This year, Sleuthfest was held in Orlando, breaking its long ties with Deerfield Beach, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. My advice: go back to Deerfield Beach.

Orlando is a pretty dreadful place. Utterly lacking in any character or any indigenous local culture beyond the plastic Disney attractions, it’s a morass of freeway traffic and retail chains. What I like to call a gathering ground for people from somewhere else to get together and exploit one another.

The event was held at the Royal Plaza Hotel, which appeared to have been preserved in its original 1980s format, right down to the smallest detail. The first major tipoff was the RCA analog TV, circa 1985, that sat in my room. No HBO, Showtime, or any decent channels, but at least the TV was color.

The carpeting looked like heavily-woven indoor-outdoor stuff, and there were no pens, paper, or envelopes in the room. Another red flag was the presence of “conditioning shampoo” in the bathroom instead of separate little bottles of shampoo AND conditioner.

Where do we go from there? Well, the restaurant was not up to the task, neither with their food nor the service. Only one bartender manned the bar (for a writer’s conference!), with no waitstaff, and the bartender had to recruit someone from somewhere else in the hotel to do barbacking chores for her. Unfortunately, she had to stop what she was doing and explain each chore to the new recruit each time she wanted her to do something, delaying matters even more.

Okay, so what about the conference?

Well, they got off to a rocky start, with registration beginning about 45 minutes late. Also, I looked inside the goodie bag each of us received and saw a copy of the conference program,  an issue of Mystery Scene magazine, and three items that could have been lifted from the card rack in the hotel lobby: two tourist guides to Orlando and a trolley map. Pretty exciting stuff!

Once the conference actually got underway, though, it was clear sailing. The first day, there were no panels, only talks given by individual speakers.  I heard Daniel Palmer, John Gilstrap, and Reed Farrel Coleman, all of whom were excellent, entertaining, and worthwhile. The next day, the panels began.

I was eager to contrast this year’s panels to last year’s, when every single panel, regardless of topic, swerved into a discussion of the digital/self-publishing revolution. At that time, none of the panelists–who were all traditionalists–was willing to admit that the flood of self-pubbed ebooks was anything to worry about. By this year, however, their eyes had been opened, if only a little. The panels talked about self-publishing, ebooks, and the big changes in the publishing business, and even accorded these changes a little respect. I was on a panel called “The Virtues of a Small Publisher”, since I had been with a small publisher. When I started talking about how I could do what my publisher did and do it better (and make more money at it, by the way), I wasn’t shouted down. The audience didn’t throw stones at me. The moderator seemed interested in what I had to say. Chalk up a little progress.

One day at lunch, Jeffery Deaver gave an informative talk about thrillers and was very accessible throughout his stay.

Everyone seemed in good spirits and the whole thing had a very friendly, welcoming tone. Now, if they’ll only go back to Deerfield Beach.

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