SFContario 2014, or a Study on the Effect of Polar Opposites on the Self-Published Writer

When I first opted to self-publish The Summerlark Elf, I'd like to think that I approached the endeavour with decidedly realistic (read: low) expectations. To be honest, I was expecting to be met with little, if any, attention from the fantasy community, nothing but negative feedback from those who did take a chance on my book (because the internet), and an absolute dearth of opportunities to promote myself and my writing past spamming social networks. What I did not expect was to have several local stores graciously offer to put my books on their shelves, to have been embraced so warmly by the fantasy community (readers and authors alike), to have received several positive reviews, and to have been allowed the opportunity not only to promote my work in Chapters, but at FanExpo. As a little indie guy who decided one year ago to start work on a multi-book fantasy series with zero credentials going into it, I am proud to say that I think I've done decidedly well so far.

So well, in fact, that I think I really needed SFContario this past weekend to make sure I wasn't getting carried away with all this good luck.

I had only ever attended a few different conventions leading up to my working FanExpo, so perhaps my expectations going into this convention were somewhat skewed. I want to be clear before I continue, however, that this post is not meant to dump on SFContario; the show's organizers were friendly and helpful, and truly seemed to have their hearts in the right place. The convention is still young, this being its fifth year, and I believe that with time and perseverance the con is capable of becoming much larger and much more recognizable. All this being said though, I would be lying if I said that my experience this past weekend wasn't a bit... underwhelming.

I arrived at the hotel where the convention was being held on the Friday afternoon. The dealers' room opened at 4pm, so I had thought that arriving at 2:30 seemed like a good idea - plenty of time to find my table, get set up, etc. I was met by what seemed like a somewhat surprised liaison, who accompanied me to the roughly 30" x 20" hotel conference room that would serve as the dealers' room. Seven tables were set up around the room's perimeter, with two more tables set up in the hall outside.

"Well, here we are." the liaison, an older gentleman, announced simply. "Seems you're the first one here, so you an have first pick of the tables." (excepting, of course, those booth spaces where two tables had been secured). I opted for the middle spot along one of the walls perpendicular to the door, and he left me to set up while he no doubt attended to other matters. I had been dealing with an unusually high number of unfortunate happenings in the thirty-six hours leading up to that point, but as I began to set up my books, signage, etc, I began to relax. Sure, the dealers' room was small, but that could only be to mine and Deanna's benefit, as shopping traffic would have a difficult time not passing by our table. Plus, as the other dealers began to arrive, it became clear that I was the only traditional fantasy author there, and that Deanna and I were the only ones with a picture book, so we had both those corners of the genre covered.

The bright outlook Deanna and I had going into the weekend, unfortunately, darkened considerably as the weekend progressed. The dealers' room was vacant more often than not, and the majority of people who did pass through were panelists, friends of dealers, or decidedly disinterested in traditional fantasy and picture books. There were two instances that really capped the whole thing, though:

1. I was talking with an attendee who seemed to get openly offended when I referred to science fiction as "Sci-Fi", and not simply "SF". Her reaction really confused me, and I tried to be polite about it, humourously excusing my faux-pas, though the whole time I was simply baffled. "Sci-Fi" is apparently not a thing you should say. The whole interaction really smacked of a kind of elitism that really gets under my skin, especially as someone who writes the type of fantasy that's generally not considered fashionable right now. I'm sure I'm not the first person to touch on this, but I feel like there are way too many people who want so badly for fantasy and science fiction to be "taken seriously" that they forget that the genres are supposed to be fun. So, I'm sorry that I devalued a genre by using the wrong diminutive for it, I'll be more careful next time.

2. Robin Hobb was the fantasy guest of honour at the con. I am well aware of who she is, and how well-respected her works are in the fantasy community. I didn't have any time to read up on any of her work leading up to the con because my reading time is limited, I was in the middle of the Riyria series, and I genuinely didn't expect to be in the same room as she was at any point that weekend. Wouldn't you know, she decided to saunter into the dealers' room on the Saturday and circuit through the tables, talking to each dealer.

"It figures." I whispered to Deanna, "I made a point of brushing up on Elminster for FanExpo, and never once even saw Ed Greenwood. Now I'm about to meet Robin Hobb, and I haven't read any of her stuff."

"Relax, it's not like she's going to ask if you have." Deanna whispered back "That'd be really snobbish and stupid."

Thankfully, Robin didn't ask me if I had read any of her books. She didn't even talk to me, actually, nor Deanna. After talking to the author at the OnSpec Magazine table to our left, she walked past our table, briefly glancing at the books atop it, and proceeded to stop at the table to our right, where a really nice guy named Chad was selling wind-up steampunk automatons.

Now, I don't want to say that Robin was being intentionally rude, that she spitefully avoided Deanna and I or anything, but at the time, it was a huge, driving all the wind from my sails, slap to the face. it made me feel like the kid from the school newspaper trying to cover a story amid "professional" journalists, like any sense of validation I felt prior was false. It felt like there was a clear message being stated: "Self-publishing does not a real author make", and it really sucked.

Past that, I can't say that there were any more overtly negative experiences that weekend. We didn't sell many books, but we did have one person cold-purchase the picture book, which, as Deanna iterated, was her highlight of the weekend. We also made some pretty cool con buddies in Chad (who goes by "Simon Dalek" on Facebook), and fellow author/artist couple Kit Daven and Sean Chappell, who helped us make the decision to try and make it out to Ad Astra next April. Go google them and buy all their stuff.

All in all, SFContario was an experience worth having, as it gave me some insight into exactly what kind of depth and breadth the convention circuit contains. It was a great networking experience, and although I'm not sure if I'll be back as strictly a dealer for 2015, I wish the organizers all the best in the future.

Wouldn't it be kind of ironic if I would up as a panelist?

To Thine Own Books Be True

I've been listening to a lot of Michael J Sullivan audiobooks lately. Binge listening, if you will. For those unaware, Michael wrote the Riyria Revelations series, the prequel Riyria Chronicles books, and is currently in the midst of authoring the First Empire series, which predates the events of the initial books further still. Since September, I've listened to the audiobook versions of the Riyria books almost exclusively. Prior to that, I listened to the two free Riyria short stories offered on Audible. I've talked briefly with Michael himself over Goodreads, Twitter, and Reddit, all three of which he is an active member of. As an author who made a success of his series through self-publishing before signing on with Orbit Books, Michael is kind of a folk hero among self-pub fantasy authors.

I guess you could say I'm kind of a fan.

During FanExpo, I worked through the awkward art of pitching The Summerlark Elf to complete strangers. During the pitches, I tried to think of more popular and familiar fantasy series' that I could use for comparison. Having listened to the Riyria short stories, which featured sell-swords, witty dialogue, and mention of dwarves and elves, I figured I wasn't unjustified in likening my books to Michael's in some respects. Right now, I'm roughly a quarter of the way through Heir of Novron, the last book of the series (I listened to the prequels first), and I have, over my span of time with Riyria, realized that I cannot, in good faith, ever liken my books to Michael's ever again.

The Riyria books are meticulous and masterful in their depictions of a medieval/Renaissance-esque world, so much so that I can honestly say that I think I've learned more about certain aspects of European history from these books than I had from my textbooks when I studied history in university. Everything from the Church of Novron to the treatment of mir (the half-elves of Elan), feels so well-planned that it feels like an alternate-reality earth. My books are... less so.

For a couple of days, this fact bothered me, and dredged up a bit of a case of imposter syndrome within me. What kind of paltry stuff am I writing? So much of my world feels patchworked, fast and loose by comparison. There are so many nuances of medieval warfare, of the social hierarchies of nobility, that I haven't put thought into. How will people enjoy my books if they aren't as believable?

Here's the funny thing, and it's a thing that I'm glad I realized sooner rather than later. My world isn't as thoroughly premeditated as Elan because I am not Michael J Sullivan, and that's okay.

It's very arguable that I write fantasy that's distinctly more "light" than a good number of other books on the market, but I don't think that fact is to the books' discredit. I have received a number of very positive reviews of The Summerlark Elf, and recently of The Missing Thane's War. Heck, I was recently compared to Terry Brooks! This doesn't mean that I've fooled myself into thinking that I'm some kind of master crafter of epic tomes that will be lauded for their contribution to the literary world, but at the same time, I'm proud of what I create, and the fact that it resonates with people on some level. Sometimes people want fun, and light, and I'm more than happy that I have produced (and continue to produce) books that allow people to scratch that itch.

Seriously, though, my books are pretty short, and I've only just started the third. Go read the Riyria books in the meantime. They're awesome.