My First Mystery Conference by Barbara Barrett
Have you ever attended a conference featuring writers, either as a writer yourself or as reader? If so, what was your reason for going? A chance to meet your favorite author? Hearing about the latest industry trends? Free books? A whirlwind of activity? An ongoing party? For me, the numerous annual conferences of the Romance Writers of America that I’ve attended over the years, first as an unpublished author and in more recent years as a published author have been all of the above and more, like networking and learning more about my craft.
By my count, I’ve attended fourteen. By now, I’m familiar with the drill and know how to pace myself. I no longer attend book giveaways; the cost of sending them home got to be prohibitive and I found I couldn’t keep up with the reading. I don’t feel obligated to attend every workshop. I rest frequently. And hydrae. One of the primary reasons why I have continued to go is to see old friends.
With this past conference history in mind, this was the year I decided to switch it up. In the past few months, I released my first two cozy mysteries, Craks in a Marriage and Bamboozled. Time to develop a new reader base and establish a new author network. Friends who’ve attended several mystery conferences recommended Malice Domestic in April as a great place to start: it would be smaller, thus more intimate, and it was known for the number of mystery readers who attended, especially cozy readers.
I went to Malice Domestic 30 (yes, it’s been going for that many years) feeling I could pretty well handle myself in this new environment based on my previous experience with the RWA Conference. The similarities—registration, swag bag, nametag, lobby networking—helped me ease in. But then the differences began to hit me. This is an all-volunteer run event. Although many volunteers assist with the RWA Conference, RWA also has a professional staff who are proficient at juggling the logistics and dealing with the facility staff. The Malice Domestic (MD) organizers demonstrated a very hands-on approach, taking charge of most of the plenary meetings.
MD honored several individuals this year. Louise Penney was Guest of Honor, Brenda Blethyn was the Poirot Honoree, David Suchet was the Amelia Honoree, Nancy Pickard was the Lifetime Achievement Honoree, Janet Blizard was the Fan Guest of Honor and Catriona McPherson was Toastmaster. All but Suchet were in attendance. The honored guests were featured in several presentations. Attendees unfamiliar with actress Blethyn’s work were treated to an episode from “Vera” the first evening. “Vera” is a long-running police procedural in Great Britain. The conference hadn’t even officially begun and I was already enchanted.
I should have learned that night, but it took me more large group meetings to discover that the conference planners hadn’t anticipated the crowd size whenever it Penny or Blethyn were featured. I was lucky that someone gave me his chair in the back for the showing of “Vera,” but I left one panel because I’m not great at standing-room-only when I’m the one standing. On the other hand, the room size for other large events—the banquet, the charity auction, the closing tea, worked quite well.
I mentioned the charity auction. RWA does a literacy signing. Publishers and authors donate their books, which the public as well as conference attendees sign. Malice has an auction where attendees bid on items donated by the authors. The proceeds, around $24,000, went to KEEN Greater D.C., a non-profit, volunteer-led organization that provides one-to-one recreational opportunities for children and young adults with developmental and physical disabilities at no cost to their families and caregivers. It’s one thing for fans to buy a book or even several at the RWA Conference; however, at MD, it was conference attendees who participated in the auction. some bids went as high as $2000.
MD is a smaller conference than I’m accustomed to. Almost all the presentations are panels with a moderator charged with coming up with questions. The panels focus specifically on the authors’ books, unlike the multi-track RWA program that includes workshops on craft, the writer’s life, career and research, to name a few. Since MD is smaller, as a newcomer, I had a better chance of being directly involved. I was selected to be on a panel on seasoned sleuths. MD also featured a “first-time author” breakfast session (sponsored by Mystery Scene Magazine). Each of 21 newbies had an opportunity to pitch her book(s) while hosting her own table and later during an interview.
I immediately felt at home and valued as an author at this gathering. Case in point, at the charity auction, I sat next to two readers, although I didn’t know they were readers until they asked me about my books. Before I knew it, they both purchased a copy of the first on their ever-present tablets. Just like that! No pitch from me or anything.
Another feature that was new to me was the speed-dating-themed author round table. Readers sat at tables and pairs of authors came to them, each having three minutes to promote his or her books, complete with swag, then the pairs moved on to the next table. Again, this was a wonderful opportunity to get one’s name in front of potential readers.
I haven’t decided yet if I’ll return next year, not because I didn’t find it fun and career-boosting, but because I have a limited conference budget, and I might like to investigate a few others I’ve heard about. Would I recommend it to other mystery authors? Yes, definitely, especially if you write cozies. It will be held in the same venue in 2019, the Bethesda-North Marriott, in Bethesda, Maryland from May 3-5, 2019.