Hitchhiker’s Guide to Mystery Fests

Jeffrey Cohen

If you spend enough time reading online listservs about mystery books (yes, DorothyL, but others, as well), you can get the impression that authors spend most of their time attending mystery conventions. Conversation generally begins with “how will we know each other at B’Con (Bouchercon, to the uninformed)?” and moves on to “did you go to Mayhem in the Midlands?” with such stops along the way as “just got back from Left Coast Crime (LCC to the really hip) or “was that Lee Child I spotted at Deadly Ink?” (Can you tell I just learned how to link?)

That’s the tiniest tip of the iceberg. There are mystery conventions, it would seem, every 20 minutes, in every corner of the globe. Yesterday, I attended the Backspace Conference in New York City (not limited to mystery, but about writing generally), and it was lovely–not to mention less than an hour from my house. Each and every one of these conferences seems to attract some of the most respected and famous names in the mystery biz (the aforementioned Mr. Child was in attendance, for example). As a fledgling mid-list author, I have some questions:

1. Where do these people get the money to travel all over the place so frequently?

I have been a mystery author (of sorts) for about six years, and my first book was published just a hair short of four years ago. In that time, I have traveled to exactly one mystery convention by air: Bouchercon 2004, in Toronto, CA. Other than that, I’ve attended three Malice Domestic conferences (“Malices” to the in crowd) in Arlington, VA, because I can drive there in about four hours, two Deadly Inks in Parsippany, NJ, my home state (sorry I couldn’t make it this year–ironically, because I was flying into Newark Airport that day–but I promise I’ll be back in 2007) and have considered, and abandoned, plans to go to Left Coast Crime twice, through no fault of the convention organizers.

According to a quick search on Expedia, a flight from Newark, NJ (near where I live) to Madison, WI (home of this year’s Bouchercon) on the dates necessary (a day before the convention begins, returning on the day the convention ends) would cost at least $276. Now, that doesn’t sound too bad. Then, add the hotel–and while it’s an extravagance, I always (always! Four times so far in my life!) try to stay at the convention hotel, just to give me a place to recharge my batteries during the day–which in this case would be about $115 per night for three nights, or $345. Again, not enough to break the bank.

Convention registration for this year’s Bouchercon is $185. So add the expenses together, and the bill is $806. Okay, it’s a bit of a bite, but not outrageous. Except I haven’t eaten yet. Nor paid for parking at the airport. Nor gotten myself from the Madison airport to the hotel (rent-a-car? airport shuttle?). Nor bought drinks for friends at the bar, which is where one must see and be seen at such events. So, let’s say $1200, going on the cheap all the way around, for a convention that’s not terribly far from my home.

Now, multiply that by, again conservatively (a word which doesn’t flow freely from my keypad), six times a year. That’s $7,200. And they’re not all going to be close to home. In 2006, Left Coast Crime was held in Bristol, England. In 2007, Bouchercon will take place in Anchorage, Alaska. Those airfares are considerably higher.

Where are these authors getting this money? Sure, the bestselling authors can afford it, and good for them, but the rest of us aren’t exactly putting extra wings on our homes with book advances. How can someone afford to be an author these days?

2. Where do they find the time to write?

Seems like a lot of authors are at every single mystery convention. I realize this is physically impossible, but every time you look up, they’re there. Since this is a time-consuming process, I can’t figure out when they have the time to write books.

Here’s my theory: Lee Child is actually a fat, short, slavish man who sits in a cramped garret in a less-than-fashionable area of Manhattan and crafts his novels 365 days a year. He rarely leaves the house, has food sent in and has no friends. But he writes really well, and takes time out to watch the occasional Yankees game, his only source of joy (until this week, but that’s another whole blog).

In order to keep the myth alive, he has hired a tall, handsome Englishman to wear nice suits, drive a flashy car and attend mystery conventions, film premieres and perhaps awards ceremonies. This guy probably can’t write a word (other than to autograph books with Child’s name), and for all I know can’t read, but he’s personable as all get-out and can speak very eloquently on writing and Lee Child’s books.

Other authors are probably into this impersonation gambit, as well. Robert B. Parker has three (!) series going at once, and writes the occasional standalone while waiting on line at the movies. He doesn’t have time to, you know, live. You know that guy who shows up at Kate’s in Cambridge MA every once in a while is an impersonator. Parker’s at home trying to figure out how Spenser and Hawk can still beat everyone up despite being over 70.

3. How do they know which convention they’re at?

Now, I’m not saying all mystery conventions are the same. First, as I’ve noted, I haven’t been to enough to say so intelligently. Also, each one definitely has its own personality. But if you go to enough of any type of event in a short period of time, you start to lose perspective. Hotels tend to look alike, hotel bars definitely look alike, and if you keep running into the same authors (and sometimes the same fans) in hotels and hotel bars, I don’t care how well-run the convention is, you’re going to forget where you are.

Bestselling authors have assistants (or escorts) who guide them on book tours and, assumedly, to conventions. The rest of us have the airport shuttle, and that’s not a big help. So, how do authors know where they are?

My guess: they have crib sheets written on their cuffs, like in school. Or on their arms. Or, for all I know, on the insides of their eyelids, which they see by closing their eyes are tilting their heads toward bright lights. But there’s some trick to it, for sure.

Next year, when my first book from a large publisher is released, I’m going to make an effort to attend a few more conventions. I’m starting to save up now. But if you see me at one, and I seem disoriented, like I don’t recognize you or can’t remember your name, please don’t take it personally.

I’m like that at home, too.

9 thoughts on “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Mystery Fests

  1. Beatrice Brooks

    When you totaled the cost, Jeff, you forgot about the registration fee, which has been steadily climbing – Bouchercon/Alaska is $200 and there’s no discount for signing up early. [Mayhem in the Midlands is one of the best bargains, fee-wise.]

    I thought about sending my actress sister Eileen to cons, in my place. She doesn’t look all that much like me — for one thing, she’s younger — but then my dust jacket author’s photo doesn’t look all that much like me, either [for one thing, it’s younger].

    Now that I live on Vancouver Island, it cost a hell of a lot more to fly, and I have a feeling Canadian Customs thinks I’m smuggling something back into the country. Books, maybe.

    But conferences tend to recharge my batteries, and they give me a wee bit of a social life. After all, writing requires a loner’s temperament, a tolerance for silence, and an unhealthy preference for the company of people who are imaginary or dead.

    Hugs,Deni, who will be at Bouchercon this September. I graduated from the U of Wisconsin and haven’t been back to Madison in mumble-mumble years. I’m told it “looks different.” So do I.

  2. Mark Terry

    I’ve often thought the notion of a “body double” for authors would be a great idea. I was just thinking yesterday that I should agree to “co-write” a medical thriller with my sister the nurse. I’ll do all the writing, we’ll stick her name and photo on the back and she can go do all the promo stuff–she’s very sociable and loves that kind of thing. She’d be a huge hit at cons, can strike up a conversation with anybody about anything, and has experience with people telling them their medical history. (Invariably when I do a signing somebody wants to tell me: A. About some health issue they’re having or about some dead relatively who died from something sorta relevant to my books, or B. Tells me they write books (poetry, short stories, screenplays, teleplays, ransom notes…) or they plan to.) She’d be great at it.

    I haven’t figured out the money thing either. I’ve had to cancel out on Bouchercon twice, once because my publisher went bankrupt before the book came out and just this year because my biggest client is hosting a conference in Washington DC the same weekend and suggested I be there, so rather than risk kissing 60% of my income goodbye, I’m going. I’ve been to GenreCon (a one-dayer in Sarnia, Ontario) and twice to Magna cum Murder.

    Last time at Magna Harlen Coben was the guest of honor and he’s either a generally spacey guy, or he was disoriented. I had to remind him he was currently scheduled for a TV interview, since he was scheduled after me (Gee, Harlen Coben’s Opening Act!!!) and I was, uh, done and he was, uh, wandering around the book seller’s area with a puzzled expression on his face (probably thinking: Is this New Jersey? Or Florida? What? Indiana? How did I get to Indiana?)

    Ah well. The whole mystery conference thing reminds me of the bar band circuit. In my state it would be something like: Flint, Michigan, then down to Pontiac and Detroit, then to Toledo, OH, perhaps then to Columbus, OH and Chicago, IL, then over to Grand Rapids, MI, then to Lansing, MI, then back to Flint, then over to…

  3. Julia Buckley

    Hear, hear, Jeff, for telling it like it is. I am poor as the proverbial churchmouse and I have started, I kid you not, a Bouchercon fund, in which I have asked my children to deposit their spare change. I am not even flying there–I am driving in my ancient caravan which has soft brakes and no air conditioning (so as to allow more of that cow smell in the windows), but I still managed to find myself an extremely expensive hotel, had to charge my registration on a credit card I had promised to no longer use, and, alas, I don’t drink, so I’m not sure how long I’ll last in those mandatory bars. And yet I’ve been advised to go, so I am going, at great personal expense.

    My latest advance, which I was hoping to stretch out over a period of months, disappeared in mere days, and I’m back to the reality of paying for things with the day-to-day fund, which, when one has children, is a black hole (can someone back me up on this?).

    Not to sound like a first rate grouch, but if the trip isn’t worth it career-wise (not sure exactly how to gauge that), it certainly won’t be worth it money-wise.

    Now you’ve thoroughly depressed me. 🙂


  4. Pari

    I’m amused, Jeff. I’ll be posting about conventions tomorrow, too.

    Yes, the expense is horrid. But conventions, for me, have become more than just promotional opportunities — they’re a way to stay in touch with so many friends. Call them working vacations. And, yes, I’ll be cutting back dramatically next year while writing my new series and awaiting publication of the next Sasha book.

    Julia? Several people who don’t drink hang out in bars. Twist Phelan is a good example. Fizzy water is fine. It’s the keeping of company that is so wonderful.

  5. Elaine

    Excellent post, Jeff!A good primer for new authors and the rest of us. Conventions ARE expensive – and you were pretty damn close when you quoted $7,200-but even that is light. While there are some more important (exposure wise) than others – it’s a hard choice to make.

    Go to the Big Four? Bcon,ThrillerFest,Malice or LCC? or hit the smaller cons close to home? Malice & LCC, however,wouldn’t work if you’re writing thrillers or hard crime-so you have to discover the dynamics of each con and decide from there.

  6. Naomi


    This post hit close to home. I’m still paying off my expenses from all the mystery cons during my debut year! I don’t regret going to the cons I did; how can you put a monetary price on meeting new and wonderful friends? But I’m certainly paying for it now; I vowed not to go to another one out of state/country unless I had the money squirreled away first.

  7. Allison Brennan

    I’m actually pretty productive when I’m at conventions. I don’t have five kids and a husband clamoring for my attention, so putting in 2-3 hours in the morning is much, much easier than when I’m at home.

    But I only wrote five pages at Thrillerfest. I was having too much fun.

  8. MJ

    It does help a little that every single penny is a tax dedcution. And when you think of them as a business expense it takes a little of the sting out. Except for this year, I’ve never gone to more than two in a year that require plane travel. This year I’ve done BEA, LCC and ThrillerFest and will do B’Con. But with ITW being a new org it was important. Next year I’ll be lucky because BEA and ThrillerFest will both be in NYC.

    For the first five years of my author’s life I didn’t go to anything but BEA, but since I started writing in a clear genre, I’ve found the cons as productive as every dollar spent.

    But the time committment is a problem and next year I’m going to cut back to two cons. My books just take too long to write for me to give up that much time again.


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