Attending a Convention as an Author

This is the third of my essays about being an author, brought to you by my Patreon page.

Most of my readers are probably at least somewhat aware of SFF (science fiction and fantasy) conventions. If you're not, here's the short version: conventions are where us nerdy types get together to geek out over our various fandoms. Imagine that conference your dentist went to over the summer with ten thousand other dentists, except instead of dentists going to lectures on hygiene and flossing we have people dressed up as Doctor Who going to panels on how to write epic fantasy novels. It's an oversimplification to be sure, but it works for the purposes of this essay. These SFF conventions vary from the 250,000-attendee San Diego Comic-Con all the way down to the local get-togethers in small mid-west cities that only sport a few hundred people.

Though some conventions focus almost entirely on literary SFF and others ignore it in favor of other medias, you'll have a good bet at finding at least a couple authors at every one of them.

Authors have a weird relationship with conventions. We're not B-list celebrities, making twenty grand off an appearance where we'll sign photos for $45 a pop and be whisked around by a volunteer handler. Nor are we (usually) vendors, there for the weekend mostly for business, to sit at our table of goods, expecting to take home a small profit. Nor are we the basic fan, showing up for the sole reason of taking in the spectacle.

Let's talk about money first because, to be honest, it's the primary thing on my mind when I try to plan out my convention attendance for the year and it's probably the reason your favorite author isn't going to be at your local convention. SFF conventions often have a budget to bring in celebrities. At Comic-cons, most of that budget will be spent on the Stan Lees or the Sarah Michelle Gellars. If there's a writer's track at the convention, or if the convention focuses on the literary, then money is set aside for bringing in Brandon Sanderson, Pat Rothfuss, or someone else with an immense global fanbase.

This means that when the average author attends a con, they have all the same expenses that you do. Flight, hotel, ground transportation, meals, snacks, souvenirs. When I decide I want to go to a convention, one of the first things I do is try to whittle those expenses down (and to be fair, I have more opportunities to do this than a regular person). I'll contact the convention organizers and see if they have any extra budget to pay for my hotel or my flight while I cover everything else. They usually don't. Next I'll check around with my author friends to see who wants to share a hotel room, or has a couch to crash on, or even look for someone who wants to share a cab to and from the airport.

For me, this kind of planning goes all the way through the convention—on Friday night I might see who wants to split a pizza for dinner so I don't have to pay $25 for some chicken tenders at the hotel bar. Finding out that a particular convention always has an amazing Green Room accessible by authors (and authors aren't always on the list) is a godsend, because it gives me someplace to grab breakfast and lunch for free. Basically what I'm saying is that myself, and most of your favorite authors, have to budget these things like regular people because even the moderately successful of us aren't making huge amounts of money.

So, you might ask after hearing all that, why would an author even bother attending a convention?

Most authors, like any of the artists out there in SFF, are fans. I'm there to see the cool displays and buy geeky jewelry for my wife or get a glimpse of Bruce Campbell's chin. I don't really attend panels any more unless some of my friends are on them but there's plenty of other stuff I want to see and do. This makes the weekend crazy hectic because when you're an author going to a convention, there's a good chance you're on the programming so you can justify to your accountant the convention as a write-off-able expense.

So you're not just there for yourself. You're there for all the rest of the fans, too. Over the course of three days you'll be on a number (anywhere from 4 to 10) of hour-long panels, a handful of signings, and perhaps a few other random events that pop up at these sorts of things. You're running around an enormous convention center, staying "on" for any fans that might come to your panels or ask you to sign their books, and still trying to be awake enough to hang out with the friends you only get to see once a year when you congregate in the hotel bar at 2AM.

Personally, I like to bring my own books to sell when I can because the profit can pay for all or part of my trip. Sometimes the books are left with a vendor who takes a cut and sometimes I'm sitting there for most of the day selling them myself. That makes me a fan, a (very) minor celebrity, and a vendor.

It's crazy. It's crazy fun, but it's also plain crazy.

I could go on at length about the psychological aspect of conventions, but at the end of the day they're emotionally and physically exhausting for the regular attendees—so I think you can imagine how draining it is for someone juggling all of the above. If you approach an author at the wrong moment and they give you a dirty look or seem dismissive, try to cut them a little slack. Most of us aren't huge jerks, just tuckered out.

As an aside, it's really weird referring to myself as a celebrity, even a very, very minor one, because writing is not a career that makes you feel terribly celebrity-ish. I've never had someone recognize me out in the wilds of the public, for instance. But I have had people recognize me at conventions which is a huge ego boost. Last year at Gen Con I had grabbed some burgers with a friend and we found a side hall where we could sit down and relax out of the noise. While we were talking I noticed a guy walk by holding one of my hardcovers—a fact which by itself was pretty amazing. I smiled and kept eating and a moment later the guy came back and very politely asked if I was Brian McClellan. I signed his book and chatted a little and was totally blown away that someone would recognize me at such an enormous convention where only the tiniest fraction of the attendees were there for the authors. It was a very surreal moment.

If you'd like to know what conventions I plan to be at this year you can check out my Event Page.