[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Why Authors Attend Science Fiction Conventions

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

I've just finished my fifth consecutive weekend at a science-fiction convention. If I wanted to, I could attend an SF convention every weekend of the year.

Most press coverage of SF convention includes pictures of people dressed up as Klingons from Star Trek. Such people do show up at these conferences, but they are the vast minority. Authors I know rank the desirability of attending conventions based on their Klingon Quotient: the smaller the percentage of people wearing costumes, the better.

SF conventions range in size from as few as a hundred people to a couple of thousand — and those people are mostly middle-aged professionals of both genders with an avid interest in reading science-fiction literature. Many are serious collectors with personal libraries filed with autographed first editions worth, in total, tens of thousands of dollars.

Authors like attending cons — as SF conventions are universally known — for four reasons. First, most conventions will name a Guest of Honour who will be flown in by the convention, with all expenses paid for the weekend. When you get an offer for an all-expenses-paid trip to be guest of honor at a convention in Los Angeles in January (as I did in 1997), you jump at the opportunity.

Second, writing is a lonely profession. SF conventions give you a chance to actually talk at length to some of the people who are buying your books. It really is an enormously buoying experience, and the conversation in the con suite — a hospitality area, where people gather to chat informally — is always lively, ranging from the latest scientific breakthroughs to such topics normally avoided in polite company as gun control, abortion, and religion.

Third, SF conventions are an important part of building one's audience. Most conventions have two types of programming: panel discussion, during which four or five authors bat around ideas on a set topic, and readings by authors.

The panels can be exhilarating: I've recently been on ones about creating internally consistent alien religions; the impact electronic books are going to have on the publishing industry; whether Canadian SF constitutes a cohesive literary movement; and the nature of family life in the future.

An author who is provocative, interesting, and witty on a panel, or who gives a dynamic reading, will see an immediate impact: copies of his or her books will be snapped up in the dealers' room — the area of the convention where booksellers sell new and used books.

Fourth, of course, is the chance to network with other writers. Although only one will be lucky enough to be designated Guest of Honour for the weekend, others will have shown up on their own nickel. You will often find the authors hanging out at the hotel bar (cons are almost always held in hotels), gossiping about how much so-and-so just got for his latest three-book deal; which editor is about to be fired; and so on.

Is it all worthwhile? Hard to say. Some shy authors do just fine by shunning the convention circuit. But for those who like their readers to be something other than just statistics on a royalty statement, a con can't be beat.

More Good Reading

My experiences with SF conventions
Rob's upcoming convention appearances
Rob's stints at Guest of Honor
Comments from convention attendees about Rob
Rob's suggestions for panel topics at conventions
How to make a good impression at an SF convention

(Also see Rob's comments about why authors attend SF conventions in Canada's The National Post newspaper, Monday, February 21, 2000, page A18.)

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