The Main Event: How to choose a convention right for you and your brand by Heidi Cullinan


The Main Event: How to choose a convention right for you and your brand by Heidi Cullinan

When DAMON SUEDE visited RU last week, I was excited to see he and HEIDI CULLINAN had co-authored a book together. Today, Heidi joins us with a timely post. 

Tomorrow is April 1st, and we all know what that means—it’s romance convention season. In fact, several conventions have already passed us by. Every year it seems the season grows longer and our options for mingling with readers, agents, publishers, and other authors becomes longer. Unfortunately our time and travel budgets don’t, and we all have to make some difficult decisions. How do we as authors decide which are the right conventions for us to attend?


The decision can become quickly overwhelming, and it’s easy to make a knee-jerk decision based on a single factor: “I’ll go with the biggest one, because it has the most readers” or “that con is focused solely on my genre, so obviously I should go to that one.” While these points could be important elements impacting your final choice, these are largely random facts about the convention and say nothing at all about you and your needs. Before you fill out those registration forms and buy plane tickets, get a cup of tea, a pencil and paper, and ask yourself the following questions.


  • What’s your measure of success? What defines a successful convention for you this year? What does your career need? What are you hoping to gain by attending?
  • What do you have to offer the conventions you might be attending? What unique aspects of your author brand would you bring to each individual convention you would attend, things no other author could do? What do you do that no one else can?


To be able to know if a convention has what we need, we need to be able to properly unpack a convention. Conventions come in many shapes, sizes, and flavors, but they all contain the same elements:


  • Attendees. For romance conventions, these are generally readers, though for industry-centered conventions such as RWA National or other writing focused cons, sometimes authors are the attendees. These are the people who have come hoping to see the next element category.
  • Featured speakers/guests. At most romance conventions these are authors, and again at industry conventions these might also be authors, but they would be authors with more knowledge, experience, or fame because they are, as the name suggests, there to be featured. Sometimes these featured guests are agents and editors or other industry professionals, but at more reader-focused conventions they might be cover models or any other desired person of note to readers.
  • Featured locale/event/activities. Often the convention is yet another convention hotel, but sometimes the locale is played up as a destination, or the whole convention is centered around the idea of a getaway, such as reader-author cruises. Events of some kind will happen at the convention, be they author readings, reader parties, or instructional seminars.


No matter where the con you’re looking at is held, these elements will be in play. The question is, what kind of elements, and are they used effectively in a way that complements your brand and your individual goals?


You should list your goals for each calendar year, either on your own, with your agent or publisher, or with whomever you feel comfortable making decisions. If unforeseen events in the publishing world upend your apple cart and you need to alter your plans, your life will be easier if you’re simply deviating from a set path rather than flailing wildly in yet another hurricane.


Conventions should be part of that plan. Some years being in the public eye might be an advantage. Other times being lower profile will suit your needs better. Perhaps you feel networking or connecting with readers will help you boost your confidence or lay a foundation with a publisher or foreign rights agent. Perhaps you’ve been working hard and know you need to sit in the bar and reconnect with fellow authors as much as possible even though you don’t have the time in your schedule—you don’t have the time, but you need the time to recharge.


Figure out why you feel compelled to go to conventions—and make sure the reason isn’t “because everyone else goes and so I feel like I should.” That’s a terrible reason to go. Conventions cost money, and unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re wasting capital you could be investing in marketing that would actually sell your books. Not to mention you’re taking days, maybe weeks out of your writing schedule. Be confident about your choices. Know what it is you want.


Know your strengths too. Are you an excellent organizer? First in the line to volunteer? A friendly face to strangers? Open to rooming with strangers? Good at teaching classes? Do you have a specialized skill set such as audio-visual expertise, or do you know ASL or anything which might be of use to convention organizers? It’s okay if you can’t think of much right now—this might mean, however, that your first year at whatever convention you choose you lay low and learn what you’re good at so you know how to best fit in the next year.


Because remember, the convention isn’t simply there to serve you. Yes, you pay your entrance fee and hotel registration, but these funds will barely cover the expenses required to keep the game going, and this is to say nothing of the manpower and headache all cons create. Conventions are always at heart a labor of love. Approach all organizers, even the ones you feel aren’t doing their best, with respect and generosity of spirit. Give to the convention at least twice as much if not more what you wish it would give to you.


But what is this convention able to give to you? That’s a question you need to ask—and be able to answer as much as possible—before you click confirm on that registration page.


Here are some questions you should seek the answers to before you commit.


  • What are the specific strengths of this convention? You may not see this listed as such on their website, but you should be able to deduct the answer by poking around on the homepage. Is it a general romance con? Is it a haven for mystery mavens? Is it a small retreat for serious writers wanting to hone their craft with master teachers with incredible pedigrees? What’s the selling point?
  • What’s this convention’s brand? What do they offer which other cons do not? This is similar to the first question, but it’s worth asking separately because some cons don’t have a brand, because they’re not well thought-out, and some have a brand which truly doesn’t fit yours. This may not matter so much if it’s a writing retreat and you’re simply there to hear Amy Super Author tell you the secrets of how to write fast, but if the brand of the con is funky and fun and you’re serious and stodgy, what kind of readers do you really think you’re going to pick up here? Or, worst of all, what if this con’s brand is that they seem cheap and tawdry and unprofessional? If you’re down to choosing between three cons and two seem to have iffy brands but otherwise seem to have equal strengths…well, your decision is made, isn’t it?


  • Who else has gone to this convention and what was their experience? Narrow your con menu by asking former attendees about their experience; don’t simply ask them if they liked it, ask them why they did or didn’t like it, because their terrible review might illustrate exactly why you’re going to have a perfect experience. Study the convention’s website and seek out who’s talking about them on social media. Try to try to get as detailed a picture as possible of what the con is and what it isn’t.


  • Do a dry run. The first year you attend a convention is always your recon year; keep it as low key as possible. If this is a reader-author convention, you can still attend as an author, but don’t go all-out. Focus on making network connections and laying groundwork. Volunteer! Get to know rhythms and find your best fit at the con. Whatever you do, don’t make this the year you drop tons of money on ads and sponsorships. Learn with least expense and investment whether this environment is—or isn’t—the right one for you.


Remember not to attend too many conventions in a year—how many can you afford to do with your writing schedule? What family and personal commitments do you have? How long does it take you to prepare for and recover from a convention? Lay out your A game when choosing your conventions, and you won’t be the author slumped over at the bar the third day in, regretting all of her decisions.


Whether or not you’re the one dancing on top of it or quietly making deals in the corner is entirely up to you and your brand. So long as you make the plan deliberately and appreciate the outcome, either option is perfectly acceptable.


Here’s wishing you a wonderful convention season, and I hope our chosen paths manage to cross at least once!


Are you attending any conventions, conferences or workshops this year? Which are your “can’t miss” events? 



A member of Romance Writers of America since 1999, Heidi Cullinan has served as president of Rainbow Romance Writers, run local chapter newsletters, and volunteered for committees on the local and national level. In addition to teaching writing since 1993, she also co-wrote Your A  Game with Damon Suede.   Find out more about Heidi’s fiction on her website, and be sure to follow her on Twitter and Facebook.



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