Monday, July 13, 2009

Free as a (Jail) Bird:
Why crime and genre conventions should be free for anyone under 18

When I was growing up, my family lived just a few blocks from the renowned Black Orchid bookstore. My father was a voracious crime fiction reader, and every few weeks he would come home with a bag full of books recommended by Bonnie and Joe. Once he was finished, he would pass them along to me, and I would dive right in. This is where I developed my love of the genre, became fascinated with many of my idols, and became a full-fledged lover of crime writing.

I would have loved to have been able to go to a conference to meet many of these men and women who created the characters and stories I so dearly loved. And I was far the only kid my age who would have done the same. I would have loved to go to a ThrillerFest. Bouchercon. Sleuthfest. Left Coast Crime. If I was a teenager today, sadly it would not even be a possibility. And for thousands of kids who love crime fiction, they're left on the outside looking in.

Between hotel, airfare, conference registration and other incidentals, crime conferences are going to run you upwards of $1,000. Few people have that kind of disposable income, and even fewer young people. And so as much as I love being at book conferences, I can't help but notice that the average age of the attendees tends to veer to the older side. This is not because only older readers read crime fiction, it's because they're the ones who can afford to actually meet their favorites writers while attending informative panels. I think this needs to change immediately.

Young readers are the future. They're our future. I guarantee if we make an effort to attract middle school and high school kids to our conferences, they'd be reading our books for decades. They would spread the world among their friends. Maybe they would recommend a George Pelecanos or Laura Lippman book to their friends along with Stephenie Meyer. Which is why I propose that anybody under the age of 18 should be granted free registration to book conferences.

I understand that there are costs involved with putting on a book conference, and many of those costs are defrayed by the registration fee. But I'd be shocked if you couldn't find a willing publisher (or author) who was willing to cover the costs.

Crime fiction needs to replenish its ranks. Promoting literacy should not only be in the hands of a few authors who have the resources to fund organizations and donate large sums of money. There are thousands, if not millions of eager readers out there who would lose their minds if given the chance to meet Lee Child, Sandra Brown, David Baldacci, Brad Meltzer, James Patterson and Clive Cussler. These readers would be thrilled to meet their favorite writers, and eager to find new authors to devour. We have simply priced these readers out. If we don't make a concerted effort to bring younger readers into the fold, we'll lose them altogether. We need to go out of our way to attract young readers to our festivals.

Let me repeat that: we need to go out of our way to attract young readers to our festivals.

Members of International Thriller Writers have sold over a billion books. Mystery Writers of America is one of the oldest and most prestigious writer organizations in the world. RWA and RT have some of the most fun and innovative conventions in the world. Sometimes these facts are lost on us. They are not lost on young readers.

Let anybody under 18 register free for our conferences. Let's make an effort to open up our worlds to them. And I guarantee you, many of them will never, ever want to leave.

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Blogger DAF said...

I love this idea! To ease the strain on organizers (it ain't cheap to accommodate larger audiences in many places, esp NYC) I would suggest starting with even just half a day that is "free" and/or expanding to a day or a weekend (cf. Frankfurt) if sponsorship follows. This was my first ThrillerFest and I loved it. It definitely encouraged me to pick up the books of some of the wonderful speakers I hadn't known about previously. I was also, however, a bit shocked to see so few young people and wondered about the demographic forces at play here. I agree that cultivating younger readers should be a priority for the organization and am looking forward to doing what I can through more e-promotion.

9:43 AM  
Blogger David J. Montgomery said...

Isn't Bouchercon doing something this year designed for younger readers? (I don't know any of the details, but I remember seeing something about it on the website.)

I think this is an interesting idea. It seems like it would have to be restricted in some way -- the first 100 young people to sign up, for example -- but it's possible you could do something really cool with this.

One hesitation that I would have, though, is in regards to content. Some of the discussions that take place at conferences -- on panels or otherwise -- might not be kid-friendly. I'm not sure that's an unsolvable problem, but it might need to be addressed.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Jason Pinter said...

DAF - Obviously there are cost issues for organizers, but there must be a way to defray these. My first thought would be through sponsorship. It would be GREAT p.r. for a publisher or author to sponsor (as David suggests), say, 100 young readers.

David -I'm not sure, but if they are that would be fantastic. Perhaps there are one or two panels not appropriate for younger readers (the sex and booze ones come to mind) but other than that I feel like most authors are professional on panels and teenagers are far more mature than we give them credit for. There can be some sort of age limit, maybe only allowing readers in between the ages of 13 and 18, but I think the first issue is acknowledging that this needs to be done (letting kids in free), then we get down to the nitty gritty of deciding the best way to go about it.

10:03 AM  
Blogger Joe Wallace said...

Wow, what great points!

I work with high-school students as a creative-writing mentor, and also do storytelling/writing workshops in the local elementary school. Kids are hungry for the recognition they'd get if a conference was open to writing students feel a huge divide between themselves and "real" writing world--even though we all started where they are now.

Hope some of the conferences start thinking about this. We need every enthusiastic reader we can get.

10:06 AM  
Blogger DAF said...

Yes, absolutely agreed on sponsorship. Sorry, wasn't trying to be critical in re: raising cost; just trying to think it through. Another model to think about is a program or two specifically targeted to high school and elementary school kids. PEN World Voices did at least two separate panels along these lines this past year. For example, see here. The thought here is that you've got all the authors in town anyway so that piece of the cost puzzle is already taken care of. In this example, Cervantes hosted the high school program, but it really could take place in any venue, including a local school.

10:21 AM  
Anonymous Cheryl said...

David is right; Bouchercon is having a children's program. I don't know a lot about it since I am one of the older variety that attends conferences.
I do know that authors are going to schools in the area and that there are programs Friday and Saturday at the convention center across the street. Chris Grabenstein and Steve Hockensmith are authors that have signed up.

11:47 AM  
Blogger John C. Ford said...

Great idea! And yes, Bouchercon is having some programming this year for young readers, though I'm not sure of all the details.

Of course, I have to admit to some bias. I'm the author of a YA mystery novel, so my stuff is directed at younger readers. But it seems like there's a real opportunity here. Tiger Woods just gave free passes to his golf tournament to kids: their parent come with them (and pay admission), and the kids become fans of the game. Everybody wins.

One of the benefits, I suspect, would be having more YA authors paying full freight for the conference. I would have loved to attend Thriller Fest this year, but I wasn't sure I could justify the cost. If some group of young readers were attending for free, I definitely would have signed up!

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Chris Grabenstein said...

Jason is so right. I recently reconnected with an old friend from advertising who created a "fun" reading list for his 14 year old son (lucky for me, Ceepak was on the list). He wanted to instill in his son the same love of reading he had. So, they skipped all the heavy, dreary stuff on too many summer reading lists and went straight for Elmore Leonard's Westerns and other fun-to-read, well-written books. The boy is now 15 and devours books. I told my friend he should patent his program! And wouldn't it be great if he could go to B'con? I might bring this up to the board of MWA as a new way of doing our "Kids Love A Mystery" Program.

8:01 AM  
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