“Michael J. Sullivan?” a loud voice called as a man leading an entourage of some seven or eight individuals walked into the bar at the Hunt Valley Marriott, where they were holding Balticon this past weekend.
I looked up just as this young, muscular fellow with a military haircut boldly strode up to me eager to shake my hand. “I’m Myke Cole—I’m so glad to meet you.”
I stared back puzzled. What the hell? You actually know I exist?
First off, you need to understand that I’m not a big con attendee. In January 2009 I went to my first one (MarsCon in Williamsburg, VA, not to be confused with the one in Bloomington, MN). This had been just a few months after my first book was published by AMI and I was trying to do anything and everything to promote it. I had spent nearly every weekend at bookstores doing signings and bought a table in the dealer’s room for every literary science fiction/fantasy convention I could find within a couple of states radius (as I didn’t have the money to travel farther).
My initial convention experiences were not good.
I spent eight hours a day standing behind a table hocking my book to disinterested passerbys. At a bookstore signing I could move 10 books an hour. At the conventions I sold 10 per 8 hours or 30 books in 24 hours—three days of grueling drudgery which required travel, food and hotel expenses that often ate all—and frequently more than—I made selling the books. The disturbing thing was that those who sold their books alongside me marveled at my ability to move so many copies as often they sold no more than 5 books in a three day period.
More than this, however, I found the conventions to be dispiriting and depressing, mostly due to the hordes of the disinterested. Throngs of pink and blue haired aliens, scantily dressed elves and elegant vampires with bunny ears flowed by. These were fans of my genre and yet they were so desensitized to struggling self, or small published, authors that they dismissed me out of learned reflex.
One young woman picked up a copy of my book, read some, and then asked to buy it. When I inquired what convinced her, assuming it was my killer opening, she replied, “I read the whole first page and there wasn’t a single spelling error.” This then was the level of expectation I was dealing with. (Incidentally that young woman was Leona Wisoker who has gone on to become a published author herself.)
Readings were torturous acts of humiliation. While I did not have one, I went to the readings of those whose booths were near mine—authors I befriended like raw recruits in our first military action. No one came. The author stood at one end of a long room before an audience of empty chairs. I felt sick in empathy and started pulling people in from the hallway almost threatening them to get butts in seats. All my efforts resulted in a three person audience—including myself. I sat sweating in shared embarrassment as the author bravely, and proudly read from their novel to a room dripping in apathy. Afterward the ashen look on the author’s face and her near tearful thanks for trying to help was tough to witness.
I deemed conventioning to be long, hard, miserable work that resulted in few sales, and a good deal of ego pummeling. Seeing that I was spending more by attending than I could make, and realizing that for all my efforts I was only able to reach a handful of people, I quickly lost interest in cons.
I still went, but only to help my wife, Robin, who attended either to meet with authors she was publishing, or to be on panels (groups discussions) on topics aimed at helping new writers understand the world of self-publishing. My job was to haul books for Robin’s other authors, and the rest of my time was spent in the bar. As a result I rated cons by the quality of their beer selection.
This year’s Balticon was slated to be no different.
At last year’s Balticon, Robin had gotten them to put me on a few panels, which I found more depressing then sitting in the dealer’s room. People weren’t there to see me, they didn’t even know me, and I felt inadequate next to the other panelists. For this year’s event Robin mentioned I was asked to be on a panel Tee Morris and his wife Pip Ballentyne were moderating. I’ve known Tee for a few years and couldn’t turn down a friend, so I grudgingly agreed. In my mind it was only an hour, and there was always the bar afterward. When I arrived at the hotel and Robin checked the “official schedule,” and discovered I was put on five panels and had a signing and a reading. She claimed innocence and I quickly fell into “a mood.” This is Robinspeak for adopting an attitude where I want to punch out the Pillsbury doughboy and complain that the sky is too damn blue!
We arrived late Friday and while Robin remained in the room I made a beeline for the bar. I brought my backpack of research books, my moleskin and pen—just like any other working day—and settling down at a quiet table in the corner with a glass of Guinness, I began to work. The fact that the bar served Guinness should have been a clue that something remarkable was about to happen. I should have been pleasantly surprised as I don’t remember them having my favorite drink in previous years, but as I said, I was in a mood.
Then Myke Cole walked in and shook my hand.
Okay, I thought, this is weird. How does this guy know who I am? Myke Cole, Myke Cole…I know that name. He’s the new debut author everyone is talking about. The one who released Shadow Ops: Control Point. I twittered with him, but did he actually remember that? He tweets with lots of people. So how does he know me, and why would he appear to be so happy to shake my hand?
He then went on to introduce his posse: other big house authors, a very nice woman from the review site, Fantasy Faction, named Jennie Ivins, and Justin of Staffer’s Musings. Each filed around to shake my hand. Having several empty chairs I invited them to sit. Myke sat next to me and proceeded to act insane—at least from my perspective. No one else at the gathering gave any sign that his very surreal behavior was odd. I just stared back at him for a while a little freaked. Why? Because Myke Cole was acting like I was somebody. He was talking as if I was…I don’t know, famous I guess. It became even stranger when no one around him asked, “So who is this Michael J. Sullivan?” A question I was tempted to ask because I wanted to hear Myke’s answer. Then just when I thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre, Myke mentioned that Peter Brett would be joining them and he wanted to meet me too.
Okay—hold on—Peter Brett, author of The Warded Man and Desert Spear? The guy who sold like a million books? That Peter Brett?
I nodded pretending to look as sage as possible then proceeded to make a fool of myself by asking the man across from me what publisher he was with, only to have him look back puzzled. “I’m with Orbit—like you. We have the same publisher, Mike.” That was T.C. McCarthy who just won the Compton Crook Award.
“Oh,” was all I could reply. God, I need a cheat sheet. Who else am I about to insult?
I didn’t need to wait long to find out. Because on the other side of me was Chris Evans, who I falsely accused of writing the Iron Druid books, when in fact that’s Kevin Hearne—Evans wrote the Iron Elves series.
Is it really my fault when they use such similar names? Sigh.
And yet despite my idiocy everyone was very understanding, and I couldn’t shake this sensation that I had awakened that evening in another person’s body. I felt as if I was in an episode of Quantum Leap, after all they appeared to know me. And how the hell do they know me? How could Myke Cole identify me as he walked past? I wasn’t wearing a con badge. He just knew.
After a pleasant evening where I closed the bar with Evans chatting about setting fantasy novels in unconventional time periods, I went back to my room thinking that at least that part of the con had been fun—weird, but fun. The next day I was on my way to get my badge when a young man spotted me in the hall. His eyes went wide and he abruptly changed course to meet me. He held out his hand, “Mr. Sullivan, I just wanted to say how—how much I enjoyed reading your books.”
His hand was quivering.
Whoa. Really? Awesome, but sort of disturbing.
On the way back I was stopped by another man. “Hey! Hi Michael!” I still wasn’t wearing the name tag, I had it stuffed in a pocket. I made a quick study of the guy, but had no idea who he was. “Loved your books. Which panels are you on?”
“Ahh…” I didn’t even know, and I was still trying to work out who this was and how he knew me.
This sort of thing happened all day.
I found Robin and we headed for lunch when we walked past Jon Sprunk, who I did remember from the year before, when we spoke for a few minutes in front of a vendor’s booth. We invited him to lunch and we three had a great talk—the insider publishing chat that new authors discuss when no one else is listening.
After that, as we walked through the halls trying to get to a panel, I was telling Robin how utterly surreal the day had been. How around every corner I ran into people who seemed to—
Literally interrupting this sentence was a woman who stopped us in the hall—a woman I’d never seen before.
“SEE!” I said to Robin.
A quick glance at the name tag gave me a hint. MELISSA it read. Then like a contestant on a game show I mentally threw up a hand. Wait! No wait—I know this one!
She smiled and nodded.
|Melissa wearing a very stylish t-shirt|
Melissa is a wonderful blogger, (My World in Words and Pages) one the very first who discovered me and helped to spread the word. She didn’t just review my books, she became an advocate for me all over the net-a-verse and really helped launch my career. This was a woman I owed a lot to, and if I was able to recognize anyone at the con, I was so glad it was her.
When I sat on panels I found a change as well. Some of my fellow panelist knew me, even though I still had my badge in my pocket. Those who didn’t, smiled warmly after hearing my obligatory intro bio. Again, I had that looking-over-my-shoulder-for-the-person-their-really-looking-at sensation.
For old times’ sake I visited the dealer’s room. Same tables, different faces—like taking the Alcatraz tour after having been an inmate. I paused to look at a rack of books and spotted the indie publisher who had been on a panel with me.
“Hi,” he said with a big smile. I used to do that too. After three days, your face hurts. The publisher narrowed his eyes. “You know, in all the time we were on the panel, you never mentioned the name of your book.”
In case you don’t know—if you haven’t been to a con—panels consist of a hotel room where a table is set up and a few people sit and speak on a topic before an audience. The point of this, for most authors, is to get face-time with potential fans to promote themselves. You’re supposed to stand your book up in front of you and plug yourself so if people find they like you based on your panel performance, they might buy your book. Only I wasn’t there to sell my books. I was just there to help Tee Morris on the panel he was moderating, which was on the subject of Making the Jump from Self to Corporate Publishing. I hadn’t planned, didn’t expect, and didn’t even want to be on these other panels, but they had all these schedules printed up. All these people planned to go. So I went.
But as I said things were different this time. The topics were more sensible, mostly on publishing, and a number of people in the audience appeared very appreciative of what was said. One man actually stopped me on the way out of one session and said, “That was really great. It was nice to hear from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.” I presumed he meant me, but I didn’t ask in case I was wrong.
But I never brought a book, nor did I mention my series. And as I said, I didn’t even wear my name tag. The man in the dealer’s room was very puzzled. Maybe a lot of people were, except perhaps the guy who stopped me on the way out of that one session.
I spent the second night in the bar with author Collin Earl and his pals, along with Jon Sprunk, Mel Hay and her brother. The night after that it was dinner with Nathan Lowell and his charming companion, then back to the bar with Myke Cole, Peter Brett, Scott Sigler, and Justin comparing book covers and discussing bad titles. Later, we hooked up with Tee Morris, and a woman bought me a drink—sadly I never even caught her name.
This was a very different con.
I was treated like I a real author—as if everyone got together in a secret meeting and voted me into the club, but I never got the memo.
Maybe I’ll attend another one.