Hey, y’all. I’m back from the Bold Strokes Books writers’ retreat! It was an entire week of presentations, writing sprints, and general tomfoolery. And ice cream. Boy, was there ice cream. Who feels like hitting the gym with me?
This year was my second trip to the retreat, and I was asked to put on a presentation with the fabulous and talented Carsen Taite and the equally awesome Melissa Brayden. We were so professional with our PowerPoint slides…
We spoke about how to pick the right events as an author, how to participate in panels at conventions (cons), and how to give a stellar reading. I tackled the second part, so if you’re interested, here’s what I had to say (minus my joking improv lines because I can’t remember them):
I’ve been a guest at around 15 cons and spoken on about 50 panels on a variety of topics. Some of what I have to say will be old news to many, but I have to begin at the beginning for those who might be lost, starting with:
What is a panel?
It’s a group of pre-selected people at a con speaking on a predetermined topic. Panels on a variety of topics are the backbone of a convention and are scheduled throughout the day. Small conventions might have 1 to 5 panels running at the same time, while large conventions can have 10 to 15 running simultaneously, depending on the space. They usually have a moderator asking questions about a topic you know about beforehand, and I’ve seen them with anywhere from 2 to 6 participants.
Why be a panelist?
Meeting other authors
Conventions can be fun
Appearances can lead to book sales, but mostly it’s about getting your name out there and getting people to remember you. Even if they don’t buy your book immediately, they’ll remember you later when they’re looking around the internet or shopping on Amazon. Also, authors buy books, too, and I remember the people who impress me on panels. Also, building your author friend network will help you discover new writing or marketing tips, and it’s always nice to have more friends. As for enjoying the con, I like to pick cons I already want to go to and then volunteer to be a panelist.
Smaller cons have asked me how busy I want to be (how many panels I want to do each day.) I usually pick a lot, but I like to stay busy. Leave yourself enough time to enjoy the con.
How to be invited to do panels:
The convention organizers invite you out of the blue.
You volunteer to be a panelist.
The second is much more common than the first. Even with all the panels I’ve done, I’ve only just been invited to speak at a convention that I’ve never been to without me having to ask them first. It’s Houston Comicpalooza, and I’m pretty jazzed!
As for volunteering, scour the website for information on how to volunteer. If that doesn’t work, trying searching their Facebook page. You’ll want to do this many months in advance. If the convention doesn’t have readily available info on how to be a panelist, you might have to dig a bit, find an email address for whomever is in charge of guests, and if you can’t find one, you’ll have to email whatever address the convention gives for their contact info. I’ve gotten in touch with many cons through their Facebook pages as well as their websites. And you probably want to do it as soon as the information for their next convention becomes available. Some conventions plan a year or so in advance.
Speaking on panels:
Pick your topics well
After I’ve been formally invited to be a panelist at a convention, I’ve often been asked about what topics interest me. They’re usually pretty general at first and then become more specific as the date for the convention gets closer. For instance, the sci fi conventions that I do often have writing or world building panels, and I like to volunteer for those because I have a lot to say on the topic. I also volunteer for things I’m very knowledgeable about like mythology, so I can sound smart. I would not volunteer for a YA panel, say, because I don’t think I’ve read or written enough to contribute. If there’s a topic you think you can make lots of jokes about, pick that.
Informative or entertaining?
Panels come in two types: informative and entertaining, usually the former. A writing panel would probably try and teach the audience writing techniques, where an action movie panel would just be discussing films for the entertainment of the audience. Even if I’m on an informative panel, though, I try to be entertaining. You want to try and hit that sweet spot of smart and funny. I know, I know. If only we could hire someone to do it for us.
Talk about your writing and your books (but not too often.)
Remember that you’re there in a professional capacity. People come to listen to you because they want to hear about your processes and about how you do what you do. So talk about your work and how you write or whatever the panel is about but try not to mention the name of your book too often, maybe once or twice. Unless the panel is about something like Gothic literature, and then you probably won’t mention your work at all. You’re just trying to be memorable at that point.
Are you at all funny? Be that.
Funny is memorable. People follow funny people around a convention, and they will be more likely to remember you and look up your work later.
Limit your responses to the topic and try to be as succinct as you can. People always remember the asshole who talked too much and not in a good way.
Include the audience when you speak.
Try and look at everyone while you’re speaking, including other panelists. The more people you make eye contact with, the more they’ll pay attention because people are scared of looking away if they think you might catch them at it.
Proposing panels to conventions:
Each convention usually has info on their website about how to propose a panel. Some want a panel topic, some want a topic and a list of panelists. Some big conventions require you to propose a panel in order to speak at all. But just because you propose a panel doesn’t mean they’ll accept. And be warned, if you propose a panel and the con accepts it, you will probably be the moderator unless someone else has already agreed to do the job. If you’re the moderator, you can still answer all the topic questions, but you’ll be the one coming up with all of them first.
What kind of panels you propose should depend on the con audience and general vibe. A sci fi con would probably not welcome a panel on westerns unless they were also sci fi. Again, the con website is invaluable for research. They often have info on past cons and you can see what other panels they’ve had, so you avoid any repeats.
How do I get paid for speaking at conventions?
Usually, you don’t. But you might get in for free. Sometimes, headliners get paid. But even then, a small convention may not be able to pay you but might offer you a comped hotel room or a travel stipend. Most small cons have offered me and my friends free entry into the convention, but some have offered it only to me. Most big cons still require you to buy an admission ticket, though some offer a discount for speakers. The only time I’ve ever gotten my room comped was when I was a guest of honor, and even then, I didn’t get paid.
Some pro tips:
Pick the seat that will give you maximum success.
Panels will almost always be set up along a table. The moderator will usually be at one end, though sometimes in the middle. If you sit at the ends, I guarantee you will be asked to speak first at least once during the session. Don’t assume that just because you’re at the opposite end from the moderator, that you will be last. If you always need time to think of an answer, sit toward the middle but never at the moderator’s side. If you’re that nervous about going first, speak to the moderator beforehand and ask them not to call on you first.
Fake it until you make it.
If public speaking terrifies you like it used to terrify me, pretend you’re someone else. Sounds insane, but it works. I’m an introvert, so to deal with stressful situations like cons, I create a persona that can perform at them. Then I have to go take a break and be quiet for a few hours. Sometimes, there are pills involved. Yummy, yummy pills.
Linger after the panel is done.
Unless the next panel is breathing down your necks for their turn at bat, linger after a panel is done for just a few seconds so anyone who wants can come up and engage you in conversation. Someone you’ve engaged personally is more likely to become a fan.
Wear something memorable yet appropriate.
When I do sci fi cons, I often wear funny, geeky t-shirts. When I do other cons, I try to dress in bright colors or wear distinctive jewelry. This helps people remember me and pick me out of a crowd.
Bring some swag.
Many cons will have tables where guests and panelists can put out freebies for people to take. Take advantage of this by putting out bookmarks, postcards, or pens with your name and book title on them. Never spend lots of money on swag. Keep it simple. If you make your own swag, limit it to something cheap that you enjoy making, like buttons, fridge magnets, or key chains. GotPrint.com is an excellent webpage that allows you to create your own bookmarks and postcards.
Why is everything so hard?
Why, for fuck’s sake, after writing a book do you have to do all this crap?!?! Because we’re all in this business to sell books. Even if you’re motivated by a nobler purpose than mere money, you have to get your books into the hands of readers, and the more appearances you do, the more your name gets out there. They get easier with time.
And that’s it! It went over very well, especially after I started sprinkling references to The Pyramid Waltz in after that “don’t mention yourself too often” business. I got some laughs. A wonderful time was had by all, and even if it wasn’t, they hid that fact from me. So hooray!
Please, ask questions if you have them. I’m here for you. 🙂