My op-ed on Bouchercon ran in todays Boston Globe. If you can subscribe to this (or any) newspaper, I urge you to. However, I’m opting to make this readable (though it lacks some of the cool click-throughs and graphics).
The cost of uncertainty
Bouchercon was planned for Aug. 25–29 in New Orleans. Yes, New Orleans, where the number of new COVID-19 cases is breaking daily records and hospitalizations are through the roof.
By Clea Simon
The denouement arrived by e-mail. Wednesday, midday, three weeks before it was scheduled to begin, Bouchercon was canceled.
Bouchercon is an annual crime fiction convention named for noted author and critic Anthony Boucher. Billed as “the world mystery convention,” the four-day event, which began in 1970, is volunteer run and moves to a different city each year. Oriented toward readers, it draws big names — this year’s headliner was Michael Connelly — but also mid-list authors like me who show up for a chance to be on panels, meet readers, and hang out in the bar. While attendance has topped 2,000, this year’s convention had 1,025 registered attendees at its peak, according to cochair Connie Perry. Pretty great for an event in the time of COVID-19.
The convention was planned for Aug. 25–29 in New Orleans. Yes, New Orleans, where the number of new COVID cases is breaking daily records and hospitalizations are through the roof. A few days before the official cancellation, I bowed out, as did other authors such as Sujata Massey, Shawn Cosby, and Jess Lourey. It was a huge disappointment. The hotel offered what safeguards it could, such as extra event space for social distancing. But that was all they could do. Being outdoors in NOLA in August isn’t a viable option, and an event like Bouchercon is predicated on social gathering.
This year’s Bouchercon was going to be jam-packed, with breakfast events followed by five shifts of up to seven consecutive panels at a time, interspersed with interviews with special guests, publisher-sponsored book signings, and evening festivities. To make this happen takes years of work, gearing up to 18 hours a day for the last three or four months for Perry and the other core volunteer organizers. More recently, another 10 to 15 volunteers have been assembling panels, producing two separate program books, organizing the annual “Anthony” awards, acquiring books to fill the attendees’ goodie bags as well as items for a charity auction, and myriad other tasks.
It’s a lot of effort — and a lot of money, even with all those volunteers. The 2018 Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, for example, had a budget of $370,000. But as case numbers ticked up over the last few weeks, many of us remembered what happened on March 12, 2020, when another conference, Left Coast Crime, convened in San Diego. People were still arriving or in transit as news broke that afternoon that a San Diego County public health order was going to prohibit gatherings of 250 people or more, effective at midnight. The sudden cancellation, one of many that reduced a $101 billion national convention industry in 2019 to $24 billion in 2020 (according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research), stranded hundreds as people arrived at the San Diego airport only to board flights back home — when they could get them.
At least the county order provided some clarity. For the last few weeks, Bouchercon had been a slow-motion train wreck, with online discussions chewing over risks and responsibilities. Author Laura Lippman posted a Twitter thread detailing her concerns. While Lippman is vaccinated, she has an 11-year-old daughter who would be starting school soon after her return from the conference. Ultimately, Lippman canceled days before the organizers pulled the plug.
If there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that the parent organization, the nonprofit World Mystery Convention, has already awarded the organizers a second chance. New Orleans will host the 2025 Bouchercon, and this year’s hotel, the Marriott, is allowing the convention to transfer its bookings to 2025 and waiving penalties that would likely have topped $50,000. Add to that the outpouring of support for the organizers and I’m reminded that we are a community, writers and readers all.
Which hasn’t prevented some Monday morning quarterbacking. Could this have been prevented? Yeah, sure, if more people in America had gotten vaccinated. Predicted? I don’t think so. Which raises the next question: When can we start planning our lives again? Right now, that’s the biggest mystery of all.