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.