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 the mystery conferences, especially Bouchercon.

I went, year after year, to half a dozen different conferences including one at Oxford, and I discovered that Bouchercon is in some ways highly over-rated.

I loved meeting fans there, and running into authors I admired.  But I had more time with Walter Mosley when our paths crossed in Texas once than I ever did or could have at Bouchercon.  I had dinner with him and a group, heard his read, and then we got together for drinks together and talked about the logistics of developing a series.  It felt like a mini-workshop/retreat.

He’s gracious and charming wherever I’ve met him, but at Bouchercon, I got the sense with some authors that the motor was running and they were waiting for someone more important to come along while we chatted.

For fans, Bouchercon is a dream, a feast.  But for authors who will admit it off the record, 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.

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

I had spent $750 for a full page program ad, plus another $1000 on the hotel and air fare. For that money, I could have had a lovely weekend vacation with my spouse somewhere else, stress-free.

That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t go.  But think about your goals, the reality of attaining them, what your budget is, and then consider smaller conferences like Magna cum Murder where you might do better and have more fun.

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26 Responses

  1. Right on target, Lev. I go to s.f. cons too (as a fan). Lost and depressed are the words I’d use for a midlist writer at the big cons. The small ones are great–if you’re on a panel or two and if you know somebody you can hang out with in the bar.

  2. As a fan, I have to say I prefer the smaller conferences like Left Coast Crime. I feel lost at B’con too — having to choose between 3 different programming tracks is hard enough; make it 7 and it just makes my head spin. And with a smaller con, there’s a better chance you’ll run into the people you want to see. Having said that, I think the only time I ever met Lev in person was at a B’con, so they’re obviously not all bad!

  3. Perfectly stated, Lev. All of the reasons I don’t go to Bouchercon. It continues to astonish me that the organizers have never understood that in order to attract non-star writers, to make it at least semi-worthwhile for them to spend all that money, they need to promise some promotional exposure. Even getting on a panel at B’con requires arm-twisting by the writers (unlike, say, Thrillerfest, which I always attend). Promoting myself as a speaker at writers conferences — wherein I’m the star (or one of them), and they pay my travel and expenses — is far more satisfying and effective in terms of booksales — and connecting with fans.

  4. Hear, hear! I’ve spent thousands of dollars going to Bouchercon–mostly to watch fans standing in line for the bestselling authors. Last fall in St Louis thirty of us, including myself, were left out of the printed program, altough we’d sent in our info way ahead. Give me the smaller cons like Malice Domestic or Bloody Words, any day!

    • Nancy, one Bouchercon I went to put another author’s bio and book titles under my photo (but didn’t put mine under her photo), failed to schedule me for a panel though I’d registered early, then when I brought it to their attention stuck me on an end-of-convention, mis-matched panel (in other words, all the other authors they’d forgotten about). I still managed to enjoy it (!) but decided my money could be best spent elsewhere.

  5. Small is Beautiful.

  6. Thanks for the comments, folks. As a debut thriller author I debated going but there’s only so much time/$$$ and frankly, an author I love (a best selling author at that!) told me she’d go “when she got a hardcover.” Sheesh. I agree with Tom, Thrillerfest is awesome. Glad to have found this blog!

  7. I really enjoyed this post–speaking as one who made the unheard of decision (when I first got published) that I wasn’t going to bother with B-Con. Too much money spent, too many people–and I really doubted anyone would pay any attention to me and my books. Its nice to hear that I was probably right–from someone who knows. Of course, I don’t like conventions in general, so that probably influenced my decision. I’ve gone to a few when they were in my back yard, so to speak, and found them underwhelming. Same for the “horsey” conventions I attended in the days when I was showing horses. Thanks for your insights-good to hear.

    • I plunged into the conference scene when I launched my Nick Hoffman series in 1996 and must have ultimately done dozens of panels as panelist and moderator before I quit. I’m an extrovert, but even so, the travel wore me out, as did the relentless schmoozing. I had fun and met many wonderful people along the way, and treasure those contacts, but I don’t miss going. I got more out of speaking with three other mystery authors in Ludington, MI recently, at a tiny writing conference, than I had from Bcon or other cons. And I mean more in terms of thinking about my own work, thinking about the genre, thinking about teaching.

  8. You must make your own decisions, but I will tell you that as a fan, this was my first Bcon, and though I brought some books by big-name authors to be signed, the books I ended up buying were by authors I’d never heard of, who either had impressed me with their remarks during a panel or whom I had met at one of the signing tables.

    • I’m glad it was enjoyable for you! Note, however, that I didn’t say that Bcon has no value whatsoever; I expressed a preference and laid out some realities. And in my own experience, I’ve bought more books by authors I didn’t know when I’ve been at smaller cons like LCC, Sleuthfest et al.

  9. Lost and depressed. I thought I was the only one! We should have formed a club. Thanks for this post, Lev. It definitely helped me put my last two–and I do mean last–B’con’s into perspective.

    • Donna, I’m glad it was helpful. Bcon can be a high and it can be a low. But it’s a drain on finances, either way. And like anything else of that sort, it takes time away from writing. The received wisdom is the Bcon is the most important one to attend. But I don’t believe that.

  10. You’ve echoed my sentiments exactly. I’ve enjoyed those I went too, but after one I went too I learned the committee wasn’t happy about the number of small-press authors who attended. Please, we weren’t worth anything? Not even the dollars we spent? I did go to the one in San Francisco because it was easy to get to.–and I had fun, because I made it fun by hanging out with people I liked. LCC is better and even more fun is a small conference like Public Safety Writers Association’s conference where every author gets to shine.

    • That is the one things I miss, hanging out with fun authors like Lauren Henderson, but then once or twice when I was in New York I had drinks with her and that was even better. Until the bar tab came. 🙂

  11. I completely understand. Money will always be the controlling factor in how many of these meetings I can attend and I have to pick carefully. As a reader and a fan, though, I find mystery cons energizing and informative, a place where I am with like-minded people. I nearly always skip panels, as they tend to be the same topics over and over. True, different people discuss them, but how many ways can writers express how they get their plot ideas?

    • The repetition of topics is one thing that wore me out, and it’s also why when I moderated, I tried to ask questions people hadn’t heard before.

  12. Great discussion. Thanks, Lev, for starting it. I agree with what many have said. There are things I have enjoyed about Bouchercon, but I end up feeling like an ant on a hill. Everyone is rushing, rushing, to get somewhere and many greetings are a fast wave across a crowded hallway. I also do better sales-wise at smaller, more relaxed cons. Tom Sawyer (by the way) is a regular feature at Oklahoma Writers’ Federation’s yearly conferences and presents wonderful programs. This mid-sized event will be in Norman, OK next May. It draws writers and fans from all around the south-central USA. Or readers here might consider Lexi-Con in Texas next July. Very small, (and growing, I’d bet), very friendly, excellent host hotels. The Public Safety Writers Con is one I would love to attend but complicated access mostly due to the distance from Arkansas defeats us.

    • You’re welcome, and I’m glad the blog struck a chord with so many people. I grew up in new York, but I don’t like huge crowds and even though I’m gregarious and know lots of mystery authors, Bcon is still a turn-off for me.

  13. I have attended only one BCon, in part because they always seem to fall on one Jewish Holiday or the other. (There are several between Sept. and Oct., and the dates shift yearly.) The highlights of the one I attended were: the chance to meet in person some virtual friends; the opportunity to get together with two rabbinic colleagues I hadn’t seen in a long time; and a fantastic chocolate store down the street from the hotel. The rest of BCon was a blur of crowds and noise. I agree with you that smaller cons are the best.

    • As with all big conferences, it’s funny when people trumpet the city, and so often one rarely sees more than the hotel and some restaurants.

  14. […] Bouchercon–Why I Stopped Going  this author has some interesting observations […]

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