Learning the Con Game: Notes from my first conference invitation – by Phillip T. Stephens…

How many of us set secret, seemingly unreachable goals when we embark on creative careers? Writers might yearn for the Pulitzer or Nobel Prize in Literature. I yearned for two rewards, landing a writer’s gig on SNL and being invited to appear at Austin’s Armadillocon.

Armadillocon would be lost in the shadow cast by New York and San Diego’s Comic Cons. Nor does it provide authors with the exposure of Texas’ Bouchercon and Comicpalooza.

Don’t mistake my intent. Like the fabled Armadillo World Headquarters did with music, Armadillocon has featured a number of science fiction powerhouses. Jonathan Lethem and Ted Chiang, Bruce Sterling, Orson Scott Card, Martha Wells, Rick Riordan and Rebecca Roanhorse. But it’s also the con my wife Carol and I attended every summer for years after we met. I had drinks and dinner with local authors I admired, such as the late Neil Barrett jr., Don Webb, and Bill Spencer who wrote Zod Wallop (which I continue to reread years after it went out of print).

For years I contacted organizers about a spot on the roster, but they never returned my calls or emails. I wasn’t too surprised. When I would book a table in the dealers’ room I was lucky to sell three books. But this year was different. My story “Subroutines” was included in the newly released anthology Kill Switch, and the editors agreed to pitch Armadillocon on my behalf.

To my surprise, they added me to the program, gave me a half-hour reading, and a seat at three discussion panels.

No one showed for the reading and I sold one book.

For years I contacted organizers about a spot on the roster, but they never returned my calls or emails. This year was different.


Confession

I arrived at the Con with modest expectations. During the eighties I organized and promoted literary festivals for small press writers. I quickly learned how difficult it is for emerging writers to garner attention.

I also look for the dark cloud behind every silver lining. Call me negative (many do), but the practice helped me avoid many of the traps that snared me when I was younger.

Still, I expected to sell more than one book.


Correction: One person showed for the reading. Carol. But I didn’t read to her since she’d already heard me read the walkthroughs.

Assessment

I knew I might face an empty room when I noticed the announcements for another (also lesser known author) posted at more than a dozen places around the convention hall. Then I noticed the literature display table for author and organization self-promotion. They’d been in front of me at every con we attended. But it never dawned on me to use them.

I prepared for my reading, prepared for my panel, but I never thought to prepare to get people’s attention. At least not promote my reading outside the dealers’ room where my wife and I set up our table.

I look for the dark cloud behind every silver lining. Call me negative (many do), but the practice helped me avoid many of the traps that snared me when I was younger.

A moment for honesty

Most authors struggle to promote their work. Even extroverts, who thrive on social engagement, must scale a marketing mountain—platforms, branding, cross-promotion, search engine optimization, publicity and social media.

Nor do we face a shortage of information. We’re overwhelmed by it. Just today I saw a list of nine essential social media sites. We need to blog, post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblir, create subscriber accounts on sites like Patreon, crowd fund, optimize our books for search engines on multiple sales platforms including the Leviathan Amazon. Don’t forget swag. Free books, giveaways, bookmarks, trinkets, t-shirts and mugs. And we can’t just post our own thoughts, we have to follow and comment on author and fan sites too.

And conference appearances.

When do we have time to submit, much less write?

Most authors struggle to promote their work. Even extroverts, who thrive on social engagement, must scale a marketing mountain—platforms, branding, cross-promotion, search engine optimization, publicity and social media.

Conflicting marketing advice adds to the challenge. This month’s Next Big Thing will be next year’s So Over That. Each time we add an element to our strategies, we discover a newer, trendier solution. Marketing advice is more confusing than the advice we serve unsuspecting young writers who struggle to master their craft.

The marketing mountain gains height each year, and the path to the peak more serpentine and hazardous. The obstacles writers face have become so challenging that Armadillocon scheduled a panel for writer self-care.

I double-marked and starred that panel in my program. Self-doubt does more long-term damage than one or two promotional misfires.


Confession

My worst fear? That this year’s Armadillocon was my one shot and I’ll never be invited back. Public performance is my gateway drug.


Epiphany

The self-care panel was probably the most productive panel I attended. A comment by Don Webb salvaged my weekend. Don reminded us that in earlier times people considered storytellers and shamans to be vital to the tribe’s survival. Our clansmen would not have reduced us to mere entertainment—the food scraps of social edification.

I relish the shaman metaphor, but prefer a metaphor of cultivation and germination. Yes, there are writers motivated only by sales, but many of us speak to the consciousness of our community. We cling to the faith that our message will find fertile soil, even if the medium lies dormant for now.

I glimpsed a vision of our profession, not as an industry marketplace, but as an evolving ecosystem. Not every species draws attention, but all are vital to system survival. Nor does a species develop along a proscribed path. Adaptations are sudden and unexpected. To rise from the crowd, writers must force their own adaptations. The formulas that work for one author may not work for another.

There are writers motivated only by sales, but many of us speak to the consciousness of our community. We cling to the faith that our message will find fertile soil, even if the medium lies dormant for now.

Don’t get bogged down in the detritus of corporate marketing plans. Find the one strategy that makes sense to you and get it right. Then move onto the next piece. If, after several months, the strategy fails, move on to the next piece. Keep searching until you find the current that will carry you into the big stream.

The most striking adaptation this weekend was Michelle Muenzler, known as the “cookie lady.” For years she has handed homemade cookies to any who passed by. I always thought she was being nice. This weekend she confessed to me that cookies help her overcome introversion. The cookies were her shaman’s talisman, empowering her to interact with the strangers she encountered. Will everyone who nibbled down her delectable tea cookies buy her work? Most won’t. But it helps her make introductions many writers find difficult to make.

In the past I’ve posted on WordPress, Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads. I’ve tried with little success to add readers to my mailing list. The audience I connected with was on Medium. That’s where I’m focusing my energy for now. My next step is to expand my Medium readership. Hopefully, the strategy will increase book sales and subscriptions.

Success is as much luck as talent and marketing. Most writers pay several lifetimes’ worth of dues and see little success. Others strike the right note at the time when the people who need to hear them are listening. It isn’t fair. It never will be. What I can’t do is sit back and whine.

Success is as much luck as talent and marketing. Most writers pay several lifetimes’ worth of dues and see little success. Others strike the right note at the time when the people who need to hear them are listening. It isn’t fair. It never will be.

Action Plan

We’re writers. Write. When you’re finished writing, then you can focus on selling. When you sell your stories, then you can focus on promoting them. When the task seems overwhelming, ask, “if I’m eighty before anyone buys my books, will it have been worth it?” If the answer is yes, then take a minute (or day) to decompress, identify your most immediate need and consider it “Step One.”

Wry noir author Phillip T. Stephens wrote Cigerets, Guns & Beer, Raising Hell, and the Indie Book Award winning Medium.

Phillip T. Stephens

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7 thoughts on “Learning the Con Game: Notes from my first conference invitation – by Phillip T. Stephens…

  1. There’s no way we writers can do all the social media and publicity stuff we’re supposed to do. Nobody has that much time – even if we didn’t have jobs, families, commitments, interests, and books to write. The people who do all the social media stuff are those who have a staff to do it for them, social media managers pretending to be them, and so on. For most of us, that’s not realistic, nor is it desirable.

    Liked by 1 person

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