Stealth Guest or How to Succeed at Cons with a Cunning Plan

By Jean Marie Ward

(This blog was originally published in the Samhain Publishing Blog, but the subject is always appropriate for writers looking to market their work and connect to fans—and for fans who want to learn a little about what happens “behind the curtain” at their favorite conference.)

The email from RavenCon’s assistant director of programming was polite but not encouraging:

“Right now our guest list is full, but I will put you on our short list if a guest cancels…”

A lot of writers would take that as a hint. In other words: “Stay home, little girl, you’re not big enough/you’re the wrong genre to play in our sandbox.” But I’m evil and wise in the ways of science fiction/fantasy conventions. And I had a cunning plan.

First, I ran the numbers on RavenCon, and they were good:

– Less than two-hour drive from the house—Check.

– Inexpensive membership fee—Check.

– New con with good reports from writer friends—Check.

– Reservation at the con hotel and great roomie—Check.

– Stellar pre-con programming—Check.

The last two were the clinchers. I was especially intrigued by the pre-con programming.

Tee Morris, a fantasy writer who grew up in the Richmond VA area, had arranged two days of writer-based programming at his old high school. He figured more of the students at his alma mater read science fiction and fantasy than would ever be caught dead at a geek fest—er, a con. So the thing to do was to bring the con to them.

Tee is also one of the friends who shared glowing reports of the first RavenCon. Which meant I could probably weasel my way into the pre-con programming and start warping young minds—er, engage in meaningful outreach with readers and writers who will still be buying books long after I fretted my hour upon the writing stage.

It didn’t hurt that my roomie, award-winning author Jana Oliver, had inadvertently signed on for a two-hour seminar on history in science fiction and fantasy. She felt she needed help pulling examples for the program, because she reads more nonfiction and mystery than fantasy. I believe I waited until she issued the invitation to help before volunteering, but it was a near thing. Like I said, I had a plan.

I think the con’s programming director had an inkling of what was up when Tee presented him with the participant list for the pre-con program at Monacan High School. Tee assured him I was cool. After all, I planned to buy a ticket for the con. Tee, bless him, thinks the best of everyone.

Returning to the con hotel, I had the good fortune to run into one of the con volunteers. She provided two important pieces of information: the location of the con operations suite and the fact the registration packets had yet to be stuffed.

Mwahahahaha! My plan was working, and I hadn’t even started yet.

Traveling with Jana to lend an air of legitimacy, I arrived in the con suite with a box of six hundred bookmarks and my most harmless expression. I used to be a master at “pretty and harmless” but now I have to make do with “friendly and harmless”. The programming director still wasn’t buying it, but I fooled everyone else, including the con director. More probably, my bookmarks fooled them. Lots of guests had brought freebies, but very few had brought enough for the estimated six hundred attendees. Having the cunning—er, foresight to bring more bookmarks than I could ever hope to hand out worked in my favor, big time.

Step one in my cunning plan was now complete. My bookmarks would be in the hands of every person who registered for the con. Steps two and three consisted of connecting with the volunteer coordinator and the con bookseller, respectively. Folding the restaurant flyers as they exited the printer, I promised the volunteer coordinator to help monitor some programs as soon as I was sure which ones I planned to attend.

She smiled at the programming director. He grumbled over his schedule. Seems several guests had canceled at the last minute. I practiced looking perky and really, really harmless. Apparently I looked so harmless Jan Howard Finder (a.k.a. wombat, the fan guest of honor) decided I was safe for a chat. Ooooh, more legitimacy! More importantly, he’s a funny, charming guy.

I registered as soon as Tee, Jana and company returned from the Monacan program the next day. Then I headed back to con ops to volunteer. While I was signing on to monitor panels, the volunteer coordinator pointed out the sign-in sheet for open panels. I was in! My plan was a total success.

Not wishing to appear greedy, I only signed on for two: “Creating a FanZine” and “My Lover Is a Vampire…or Maybe a Werewolf”. I wound up with four panels and a signing. I could’ve had more panels. Science fiction and fantasy cons always have drop-outs. They always need guests, and if you demonstrate helpfulness and a lack of diva-ttitude, you’re in. By the time RavenCon was over, I was firmly ensconced in the guest line for the following year (thank you, Mr. Programming Director!) and I’d nailed down an invitation to another Virginia con where they promised to feed me. (Considering I’m a four-star foodie, this could prove to be more than their budget can handle. But I’ll be good. Mostly.)

If you’ve stuck with me this far you may be wondering what relationships this has to Samhain or its other writers. Plenty. Just look at the second panel I signed up for— “My Lover is a Vampire Is a Vampire…or Maybe a Werewolf”. Does that sound like a Samhain-style panel or what? My pick-up two panels were “Shaken, Not Stirred—Sex in Science Fiction and Fantasy Films and TV” and “Vice in Science Fiction and Fantasy”.

Paranormal romance writers could have a field day on any of those panels. Paranormal romance readers would have just as much fun sitting in the audience.

The organizers would love to see Samhain writers and readers there too. Con organizers may not always know it heading into the home stretch of con preparation, but once the show begins they need you.

They need paranormal romance writers on their panels. Urban fantasy/paranormal romance is one of publishing’s great cross-over success stories. Futuristic romance is turning into a gateway into traditional science fiction. Fantasy and science fiction readers want to hear what you have to say, even if they don’t know it yet. It’s a wonderful promotion opportunity–even in the absence of related outreach programming.

If you have to pay the membership, it’s still no big. Membership fees for science fiction and fantasy cons are typically low. The fees for RavenCon were $40 at the door for all three days. Even added to the shared cost of a room, my total con costs came to no more than the registration fees for my favorite RWA conference.

Science fiction and fantasy cons need paranormal romance readers in their audiences. It’s a great opportunity to meet some favorite authors up close and personal — and an even better opportunity to learn about more. I came home with a shopping list, and I know I’m not the only one.

Even the “Con Crud” sinus infection that followed me home turned out to be a plus. After deciding I needed antibiotics after all, my health care professional asked me, “Book signing? What’s your book? You have it with you?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “You do know it’s a fantasy, right? Comic fantasy—Robert Jordan meets Sex in the City with a little help from Lucille Ball.”

“Yeah. I love that stuff. What’s the title again?”

Science fiction and fantasy cons. Con crud. It’s all good.


Originally published at the Samhain Publishing Blog, April 25, 2007,

You can listen to the audio from when Jean Marie was a guest of Blog Host, Gail Z. Martin’s Ghost in the Machine podcast here:

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