On cons and business and accessibility

After a Twitter discussion about cons and the need for authors to attend, because writers are business people and conventions are where business connections are established, I said something about accessibility for the hearing impaired and silence ensued. It's this magic thing that I can do--like a mike drop--it's amazing except when it isn't.

Don't get me wrong: cons are great to make business connections if you know someone who can introduce to someone important, but don't go to a con thinking you're going to be accepted into every clique. It doesn't work that way, because we're humans, and we don't always click with every person we meet.

I know that some of you think this is my first time through this dog and pony show, but I was attending cons back in the eighties. My hearing was better then, and I had my own circle of friends who helped introduce me to others in the business.

I've seen editors, agents, or well-known authors tense up with the oh-god-i-don't-know-this-person flinch. It's slight. Barely a twitch before their professional face slides back into place, but it's there along with the "save me" arrangements made with a friend (for example: If I'm talking to someone and they start to bore me, I'll raise my drink twice in rapid succession, and then you come and engage me in conversation.)

I know these things, because in those days, I went to cons and hung with the popular kids. Then I decided that drinking was more important than writing, and then I almost died, and so I had to stop drinking, but even through all of that, I didn't forget cons. So when I decided that I wanted to write again, I knew it meant going to cons without that buffer of friends I'd had in the beginning. I also knew I wanted to do things differently.

Now I'm back with a different name, but the games at cons don't seem to have changed very much. Barcon is mentioned often, and the parties are very much the same. Hanging out is great, because that is how we make business connections--in the hopes, that is, that the person we were talking to the night before didn't get so plastered they had a blackout and forgot all that terrific bonding.

My hearing, which has never been good, is now almost nonexistent, so barcon (due to low lighting and loud music) is really a waste of time for me. I can't read lips in the dark, and I do need a certain amount of sound to comprehend speech. Hearing people are usually patient for a few minutes, but soon it's kind of a pain in the ass for them to keep me in the loop of rapid fire conversation, so I usually fall back and just watch.

And trust me: if you think it's a pain in the ass for you, you should try being me.

But! You say, because I know you will. There are panels!

Right. During the day, I try the panels, because if I can get some good information, at least my money is well spent. But the panels don't have assistive listening devices and the microphone spews sound all over a room with poor acoustics. No seats are saved for the hearing impaired near the front, or the dias is so high, I'm looking up everyone's noses, which places lip-reading out of reach. If I can't hear, then the panels are useless to me, too.

So let's look at this from a business perspective, since we are talking about cons strictly from a business sense, and the return on my investment (ROI): I have spent anywhere from $200 - $2,000 to attend an event. I made precious few business contacts at barcon (see above), and the panels gave me no useful information, because the con didn't have accessibility for the hearing impaired. I have lost a weekend that I could have spent writing, which would eventually give me a return.

Based on those factors, cons are a bad business investment for me unless I have an advance, or I'm making enough in royalties to cover the cost. Cons are like exposure, except instead of just time, I am also forking over money for registration, lodging, and food.

For most authors, cons are a loss on the profit/loss margins. Other writers, either through their book sales, their publishers' promotional efforts, or other means entirely, are wealthy enough to take the hit, but they, too, usually go into the red on cons.

When are cons a good investment for the author?

When I have a new release in print. If my publisher can get me on some panels, my time isn't completely wasted. Even with a new release, if I can't get on a panel (or two or three if I'm traveling out of state), then due to my hearing and the lack of accessibility, the ROI isn't sufficient to cover the cost of going.

A con is also a good investment if it is close to home and the registration fee is within reason. I don't mind paying $25-$30 to drive over to the next city and attend a nearby con. That way, I get to meet new people, drop a few bookmarks and business cards for a small investment.

Cons should be fun--a positive experience--for the attendees. If you, the author, are miserable at one, for whatever reason, then the fans will pick up on that. Remember I said I wanted to do things differently? I made a conscious decision that this time around, there would be no signals. If a fan or an aspiring author wanted to talk, I would give them as much time as I had. If you suffer from social anxiety issues--and many people do--you might want to reconsider whether or not this is the best way for you to enter the business.

A lot of authors will tell you how they broke into publishing. The stories are as varied as the genres. Some did manage to get contracts by going to cons and talking to people. I didn't.

I have yet to lay eyes on my agent in person. We met online, I queried her, and we have spoken by phone several times, but we did not meet at a con. As a matter of fact, Marlene rejected my first novel, and accepted me as her client based on a later work.

Likewise, I have never met David Pomerico in person. He rejected not one, but TWO of my novels before he offered me a contract with Harper Voyager for my Los Nefilim series. He liked my story and thought it was a marketable idea, and that makes me feel good. I have always wanted to be judged on the most important thing to me: the quality of my work.

So I just want you to know that you can get an agent and a contract without going to cons. Being an author is a business, but you have to tailor your business to your means. Always evaluate what other authors are doing, but know that not all techniques are feasible for all authors.

Conventions are a lot like Clarion: they're great if you can afford to attend, but you don't need them, especially if they're not accessible to you.

I have a few tips for any concoms that might want to expand accessibility for the hearing impaired:

  • Check out the SFWA's Accessibility Checklist (it's a great place to start);
  • Have a line on your registration form that asks if an attendee has special needs. This way, you can assess what, if any, special needs are going to require your attention;
  • Have an accessibility subcommittee, or a member responsible for accessibility on your concom;
  • If you have an ASL interpreter, that is a marvelous thing, but don't assume all hearing impaired people understand ASL;
  • Most hotels have assisted listening devices available. Check with your host hotel about availability and cost. It will be impossible to have an assistive listening device in every panel. Small meeting rooms that seat twenty-five or less won't need an assistive listening device, but a large room that requires a microphone will.
  • Not all hearing impaired people benefit from assistive listening devices. Place seating for hearing impaired people to the right and/or left of the podium. When you place seating for the hearing impaired directly in front of the podium, the microphone often blocks the speaker's mouth.
  • Check out CART or Real-Time Captioning. CART stands for Communication Access Real-time Translation. The service might not be financially feasible for your con, but if you have a large number of hearing impaired people attending, it might pay off.
  • Ask presenters who are using PowerPoint to design their presentation with the hearing impaired in mind. This is easily done by adding pertinent information into the slide.

Ask around. I'm sure there are other concoms who have handled these issues, and they might have some advice and contacts for you, too.

For me it's a business decision, and accessibility for the hearing impaired is one of my major criteria in terms of which cons I sign up for, and which ones I avoid. I am more likely to spend extra money to attend a con in the midwest, which is accessible to me, rather than attend a nearby con, which is not.