The Clubhouse; Conference Review: A Festival for Genre Writers

The-Club-House-logo-8gFanzine review: 2016 CREATIVE INK FESTIVAL in Burnaby, B.C.

CIF COVER SMALL

I was late for Robert J. Sawyer’s talk on “Diversifying Your Income.” I pushed open the doors to the ballroom, slamming them open to be precise, to be met with Sawyer’s loud, ringing tones “And there’s the greatest mother of them all, R. Graeme Cameron! How are you doing?”

Momentarily taken aback, I paused to stare at all the people in the ballroom staring at me. Then I remembered, it was Mother’s Day, and Sawyer had undoubtedly begun his talk with reference to same, offering his off-the-cuff remark to seamlessly blend my intrusion and his lecture without interrupting the proceedings. Sawyer is a master at incorporating the unexpected into his talks, nothing fazes him.

“I’m still alive,” I blurted out, plunging into the nearest chair and whipping out my notebook. Not the wittiest of remarks, especially since I seemed to say it in a manner which suggested it was a prospect which occupies me constantly (which in fact it does now that I think about it) but the audience had already turned its attention back to Robert. He is one of the greatest speakers I know. Clear, precise, and coherent. Not a politician, in other words, but a writer and futurist full of original ideas and eager to share them. Again, unlike a politician.

His pointing me out was also part of his ongoing campaign to promote me and my role as editor of POLAR BOREALIS Magazine to the writers and wannabe writers present at the festival. Mary Choo, a well-known poet, was another. At one point she grabbed a fistful of my business cards to hand out to people inquiring of her where they can published.

Their efforts appeared to have some effect. A young woman came up to me and said in hushed tones “You’re a saint,” and walked away. Doesn’t happen to me very often.

I suppose her remark was triggered by the fact I don’t charge anything for my magazine, yet pay the contributors. Well, other Canadian Speculative Fiction magazines like NEO-OPSIS, ON SPEC, PULP LITERATURE, and LACKINGTON’S are published out of love of the genre and depend on a combination of patrons, subscriptions, and donations to keep going. I’m anxious to avoid the complications of running a business, being inherently lazy and simple-minded … er, well, extolling the virtues of simplicity … but I do rely to some extent on a modest GoFundMe campaign and am not adverse to people showering me with money so my magazine can offer a venue for beginning authors, especially those keen to make their first sale, but does that make me a saint? There are tons of people in the small press, independent and magazine publishers of Canada devoted to promoting and expanding the genre and not because they see it as a road to riches.

You want proof? When Brian Hades, owner and publisher of Edge Science Fiction & Fantasy Publishing was asked if his company (which publishes up to 30 novels and anthologies a year) was in any way lucrative, he replied, “You’ll note I’m still driving an old car.”

All right, so maybe he can’t boast about his car. But he can certainly boast about the quality of his books. As can many another small publisher in Canada, hence a veritable explosion of publications well worth reading. Here I should point out most Canadian small press are open to submissions from SF&F writers from anywhere in the world. POLAR BOREALIS is virtually unique (there are one or two other publishers I can’t think of at the moment) in restricting itself to Canadian authors, and that’s only because I’m trying to widen opportunity for beginning Canadian writers as much as possible.

Anyway, I’m certainly not a saint. For one thing, it’s an occupation which frequently involves martyrdom, which is not something I’m in to.

Besides, Robert wasn’t devoting the occasional moment to promote just me, he was promoting everybody! Randy McCharles and his WHEN WORDS COLLIDE convention coming up in August, for instance. Robert was out to share his experience and to inspire others not only to write and continue writing, but to get involved with the community of genre creators and realize they weren’t alone (though they might be in their small town or isolated garret), to understand there was a plethora of like-minded writers out there, and the possibilities are limitless.

Sort of. In his keynote speech Robert gave us the benefit of his twenty-five years as a writer. To sum up, “It was the best of times … It was the worst of times …” Hmm. I guess I’m quoting Dickens. Nevertheless, that was the gist of his talk. In effect, it has never been easier to get published (in this age of E-Books and self-publishing) and it has never been harder to find an audience willing to read what you’ve written. So much competition.

Randy McCharles stressed the same in his talk “Fifty Shades of Publishing,” pointing out that in the old days you had, when it came to novels, two choices: New York Book Publishers, or Vanity Press. Today you can self-publish, but most self-publications are no more successful than the proverbial Vanity Press “basement full of books.” On the other hand, the percentage of income from self-publication sales is much higher, up to 70%, so if you can just make those sales …

Both Robert and Randy agree that “pushing” your books, in terms of promotions, book tours and the like, are increasingly up to the authors themselves, in part because it is becoming more and more expensive for major publishers to do this. After all, book publishing has always been a form of gambling, and since most books barely break even, not even earning their advances to the authors, of late publishers tend to focus their promotional resources on proven authors they know will do well. It’s no longer something beginning authors can take for granted.

Even more terrifying, from a beginner’s viewpoint, let’s say you realize your dream and you sell your first novel to a mainstream publishing house, and let’s say it does poorly. Still, it garners some good reviews and stirs some interest among its target audience. So they publish your second novel. Maybe even your third. But nothing happens. Your books don’t “take off.” That’s it for you. The publisher can’t afford to “waste” any more money on you. And the competition, taking note, won’t be interested either.

So, since it is so difficult to be accepted by a large New York Publisher, the odds being against you, why not self-publish? And take charge of your own promotion?

Well, there’s Twitter, Facebook, your own blog site (you have one don’t you?) and myriad other internet forums that have sprung up without my noticing (I’m a twentieth century kinda-guy and somewhat clueless about this sort of thing). Brook Burgess (“Broken Saints” comic saga. YA novel “The Cat’s Maw”), who has a great deal of experience in what he calls “Transmedia” stated you have to come up with something original in your presentation in order to stand above the sheer volume of “noise” drowning the web. People have learned to tune out most forms of promotional communication as mere spam. It’s enough to identify it to reject it. Impossible to promote your book. Nobody wants to hear about it. Too many hawkers shouting in their ear.

But you can promote YOU. A frequent blog is one of the best ways of doing this. Especially if your “brand,” your personal brand, is quirky, entertaining, and as unique as you can manage. Plus, if you can respond to your readers, let them know you appreciate them, you can establish a bond of loyalty with them. It is a fact that genre readers tend to buy everything their favourite authors publish. And being one of their favourite personalities encourages this tendency. Make yourself known. Make yourself desirable (in a non-sexy way I mean, of course, though sex appeal can work for movie stars, but you’ll find not so much for authors).

At the same time, ignore Trolls. No matter what you do, no matter what you write, there’ll always be someone who absolutely loathes both you and your writing. Just concentrate on the people who love you and can’t get enough of you. They be your bread and butter.

Above all, be yourself. Don’t force yourself into an uncomfortable mould. Most writers are introverts anyway, and wild self-promotion seems to us like a form of torture, an exercise in masochism. But there’s an argument to be made that most readers are introverts, people who enjoy escaping into the pages of a book, who relish the quiet thrill of an imaginary journey. I truly believe most introverts are good observers, the sort of people who like to sit back and watch what’s going on, and who appreciate the observations of other introverts, especially if wry and witty. You don’t have to SHOUT at potential readers. Sharp, trenchant observations slipped in on the sly can have greater effect. Or so I like to think.

New York Times Best Seller Carrie Vaughn was one of the Creative Ink Festival’s Guests of Honour. She spoke of being an introvert, and how painful it used to be for her to attend writers conferences and conventions when she was starting out. There always used to be “that table” chockablock with major publishers, editors and writers who always seemed to be having a great time, treating each other as if they were family (better than family actually), like a jolly party being held on Mount Olympus. How dare one approach the Gods? So difficult for a newbie to muster up the courage.

Instead she sought out other beginners to see how they were doing. Their collective dreams and aspirations served to reinforce each other. Gradually, she, and they, began to sell. Her circle of contacts slowly spread. Her successes began to mount. Now, close to twenty novels and over seventy short stories later, she, and many of her life-long acquaintances who went on to writing fame and/or jobs in the industry, find themselves sitting at “that table.”

Was it because they grabbed a chair and forced their way in? No. They came together and formed a community of mutually supportive and like-minded creators who quite simply and naturally evolved into their current status over a period of time and continued effort.

Take me, for instance. Am I one of the “creative gods?” Heck, no. I’m not even a saint (as I explained earlier). I’m just a fan. But over several decades, meeting and getting to know many authors at VCON, I’ve come to realize they’re just people, albeit people easy to get along with (many interests in common for one thing), and most important of all, intensely creative people whose talk and ideas are inspiring. I’ve come to feel part of a widespread community, and in my own small way, through publishing POLAR BOREALIS, am finally beginning to contribute to that community from which I have derived so much pleasure all these years.

That’s the key really, get involved, and be confident about it. And that brings me to the panel “Imposter Syndrome (and the Benefits of Being Terrified).” So many authors, especially beginning authors, struggle with a sense of being “fake,” a “pretend” author, and for some, that feeling never goes away, even after numerous sales. It can be quite a handicap. Self-doubt can lead to self-loathing. Many writers sabotage their own careers by giving into defeatism.

Yet being an imposter can be great fun. Here I am trying to launch a paying market fiction zine and pretending I know what I’m doing. Haven’t fooled anybody, but at least I’ve fooled myself to the extent of forging ahead.

I listened to the panel discuss their own struggles. Late in the hour I decided to offer the benefit of my own curmudgeonly advice. For decades I suffered from extreme depression, shyness, and inhibitions. The “Mother of all Introverts” you might say. My biggest fear was that people would think I was an idiot. The world seemed to conspire to make this happen. Often.

My moment of truth occurred when I realized I actually AM an idiot. But only at some things. I’m pretty good at other things. Self-confidence depends on where I focus my attention. Failures? Got tons of them. Successes? A few. Enough to keep me going.

So my ultimate words of wisdom is to advise people to feel free to dare to be what they want to be and to do what they want to do. The worst that can happen is that you will fail and that people will think you’re an idiot. So what? What does it matter? Life is short. Enjoy its challenges while you can. Nobody else cares, really, so why should you? Just have fun.

I suppose it all boils down to that old Latin saying which translates as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Not referring to other people in this context so much as your own negative thoughts. You don’t need them. They’re up to no good. Get rid of them.

I wasted so much time as a teenager worrying about what other people think. Now that I’m about to become a senior I realize that 99% of what I used to worry about all my life is complete nonsense. That’s the secret of personal success, namely not giving a damn about failure and above all not give a damn what other people think. “Easy for you to say,” you say. You’re right. It’s easy. And thank the gods for that.

So Sandra Wickham, a noted short story writer, put together an excellent writers conference (the second to date) which superbly illustrated the value and worthiness of encouraging a sense of community among writers. Congratulations, Sandra!

In this column I didn’t go in to specifics about what was said at this or that panel but instead chose to dwell on what I came away from the convention with, namely a sense of optimism and glee. Reading is fun. Writing is fun. Even publishing is fun. Therefore I say, Introverts of the World Unite! We have nothing to lose but the shackles to our imagination!

BY THE WAY:

You can find a fantastic collection of zines at: Efanzines

You can find yet more zines at: Fanac Fan History Project

You can find a quite good selection of Canadian zines at: Canadian SF Fanzine Archive

And check out my brand new website devoted to my OBIR Magazine, which is entirely devoted to reviews of Canadian Speculative Fiction. Found at OBIR Magazine

And while checking out OBIR, click on the sub-heading “Polar Borealis Magazine” to see the first issue of my semi-pro SF&F fiction zine. (Soon Polar Borealis will have its own web site!)

One thought on "The Clubhouse; Conference Review: A Festival for Genre Writers"

  1. stevefah says:

    This is one of your best columns to date, Graeme! Kudos, my friend!

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