Cultural Differences

By Nancy J. Cohen

Genres matter when you attend a conference. I started out in romance, attending National RWA and Romantic Times conventions. At RWA, we dressed in business attire and wore sequins to the Awards dinner. We taught workshops or we spoke on panels where the emphasis was teaching other writers the craft and business of writing. The same was true for smaller chapter conferences held around the state and throughout the country. Editor/Agent appointments were a staple for this type of working writers conference.

Romantic Times, in contrast, was a fan convention. Here we’d meet readers, booksellers, and reviewers in a fun, party-type setting. I still dressed in business casual during the day. At night, people wore costumes to themed balls and parties. As RT attracted more writers, they added writing tracks to educate aspiring authors. Now they’ve expanded to include other genres just as RT has changed its name to RT Book Reviews. It’s still a great conference to meet industry personnel and readers.

Then I switched to writing mysteries and attended Malice, Bouchercon, and SleuthFest. What a difference! People wore jeans! There were men in the crowd! Panelists were expected to be entertaining and witty and mostly talked about their books. Bouchercon and Malice are fan conventions while SleuthFest is a writers’ conference. SF has a forensics track and workshops for different levels of writing, along with editor/agent appointments.

The one thing these events have in common? Writers hang out at the bar, the hospitality lounge, or the dealers’ room and network like crazy. Costly swag gets picked up along with candy and pens. Bookmarks and other papers lay around the promo tables like unloved orphans.

And then I attended Necronomicon, my first SciFi/Fantasy/Horror convention. Lo and Behold! Another culture shock! In many ways, this convention was similar to the mystery cons. The panels were professional and moderated by a host. Aspiring authors attended in abundance. Instead of a forensics track like at a mystery writers conference, this convention had a science track led by scientist guests. However, here’s the biggest difference: Gamers. One darkened breakout room held 3 rows of computers where people sat  playing Halo. Other guys sat at round tables absorbed in role playing games.

Workshops went on into the wee hours of the night. I was scheduled to speak on three panels and had to request the organizer not to book me after dinner. Authors who paid for a spot in Author’s Alley sat at tables in a hallway and sold their own books. The Dealers’ Room was similar to the ones at mystery cons, where authors hope one of the vendors has their books for sale or else we make a consignment deal. I noted only one bookseller at this convention. Most of the vendors sold jewelry, games, and other knickknacks.

All in all, this conference was a valuable introduction to an entirely new audience. The panels were interesting as well as stimulating, and parties ranged into the night if you were so inclined. Check out my personal blog for more photos and reports on the panels I attended. Keep in mind that this was not like the big SciFi cons where TV and movie stars attend and people roam around in costumes. There was a costume contest, but it was one night only. This felt more like a writers conference aimed at SciFi/Fantasy authors.

Would I attend again? The jury is still out on that one. While the conference was comped for me since I was a speaker, I still paid over $500 for a hotel room. I sold two books. Granted, this audience is more likely to order the ebook version, but would I spend that money again instead of attending a conference that targets mystery or romance fans? We’ll see. The exposure to a new crowd is always good, and I had a great time meeting new people. I guess as in any choices we have, it depends on the budget.

If you have crossed genres, were you surprised by the differences at the conferences you attended?

10 thoughts on “Cultural Differences

  1. Nancy, Although I keep promising myself to attend ThrillerFest or Bouchercon, I’ve never made it. I suspect that in either case I’d experience a culture shock after attending and participating in conferences such as the annual meeting of the American Christian Fiction Writers!
    One excellent point you make, and one that writers need to keep in mind, is that some conferences are mainly for writers, while others include readers and fans. Those are important distinctions for me, as I consider where to spend my travel/conference dollars in the future.
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. It’s a tough decision to make as to which conferences to attend. As you say, Richard, one has to consider which ones are best for our limited promotional dollars.

  3. Well, I don’t know about your question . . . BUT I used to attend the Santa Barbara conference when I lived there twenty years ago. They held it at the Miramar back then. Barnaby Conrad was the MC. I’d go to hear the speakers mainly. Joseph Wambaugh was amazing. Amy Tan was fascinating. There were many other great speakers. I’m sure it’s still a fun event with good sessions.

  4. As a military thriller writer I really enjoyed the panels at the one Bouchercon I went to. But the one time I went to a conference put on by the university I found myself in an alien world. Myself and one other man were the only non-poet/memoire/literary writers there. The scorn was palpable when it became known I wrote plot driven action stories about soldiers and Marines and not angst filled poetry or a story detailing childhood abuses. In one of the work shops we were to do a dramatic rendering of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. After the reading of a couple of the writers works vividly alluded to unnatural relations between Goldi & Papa Bear I seriously considered calling the troopers to investigate those poets, and firmly decided not to let them meet my wife & kids who were with me at the hotel. I don’t think I’ll go back to that conference.

    I am considering trying a scifi work at some point in the future. But then there’s Cosplayers (costumed scifi fans). They’re one of the reasons I may never go to a scifi con.

  5. Jim, it’s a different slant when panels are aimed at writers as opposed to fans. Or it should be, in my opinion. As a writer, I’m there to learn. As a fan, I just want to hear from my favorite authors have to say. Also as a writer, I prefer the business oriented tracks that will help me along my career path.

  6. Basil, I can certainly understand your discomfort when surrounded by “literary” authors. As a romance and cozy mystery writer, I’ve often experienced that disdainful attitude. Book club snobs are the worst.

    As for scifi cons, Necronomicon did not have costumed fans except for the masquerade evening event. So your experience would depend upon the particular conference as well. I’d think you would find an audience for military thrillers at some of these cons.

  7. This cracked me up. I cut my teeth at Star Trek cons and toy shows where the atmosphere is laid back to say the least. Watching 70s and 80s icons run pick-up games in the bar was always a treat.

    I went to Killer Nashville this year and had to talk my friend out of over-dressing. I told her (correctly) that she would be uncomfortable. My idea of conference wear is nice jeans and a polo shirt.

    So, I guess my discomfort would be if I found myself at either a literary or glittery affair.

    Off to check out Sleuthfest!

  8. SleuthFest is one of the best cons for mystery writers. It’s where I learned the most about this genre. For fans, Malice and Bouchercon are the biggies.

    Here’s a confession: I’m a Star Trek fan, too. In a secret corner of my desk is a signed photo of Jonathan Frakes in his commander’s uniform–er, costume.

  9. Good post, Nancy…lots of folks don’t realize there are subtle but important distinctions among all the cons.

    Terri: SleuthFest is geared totally to writers not fans. It’s very craft and biz oriented. Very practical but good networking. SF is taking a year off but we are holding a one-day intense workshop called SleuthFest On Saturday on Feb. 16 in Sarasota. Here’s the website:

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