Sunday, October 25, 2009

Triumphs, Troubles on Webcon’s First Voyage

(Editor’s note: Yesterday saw the unveiling of the Poisoned Pen Press Webcon, the first completely online conference for crime-fiction writers and fans. While there were many satisfied attendees, there also seemed to be a few people disappointed by technological problems. We asked one of the event’s organizers, Mary Reed [who, with her husband, Eric Mayer, writes the John the Eunuch historical mystery series], to look back at the highs and headaches of this one-day Webcon, and tell us what she learned that would make such endeavors easier in the future. Her report follows.)

As clocks keeping track of U.S. Pacific Daylight Time struck 7 a.m. on Saturday, October 24, the world’s first Virtual Mystery Conference was launched and set sail in a blizzard of confetti and streamers, not to mention crossed fingers down in the engine room.

Co-sponsored by Scottsdale, Arizona’s Poisoned Pen bookstore and Poisoned Pen Press, the attractions of this one-day event included a most reasonable cost, no need for travel, appearances by an international cast of authors, and casual dress code, for even if registrants attended in fuzzy jammies and bunny slippers, nobody could stare at them in the virtual hallways.

Provided they were not among those participating via video, that is.

The PP Webcon’s Guests of Honor were Dana Stabenow and Lee Child. Behind the Scenes Guests of Honor were Kate Miciak (editorial director, Bantam Dell), Kate Stine (editor-in-chief, Mystery Scene magazine), and Tom and Enid Schantz (Rue Morgue Press). Adrian Muller, the co-organizer (with Myles Allfrey) of Britain’s annual CrimeFest, was Fan Guest of Honor, and many familiar mystery authors appeared on the program.

The conference turned out to be truly global. Participants logged in from Brazil, Portugal, Iceland, England, France, Australia, Botswana, and Northern Ireland as well as Canada and locations across the United States, from Hawaii, Colorado, Washington state, and Massachusetts to Maine, North Carolina, Vermont, Texas, Alabama, and New York. The modest $25 cost of attendance didn’t seem to frighten anyone off, especially since $20 of that was returned in the form of a book voucher redeemable at The Poisoned Pen bookstore.

This first Webcon strove to provide good value for money, offering an eclectic mix of text, live, and pre-recorded audio and video panels, talks, and author presentations. There were dozens of author interviews and book trailers, and a day-long chat room. In addition, 20 attendees won a chance to pitch their novel to an editor!

Perhaps the venture’s most unusual feature was the electronic goody bag. Its contents included short stories, sample chapters and excerpts, a collection of essays, author notes and samplers, a couple of e-books--and instructions for a pair of ancient Greek party games.

The conference sailed forth with a skeleton crew of organizers. Webmistress Janice Hally managed the electronic side of things from France, I served as a general deck-hand in Pennsylvania, and oversight was provided from the bridge of Poisoned Pen Press in the southwestern United States. A number of authors also generously assisted by participating in panels, serving as hosts in the coffee shop, and donating material for the goody bag.

What useful pointers did this trial run provide for future Webcons?

Navigating a sea of raging lists is to be expected. We were making lists of lists at one point, aided by lots of muttering and the perking of ever stronger pots of robusto coffee. It’s wise to allow twice as much time as thought necessary to complete any given task. Even so, it will doubtless be necessary to engage in gentle flourishing of the cat-o’-nine tails at stragglers as deadlines approach and the clock starts ticking ever louder in ominous High Noon fashion.

Having said which, scheduling live events went more smoothly than anticipated, for whereas land-based conferences know their participants will be in the same place at the same time, we had to allow for ours residing in different national and international time zones. The possibility of confusion made my nose bleed, but the Gordian Knot was cut by declaring that the conference was going to be held on “PPWebcon Time.” Webmistress Janice then created and uploaded a time-zone grid to the Webcon site, matching PPWebcon Time to local hours and providing a universal reference point.

It was when we arrived at the panel-scheduling stage that we had to deal with a looming shipwreck. It was a difficulty unique to a Web-based conference. Moderators waiting to book slots on Blog Talk Radio could not make arrangements until the live schedule was firm. Although that was accomplished at top speed, some fancy tap-dancing was necessary to obtain the right broadcast times for a couple of presentations, achieved by swapping around panel slots.

As with all conferences, no doubt, organizing panels was a delicate task. Panelists and moderators were all volunteers and the latter had full control over who they invited to participate. Some unevenness was experienced, so a more balanced result will be reached in the future by organizing panels according to a different method, perhaps by limiting panelists to participate in only two panels until all volunteers are appointed to at least one. Another possibility is the method used by land-conference organizers, whereby authors suggest topics and a committee does the rest.

Needless to say, small fires had to be stamped out. For example, because this was an Internet-based event, concerns relating to loss of access cropped up. One moderator was anxious about losing power during their broadcast, so it was switched from a live event to an on-demand recording. Ironically, my power went out overnight but, fortunately, returned an hour before the Webcon set sail. Coffee shop segments were given co-hosts to guard against all eventualities. Only one co-host could not get into the coffee shop, as it turned out. One attendee lost e-mail service for about 24 hours and in another case a registrant’s network went missing for a similar period not long before the Webcon began. Alternative e-mail addresses for organizers and moderators are therefore vital, and if they are available for all attendees, so much the better.

In this connection, a few did not always open Webcon e-mail notes and others paid their registration fees but failed to complete the process. Several registrants changed e-mail addresses mid-ocean and at least two notes were found hiding in recipients’ spam folders. On another occasion a moderator did not receive an important e-mail message and it never returned, so it’s still meeping around somewhere out there. Several attendees had to have their passwords resent. One or two received their book vouchers but not their passwords. So it is important to closely monitor the attendee list and send notes from personal e-mail addresses as necessary. Since communication was established via Constant Contact, which provides notification of unopened e-mails, keeping registrants informed was easier than it might have been.

The need to use particular Web tools to access certain presentations meant some attendees feared they might not be able to participate in such events. However, for those registrants the Webcon provided numerous other offerings accessible without special equipment even if on dial-up, and the coffee shop chat room was text based.

A voice from the back row just asked, How, then, did this first crime-fiction Webcon fare?

It was anticipated that there would be glitches and problems and gnashing of teeth. This proved to be the case, but almost all difficulties involved individual computers or the Web tools in use, and so were beyond the control of the organizers. Most issues seemed to be resolved fairly quickly. The popularity of the chat room meant there was a queue to get in at times, since it apparently limited the number of attendees. From an informal count, an acceptable number appeared to be 25. So booking a larger chat room is advisable in years to come. There were also some problems with guests being booted out of the chat room for no apparent reason, though just about everyone had at least one experience of that, so it was nothing personal! One panel had to be moved to its right channel, but that was done within about five minutes of its start.

The chat room was lively and attendees seemed happy with the program. The satisfaction survey in circulation as I write has had 52 responses thus far and everyone says they want another Webcon. On an overall scale of 1-10, we have a 8.1 rating at present.

So all in all, yes, I would say the Webcon did very well on its
maiden voyage.


An archive of Saturday’s events can be found and enjoyed here.

* * *
Did you participate in this first Webcon? Were you pleased or frustrated with the results? Either way, we’d like to hear from you. Just leave your thoughts in the Comments section of this post.


L.J. Sellers said...

I participated in the PP Webcon, and overall the experience was great. I enjoyed the live BlogTalk radio discussions and had fun in the Coffee Shop. It was a little chaotic at times, but I made important connections. Much of material in text form, I'm reading at my leisure. I hope Poisoned Pen does it again.

Anonymous said...

No problems, no complaints. I loved every minute of it. User friendly and organized to a fare-the-well. "Met" a couple of people I was looking for in the Coffee/Chat Room. Had a chance to promote myself/my writing in the On Demand text presentations and the Goody Bag.

Next year it would be helpful to have 2 chat rooms: 1 with moderated topics for those who want them; 1 freestyle, community hot tub, cocktail party, jump-right-in chat room for those who prefer them.

I'm in the latter group. I miss the old chat rooms that sprang up in the "early days" -- late 1990s.

From this corner, only praise for PPWebCon.

Pat Browning

LJ said...

I attended the PP Webcon and thought it was great. I've been going back to watch many of the "on demand' segments. I think I only missed the first and last half-hours. Defnitely, I think Poisoned Pen does this again next year.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I participated via the chat function in Leighton Gage's BlogTalk radio discussion of foreign mysteries. The show's opening minutes were plagued by technical glitches, as were phone calls from listeners. Call screening would have helped matters, too.

That said, I enjoyed being able to chat with other listeners and panelists while the show was going on. I'll gladly take part again, and I trust some of the technical problems will be solved. I understand this was a first effort.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Nancy said...

I participated in the webcon. Since I had a busy day on Saturday, I only listened to one complete video live event and one blog radio event (and loved them both), but did download items from the Goody Bag and also plan to go back to the archive to listen to or watch other events. I definitely hope that you and other organizers plan another webcon.

Jane Finnis said...

I took part in the WebCon, and enjoyed it. Had a technical glitch getting into the chat-room, but once there, it was fun and the mixture of people, and topics discussed was amazing. The panels in my experience (panelist and listener) worked well, but I'll need to go back for more, several times probably, because as with traditional conventions, the overlap of panels made for some difficult choices. At least with WebCon I can see/hear what I missed. Do it again next year, Poisoned Pen!

Toni L.P. Kelner said...

I participated, and thought it was great. Cannot even begin to imagine the work that went into organizing it all. I'm thoroughly impressed, and hope it happens again.

Vicki Delany said...

I thought it went really well. I was very, very skepetical about it all initially and was most impressed. Mary and Janice pulled off an amazing feat. It was fun, informative, and I had no technical problems whatsoever. I did a livestream broadcast and apparently people were actually watching!

Nancy Means Wright said...

I thought the whole event was astonishing: imagine Janice and Peter in France and Mary in Pa, and someone in Botswana (I think) and me in the highlands of Vermont--all chatting together in the virtual coffeeroom! It couldn't have happened just a few years ago. But it has, and I hope it happens again and again. ...Oh, and I loved Mary Reed's article (above), giving us the "inside" story. And now I get why we had to download Java before we entered the coffeeroom, ha ha! (Although I swore at the time, having no Java on my computer--but now I have, and ready for 2010.)Congratulations to everyone involved! Nancy Means Wright

Dolores said...

I was very impressed by the quality and the scope of the panels on offer. The techinal headaches of setting up Webcon leave me staggered and I think congratulations are due all round.

Ann Parker said...

Loved the post and Mary's "behind the scenes" explanation of what went on to make the virtual webcon real. I'm glad the archives are open and available for viewing by all. Hope others drop by and sample the offerings and that PP and PPP decide to do another one next year! It was lots of fun, and I appreciated being able to participate in sweats and fuzzy slippers!

Anonymous said...

I had a great time communicating with people all over the world, including some who've already posted above. Toni, you were very brave going on live with the interview from your home studio. I hope more of us will be prepared to do the same next year.

Glad I got to do the pitch to the editor - she was very enthusiastic about my work. And though I've been neglecting my own blog the past couple of days, my stats are up anyway - in part, I believe, because of my Web Con participation.

Kudos to Mary and Janice - by all means, do it again!

Julie Lomoe's Musings Mysterioso

Sarah Wisseman said...

I participated, and thought it went amazingly well despite all the differences in time zones and computers and connection speeds. Since i (and many others) were still recovering after Bouchercon, it was a relief to stay in my bathrobe all morning... it is definitely worth doing again. Kodos to the organizers. Sarah Wisseman

Ann Littlewood said...

My panel with Ailene Baron ("Cozy Thrillers") was a hoot. Two authors from England (Sorry, "Delores" was all I captured as far as names) crashed our panel, along with a daughter who works in publishing in England, and it was great fun. Nothing like a few accents to class up a panel. I enjoyed it very much, despite being 3,000 miles from home on a borrowed computer with relatives waiting for me to wrap up so we could go to dinner!