RANDY MCCHARLES is a full-time author of speculative and crime fiction.
He is the recipient of several Aurora Awards (Canada’s most prestigious award for speculative fiction) and in 2013 his short story Ghost-B-Gone Incorporated won the House of Anansi 7-day Ghost Story Contest.
Randy’s most recent publications include the 2016 Aurora Award short-listed novel Much Ado about Macbeth from Tyche Books, the short story Murder at the Mall from Coffin Hop Press, and the 2017 Aurora Award short-listed novel The Day of the Demon. Later this year the first five novels of his Peter Galloway soft-boiled detective series will begin becoming available. www.randymccharles.com
In addition to writing, Randy organizes various events including the award-winning When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers. www.whenwordscollide.org
Randy McCharles thank you for agreeing to this interview. Could you offer a brief history of your event and what led to its creation? How is your event experience unique to others like it?
I first began attending literary festivals in 1996 and soon afterward, seeing the benefit they provided for authors and readers, began helping organize Calgary’s local speculative fiction convention. In 2005 I chaired the regional convention Westercon after leading the bid to bring it to Calgary, and in 2008 did the same with the international World Fantasy Convention. By that time our local convention, like many others, had become less literary-focused with the organizers more interested in film and television.
While attending the local convention in 2010, I sat with several literary-minded friends in the hospitality suite lamenting that fact and suggested we start a new event in Calgary that focused on literature. I also suggested we shouldn’t limit ourselves to speculative fiction, but embrace all genres as well as literary and non-fiction. Everyone agreed. A month later, we held our first organizational meeting. Nine months after that, we held our first When Words Collide Festival for Readers and Writers at a small hotel near the University of Calgary.
We didn’t know how well our event would be received. To our knowledge, there were no multi-genre festivals anywhere, never mind Calgary, but many of us had attended or helped organize various conventions and we designed ours to include the best of what we had seen. We budgeted for an attendance of 150 people. To our delight, over 250 people came. The feedback was wonderful and several attendees were so impressed they joined our organizing committee to ensure the festival would continue.
This coming August will be our ninth festival. It is capped at 800 attendees and will be sold out in June.
What makes When Words Collide unique is not an easy question to answer. Best to begin by saying it is more similar to speculative fiction conventions than it is to writers conferences, though it contains elements of both.
The first thing a new attendee might notice is that our festival is not expensive. Weekend passes range from $45 to $55 depending on when they are purchased. Apart from Master Classes held before and after the festival, and the Saturday banquet, there are no extra fees for anything. We are first and foremost a non-profit event. All organizers and presenters are volunteers. We apply for and receive grants to lower our costs. Our mission is to make our festival accessible to anyone who might wish to attend.
The second thing one might notice is that there is so much to choose from, with at least ten concurrent tracks of programming. Most sessions are 50-minutes, covering a wide range of topics that appeal to readers, writers, or both. Like writers conferences, we have presentations and discussions on craft, as well as pitch sessions, blue pencils, and opportunities to network with agents, editors, and publishers. Like book fairs, we have author readings and Q & A, an autograph session, discussions and presentations that appeal to readers, and a vendor area that is books-only.
What one might raise an eyebrow at is that we typically have over 150 presenters. Like many events, we invite 5 or 6 headline guests, cover their expenses, and provide a modest per diem. We do not pay speakers fees. To be a 100% volunteer event, we ask our presenters to also be volunteers. This approach does not fit the business model of many professionals and, yes, we have been turned down by some authors we have invited, but for the majority this has not been a deterrent. Indeed, several past guests return to our event in later years at their own expense because they enjoy our event and see its value in the community.
So where do the other 145 presenters come from? We invite authors, editors, agents, and other professionals attending our festival to participate in our program. This practice is the core of speculative fiction literary conventions, but we are getting increasing buy-in from professionals in other areas of publishing.
Another thing we believe we did first and appears to be taking off at other events is the Shared Authors Table. I have attended conventions where authors purchase a table in the vendor area and spend the weekend selling their books. We do not allow this in our vendor area. Only bookstores, publishing houses, and writers organizations may host a table. I’m not saying we do not wish to accommodate authors who wish to sell their books, only that we are not a trade show and the 26 tables we have are insufficient to accommodate all the interested authors. Instead we offer, at no cost, a table where authors may collectively sell their books. Currently, this is six tables pulled together that last year sold over $3000 worth of product.
With the popularity of events growing worldwide, event organizers are challenged on many levels, including competitive marketing strategies, maintaining the safety of guests and attendees, offering a multi-faced agenda to meet multiple interests, and so forth. What have been some of your hurdles and how did you overcome them?
We are very fortunate in that we have had few problems, marketing being the least of them. We have no desire to be a trade show or expo. 800 attendees is as large as we wish to grow. This size allows attendees to see who and what they wish in an intimate setting, while networking and making new friends. Because of this, we do not have to market. Since day 1, word of mouth has been our primary marketing, reaching across Canada and into the U.S.
Also because of our size, safety is a small concern. Our event space is simple theatre seating, no more than 80 seats to a room, with the exception of the Friday evening keynotes and Saturday evening banquet and autograph session which are somewhat larger. We also provide each of our headline guests a liaison to guide them and handle any inconveniences. To date, we have had no incidents though we do purchase event insurance.
Our focus on literature and the broad concurrent program does well to meet multiple interests. Our biggest complaint is that attendees can’t see everything they want because there is more than a weekend’s worth of content that interests them.
Our biggest concern at our current hotel is that is it actually two hotels with a street running down the middle. We were worried that the walk between the two meeting spaces would be a big inconvenience to many attendees. The response was just the opposite. Attendees comment that they appreciate the walk between sessions.
Book festivals, conventions, etc. can often be intimidating for unseasoned authors. What advice would you offer to help them have a positive experience at your event? Do you offer panels or other special activities for them to interact directly with their readers?
When Words Collide is informal in the extreme. Our 1st year we received a complaint that we were too casual and should be more like a university. Attendees shouldn’t be smiling so much. I suspect the complainant only previous attended academic conferences. The vibe and size of the festival make us very friendly for unseasoned authors. We also chose our current hotel because there is a lot of public space where people sit and chat.
Also, one of the reasons our vendor space has fewer tables than it could have is that we include a seating area and food concession, which gives attendees an opportunity to grab a quick bite and chat. Our book vendors don’t mind either because it increases traffic.
On Saturday and Sunday afternoon we host a large hospitality area with free appetizers and soft drinks. Meals and alcohol are also available for purchase. We do not provide presenters with a green room but encourage them to use the common hospitality areas and mix with readers and other attending professionals. All food and beverages are prepared by the hotel to ensure quality and safety.
We do not provide programming to encourage interaction as all programming is meant to do this. That said, on Friday afternoon we offer two networking sessions fashioned after speed dating. One for attendees to meet other attendees, and another for authors to meet editors.
Though there are ample networking opportunities throughout the weekend, the best opportunity for authors to meet with readers is the 2-hour mass autograph session on Saturday evening, which fills the main ballroom.
As an event organizer, what qualities do you look for in your vendors/artists when vetting them to sell their wares? Are there any situations where you might reject an application?
We have no application process for our vendor area. Since we only allow retailers, publishers, and writers organizations to host tables, we invite them if a table is available. We know who to invite by meeting and learning about them during networking opportunities. That said, we do receive unsolicited requests to purchase a table. Most are from authors looking to sell their books. We refer them to our two retailers: Owls Nest Books and The Sentry Box. If neither retailer is selling their books, we refer them to the Shared Authors Table. For those looking to market services rather than books, we cannot sell them a table but invite them to place or send brochures for our free information tables. Lastly, we do get occasional requests from people looking to sell used books or non-book materials. These we have to turn down, explaining as needed why we cannot offer them a table.
When is your next scheduled event and where can interested parties find more information? Anything more you would like to add?
When Words Collide takes place each year on the 2nd weekend of August. August 9-11, 2019 will be our 9th festival. Our website is www.whenwordscollide.org
Information on our website evolves throughout the year as the summer event takes shape, but we archive past years so people can see what happened. https://www.whenwordscollide.org/previous.php#prev
I’d just like to say thank you for this opportunity to tell people about our festival. All our volunteers put their heart and soul into it and appreciate it being part of the literary landscape.
It has been a pleasure, Randy!