The second in the ‘Setting Out’ series is a guest post from my friend Bishop O’Connell, author of the ‘American Faerie Tale’ series. Here, Bishop shares a very funny and informative post on what he’s learned about attending conventions over his years as an author (and before).
Extroverts in their Natural Environment
My first comic convention was in San Diego; I was an attendee. Don’t get jealous – this was long before San Diego Comic Con became the pop culture behemoth it is now. I recall it being fun, though quite heavy on Star Trek—The Next Generation was at its height at the time—but I was too young and broke to really appreciate it. The second convention I attended was a gaming convention which I found much more fun and I think actually had a larger attendance; like I said, a long time ago. This was also a time when geek culture was still much maligned, and the term itself was still a pejorative.
When my first book, The Stolen, was published (many years later), I was invited to attend the New York Comic Con (NYCC) by my publisher and attend a panel. Let’s just say I was a bit excited (read: out of my geeky mind in delight). Not only had I not been to a con in a couple of decades, I was going to be a guest speaker! I’d be on the other side of the table! I had no illusions about my status, but I’d be lying if it didn’t feel a bit like I’d been invited to a celebrity party and was, by association, a minor celebrity myself. I knew there’d be no adoring crowds of people eager to meet me, no long lines at my book signing, but I really felt like I’d made it, in a small way at least. It was incredibly exciting and I couldn’t wait.
Now to briefly digress, I am and have always been an extrovert. I like to think it’s less the “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! I NEED EXTERNAL VALIDATION!” kind and more the “I just like people” kind, and I’ve paid my friends well to agree with me. I was never the little kid who put on shows for my family or anything, but in my early elementary school days, I did write short stories which the teacher would read at story time. Even as a little kid I’ve never been uncomfortable speaking in front of groups or to strangers (much to my parent’s dismay). When I got older I discovered theater and actually had a respectable resume for a starting actor. I briefly majored in theater, was part of a professional acting troupe, and even a professional improvisation group. Don’t look at me like that, it was the 90s. I soon discovered I was doomed to fill a particular role, namely the funny fat guy. At that point I shifted my focus to writing and changed my major to philosophy. Yeah, I know it’s ironic that I chose writing; an extrovert in a job that is, for the most part, quite solitary. But then I’ve always enjoyed irony. I of course knew shy people, but didn’t really understand the concept of an introvert. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy getting laughs or applause? Turns out, in the literary world, I’m the oddball. That’s a very strange realization to come to, and I think it’s helped me to empathize and understand others all the better. However, that oddity served me well at NYCC and all other conventions.
Back to New York: it was 2014 and the attendance that year was 133,000 people. It beat out San Diego for the largest con in North America (due entirely to the fact that I was attending, I’m sure). Until you see it, it’s hard to conceive of that many people all in one place. That’s more than the population of many cities. When I arrived, I was stunned. Even on Friday (Saturday is usually the biggest day) it was so crowded there was barely room to walk for an average size person. I had to squeeze between people almost the entire time. I know many authors who find that kind of crowd overwhelming, but for me, it was all the more exciting. See above regarding oddball.
I’ve heard people say, and I agree, that when you attend a convention you feel part of something, a sense of community. When you’re a guest—even an unknown—it’s even more so. You’re part of what all the people are there to experience. My panel was sort of a dream panel. My fellow panelists included Naomi Novik (who has remembered me each time I’ve seen her since), Nicole Peeler (whom I consider a friend now), Harry Heckel (a fellow Harper author and I’m convinced we were somehow separated at birth), as well as Brian and Wendy Froud. I sat next to Wendy, who along with her husband, are not only the co-authors of many faerie books, but longtime designers at Jim Henson’s Creature shop. In fact, they designed Yoda. YODA! I sat next to Yoda’s mom! I was a little star struck. But I felt at ease on the panel (Not your Mother’s Fairytales). I was a new and unknown author, but I was, in a very real sense, on stage once more. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I think I did well. I got several laughs, and even generated some interest. I sold a few books at my signing, including one young lady who was incredibly excited to meet me. She turned out to be the younger sister of Lexie Dunne (another Harper author) and I enjoy giving her grief about it to this day.
I walked the floor for a bit but spent much of my time at the Harper booth. This is where I found being an extrovert really came in handy (see above about talking to strangers). How did it go? Well I sold out of all the stock Harper had brought, on the first day. Luckily this was New York and their offices were a short drive away so they were able to bring more in. I met a ton of people who wanted to be authors, and so I told them how I’d gotten my publishing deal and encouraged them to never give up. In one case, I clearly remember one young lady literally shaking when I signed a copy of my book and handed it to her, she was so excited. That’s an odd feeling. I’m just me, Bishop. The idea anyone is excited to meet me or have talked to me was quite surreal, in the best way imaginable, but surreal nonetheless.
The first day was exhausting. Aside from being “on” I was also on my feet almost the entire day. That night when Harry and I ventured out to get some dinner, we were both recognized by a trio of cosplayers heading home. That was also a delightful surprise. I’m not exactly someone who blends in (6’3” and over 300 lbs) and while I often hear how I look just like someone everyone knows, I don’t have much experience being recognized as myself. To say it was very cool is an understatement bordering on criminal. The rest of the convention went much the same, and while I was exhausted every night, I was energized all day.
It wasn’t until much later, while attending another convention, that I heard from other authors about how hard conventions were for them. The concept mystified me until I brought it into a context I could understand. I don’t like heights (another understatement). So I imagined what it would be like to spend an entire day standing on a narrow bridge. Over a massive chasm. In high winds. Being under that kind of stress for extended periods is tough on the human body, and I realized just how lucky I am. I also imagine it’s terribly annoying to my introvert author friends; me being the guy who walks the steel girders of a sky scraper without shoes or a safety belt.
Since then I’ve attended conventions of all sizes. In each, I tend to follow a similar path. When I’m not on a panel or at a signing, I’m probably at the bookseller offering up my books to strangers. I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting those who are likely to find them interesting, and I’ve developed a decent elevator pitch. I don’t sell to everyone, but I meet a lot of interesting people, make some new fans, and meet lots of other authors. It’s exciting, but the downside is that cons have lost their luster in a way. I’m not a fan attending anymore, I’m a professional and it’s a basically work. Work I enjoy, but work all the same. I still love attending conventions and all it entails: people watching, turning strangers into fans or friends or both, meeting authors I respect and admire, and discovering all kinds of cool new stuff. I have no idea what it’s like attending as an introvert, I can try and imagine but I’ll never really know, so I just do my best to be understanding and accommodating. Sure, sometimes that means I soak up all the spotlight and attention to give them a break, but isn’t that what friends are for?
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