Why I Stopped Going To Bouchercon

As soon as I started publishing mysteries in the mid-nineties, publicists and my editors urged me to go to all the mystery conferences I could manage, especially Bouchercon.  That’s the biggest one of them all and attracts writers and fans from around the world.

I went, year after year, to half a dozen different conferences around the country–and even one at Oxford University.  What I discovered, among other things, was that many were a waste of time and Bouchercon was in some ways highly over-rated.

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I enjoyed meeting fans there and running into authors I admired.  But I had more time with Walter Mosley, for example, when our paths crossed in Texas on separate book tours than was possible at Bouchercon.  I had dinner with him and a group, heard him do a killer reading, and then we got together for drinks later and talked for a few hours about the logistics of developing a series.  It felt like a mini-workshop/retreat.

walter-mosleyHe’s been gracious and charming wherever I’ve met him, but at Bouchercon, I got the sense with other famous authors that the motor was running and they were waiting for someone more important than me to come along while we chatted.  And there was always that sense of clamor wherever you went.

For fans, Bouchercon can be a dream, a feast: so many authors, so little time!  But for midlist authors who’ll admit it off the record (and many of them have to me), the conference is pretty much the same thing over and over.  I’ve listened to some authors tell the identical anecdotes on more than one panel and the panels themselves, well….  It’s great if you haven’t heard it all before, but not so great if you’re a veteran.

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Authors supposedly get terrific exposure at Bouchercon.  I don’t believe that’s always true.  The famous writers are the ones who get exposure.  The rest of us can get eclipsed, exhausted, and wonder why we bothered.  I once chaired a standing room only star-studded panel with over 450 people there, and the recording was the best seller of the entire conference.  Did it budge my books sales at the conference book room or afterwards or even that following year?  Barely.

I had spent $750 for a full page program ad, plus another $1000 on the hotel, meals,  and air fare. For that money, I could have had a lovely weekend vacation with my spouse somewhere totally stress-free.  Or gone to more than one smaller mystery conference.

Jonah’s-Bynya-Road-Whale-Beach-SydneyThat doesn’t mean writers should avoid Bouchercon.  But if you’re a mystery author, and especially if you’re a newbie, think carefully about your goals, the reality of attaining them, and what your budget is.  Bouchercon can be enjoyable if you can do it inexpensively (like if it’s nearby)–and if you’re not averse to massive crowds. But it’s wise to consider smaller conferences like Magna cum Murder or Left Coast Crime where you might do better, spend less, and have more fun. The smaller conferences are more affordable, less crowded and overwhelming, your fans have more access to you, you can  network more readily with other authors including the stars–and the entire event is less frantic and stressful, especially if you’re a writer who’s introverted.  And so many of us are…..

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to horror.

 

40 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Going To Bouchercon

  1. Loved the blog, Lev. I haven’t been to a conference since 1999, but I’m going to Left Coast Crime in Phoenix next year. That’s because my kids live in California, and I can go visit them after the conference. We’ll see.

  2. On the money, Lev. I went to many Bouchercons and enjoyed every one immensely, but I never went with an eye to increasing sales. My goals were to meet fans and authors, hear some specific presentations and have a good time. All goals accomp[lished. Now, as my aging body says rest more, I don’t travel as much.
    It was great fun while it lasted.

    • I think the editors and publicists pushing their writers to go there totally misread the evidence of their own eyes. They *know* what actually gets accomplished at BCon, yet they keep pushing….

  3. Thank you, Lev. You’ve nailed it. The last conference I went to, in Cleveland, was Goodbye Forever for me, for the very reasons you so eloquently state.

    • I went to a now-defunct conference at Penn State several times that was tiny and terrific: Landscapes of Mystery. One year it featured Donald Westlake and we all had a grand time.

  4. Last year was the first Bouchercon I’d attended in over 20 years. It was somewhat disappointing, I will concede and I’m not going this year. However, my husband and I have decided we’ll probably got to B’con 2016. Why? It’s in New Orleans. Two things that did help were that I did volunteer and met several folks that way. And I think I will go to the next one with fewer expectations and focus on having a good time and meeting people.
    That being said, I can certainly understand why not going sounds quite appropriate.

    • Going to a conference because it’s in a certain city is always a bit odd because you end up not seeing enough of the city, unless you plan extra time there or keep your conference time to an absolute minimum. But my point wasn’t about meeting people, my point was about whether going is worthwhile from a financial standpoint. It’s not, though socializing can be fun despite the expense.

      • Thanks for your comments.
        My husband and I have attended Bouchercon when it’s near our area of the US, but it’s so enormous that it becomes overwhelming. Mid-listers can get lost in the crowds. My favorite conference ever was Mayhem in the Midlands in Omaha, now gone for several years. The right size, always interesting and fresh. I attended Malice once and loved it, partly because most everyone was welcoming and friendly. It also fits what I write, but the trip distance is daunting. Killer Nashville is another productive and entertaining mid-size conference.

        • Being able to network is important, and if the conference is too big, that’s much harder to do. But distance wherever is always an issue whether you fly or drive. And for me, once my paid invitations to speak about my books took off in the mid late 90s and early 2000s, it made more sense to travel that way. I had more fun, sold infinitely more books, and felt as if my time was used more efficiently.

  5. As a fan, I took advantage that less well-known authors were almost ignored by people at book signings at Bouchercon 1997. Block had real long lines of people wanting his signature. I skipped him entirely and got to spend time talking with the ignored authors. I always had a book for them to sign as I was a fan of theirs and was thrilled to get to talk with them. I didn’t realize that Bouchercons weren’t financially valuable to these authors in boosting book sales.

    • Sad, isn’t it? People don’t realize how expensive it is to do BCon and in fact how much of an investment authors keep making–if they’re not at the top–to push their careers. Back when I started out in the early 1990s, I spent between 10-15k taking myself on tour around the country, with minimal help from St. Martin’s Press.

  6. On the money!
    I could have written this about RWA National conferences, my first introduction to HUGE (Donald Trump voice) conferences.
    Now that I’m no longer gainfully employed (retired, really), I am very cautious about money.
    Another small but mighty mystery con is Deadly Ink, held in NJ in August.
    Mitzi

    • I think all authors, unless they’re wealthy to start with, have to watch how they allocate resources. There are plenty of people urging them to go here, there, and everywhere. One agent, however, wisely said: “Don’t be too visible–it makes you less interesting.”

  7. Good post, Lev. I basically agree and had stopped going to B’con until it was in Albany (driving distance, so cheaper). Am going to 2016 in NOLA because any excuse to go to NOLA (and I will be adding time to see friends and hear music, have already told book blogger extraordinaire Dru Ann that I’m dragging her to Frenchman St.) I find I go through cycles – a few years not doing anything, then a burst of activity (I write this having driven more than five hours last night to speak to a library group in Maine). I’ve got a new series launching this spring, so am going to Malice (again – and always a good one for us cozier writers), LCC (first time), and Crimefest (as an excuse for an English vacation) as well. That’s probably too much,but it will hold me for a few years. See you … in the airport!

    • From when my first mystery came out in 1996 through the early 2000s, I did dozens of panels at I can’t recall how many conferences, both as moderator and panelist. At the same time I was more and more in demand as a speaker because I published in different genres. The economics were simple: I’d have a bigger audience, have all my expenses paid, and sell more books if a university invited me to speak than if I went to a conference. Only the cons that were close were tempting, and even then, after the same-old same-old panels, it just wasn’t worth it. I do miss meeting fans and do miss hanging out with friends, but that’s a lot of money to spend on socializing. After 2003, I had many book tours here, in Canada, and Europe, and there was just no comparison…..

  8. I’ve gone to many Bouchercons over the years–my last was San Francisco (I rode the train). I had a great time, saw lots of friends (authors and fans), but much of what you said I agree with. I’m not flying anymore, thought about LCC in Phoenix because it is only one flight–but when I toted up the cost knew it wasn’t worth it. My favorite con was Mayhem in the Midlands, hubby and I became friends with William Kent Krueger and his wife there the many time we both went, eavesdropped on a bar conversation Dennis Lehane was having, and made tons of friends–and yes, sold books. For fans, Bouchercon is a great experience, and hubby and I did make Bouchercon a vacation for many years. The only one we go to faithfully now is Public Safety Writers Association’s writers conference–it’s in Las Vegas and the cost is far less.

    • I’ve had great experiences chairing all-star panels, and hanging out at bars with people like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid who I met at a conference in Oxford and who was a guest speaker when I taught in London two summers ago. It can be lovely for times like that, but the midlist writers take a financial hit that the best sellers don’t even blink an eye at. When I compare time spent with someone like the charming Lauren Henderson, say, at a conference to having drinks with her downtown in New York once when our paths crossed, well–

  9. I’ve been to only one Bouchercon, in 2001 in DC, right after 9/11. Although in some ways, the atmosphere seemed subdued, I did meet some interesting people. Ian Rankin hadn’t yet become a rock star, so it was fun to talk to him without waiting in line. Probably the most intriguing writer I met was Andrew Taylor, who carried on a long conversation with me about Caroline Minuscule, the book that introduced me to his impeccable writing style. I haven’t been back to Bouchercon since then, mainly because I don’t like crowds and crowded rooms, but I enjoyed the DL camaraderie. I’m sure it doesn’t make financial sense for writers to attend, but I’m equally sure their most loyal fans miss the chance to meet and greet their favorite authors.

    • So many authors do go to BCon and wouldn’t miss it that there’s not shortage of chances for fans to get autographs and chat with their faves. I’ve had several conversations with Andrew Taylor–great guy.

      As for fans not getting to meet their favorite authors–you can’t please everyone…..

  10. Years ago, I attended a Bouchercon in, I think, San Diego? As a mystery fan, I was really excited to see all the authors (and not just the “famous” ones) whose work I had enjoyed. The one I was looking forward to seeing the most was Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. She was on a panel with several other writers, including one whose first or second book, a baseball mystery, had just come out. The room was packed, and they were not there to hear about baseball.

    And after that panel, the audience hit the dealers’ room. And within minutes, the dealers were all saying, “Who the HELL is this Conrad Haynes guy?” Lots of dealers had come with one or two copies of his books. After that panel, you couldn’t find one in the dealers’ room for love nor money. Because Conrad Haynes, the unknown, was so sharp, so funny, so nice, that the audience fell in love with him–even though the star was Barbara Mertz. I am NOT a baseball fan, but I got all his books, and I still have them.

    Haynes was, I think, one the writers who got a crappy deal from his publisher. If he hadn’t come to that convention, I would never have known about him.
    I keep hoping that he will come back in ebooks and make a killing.

  11. I attended Bouchercon continuously from 1996 when I privileged to be on the program committee. Last week I was approached by a reader who remembered first meeting me at that convention. I never failed to meet new and interesting people at conventions like Midwest in Omaha and Left Coast and Love Is Murder and others. And, Bouchercon. I never failed to lean things, met new interesting folks, have a good time. Although my age and energy levels make such attendance less possible, I would go again in a New York minute. I encourage young new writers to attend such cons. I think Bouchercon is generally, worth every effort. Daily book sales are not the only measure of value for an author of crime fiction.

    • I agree about the smaller conferences–which is my point at the end if you got that far. But if you took the time to read comments above yours you’d see that many people agree that BCon is not worth the money. It certainly is the wrong place for a new young crime writer to go: Magna cum Murder or Left Coast Crime or Sleuthfest or any smaller con would be a better choice, a better place to meet authors, fans, and make friends.

    • Look for the smaller ones. If you’re in the Midwest, definitely go to Murder cum Magna in Indiana. Then there’s Left Coast Crime which moves every year. And Sleuthfest. Smaller, more more intimate, more companianble to make connections, more chance to know people and get yourself known, less intimidating.

  12. For years I attended Magna Cum Murder because it was just a couple of exits up the interstate from my inlaws home. My husband would leave me in Muncie to enjoy my mystery fix and he spent the weekend doing things for his parents like putting up storm windows and cleaning gutters. I met some wonderful authors there many of whom became friends. And many of whom I never would have found had it not been for Magna. Poison Pen Press urged their authors to come to Magna so not only did I meet many of their authors, I discovered an entire publisher I might not have run across. There were, as you know, always a handful of “A-List” authors at Magna but in that setting, they were much more approachable and mingled with the fans and the fans mingled with other fans even ones there alone! Magna was wonderful. Sadly, I haven’t been in several years. I have also attended Bouchercon in Baltimore, Indianapolis and in St.Louis. It was exhausting and it seemed that no matter if it was authors or fans, everyone was watching over your shoulder for someone more “important” to visit with. The conference was really a conference within a conference where big names held private gatherings that only some fans could attend-hot tickets that in effect divided fans among the “A list” and everyone else. authors were too busy trying to make contact with authors higher on the pecking order. The 2 exceptions happened in Indianapolis. One was this funny “speed dating” type set up with new authors where several fans spent a set amount of time at a table with a new author who could give us a feel for the book and fans could get to know the author before the bell rang and we moved to another table. I have kept up with a handful of those authors even toady what 10 years later? The other was the session where people signed up for a small group session with authors. I can’t remember quite what the format was based on as I remember being in one with Carolyn Hart sitting around a small table talking with her and another one where Camille Minichino led us in making miniatures. Not only did we get to spend time with the authors in small groups but we had a great time with fellow fans. I can’t say I’ll never go to another Bouchercon, but they weren’t really my cup of tea. Everything was just too big and too rushed.

    • I loved MCM when I went. First, I could drive to it. That was a huge savings. And as you say, big name authors would always come to it and they were much more approachable and never mobbed the way they were at BCon. Now, I moderated a big name conference at BCon, and knew quite a few best sellers, but I’m not fond of hordes. It did offer a chance to hang out with people I’d never see otherwise, but that wasn’t enough to make me want to come back. The smaller conferences always allowed for more unpressured time to spend with fans.

    • You apparently missed the point of many of the comments and of the blog itself. I adore Magna cum Murder. I adored Landscapes of Mystery, a very small conference in Pennsylvania I attended frequently for the same reasons as mentioned in the blog.

  13. I adored the two Bouchercons I attended, Baltimore in 2008 and Indianapolis in 2009, the same two years my first two mysteries were published in hardcover by a (then) Big Five press–which dumped me for not meeting expectations on advance sales of the second a week before it launched, same week as Bouchercon and, not coincidentally, same week as the economy tanked. Thanks for being candid about the numbers, Lev. The publishers who urge midlist authors to attend Bouchercon, be ubiquitous on social media, send out newsletters, and blog incessantly not only get how tenuously these activities relate to sales (not that I’m saying long-term networking isn’t useful!), but they are oblivious–and indifferent–to the fact that the author ends up in the red.

    • I most definitely enjoyed going, partly because I knew so many authors already from various other conferences, and I’m also an extrovert so I wasn’t fazed by the crowds. But what I think is sad is the fact that publishers are oblivious, as you say, to the fact that authors have to shell out a lot of money to do BCon when there are other ways to build a fan base and generate word of mouth.

  14. I shudder to think how many thousands and thousands I’ve spent over thirty-some years attending not only mystery conventions, but Science Fiction/Fantasy and Romance/Women’s fiction conventions, since I’m a multi-genre writer. One idea was to see and be seen as a “live” published and presumably somewhat successful author still “in the game”. I enjoyed the meeting and greeting with readers and other authors. BoucherCon is a small convention, BTW, compared to the annual SF/F ones. A prime reason for me to go was to meet with my publisher and editor. Also to track the temperature of the fluctuating publishing industry. Lastly, to network, chat and party. And I had fun! Since 9/11, air travel has become ever more laborious. With the internet and social media, reader interaction is more personal and constant. Now that I’ve exited trad publishing for Indie publishing, my list of must-dos has whittled down to Malice Domestic. Maybe I’ll attend a Bouchercon or a World Fantasy Con or Dragoncon (50,000 attendees) or RT Booklovers convention for socializing, if it’s in my state. But for the money and wear-and-tear, I’d be better off taking out program book and/or digital ads. And so I have.

    • I reached a point where I started getting paid to do speaking engagements at which they also sold my books, for instance at universities. So there seemed to be no financial sense in going to BCon when I could do a gig with a guaranteed audience and make the same amount of money or more that i was spending at Bcon, plus all expenses paid. That tipping point came after the BCon in Monterey, I think. I haven’t looked back since. I do miss seeing friends and fans–but fans show up to my gigs, too. Better still, they lead to more gigs, like the time I spoke in Dc and that led to an entire book tour in Germany.

  15. I’m sorry I won’t see you, Lev. “Met” you on DL and saw you at the early B’cons I attended. At one time you looked Messianic with long hair, a mustache and beard (?)
    I’ve loved all your books I’ve read…not just the mysteries.
    But as a reader, I understand. Someone mentioned the panels. I know, after 18 B’Cons, I don’t go to many panels. On some panels I recognize none of the names. Besides I’m too busy talking to various people I only see once or twice a year. One woman, with whom I’ve never had a real conversation, and I kid each other to remark how we travel all over just to see one another.
    But it is also like old home week as I see other fans and writers whose books I read and love. B’Con and Malice are my “vacations.” Also have attended three or four Left Coast Crimes and every Mayhem in the Midlands (the best conference, ever and I miss it.)
    Of course, if authors stop going, so will the fans. But I will keep buying books whether I go to conferences or not and most of them will be mysteries.
    But we fans DO miss you, Lev.

    • That’s a lovely sentiment, Doris Ann, thanks, but I haven’t gone for years now as I’ve been doing paid speaking engagements around the country at libraries, colleges and universities and other venues. But there’s really no need to worry: Authors aren’t going to stop going just because some authors decide BCon is not cost effective. There will always be the authors who feel they have to go, the ones who can afford to go anywhere, and the new crop. 🙂

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