Big Trouble at Bouchercon

ITW and the crime-fiction community finally face the #metoo conversation

The crime-fiction community is finally starting to have the conversation. The conversation. In the three years since #MeToo started to rewrite the secret rules of Hollywood, the publishing industry has largely ignored the issue. Harassment remained somebody else’s problem. I joined the board of Bouchercon, the mystery and thriller fan convention, in 2017 with the aim of convincing the organisation to adopt a policy to protect its members. What I found was an institution resistant to change, with important issues held back by cliques. The powers that be made big decisions in private conversations, and key members of the board dismissed reports of abuse.

In the wake of recent allegations, both Bouchercon and ITW (International Thriller Writers) are promising to improve and to win back the trust of the community. Given my experiences, I have little faith these promises are anything more than performative. If they wanted to change, it would have happened before now, and it may already be too late.

ITW logo
The logo of the International Thriller Writers.

On June 13th author Adam Hamdy tweeted that he was resigning as ITW (International Thriller Writers) Debut Author Coordinator, citing their “response to a recent issue.” We waited for the other shoe to drop. It came on June 17th, when author Laurie Chandlar announced her own resignation, commenting that “(Chandlar) and another female author brought serious concerns to the ITW board regarding a male author’s behaviour at an industry event. They were summarily and callously dismissed.”

Chandlar later clarified why she had characterised ITW’s response in such a manner, tweeting “in response to my concern about safety, they said that since Thrillerfest this year had been cancelled, there is no chance of coming into contact with the individual at any ITW event until next year.” They had also refused to take responsibility for investigating the matter since their code of conduct only applied to Thrillerfest -a mystery and thriller convention usually held in New York- and the accusations were of events at a different industry convention. In response to these tweets ITW released a statement (now redacted) in which they named the victim but not the accused.

The crime fiction community, authors and readers alike, responded strongly. Members began resigning from the organisation. Author Vanessa Lillie started two petitions, the first calling for ITW to investigate the matter and then, following ITW’s disastrous attempt at a statement, the second calling for the entire board to step down.

Thriller writer Blake Crouch publicly withdrew his novel Recursion from ITW’s awards, and Hector Acosta did the same with his short story Turistas. The entire slate of nominees in the ebook original category also pulled their books. ITW caved to the pressure on June 23rd, with eight board members resigning their position. They released a statement promising change, and I understand they also invited these authors to take up their nominations again. On the surface, at least, ITW is doing work to repair damage and right wrongs. But how genuine are these attempts?

Built-in tensions

Even without being named, it was clear to most people that Bouchercon was the “industry event” in question. Bouchercon proclaims itself to be the world mystery convention and draws 1300-2000 people each year, hosted in a different city each time.

From Hamdy and Chandlar’s initial tweets it took until June 25th for Bouchercon to say anything regarding the situation, with a brief (undated) statement on their website. As part of that release, they said, “We have an anti-harassment policy which condemns any form of harassment.” I was one of the principal authors of that policy, and I can tell you, it’s useless. The wording is very careful, but also pretty clear in its abdication of responsibility. “This code of conduct applies to all Official Bouchercon spaces, such as the convention floor, check-in, panels, meetings, book room, website, and our social media accounts.” In other words, is doesn’t apply to the bar or hotel rooms.

Bouchercon
Bouchercon Logo

Bouchercon operates on two levels. There’s the national board, often consisting of up to 18 members, and there are the Local Organizing Committees (LOC) who run each convention. The chair of each LOC takes a seat on the national board, alongside people who the membership has chosen. This creates conflict. Those voted onto the board will say they are there to protect the future of the organisation. Those taking a seat as the chair of the LOC are focused on protecting their own event. In any given year there is high tension between the two groups. The national board usually consider the LOC’s to be acting like rogue fiefdoms, making up the rules as they go along, and the LOC’s tend to see the national as distant overlords who offer minimum support and maximum criticism. These tensions make it difficult to push any meaningful or lasting change.

Bouchercon had discussed the issue of a harassment policy before. At the Long Beach convention of 2014 the board declined to adopt one. By the fall of 2017 it seemed like there was more support for the idea, but they almost killed the project a few weeks into my term. The 2018 LOC chair reported to the board that a lawyer had told her we couldn’t adopt any kind of policy. She didn’t disclose the identity of the lawyer to the board or present that advice in writing. As the LOC chair explained it, any kind of wording, whether it contained enforcement language or not (i.e., whether it said what Bouchercon could do in the event of a report) would leave each member of the board open to personal legal liability.

If person A complained to Bouchercon that person B harassed or abused them, and person B caught any wind of this, they would be able to accuse Bouchercon of defamation, leaving each and every one of us open to being sued. This approach didn’t make much sense at the time, and I still see none in it now. Bouchercon is a Limited Liability Company. In addition, the board has liability insurance, covering its members. If person B did decide to further damage their own career and reputation by launching legal action against Bouchercon, the insurance would protect the board members.

In addition, the liability created by attempting to do the right thing would be nothing compared to the convention-ending liability created if it came to the worst, someone was sexually assaulted, and it was revealed Bouchercon had previously chosen not to have a policy in place. The problem is, if you scare a majority of 18 people into thinking, even for a second, that their own bank balances are on the line, you make it almost impossible to push through the issue.

From that initial report, it became a process of compromise and damage limitation. Each time anyone raised issues of the LLC or insurance, influential people on the board, including the national Chair, would repeat the full fears of legal liability. Those of us in support of adopting a policy would cite examples of other conventions and festivals, many with fewer resources than Bouchercon, who already had wording in place. Late on in the process the national Chair told me privately that I would have to be responsible for heading up any committee formed to investigate harassment. The message seemed clear, coming from one of the people who kept pushing the legal liability narrative. You want this? It’s on you.

What happens at the bar

We eventually agreed to have me and another board member research and write a statement, give it to a lawyer for vetting, and put it to the membership for vote. The wording had to serve several masters, but mostly fear. Bouchercon was not willing to take responsibility for events at the bar.

There’s a long-running difference of opinion here between the authors and the organisers. Writers will tell you If the venue has a good bar, it will be a good convention. This is where much of the author socializing takes place, along with professional networking with the agents and editors who attend the genre’s biggest gathering each year. There will be a time to have a reckoning with ourselves about the publishing industry’s unhealthy relationship with drinking. But for this piece it’s important to note that  authors think the bar is the convention, and the national board see the bar as just a large room that happens to be in the same building as the convention. As with ITW’s passing of the buck, responsibility for addressing this issue always seems to be somebody else’s problem.

Even putting the issue of abuse and harassment aside for one moment, there are other safety concerns. In New Orleans, 2016, an author collapsed at the bar. The issue wasn’t alcohol-related, but happened in a location for which Bouchercon doesn’t wish to take responsibility. Fellow authors and hotel staff helped him. But any representative of Bouchercon was conspicuously absent. What were the event organisers doing while the hotel called an ambulance for one of their attendees? At a time when the entire publishing world is trying to become a more open and inclusive place, the future of these conventions rests on whether they can start to take their responsibilities seriously.

The Mystery of the MWA

An organisation that does appear to be taking things seriously is MWA (Mystery Writers of America), who acted swiftly after the initial tweets to announce they were “conducting an independent investigation into the incident,” following up on June 26th that they were suspending the membership of the accused author pending the outcome of the investigation.

But MWA have had their own recent controversies. In 2018 they chose Linda Fairstein to be the 2019 Grand Master. The fallout was swift, with author Attica Locke quick to point out Fairstein’s involvement in the prosecution of the Exonerated Five. MWA acted quickly in that case, too. Taking only two days to reverse course and withdraw the honour, an unprecedented move. There are clearly people within the organisation who take responsibility for fixing problems. But two years later we still don’t know who made the original decision to honour Fairstein, or why. This should matter. Now a couple weeks on, we still don’t know who wrote the ITW statement naming the victim in an ongoing legal case. Nor do we know who made the decision to “callously” dismiss the initial complaint. These questions also matter.

As of the time of writing, in addition to the eight resignations from ITW’s board, there are also four vacancies at Bouchercon. And yet, even with the public promises of change, at least one person who was serving on both boards during this whole fiasco is still in place, promising to right the ship at ITW. Surely if they’re the person to fix things now, they would also have been the person to stop them being broken in the first place?

It’s over two years now since I resigned from the board, but the same problems persist. The lack of transparency and accountability is, ultimately, what prevents any meaningful progress. The community cannot continue on with big decisions made in private conversations. We need to know who’s deciding what. If someone is standing in the way of progress, we can’t let them use these large flawed institutions to hide from the light.

Jay Stringer

Jay Stringer is an award-nominated author of crime fiction, dark comedy, and action thrillers. He’s led crime fiction workshops for teenagers and mentored creative writing students for City, University of London. His latest novel, Marah Chase and the Fountain of Youth, is available now from Pegasus books.

One thought on “Big Trouble at Bouchercon

  • July 9, 2020 at 3:19 pm
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    Great piece. The one thing you didn’t address here is the same issue the movie/tv industry is having: the power gap. Many of the worst harassers are bestselling authors who are at the top of our field (or are agents/editors). It’s very difficult for a debut or midlist author to even consider confronting inappropriate behavior when it’s coming from someone that the majority of attendees are fawning over. I worry that even if there’s a policy in place (although obviously, that’s a no-brainer), unless some type of anonymity is preserved, most people won’t feel comfortable coming forward. Because this is a small community, and a gossipy one, the fear of retaliation would be very real and legitimate.

    Also, I was at the NOLA Bcon. Another author’s wife became so stumbling drunk we almost had to call an ambulance for her as well. I used to attend every year, but that was my last one. While I love reconnecting with friends from all over the world (and the bar & parties are always a big part of that), the conference itself is replete with sexism and harassment. I’ve always attributed that to the generational gap; despite being in my forties, I was usually still considered part of the “young crowd.” I let a lot of comments and inappropriate exchanges slide when I probably shouldn’t have.

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