20 September 2023

That San Diego Treat

 I am writing this on the plane back from San Diego after having enjoyed the 2023 Bouchercon.  It is, I think, the eighth I have attended  and it was at least as well-run and fun as any of the others.

Here is one big improvement they came up with (at least, I have never been to a con where they did this).  Instead of stuffing the attendees’ swag bag with free books, each member was given three tickets which they could take to a room called the Book Bazaar (NOT the dealer's room) and swap them for any three new books they chose.  Once the organizers knew how many books were coming from publishers the freebie count went up to five.  As you can imagine this resulted in a lot of boxes of swag being shipped back home.  I myself made a little pilgrimage to UPS.

One of the highlights of the weekend (for me) was a panel I moderated.  I stole the idea from the World Science Fiction Conference where it is called “45 Panels in 60 Minutes.”  We called our version “20 Panels in One.” The idea is that audience members write down topics and toss them into a hat and panelists pick them out and have less than a minute to bestow their wisdom on that subject.  

At Worldcon this turns toward comedy but here the questions were serious and the brave panelists (Mike McCrary, Eleanor Kuhns, Steve Von Doviak, and Keir Graff) did a great job.  The result seemed to me to be close to an mini-unconference.  Instead of the usual panel arrangement (moderator asking questions for 40 minutes, followed by 10 minutes from the audience) this was 40 minutes of audience queries, with me finishing up. 

Sample questions: “What is your protagonist most afraid of?  What are you?”  “Donald Westlake. Discuss.” 

It was an interesting experiment.    One audience member told me she thought it should be repeated at every con, but I don’t plan to be at the Nashville con, so someone else would have to take that on. I can think of two improvements: instead of using a floppy sun hat, I should have brought the dapper fedora you see in the picture.  And instead of going down the row each time I would ask the panelists to speak up if they have anything to contribute on the topic.

And speaking of reactions… I have mentioned that I was once on a panel with a very chatty moderator.  Afterwards a stranger came up and said “I attended your panel.  I wish I’d gotten to hear you.”

Well, after “20 Panels in One” a stranger said “I wish you had spoken more.”

I replied “The moderator isn’t supposed to.”

“But in this case it would have been okay.” Maybe she was right, since none of us had been chosen for our expertise on the topics.  

I also got to be a panelist on “What Librarians Wish Readers and Writers Knew,” with Sarah Bresniker, John Graham, Leslie Blatt, and Michal Strutin.  This turned out to focus on three main topics: how to get books and book events into libraries, doing research in libraries, and coping with the recent attacks on libraries by conservative groups.  The question period turned into mostly passionate defenses of libraries from audience members.  One author said it was the most useful panel of the weekend. And being librarians we even created a webpage with useful resources to go with it.

Librarians Panel

Still on the subject of libraries, I did an Author Spotlight (one person blabbing for 20 minutes) on how we caught the guy who stole rare books from over 100 libraries.  I had good attendance which I attribute to creating posters (that is, 8x11 pages).  I left 20 on a freebies table, they were all picked up, and 15 people came.  That’s a good sell-through rate.

I attended two panels on short stories (three if you count the Anthony nominated anthologies panel, and four if you include Josh Pachter’s Spotlight about editing music-themed anthologies.)  

More highlights were two humor panels, one of which featured one of the best and rarest conference moments: the point at which all the panelists suddenly discover something together.  

An audience member had asked if any of the panelists used a sensitivity reader for their books.  All of them said no.  Then each of them got thoughtful and acknowledged:  “But when I write about a certain group, I ask my friend to read it…” Donna Anders summed it up: “We don’t call them sensitivity readers.  We call them people who know things.”  When I told my wife this she said “Volunteers are undervalued.”

Another highlight: there were more people of color than I have ever seen at a mystery event.  This may be in part because of the geography, but I’m sure some of it is due to Crime Writers of Color.  CWoC sponsored a reception called Underrepresented Voices and bragged that while they started with 30 members in 2018 they are now over 400.  That’s great.

As former president of the Short Mystery Fiction Society I had the honor of announcing the Derringer Award winners and giving out the medals and certificates to those present.  I was especially delighted to give Martin Edwards the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement.

One great point of any con is making new friends and meeting up with old ones.  I won’t try to name all the ones I shared a meal or a chat with, except to mention fellow SleuthSayers Michael Bracken, R.T. Lawton, Travis Richardson, and Barb Goffman.  I left Barb for last so I could single her for congratulations: she won a well-deserved Anthony Award for her short story “Beauty and the Beyotch.” Whoo-hoo!

Let me end with one more gathering of friends.  Jackie Sherbow, the managing editor of both Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazines, invited all of the Dell magazine writers present to join her poolside for a drink.  I won’t try to name them all but if you read AHMM and EQMM you would recognize the 20 or so names.  

I looked around and said: “Boy, if a bomb went off right now the face of mystery short fiction would be changed forever.”

Because, hey, that’s the way we think, isn’t it?

Join me here in two weeks for my favorite quotes from San Diego.

Oh, one more thing: I have a story on TOUGH which you can read for free.


  1. The panel on catching the book thief was real life fascinating. Good investigating.

    1. Much thanks. It was great to see you and Kiti.

  2. I wish I'd been there for the 20 Panels in One. And I LOVED the story. I know a couple of places here in South Dakota that would be capable of setting up a gig like that.

    1. I assume you mean "Harborville?" Much thanks. It was fun to write.

  3. Great seeing you there! And love the idea of that 20 Panels in One—sorry I missed!

  4. Unconference… I like that.

    In this internet age, we should have a panel named "One simple trick librarians don't want you to know." Which you summed up in your other article.

    1. Boy, you're right about things we don't want people to know. And the title...

  5. Thanks, Rob! Much appreciated. Sorry I didn't make it to your panel. When cloning is invented ...


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