This is my fourth year doing this convention. Convention isn’t really the right word for When Words Collide. It’s a festival, a celebration of (mostly Western) Canadian speculative fiction. I’ve spent the past week recovering, and writing this post-mortem. It’s long. Some of you won’t like it.
To follow my journey and read my other post mortems of conventions I’ve done across Canada, click here.
The previous week had been very busy for my freelance business and I was coming into the festival half burnt. On the upside, my dear friends Samantha Beiko and Chadwick Ginther came in from Winnipeg (and arrived in the middle of the night – driving from Winnipeg, maybe not such a great idea in retrospect) and I was looking forward to a fun weekend of hanging out with them, selling some books, and relaxing.
With everything going on, three days went by quickly. By Sunday, I was pretty much brain-dead. After a very busy birthday, I had a breakfast meeting and a morning presentation on websites. Not sure if it was just me, but Sunday seemed deader than usual in the merchant room – did everyone party hard after the Aurora Awards? I feel like I gave a lot of myself this weekend, and became a zombie as a result.
I had a table right at the front of the room – as soon as you came in the main entrance, you could see me. While I don’t think this necessarily benefited sales, it definitely benefited my branding. It’s also the first con this year that I had 100% of my table space – Kate had a table next to mine.
I still make a profit on the table, certainly, and one could argue that having a table at WWC isn’t worth it. It’s a networking con, as I’ve said in the past. My argument for having a table is completely based on developing a brand. ChiZine has a table. Bundoran has a table. EDGE has a table. If I want to be a player in the publishing circuit, I have to display my branding and let people know that I exist. Doing programming helps this a lot, but a lot of people need that visual cue.
The downside of course is I’m behind the table for a lot of the con – when I’m not doing programming. I was on considerably less programming this year. On one hand, I didn’t mind this. It was more time to hang out with my friends behind the table. I got to know Glynn Stewart and his wife Jack – who commandeered the empty table next to mine and set up shop. Glynn is a great example of someone doing very well on Amazon. It’s great to see Canadians navigating that space, writing what they love, and making a good living out of it. I had fun chatting shop with Glynn and Jack.
I did what I expected for this con, pretty much on par with what I’ve done in previous years – maybe a little more. For this weekend, I did my first-day discount for all three days, because of my birthday. ^_^ People mostly bought The Silver Spear, since that’s my new book for this year. I had some pre-orders for Hunger In Her Bones. It’s at the point now where a lot of people attending know me, they’ve heard of my books, and they probably have one or two. It was nice to see some new faces at the event as well – WWC sells out (especially when there are large author guests attending, like last year’s Diana Gabaldon), so it’s good that newcomers are able to get in.
Credit card sales accounted for about 20% of total sales. I had only one person ask me if I took debit, and then paid with credit card.
August 13 is my birthday – I turned 28 this year.
For my past two birthdays, I was completely alone for most or all of the day. It was a nice change of pace to go somewhere and be showered with birthday wishes and unexpected presents. Thank you to everyone who stopped by the table and made me feel special. I have a rule: I don’t work on my birthday, except on my writing pursuits. Faery Ink Press falls within that realm.
It was a very busy Saturday. Tabling, paneling, more tabling (the afternoon was very long). Then, to the pub for a drink and pre-dinner snack. Then, Aurora Awards, which started half an hour late. Then, finally, supper – Indian food! We’d brought a vegan gluten-free cake that I made – Sam is vegan, I’m gluten-free – and the restaurant kindly put candles in it and served us. I think we were uncomfortably full after all of that.
Then, back to the hotel for more partying and socializing. At that point, I really did not want to be around people, but made an appearance at Chadwick’s whiskey party, and the Bundoran room party. I was very happy when I finally got to go to sleep, but sad that my birthday passed so quickly! It was a good birthday though. I was glad to spend it around friends. It made me feel valued, and loved.
Apples and Oranges
Something happened on the Sunday that I want to share with everyone, because it made me feel uncomfortable, and it took me a while to come to terms with it.
A young woman came to my table. Although I don’t know her well, I happen to know that she is a big fan of a male YA author also in attendance at WWC. She had come to the table a few times to browse my books cautiously, at a distance–interested, but not completely willing to engage yet. The final time she came back, she asked me without preamble two questions that made me bristle.
“How many books have you sold?” and “How many reviews and stars do your books have?”
I’m never going to answer the first question – that’s confidential information, as far as I’m concerned. I’m happy to give general answers about my sales expectations and compare sales to last year, which are stated above. Because of her obvious love of the male author’s books, I can’t help but read this as her comparing me to him. I also happen to know that the male author sometimes gives out his sales information – and that’s fine. But that’s not something that I’m going to share. So I answered the first question in general terms.
As for the second question, that’s publicly available information that anyone can look up at any time, on Amazon or elsewhere. Why would I have that memorized? That’s not a stat that people want to know when I’m selling direct at cons – that’s not why people buy from me, why I’ve been able to scrape a living from it. Really what she was asking was, “Do you have as many reviews as the male author?” The answer is no. He has lots more reviews than I do. I have maybe ten reviews per book on Amazon? He is very good at soliciting reviews (important for sales on Amazon), where I have scaled back on that front, preferring to focus my energies elsewhere.
Again, in the context of the situation, it was easy for me to read the question as, “Are your books as good as his?”
Which, to me, can also translate as: “Prove to me that you’re good enough to be here.” And: “Prove to me that you are as good as this man.”
My knee-jerk reaction is to provide a condescending explanation: I don’t need to prove myself to you. I know what I’m about. You can decide for yourself if you like me or not. I’ve been doing this a long time. Read my writing samples online and make an informed decision, or look up the stars if that’s something that matters to you.
But I didn’t say any of those things.
There are two issues I’m exploring here.
a) the young woman was rude and should be able to form an opinion about my books without heavily resorting to external social proof.
b) the deeper consequences of her words, which triggered my feelings around being compared to a man.
What I really wanted to convey to her, and the others who have compared us (this isn’t the first time), is this: Just because he has more reviews, and is better at making time for ensuring they get done, doesn’t mean his books are better than mine. Reviews, while very important (especially on Amazon), are a drop in the sea of things that make a good book. And, most importantly: comparing the two of us serves no one.
He and I are apples and oranges. Apples and oranges are equally tasty fruit. You’re always going to have people who like apples more than they like oranges, and vice versa. We are both targeting the same kind of fruit lovers. While we are in competition for these fruit lovers’ dollars, that doesn’t mean that they can’t like both apples and oranges at the same time. Reading, like eating fruit, is a healthy life choice.
At WWC, the entire merchant room is only books. And yet, I don’t feel like I’m in competition with anyone. We are there to display our work, proud to be part of a community. We are both active in this business, and we have our strengths and our weaknesses. We have a good working relationship. I enjoy talking shop with him. This particular young woman has ranked his books above the rest – which is 100% fine. Everyone has different tastes and opinions. Yet it’s the bluntness of the questions that stays with me, and always stays with me whenever I’m compared to a man in my field.
In high school, I was always in competition with the boys in my class. Who is better at English? Who is the best at math? Who’s the best at science? Who is better in gym class? Being compared to men, being put in a setting where I must compete or justify my work alongside them, it puts me on edge. My peers decided I was the smartest girl.
There was a guy who was the smartest boy. Math and athletics came naturally to him. English came naturally to me. I think science was a toss-up between the two of us. But looking back, our genders were very much tied to our performance ranking. In a lot of ways, being Smartest Girl felt like a consolation prize. I don’t know whether I gave this prize to myself to make myself feel better, or if someone else noted it and made it a thing, but it remained prominent in my mind, even though I hated it. It felt like I was always going to be Smartest Girl, and never Smartest, period.
I recognize this is a personal feeling I have, that this has nothing to do with the male author, or any other male authors, yet it remains a remnant from my teen years where I was very insecure about myself and extremely conscious and conscientious about my performance. I’ve come a long way since then. Ninety-nine percent of the time, my self-worth is not in question. I’ve accomplished a lot of things in my life, in publishing and otherwise. Yet when I’m faced when a situation where I’m being compared to a man in the publishing community – either deliberately or not – I’m suddenly aware that I’m a woman, and the possibility that being a woman isn’t enough. It’s like I’m not only fighting to be good at publishing, I’m fighting to be good at being a human being too.
It doubly sucks when I feel I have to justify myself to another woman, who in all likelihood, has and will face similar situations.
I can hear some of you thinking, “Oh, but that’s just your FEELINGS. She didn’t MEAN to bring up your UNRESOLVED ISSUES.”
No she didn’t, but just because you didn’t intend to make a person feel a certain way, doesn’t mean that you’re not at fault for your actions. Not considering a person’s feelings or how they may react to your words before speaking is rude – especially if you don’t know them. When your actions don’t match your intent, your intent becomes essentially meaningless because it wasn’t properly conveyed. This is true in relationships, and it’s true in business.
I have opted not to reveal this author’s name or the name of the young woman who asked me this not because I want to protect them, or because I’m afraid they’ll be mad at me, but rather because it’s not about them. It’s about my feelings. It’s easy to dismiss incidents like this as “part of the job,” especially when you are a woman putting yourself out there, selling a product in sometimes hostile or ignorant environments. I have to remind myself that my feelings are valid, and not to be dismissed lightly.
I’m not angry or sad that this happened. I’m annoyed that it took me so many hours to parse these feelings, write them coherently, and edit them for civility. I also didn’t write this to elicit sympathy. If you find value in my post mortems, that’s good. I write them to remind myself of what happens at these events, so that I can do better next time. For me, next time, I’ll be able to recognize why I feel anxious, and acknowledge the feeling faster, so I can get on with my day.
I’m a competitive person, and I do what it takes to sell my books. Readers have the power to pick their fruit and eat it. I can tell you my books are great, and that these other people think I’m pretty great, just like the next author can. Stars don’t tell the whole story, comparing apples to oranges is pointless – more hurtful than productive – and ultimately, as a discerning reader, you have the power to make your own decisions about the books placed before you.
There Is More Than This
There was something about this year that was different. Of my four years doing conventions religiously, this was the first year that WWC felt more tiring than usual. Granted, I was more tired. But I came to a realization this weekend.
For a Canadian writing and publishing festival, there is a real lack of Canada represented.
I’ve always known Canada’s publishing scene to be very small in comparison to the rest of the world, and Canada’s genre scene even smaller. Yet WWC doesn’t actually represent all the spec-fic authors, all the publishers, and all the editors in Canada/United States. It’s easy to have that mindset when you’re first arriving to the scene. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and when we open our eyes to the community around us, we are overwhelmed with a feeling of camaraderie. We think that this is all that there is, and are happy for its existence.
Publishing is de-mystified for me–my views on this convention are going to be very different than someone who goes as a newbie writer. I don’t go here with hopes to get published. I go to sell books, and connect with potential clients & readers, and hang out with my friends. The panels are largely the same from year to year, writing advice in general never changes, and it’s the same faces in the dealer’s room. Fun for seeing old friends and buying new titles. But beyond that…I fear I’m seeing the beginnings of stagnation.
For a country that prides itself in multiculturalism and diversity, this Canadian writing and publishing festival does not represent it. It has done well presenting Western/Central Canada’s genre presses. It does well featuring local Alberta authors, even independent ones. Yet Alberta and Central Canada are not ALL of Canada. And the white, cis people (including myself) in this industry aren’t all there is either.
And while WWC has been predominantly genre, Will Ferguson is a guest next year. He’s won a Giller. WWC is trying to attract the CanLit community – a good thing, I think – we should celebrate all of Canada’s writing communities. So that means we need to attract Canada’s known Lit publishers too, incentivize them to come from Ontario and the East and beyond. Next year, we’ll lose some people to Worldcon 2017 in Helsinki, since it’s the same weekend, so all the more reason to get some new blood in the merchant room.
The festival has done well. Randy knows how to run a tight ship. It is a hub of celebration for Western Canadian genre authors. It is a place where I have a good time with people I only see once or twice a year. While it’s good to celebrate the successes, we can’t get caught up in a perpetual circle-jerk. It’s easy in this business to get stuck doing things one way until you die.
We can do better.
Things I’ll Do Differently Next Year
I had fun at the festival this year, and I’m always glad to go, though I think I’ll go back to doing 5-6 panels/presentations in 2017. Presentations take a lot out of me but they garner results. With the direction I’m taking my freelancing business, I may have two or three one-hour quality presentations in the can that I can give without much thought.
My display is solid – it may change as I add more books, but not too much to innovate there at the moment until later this year.
This is the end of my “small” cons for 2016. The next four are larger expos – Saskatoon, Edmonton, C4, and Hal-Con. I’m really looking forward to going to Winnipeg, and home to Nova Scotia especially – where I’ll be a guest at Hal-Con! Exciting times.