Creating Con Meetups
In March of 2018, I went to what could probably be called my first major convention as a professional author: Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC) in Seattle. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed all my cons so far, but in terms of scale this represented something on a different level. While I was pumped, there was an issue that bothered me. As I had only one panel and no booth, finding me to get books signed or say hello would be hard for fans attending. So, I decided it was time to test out an idea I’d been kicking around for a while: a convention meetup.
As of this writing, we’ve had four in total, two at ECCC, one at Rose City Comic Con, and one at what was supposed to be Vegas Comic Con. Since I believe in both learning by doing and sharing what I discover, this seemed like a good time to go over the process in general, as well as some lessons learned from early attempts, for any authors out there considering adding these to their convention schedules.
First, a quick definition. The meetups I do are informal gatherings of readers and me to hang out and shoot the shit for a while. I tend to keep them at 1.5 – 2 hours, since conventions are busy for all of us. Although they don’t have a set structure, the one writer/many readers dynamic means we usually fall into a Q&A rhythm. That’s by no means gospel that must be incorporated, but it is a pretty convenient way to facilitate discussion in a group that large.
Where do you have these meetups at? Well, that’s the first hurdle and place to learn a good lesson from ole Drew. You’ll obviously need to find a local spot, either upon arrival or researched beforehand. In the first two meetups, Joseph Brassey and I used a restaurant and bar, respectively. While these are certainly convenient and available, they don’t make as ideal a spot as you might hope. Keeping a meetup open means you never really know how many people to plan for, so you run the risk of being short on table space. Bars lack that problem, since they are meant to accommodate shifting group numbers, but lots of folks at conventions have their children with them. Most bars aren’t cool with kids hanging around, and even the ones that are usually don’t make the best environment.
Ideally, you want as few barriers to entry as possible. Distance, costs, age-limits, every one of these you add risks making the event too cumbersome for a reader who might want to attend. The solution I’ve been trying since then has been using public space. No cover, no age-restriction, just a place meant for people to hang out. Since most conventions are held in a downtown area, there’s usually a park of some manner nearby. Now that is going to be location and weather specific, so it won’t work every time. The point is just to keep in mind that you want to minimize barriers. You might not be able to avoid all of them every time, but it’s never a bad policy to makes things easier on the people who love your work.
Next up: company. This is going to be more specific to you as an individual, but I know enough writers to be aware that most of them aren’t always fans of ample social interaction. Even if you don’t consider yourself in that camp though, you’ll probably want to have at least one more author with you. I am a social guy, I think anyone who has met me at a con or in person can vouch for that. I have a lot of fun at the meetups, and walk away really happy with the time spent. That said, by the end of the two hours I am mentally wiped the fuck out.
That kind of activity takes a lot of energy, and having someone else along helps lessen that burden. Instead of being a constant focus, you can trade off as they take some questions, then back to you, and so on. Or, if you need a bit, they can go into a longer story/explanation to give you a rest. The point is that teamwork really makes these tasks easier, and that’s especially relevant if you want to host one but don’t have the social energy of an easily excitable giant. Adding other authors will not only give their fans a spot to come see them, it will spread out the focus and give you all some extra breathing room.
Lastly, let’s touch on decorum. These events are an interesting line to walk, in that they’re meant to be informal and relaxed, but you as an author still need to be aware of yourself. Keep in mind all the stories of people meeting authors/actors/anyone they admired and being profoundly let down by the experience. If you don’t want to add to those, it means remembering that for some of the attendees, the experience is important.
The best tone I’ve found, for me, is roughly the same one as a professional networking event. No bosses are nearby, so you can curse and joke around, but you’re still in a professional environment with some baseline expectations built in. Friendly and open, yet giving the things I say more thought than I might in less formal situations. Your best tone might lean a tad more on the professional side, or it could be more relaxed than mine. Like with writing, outlining, and everything else, it’s a matter of figuring out a method that works best for you.
Some quick notes that don’t need an entire section to themselves:
- If you go for the outdoor public space, have a backup indoor option within walking distance. Weather doesn’t always cooperate, and you don’t want to be caught in the rain with no idea what to do next.
- Stick to beer or wine if you’re at a place with booze, and mind your pace. You’ll have some adrenaline and other nerves going, so it’s easy even for people with my level of experience to go too fast. Luckily, I learned this one at actual networking events, so none of the meetup folks got to see Drew vs. Postbox: Round 19.
- Try to avoid restaurant tables, reservations, or anything that locks the amount of people. You’ll never have an accurate count, and even if you magically do at one point, it won’t be for long. Cons have a lot going on, not everyone will need the full 2 hours, so expect folks to come and go as their schedule allows.
If you’re an author considering doing a meetup, give it a try. Although certainly not a great tool for everyone, they add a lot of fun to my convention experience. Hopefully, you’ll find the same.