Category Archives: Conventions

How to Create an Award Winning Convention; An Interview with Randy McCharles

An interview with Randy McCharles.

We all attend writer conventions, but what if you wanted to start one? Where do you start? What makes a con good? How do you draw in the big literary names?  

Author Randy McCharles founded When Words Collide, A Readers and Writers Festival (WWC) in 2011. Held in Calgary Alberta, which is Western Canada’s hub of genre and literary writing,

I had the pleasure of asking Randy for his tips and insights into establishing a successful writing convention. There’s a link for some special content at the end of the interview so please don’t miss that!

WWC’s tagline is A Reader’s and Writer’s Festival. Why this branding rather than simply making it a writers’ convention or a writers’ and fan convention?

If you are a writer, you will know that there are numerous writers conferences out there, even in western Canada. When looking to start a literary event in Calgary, I didn’t want to start an event like one I could already go to, but something different. I did want to provide a networking opportunity for writers and publishers, but I also wanted to create an opportunity for readers to meet authors they might have read as well as discover new authors. The tag line is a very good description of our event. We chose the word ‘festival’ over ‘convention’ because it is more apt to what we are about. Though we are educational, we are also fun. Smiles and laughter are encouraged.

Our demographics show that almost half of our attendees consider themselves readers. We attract readers by offering inexpensive passes ($45-$55 for a weekend pass, depending on when it is purchased), while most writers conferences cost much more. Inexpensive passes are common to speculative fiction fan conventions that are designed primarily for non-professionals. Very few readers will spend $100-$300, not even to see their favourite author (especially as we also provide several free events where the public can meet our guests.)

Though many conferences and festivals are genre-specific, it has always been my feeling that genres have more in common than differences. Most readers, also, read across multiple genres. The speculative fiction convention model is not common outside of SF&F, but we wanted to see if other genres as well as literary readers & writers would give it a try, so we invited them. To our delight, they came. We now try to have representatives for each genre an well as literary and poetry on our organization board.

There is a very dynamic dealer’s room at WWC. Writers congregate, presses sell books, writers and presses are talking business and making book deals, all the while books are being sold by writing groups, book sellers, and publishers.

Many conferences (and book stores) offer a range of non-book products. Our Merchants Corner is a book-only room, though we do include some art. Our most unique table is the Shared Authors Table, where attending authors not represented by other vendors may have their books sold. This table typical does over $2,500 worth of sales over the weekend. As far as I am aware, we did it first back in 2011, though I have seen the concept more recently at other events.

We also have a hotel-provided snack bar and seating area in the Merchants Corner where people can get drinks, soup, sandwiches, and salads. Something I haven’t seen anywhere else.

Randy explains the rules for Live Action Slush

For a convention to have a good reputation, several factors must come together from programming, to guests of honour, attendee packages, and advertising. I’d like to talk about some of these aspects so that we can understand what it takes for them to work well.

Any event must decide on a mission statement and a business model. Our mission statement is: to bring readers and writers together in a celebration of the written word. Our business model is a fusion of best practices I’ve taken from other events I have attended. A few important concepts are:

  • Inclusive and inexpensive to attend.
  • 100% volunteer run.
  • Multi-track so attendees always have something of interest going on.
  • A safe and fun environment.

Since an event will fail if no one shows up, let’s begin with advertising. While we do have a modest marketing budget and place posters and pamphlets in book stores, word-of-mouth is by far the best advertising. When we started in 2011 we made sure to promote our new event by speaking to writers groups and placing marketing literature in books stores. Even so, we budgeted for 150 people showing up. 280 did, so we were off to a good start, growing each year until we are now peaked out at 750 people. Most people found out about us from a friend. We have no desire to grow past 750 attendees as I find larger events too impersonal.

Guest speakers are tricky as no one can agree on who to invite. If we receive 100 feedback forms from attendees we will receive 100 guest suggestions. Each year we try to invite guests that cover a range of disciplines who are good speakers. If we need to reduce our budget somewhere, we look to the guest budget first (example: finding guests closer to home).

Our attendee package is very simple and economical: a plastic name badge on a string, a 5.5” x 8.5” stapled program book, and a single sheet quick guide. We don’t have a welcome bag, though book bags and fancy badge holders are available.

Our venue, the Delta Calgary South, has meeting space for as many as 15 concurrent events, giving attendees lots to choose from during the weekend. This means our program has over 200 different sessions to plan. Again, using the speculative fiction model, we open the program to attending professionals, encouraging them to speak, take manuscript pitches (if they are acquisition editors), and participate in our Blue Pencil Café, all on a volunteer basis. Each year around 150 attending experts join with our 5 or 6 festival guests to provide a dynamic and diverse program for the attendees.

There are other aspects to the festival, including a hospitality suite, a mass autograph session, a banquet, and even awards ceremonies as we sometimes host awards. As you can imagine, all of this requires a large number of volunteers putting in time and effort. We also try to do things efficiently with the lowest demand on volunteer time as possible.

On the topic of programming, in WWC 2017, there were ~80 panels on craft and business, blocks of time with guests of honour, blue pencil cafes, and pitching sessions. There is a variety of topics which appeal to both readers and writers and this can be seen by the packed rooms at many of the panels. How do you assess and what is needed and then deliver it?

The short answer is: we don’t. Like our staff, our presenters are volunteers. We ask them what they would like to present, and then we try to accommodate them. We do let them know what types of programming, such as what you listed above, we are looking for. This approach has some drawbacks, but in the end I believe it has more advantages. Presenters come up with all sorts of brilliant ideas we would never think of. This approach also greatly reduces demand on volunteer effort to put the program together.

Guests of Honour Guy Gavriel Kay, Diana Gabaldon, Brandon Mull, Brandon Sanderson, Jack Whyte, Kevin J. Anderson, David B. Coe, Robert J. Sawyer, Ian Hamilton, Patricia Briggs, Anthony Bidulka, Kelly Armstrong, Sam Hiyate (The Rights Factory), and Sally Harding (Cooke Agency) are a few of the big selling authors and agents who have come to WWC. Some continue to come back as festival attendees because, as I’ve heard them say, it’s an awesome experience.

Since we are a 100% volunteer event, we do not budget for speakers fees. While we do cover travel and hotel for our festival guests, they, like everyone else, are donating their time and talents to participate at our festival. People need to understand that the business model of many speakers does not include speaking at events such as ours on a voluntary basis. Many of our invitations have been turned down. No hard feelings. That’s just the way it is. The outcome, however, is that speakers who do accept our invitations enjoy events such as ours and regularly accept invitations such as ours. And yes, we are fortunate that many of our guests choose to return when they can.

The main reason that guests return, I believe, is that we are different from most other conventions. We chose to call ourselves a festival rather than a conference or convention, because we want our event to be a party. While many writers do network and learn from each other, they also attend our festival because it is fun. People are having a good time. Our guests have a good time.

The other reason guests return is because we treat them well. Each guest is assigned a liaison to handle transportation and any needs they may have. We provide our guests breakfast and banquet tickets and take them out to dinner a couple of times. They each receive a welcome basket with souvenirs and goodies. In other words, we give them the respect they deserve for agreeing to join us on their own time.

I must say, that attendees really appreciate how accessible the guests have been, not only with their readings and key note speeches, but some hold workshops and most are willing to chat informally with readers and writers.

One of the things that makes us different from other conventions is that we don’t have a presenter green room. I never understood the point of separating the speakers from the people who have come to see them. Our guests usually spend their free time in the Merchants Corner, the Hospitality room, or the bar where they can mingle with attendees.

We also give our guests the option of holding a master class so that a smaller group of attendees can spend several hours with them. I, for one, very much enjoy attending master classes whenever I can.

In 2011 WWC had 282 people attend. 2017 had 750 attendees. WWC has been nominated for the Aurora Award for best volunteer-run organization every year and has won the award 6 times. Incidentally, for those who aren’t aware, the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Aurora Award is a fan appreciation award so being nominated and winning is a great vote of confidence. Obviously, you have a lot of happy customers! What have they told you why they like WWC so much and what does your volunteer core do to ensure their satisfaction?

We are thrilled to be nominated for the award each year and to have won so often. As you say, the award is for fan-run events (meaning volunteer-run), such as CanCon in Ottawa, VCon in Vancouver, and numerous other volunteer-run events across Canada, ranging from international conventions that are sometimes hosted in Canada to various public reading series.

All volunteer-run events, no matter the size, are limited by the ability of the organizers to put something together. For free. In their spare time. When Words Collide is fortunate in that we have a board of 20+ volunteers to plan each year’s festival. We also rely on an addition 50+ on-site volunteers during the festival. Even so, there is only so much we can do, so we try to make sure that whatever we do looks, from the outside at least, amazing and flawless. We are regularly asked by attendees why we don’t add something to the festival. My reply is always the same. It would require more manpower than we have. This might be a good time to ask your readers if they are interested in joining our board or participating as an on-site volunteer. J We can always use more help.

What tips do you have for anyone wishing to start a convention in their community?

First off, a convention is big. Very big. WWC costs around $40,000 to put on. When Creative Ink (Burnaby, BC) asked for advice getting started, I suggested they do a 1-day event to get their feet wet, which they did in 2015. They learned a lot and went to a full weekend in 2016. Here are some quick tips to consider:

  1. Attend other events to see what they do, what you like, and what you don’t like.
  2. Do what you want to do, not what others want, even if it is totally different (like WWC was in 2011).
  3. Find some good help.
  4. Start small and set the bar low. Grow as circumstances allow.
  5. Spend money wisely and build a modest rainy day fund.
  6. Make sure you have fun doing it.

Something to know is that people are happy to be helpful. If you are unsure about anything, ask around and you’ll get lots of advice. If something sounds like it will work, problem solved.

Any special announcements for 2018?

Our 2018 festival is 11 months away and we have already sold 25% of the passes. We are typically sold out in June, so don’t wait too long to get your pass. The only thing I’d like to say at this time is that we have an amazing line-up of festival guests next year: Peter V. Brett, Harold Johnson, Erin Lindsey, Deanna Raybourn, and Arthur Slade. If you are unfamiliar with these authors, you will want to change that. Literary agent Sam Morgan of Foundry Media is also joining us. Several of our past guests are returning. I’m looking forward to yet another excellent festival.

And now for the SPECIAL LINK: WWC has a variety of podcasts available on it’s website and they’re awesome! Check them out here! Who knows, maybe they’ll inspire you to come to When Words Collide in 2018.

RANDY MCCHARLES is a full-time author of speculative and crime fiction.
He is the recipient of several Aurora Awards (Canada’s most prestigious award for speculative fiction) and in 2013 his short story Ghost-B-Gone Incorporated won the House of Anansi 7-day Ghost Story Contest. Randy’s most recent publications include the 2016 Aurora Award shortlisted novel Much Ado about Macbeth from Tyche Books, the short story Murder at the Mall from Coffin Hop Press, and the 2017 Aurora Award shortlisted novel The Day of the Demon. In addition to writing, Randy organizes various events including the award-winning When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. To learn more about Randy and his books, go to www.randymccharles.com.

 

 

Phoenix Comic Con

This year, I had the privilege of attending a few cons that I’ve never been to courtesy of Bard’s Tower. Much more than a traveling bookstore, Bard’s Tower is a celebrity author experience. All of the books at the booth for a particular show have their authors there selling, signing, taking photographs, and much more. It’s been a great experience with them this year at both Florida SuperCon and Phoenix Comic Con.

Out of all the shows and cons I went to this year, my favorite (to this point) was Phoenix. I used to live in the Phoenix area and I have many family and friends there, so in a sense going to Phoenix was like going home. Being back in the Valley of the Sun was outstanding, but the show itself taught me a lot of how successful conventions really operate. The staff took exceptional care of all the authors present, and there were some outstanding science fiction and fantasy authors present. The panels were well themed and always attended well. For me, it was my first real chance to get to know several authors I’ve been social media friends with for years and even to meet a few new ones. I have the opportunity to sit on a panel of military fiction authors including Jason M. Hough, Weston Ochse, Myke Cole, Alan Smale, and me. I can’t even begin to tell you how nervous I was at the start of the panel. We had a tremendous discussion and I left there with some incredible role models in how to be a great panelist. Everyone brought a unique perspective to the discussion and their professionalism was incredible.

At the booth, on the convention floor, was another area that completely astounded me. When I arrived, my books were placed next to the legendary Alan Dean Foster. I’d met Alan last year at WorldCon and we had several great discussions during our time at the booth. On the other side of me was Dan Wells. I seriously had imposter syndrome for about an hour until I heard Dan Wells pitch someone my novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL. At that point, I settled down and got to work. Meeting fans and potential readers is a great experience and Phoenix did not disappoint at all. Many of you might have heard of the security incident on Thursday that snarled up the entrances on Friday for a little while. Standing in a line anytime is frustrating – imagine doing it in near triple digit temperatures by 9am. The delays that fans experienced on Friday were quickly solved by the amazing uniformed security personnel and the con staff. More importantly, the fans took it in stride with more than I could count trading their cosplay weaponry for weapons made from cardboard. It was outstanding to see everyone working together to keep the con a great safe experience. I was completely impressed.

While there, I had the chance to hang out with my brother James A. Owen, my friends Mark Gardner and Christopher Ferguson, and I got to meet one of my comics idols from the 90s, artist Whilce Portacio. I got to talk with Chaos Comics founder Brian Pulido and his wife Francesca again (and again in Denver, too) and met too many readers and fans to count. Our Bard’s Tower booth was a pretty big hit anyway, with authors like Jim Butcher, Claudia Gray, and Sherrilyn Kenyon joining the others I’ve mentioned along with Kevin J. Anderson, Michelle Cori, S. Usher Evans, Quincy J. Allen, Neo Edmund, Ramon Terrell, LJ Hachmeister and Steve Diamond. The weekend was a whirlwind. Several fellow Superstars came by the booth, too – Jace Killian, Helen Savore, Holly Heisey, and Eva Eldridge. I barely sat down the entire time. During the convention, I sold more books that at any other convention I’d previously attended. It was amazing. Outside of the convention, I had drinks with amazing authors and got the chance to have one of my favorite Phoenix food experiences after a too long wait.

Will I return to Phoenix next year? Yes. I’m looking forward to it already. That’s the thing about good conventions that go the extra mile to take care of their guests and their fans. Sometimes a convention will choose one over the other and the effects are noticeable. Phoenix was never that way. Every day, at least one staff member stopped by and asked if they could help us in any way. The security personnel were amazing, too. To have a serious incident one day and be a smoothly ran machine by the end of the convention was incredible. I’m in awe of their effort.

If you’re in the Phoenix area next year, come to the convention. I guarantee you that you will not be disappointed.

Treat Yoself to a Dragon*Con

First, if you haven’t seen Parks and Recreation, do that. Do it. All of it.

Next, go to Dragon*Con.

This year was my first Dragon*Con, and can I just say “wow”? Wow. While it has a reputation as being a party Con, I found Dragon*Con to be one of the best. There’s something about being in a place with thousands of other people, taking up a lot of space, and being there for the same reason: to geek out together! I especially loved that I could look at anyone and smile. I felt the excitement and camaraderie almost immediately.

Dragon*Con has a few unique aspects. The panels and events are held in six hotels and buildings in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Also, because it’s such a big Con, the organizers put the events and panels along a number of tracks. You can access the schedule and information about these panels via the Dragon*Con app. For example, if you are particularly interested in Anime/Manga, the organizers have a proposed schedule for you for each day. Some of the tracks include: Animation, BritTrack, Comics and Pop Art, Costuming, Fantasy Literature, High Fantasy, Horror, Military Sci-Fi Media, Paranormal, Podcasting, Sci-Fi Literature, Star Wars, Table Top Gaming, Urban Fantasy, Writer’s Track, Young Adult Literature, and many more.

But what’s in it for you as a writer? Lots.

I attended about 13 panels at Dragon*Con this year, most along the Writer’s Track. I loved the YA panels – it felt like we were all there together, laughing and geeking out over YA literature instead of an audience watching writers talk about writing.

I especially liked two panels over the weekend. The Magical Mavens of Fantasy/SF panel included Laurell K. Hamilton, Sherrilyn Kenyon, Mercedes Lackey, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and Jane Yolen (I’ll save you the play-by-play of my geek-out over Jane Yolen). Hearing these women talk about the industry, the people who told them they wouldn’t make it, and how they paved the way for the rest of us really made an impact on me. The sister (brother?) panel to Magical Mavens of Fantasy/SF I attended was Magnificent Men of Fantasy/SF with Kevin J. Anderson, Jim Butcher, Larry Correia, Peter David, and Larry Niven. I wasn’t expecting to laugh that hard, nor come near tears when they told touching stories.

Each night, the Westin hotel hosted a Writer’s Bar where professional writers could go to meet fans and fellow writers. I spotted and/or talked with Myke Cole, Sam Sykes, Jim Butcher, and Delilah Dawson. The cast of Wynonna Earp also showed up to hang out, which blew a lot of our minds. The accessibility of writing professionals at this convention seems abnormal, especially compared to other bigger Cons like San Diego. But nothing will light a fire under your ass to get published more than talking with professional writers and wanting to be on panels with them.

I’ve attended smaller conventions and a few huge conventions. Dragon*Con was my favorite. The Writer’s Track, High Fantasy Track, Sci-Fi Track, Urban Fantasy Track, and the Young Adult Literature Track provided multiple choices of panels each hour, and I didn’t attend one panel that I didn’t love. The access to professional writers was unlike any other convention I’ve been to. You’ll find that price of admission is well worth it to attend Dragon*Con. Oh yeah, and you’ll have a blast, too.

Back-Up FTW

 

Cons are an interesting phenomenon. The vendor area is made up of too-skinny aisles that somehow funnel thousands of nerds through them on an hourly basis. Rows and rows of six foot tables or ten foot square booths line the sides, each with their own unique wares-art, crafts, scrolls, swords, costumes, novels- to draw the masses toward them. Sometime in the middle of day two the smell sets in, and then on day three it goes away, because you’ve become part of it. The vendor hall is noisy and claustrophobic, and getting people’s attention with books is often a challenge.

I live near Salt Lake City, and have done the Salt Lake Comic Con half a dozen times as an author. I started out sharing a table or a booth with other authors. Sometimes sponsored, sometimes not. The out of pocket cost wasn’t much when we were sponsored, so making my money back wasn’t a big deal. I was there to have fun and meet potential readers.

I remember one year, there was a couple sitting across from the four-author-table I was a part of. It was just the two of them. They looked fresh and excited, surrounded by piles and piles of what had to be his first published work. The one sign they had said that the book was $20.

Just a note: most readers don’t go to a con to pay MORE for a book than they would on Amazon.

The guys at my table and myself tried to be friendly. Talk to our neighbors. Greet people going by. Ask them what they like to read. Offer them a free bookmark. It’s simple but it helps draw people over to the table. One of our guys would even grab a copy of his book, turn it around and hand it to people to read. This also helped sales.

The couple across the way started out smiling, but after an hour or so, with only a few people stopping and none stayed to talk, the smiles waned, and the looks of desperation began. The wild eyes, searching the passing crowd, looking for anyone who glanced their way. Or even mostly glanced their way.

I don’t think I saw more than three or four people that stopped all day.

The next day, the price for the book had been lowered to $15. Better. Not great, but better. However, it didn’t help. While we plugged along, selling a book or so an hour, they got more and more desperate. I saw them with their heads together, talking. They started to send nasty looks into the passing crowd, as if the people were to blame for their lack of success.

By the end of day two, they walked away with their shoulders slumped and their eyes down. The next morning the price of the book was $10. Halfway through the day it went to $7. Then, during the last hour, 2 for $5.

I’m not sure they sold a single book. The four authors at our table probably totaled 45 books. So not great, but since someone had sponsored us, it wasn’t a big loss for any of us.

I’ve never seen that couple come back. And who can blame them? They had a horrible experience.

But what made it a horrible experience?

Let me tell you, after four or five times sharing space, how I did the first time I went on my own. I got a six foot table and paid extra to be on the main walkway as well as on a corner. The corner was for ease of getting in and out more than anything else, because on a table you don’t get an end cap or anything.

By this point I knew I was horrible at pimping my own books, so I called for backup. My sister-in-law is a huge fan of my books, as well as a huge geek. So is my brother-in-law. So I got them vendor badges (generally less expensive than the regular passes) and they agreed to help me sell books. They aren’t afraid to talk to people, and they didn’t hesitate to chat with anyone who walked by. They would ask people if they liked to read and if so what. At that point they would grab one of my books that resonated with what the victim-potential reader-had said and tell them about it.

I brought 150 books with me and we sold 125 of them. Not the greatest showing ever at a con, but much better than I’d ever done before. And basically, I sat behind the table, looked pretty and signed books. I tried my hand at drawing people over, and got better at it, but my minions did most of the work. I made a tidy profit, and that was that.

A few weeks later, I took them to a nice dinner and we talked about selling even more books the next time.

I’ve learned that you get out of a conference what you put into it. If you’re willing to get out there and sell your books, then you will sell a lot more books than if you simply sit behind your table and watch the crowds go by. Maybe your covers or your posters or your decorations will draw people over. Or maybe enough people know your name to drop by, but until then, be prepared to work your butt off. And if people aren’t responding to you, bring in back up. Bribe them. It’s worth it.