I'm off to CONvergence this weekend, and that got me thinking...
When I occasionally talk about self-promotion there's usually a very quick, off-hand, "Oh, and go to conventions."
Most of the time, that's excellent advice. But not all science fiction conventions are created equal, and what you get out of a convention is really dependent on what you're looking for and, potentially, what you're willing to put into it.
You have to ask yourself: what am I looking for?
If you're looking to connect to other fans of a particular genre, TV show or movie, you can attend nearly any science fiction convention and not be disappointed. If you're not sure your particular "fandom" (area of obsessive interest to the layperson) is represented at the con you're considering attending, most cons post a sample, thumbnail, or even complete programming schedule on-line several weeks before the start date. If you feel you have something new to contribute to the discussion of your fandom, most con coms (the guys and gals in charge to the layperson) are more than happy to consider you as a panelist, but to do that you often have to get in on the programming process a lot earlier, like in the idea generating stage, or be in the know with someone on the programming committee.
Why do this if you're a as-yet-unpublished author? Won't showing off your inner geek bust the whole professional image you've been so carefully cultivating?? Well, depends on your area of fandom, but one of the best panels I was ever on was my very first where I got into a heated discussion about the movies of Ripley Scott. I didn't even have a story published, but I ended up making really great connections with the other panelists, one of whom later brought me into her circle of friends that included some movers and shakers in the publishing industry.
You never know who knows who, and even if nothing comes of it having fun is always good, you know? (People can tell if you've come to a convention just to "work," too.)
And that's the other thing. It's never too early to cultivate a fan base. If you are well known and well liked in the science fiction community (or even just someone that triggers a "I think I remember liking her/him on a panel...") it's more likely that people will want to buy your book when it comes out. People like to support friends. They like to be able to say, "I knew her/him then!" (I know *I* do at any rate.)
If you're going to connect with other writers or to learn about the interests of various agents/editor/etc., find a convention with a strong literary track (using the above methods.) These kinds of panels are sometimes more difficult for a beginning author to get on because the competition at this level is more fierce. But you can still attend as an audience member and take mental (or real) notes. But whatever you do, don't rush the editor/agent after the panel to try to press your business card into their palm. I was once at a WorldCon panel where it was a mob scene after the "Meet the Agents" panel. I'd hoped to say hello to someone, but it was pretty useless... and you can always see if you can find yourself in a conversation with someone later on at a party. (Although I try to never mention that I'm a writer or hand off business cards at parties either, unless asked. Thing is? Editors and agents often come to parties to relax, not do business. It's good to respect that.)
Even if you never press palms with the person you've been hoping to meet, you can always start that query letter with "I saw you on the [fill in the blank] panel at [fill in the convention]..." they might not be impressed, but they will recognize that you're an active member of the community and have at least potentially learned a thing or two about how the business works.
It's always a question about how much that sort of thing works, because, of course, in the end it's the story that sells itself. You can sell without ever attending a convention. I know plenty of people who avoid conventions like the plague and still sell quite successfully. However, I also know from personal experience that there are times when meeting someone gives you that two extra seconds to help sell your story.
And when you're published, of course, whatever panels you are on help introduce you to your colleagues and potential readers... just make sure, ehm, that dealers' room actually sells books....not to mention YOUR books. (Not that THAT's every happened to me, no sir!) Similarly it's always good to stop by the dealers' room and say "hi" to those hardworking booksellers and offer to sign stock.
At any rate, you never know. Whatever else, conventions can be a great deal of fun. For me, that always makes them worth attending.
See you at CONvergence.