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Con Reviews: Bouchercon vs. Archon

October 9, 2011

There are big, fundamental differences between the floating international get-together for mystery and thriller writers and their fans and a local SFF con. Some are as obvious as the contents of the respective dealer rooms: Bouchercon had books, and lots of them. Archon had books too, but also, well, stuff. Jewelery. Costume pieces. Collectable geegaws. You are also unikely to bump into someone dressed up like Miss Marple or Jason Bourne at Bouchercon, or at least someone who will explain in detail where they got the pattern for the costume.

Those are not the comparisons I’m interested in, though. I’m interested as a writer, not a fan. And as a writer, the thing that struck me was how the serious, international convention felt more fan-oriented than the local SFF con, Imperial Stormtroopers and all, when it came to the panels a writer might be interested in attending.

Details: I only went to Bouchercon on Friday, which translates to four panels. Out of those, I rate one as excellent, one as good, and two as average/adequate. That’s on usefulness, not entertainment value: some of the authors are a hoot in any context (Eoin Colfer rocks). I also went to a reading/signing at Left Bank Books/The Bridge Tap Room, which was pleasant enough, if acoustically unsatisfying. Commiserating with other writers from WUTA leads me to believe I picked well, as they were less satisfied with panels they went to on other days.

At Archon I went to two full and six mini-panels panels, scattered across all three days. Of these I would rate three as excellent, two as good, and one as average/adequate, using the same utilitarian criteria.

Why the skew?

I can think of three reasons. First, panel moderation. At Bouchercon the moderator/panelist model was in full force. The upside of this model is that writers can, and do, meander when left to themselves. A good moderator can keep the panelists focused on the topic at hand. At something as big as Bouchercon, though, with 70 panels or more, you are subject to the tyranny of the bell curve when it comes to volunteer moderators. Some bring out insights from the authors sitting next to them, while others were, in the words of Willie Wonka, just happy to be here.

The Archon panels I went to were unmoderated. Than in itself makes them feel less like an “us and them” environment and more like a seminar (more on that later). This approach is not without pitfalls, as the one panel than was only “adequate” at Archon suffered from the aforementioned authorial meandering. But it takes a variable out of the mix, and led me to the conclusion that while a good, motivated moderator can make for a good panel if the panelists are meh, one that’s not prepared can get in the way of good panelists. Take out the moderator and the panelists know it’s up to them.

The second reason has to do with logistics. Bouchercon is sizable. The panel rooms were ballroom sections, with hundreds of chairs in some cases. Because of that, the panel tables had to be on daises. Thus the layout of the rooms themselves sent a message: you are audience, not participants. This is fine for authors declaiming to fans, but less so for established authors talking to authors still struggling to get established.

At Archon the big spaces were taken up by people selling plastic phasers and steampunk accessories, so the panel rooms (at least the ones I went to) were smaller. The standard panels had maybe sixty chairs tops. No dais, no need for one. Everyone operated on the same physical level. The mini-panels were even more cozy, held in curtained-off spaces around large round tables, so you were quite literally bumping elbows with authors presenting. The sensation of all being in the trenches together was palpable.

Finally, subject matter. To be fair, Archon had a fair number of fan-oriented panels. I did not attend these, so I can’t comment on them. The surprise I had when I saw the programming guide–and the reason I went–was the number of panels specifically geared towards the craft of writing and the mechanics of getting published. Bouchercon had panels which were billed as being craft-oriented, and some were, but others were somewhere in the gray zone between plug opportunities for the panelists and unfocused discussions without detail or direction. Part of this goes back to the moderator variable, part to the physical layout, and I suspect part to the expectations of the participants. At Archon, by contrast, the rule seemed to be that if a panel was billed as being about synopses, by God, you were going to talk synopses.

Let me be clear: I enjoyed both. Both provided extracurricular opportunities to chat with some friendly, helpful authors about their experiences, schmooze a little, and get a feel for the state of the respective genres. The fact that one day of Bouchercon cost more than all of Archon is nicely balanced by the twenty pounds of books they tossed me when I registered for the former. (I felt a little bad about not shopping more at the dealer room there, but my shoulders objected to the notion of carrying any more books around for the day.)

Of course, I’m not the arbiter of what these functions should be. At this point in their histories the people who run each know what their demographics want. I’m merely observing how well they served my current needs. I would recommend both to other burgeoning writers, but for very different reasons. Go to Bouchercon to hear from authors. Go to Archon to learn from them.

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