Monday, March 28, 2005

ConVentional Wisdom

Once, on a business trip, I found myself booked into a hotel on the same weekend that the hotel was hosting a standup comedians' convention. Now you'd think a standup comedians' convention would be, well, funny, but it was the longest three days of my life. When these people were off-stage, all they did was kvetch endlessly about agents, contracts, money, and the many personal failings of the club managers they all knew. At one point on Saturday afternoon I accidentally got stuck on a long elevator ride with four comedians, and by the time we reached the lobby, I was ready to slit some wrists. Theirs or mine, I wasn't fussy.

This past weekend was the big Minnesota sci-fi convention, MiniCon, and as some of you who live locally may have noticed, I once again was not there. The big problem for me is that MiniCon is always held on Easter weekend, and it's far more important to me to spend the weekend with my family. But the other problem is -- well, for a writer, what is the point of a sci-fi convention?

Is it to party with the fans? That stopped being fun when I quit drinking. Is it to hobnob with your fellow professional writers? No, they're all down in the hotel bar, kvetching endlessly about agents, contracts, money, and the many personal failings of the editors they all know. Is it to sell books?

Maybe. But according to a famous editor I know who'd probably prefer that his name not be mentioned, only about 15-percent of the attendees at any general sci-fi con actually buy and read books on a regular basis. The rest are there to express some sort of alternative lifestyle interest in a judgment-free environment, and their sole interest in writers and writing amounts to having a desire to be able to say, "Well, I was at this party once with Harlan Ellison..."

I used to think this was an exceptionally harsh assessment. Then I started asking questions of the audiences at my panels. It typically went like this. "Let's have a show of hands here. How many of you have bought a book in the last year?" Nearly everyone in the room raises his/her/its hand.

"Not a textbook or reference book. How many of you have bought novels?" Two-third of the hands immediately drop. "And not used books to complete your Doc Smith collection. How many of you have bought new novels by living writers?" By this point we're usually down to fewer than ten brave souls.

"Okay, now how many of you subscribe to or regularly buy a magazine that features short stories?" There may be one or two raised hands left in the room.

More likely, there is only the sound of crickets chirping.

And this in an audience that has chosen to attend a panel of writers, because those are the only panels I do anymore.

So tell me: for a writer, what exactly is the point of attending a con?