immediately went up to my room, dropped off my stuff, looked at the schedule, and worked out a plan of panels I wanted to see.
My first panel is the panel I remember most. (I think it was my first panel…could have been a later one, but that’s what my memory’s telling me right now.) It’s not the topic I remember…have no idea what that was now. I do remember a large room with a standing room only crowd. And I remember the moderator. This big guy with a beard and glasses running around the room, cracking jokes and getting the crowd going. Of course it was Joe Konrath, but I had no idea who he was at that time. (If you’ve never seen Joe work a room, it is a site to behold.) I was mesmerized by the things he and the panel were talking about. I think Barry Eisler was on the panel. He was definitely on one of the first panels I saw because he also made an impression on me. (And if any of you have seen Barry speak, you know what I mean, he’s really good at talking to a crowd. )
From there I bounced from panel to panel, never taking a break. The evenings, though, were a different story for me. Since I didn’t know anyone I didn’t know what to do. I actually spent most of my evenings in my room reading. After seeing Barry speak, I picked up the first three Rain novels and read them all that weekend in Chicago. Somehow I found out that the bar was the place to hang out after hours. Well, the one time I went, the bar was almost empty. Must have been a night when everyone was out at some other event. Not sure. But soon I found myself back in my room , a Rain book in my lap.
I’m not sure if I miss any panel times all weekend. They were so energizing and inspiring to me, that later, when I was back in L.A., I wrote out a marketing plan for THE CLEANER and gave it to Ugly Town to get them excited again. (It worked, but in a whole unexpected way…the previously mentioned buying of my contract by Bantam.)
Anyway, at some point over the weekend I did drum up enough courage to introduce myself to Barry and Joe, just a quick in and out – “Hi, I’m Brett. Great to meet you.” And I did make it to one bar where some award was being handed out. Can’t remember which though.
But if my weekend ended there, with all I’d learned while watching the panels, it would already have been approaching priceless. Yet, though I wouldn’t know it for another six months, there was more to come.
On Sunday vans shuttled people from the hotel to the airport. I think there were probably about seven other people in the van I got on. One was a recently hired editor at (I think) Romantic Times magazine. She struck up a conversation with the woman next to her. The woman, it turned out, was an agent. As we neared the airport, I finally thought to myself “What the hell,” then said to the agent, “I’m an unrepresented author with a book coming out.” We talked for a few minutes. I still wasn’t sure what was going on with Ugly Town so I wasn’t pushing her. After we all got out, I said goodbye to the woman and entered the airport.
As I sat eating…something I can’t recall…at the cafeteria in O’Hare Airport, I suddenly realized someone had stopped in front of me, and was looking at me. It was the agent I’d met on the van. She said something like, “I wanted to give you my card. Let me know when you’re looking for representation.” I took her card and said I would. I was a little stunned, but very happy.
And guess what? Six months later I did need representation. And when I emailed her with the reminder that we had shared the van ride in Chicago, she called me back immediately and said she remembered. I explained what was going on with me, and asked if she would be interested in representing me. She had me email her my book, and the next day she called me back and I had an agent. Which is kind of ironic since for the three books I’d written at that time (two unpublished and remaining so, so don’t even ask), I’d sent out nearly a hundred queries on each. Ultimately being rejected every time.
So are conferences worth it? In my case, hell yes. I can’t promise you you’ll find an agent. But I can promise you’ll get a much better picture of the industry, and, depending on how hard you try, will make some connections that could serve you well later.
So that’s my conference story. Feel free to share yours in the comments!
Song of the Day: MURDER INCORPORATED by Bruce Springsteen