Attending your first convention as a professional writer? Don't know what opportunities are out there for you? How do you get invited? How do you approach editors? How do you deal with fans who love your book and those who haven't read it yet? Jody Lynn Nye and Bill Fawcett have answers to the questions you don't even know you have. From how to approach a convention committee to how to handle yourself on panels and signings, this book will give you an expert's perspective on how to make the most of a convention.
How to be a Literary Guest at a Convention
These articles are designed to advise an author, potential author, editor, artist or even illustrator attending Science Fiction conventions on how to get the most from them. They include advice from many bestselling authors and editors along with our own. This book is a collection of articles that appeared in the SFWA Bulletin. If you are a new writer or aspire to be one, you are encouraged to join SFWA or at least get a subscription to their Bulletin.
You are a newly minted professional writer. One of the best ways to get to know your fans and attract potential readers is to attend conventions. There you would be on panels and workshops, sign books and talk with a targeted population who are intensive consumers of science fiction and fantasy literature such as yours.
How can you get to be on the program schedule? Reach out to the convention of your choice. Do you know someone on the committee? SF conventions have a hierarchy but it is relatively flat compared to most other organizations. Steven Silver, who has been convention chair and director of programming for Windycon and Chicon, suggests writing to the head of programming for the coming year. The names and e-mail links of committee members are usually listed on the convention website. If you wish to be in the current year's convention, it may be too late to be listed in the advertising (flyers on the table already printed), but you can get into the online listings, and you can still attend and participate.
An established convention will probably have someone in mind for its guest of honor spots already, but they might be interested in you as a featured guest or program participant. (That is not to say that new pros have not been made GoH, but that is a rarity, usually as a result of having had a very high profile publication release.) Your aim is to convince them that you are just the person they need on the schedule.
Asking to be a program participant is very much a job interview. What do you have to offer this convention besides your one book, story or poem? How can you make the convention experience more fun for the attendees? What value do you have beyond the fact that you have persuaded someone to pay you for your writing? Do you have special expertise? Can you run a writers' workshop? Do you do any martial arts? Can you demonstrate or teach a skill of interest to the fans? Do you have a slide show of your work? Do you filk? Will you do Young Adult programming (a big new draw)? There are a lot of new writers out there. What sets you apart from the others? Steven Silver suggests that you come to the committee with ideas on how it can use you.
In most cases, no special additional skill is needed. Con-coms need to fill up their program schedule, and it simply adds value to the program to feature multiple professional writers (it takes pressure off the GoH). The easiest way to appeal to the committee is to live near the convention venue. Many conventions have a sense of regional pride and want to promote their local writers. (For example, according to its bylaws, Westercon's GoH must live in the states that comprise its territory.) If you are local, it makes you more attractive to the con-com, because they won't have to pay travel expenses. The closer you live, the smaller the outlay they must make to have you. Carl Fink, Director, Panel Programs, for I-CON in Long Island, New York, says that I-CON is happy to have any local pros get in touch regarding future conventions. It is not a guarantee of an invitation to appear. What would tip the balance in your favor is how many unique paying members you can draw to the con.
That said, this is a negotiation. You have needs as well. This is an opportunity for you to meet your public and gain readers and friends in the broader SF community. The least you should hope for in return for your participation is a free membership for you or you and a guest. You are giving up an entire weekend of potential earning time for a non-paying appearance. The minimum outlay a convention would make on your behalf is for a badge, a copy of the program book and a pocket program flyer. The committee is already printing those for the rest of the membership; to increase the print run by one for you is a minimal expense. You add value far above that. You're not taking up any extra function space or electricity. Still, be humble and see the situation from the point of view of the committee. It is a matter of economics, and con-runners must keep to a budget. The cheaper you are to bring in and the easier you are to cope with, the better. If the convention really wants you, but money is tight (and it always is), you may be able to negotiate for partial support, such as half your airfare, or a hotel room but no travel expenses. You can always ask, but be reasonable in your demands.
Still, some conventions require everyone from the guest of honor down to the last gofer to pay a membership fee to defray expenses. There are events in which this is the norm, such as the World Fantasy ConventionSM or the World Science Fiction Convention, because of the enormous cost of putting on those conferences. In other cases, the convention requires a non-GoH to buy a membership fee up front to be reimbursed later. This often comes about if that con has been burned more than once by participants who accepted a free membership, then failed to show up for their panels. If paying up front is the tradition for a particular convention, accept it if you want to go. Long-running conventions have their policies spelled out somewhere on their websites. For example, Windycon, the largest Chicagoland regional, has five categories of guest listed on its site. As a newcomer, you will likely fall into the last-named group, "panelist." Dragon Con has panelists, pros, and special guests.
Small conventions may not be able to give you more than a badge at first, but as they grow they will look back on the participants who helped make their convention a success. Leave them with a good impression. As you grow in importance, you may be offered more, but only if you were a good guest to begin with.
Steven Silver said that it irks committees when writers get in touch and demand to be placed on at least three panels, so the convention will be "deductible." The committee doesn't care about your tax situation. Making your outlay legitimate to the IRS is not why they invite you; in any case, the convention will be deductible as a professional expense whether or not you are on panels. It simply won't be as useful to you as a public appearance if you aren't.
If you are selected to participate in programming, you have duties to the convention, the committee that is sponsoring you, and fandom in general. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.
You are a professional guest, in that you are trading your participation for a consideration, to include such items as membership, housing, food, transportation, and possibly an honorarium (rare but beautiful). You owe your host committee and the convention your best behavior. When you arrive at the convention, introduce yourself to the committee. Let them know who you are.
Get to know the fans. They are why you are there. Just answering a few questions—feel free to deflect anything that makes you uncomfortable—gives the fans a personal connection that will last for years. Can you hold an audience? Can you walk that line between monopolizing a conversation and being a wallflower?
Do not build a wall of your publications between you and your public. Most con-runners whom I consulted hate it when writers bring copies of everything they have ever written and set them up in a row on the panel table. When you introduce yourself, the most you should do is hold up your current book or magazine and say what it is and where it can be obtained. Let the audience seek you out later if they want to know more. When you are on a panel, they want to see you, not your covers.
Mingle. Browse the con suite, open to the general membership, rather than the Green Room, which is reserved for program participants and committee members. Get to know people. If you find you can't get all the way up the hall without being stopped at least three times for conversations, you're doing it right.
In your exalted position as published writer, your words and actions have more impact than those of another fan. Carry yourself as if everything you do is being recorded on video. Cooperate. Don't start arguments with fans. Don't be petty. (Discourse on panels is good; personal attacks, bad). If a fan threatens or stalks you, inform the con-com immediately. Handling problems is their job. Don't put yourself in personal danger, but don't be the cause of the dispute, either.
Dress professionally. For example, wearing a belly-dancer costume to your panels, unless your book is about belly-dancing, gives the wrong impression. You don't have to wear a suit or a dress, but control your attire. Once you are a very big name, you can do what you like, but not until then if you want to be taken seriously.
Watch your speech, at the convention and afterwards, online and in person. If you diss other conventions to the con-com you want to impress, they will wonder in private what you are saying about theirs. If you diss the convention that invited you, chances are poor that you will be invited back. You can say more among fellow pros, especially where the conversation is not recorded or forwardable, than you ever should in public.
Please control your relationship with alcohol or other substances. It is common for newcomers to throw off the constraints of social behavior in a seemingly permissible situation, but it looks bad for any guest, from neo-pro to SFWA Grand Master, to get stinking drunk at a convention. Also control your impulses with regard to other relationships, such as casual overnight encounters. It's not anyone's business to police your love life, but be discreet, considerate and legal. As noted above, your behavior carries more weight than a paying attendee. Perhaps you don't feel you ought to be taken as a role-model, but you already are.
If you have a medical condition that requires attention, special equipment, certain requirements in terms of a quiet/non-smoking/wheelchair-accessible hotel room, or you need a particular diet, please let the con-com know. They wish to please their guests, and will go to great efforts to oblige. Do not assume that they are aware of your needs. Especially make certain someone is aware if you have an incapacitating condition. There are so many reasons why someone might collapse unconscious on the floor, but if the paramedics are aware in advance whether to administer insulin or a clot-buster it can make the difference in saving your life.
If you are not a good public speaker, do a reading. If you are shy, let the program director know you'd rather be on panel discussions with a good moderator who can draw out limited answers from you. Let the attendees get to know a little something about you. That is why they have come. If all they wanted to know was your writing, they'd stay home and read. SF is such an interactive community that these personal encounters mean a lot.
The panel starts at 10:00 am. Be there. Unless you have an emergency (or the venue is too spread out for realistic perambulation), be in your seat by the time the bell rings. As I mentioned above, your free membership is dependent upon your participation in a minimum number of events. Certainly your possibility of being invited back will depend on whether you show up at the items for which you are scheduled. According to all the con-runners that I consulted, this is a deal-breaker. Missing your program items violates the agreement you made with the convention. Programming doesn't want to have to check up on you. They assume, as a professional, that you will be where you say you will be, when you are expected to be there.
If you receive your program schedule before the convention, study it. Do you need to bone up on a subject? Do whatever it takes to be well-informed and well-spoken. If the subject listed is unfamiliar, read up on it. Remind yourself of the details. Bring notes. We're the nerds; flaunt your over-preparedness proudly. Don't insult the audience by sitting like a lump. They get to be the oil painting, not you.
Do you need a piece of special equipment for your presentation? Communicate in advance with the committee to make sure they have one or can accommodate yours. Check again with Operations when you arrive at the convention center. Have you volunteered for a reading? Bring your manuscript. No kidding: I once arrived at a convention and realized the book from which I had intended to read was sitting on the bed where I had been packing my suitcase. I was lucky that time; I was able to borrow a copy of it from the bookseller in the dealers' room. The shock made me concentrate on never doing that again.
Bring contact information for your fans, especially if you have a signing. Have you got a website? (You MUST have a website.) Do you have a Facebook page? Do you Twitter? Do you have bookmarks or other giveaways? Let people know how to find you. Because you are new, this may be the first time most fans have ever seen your name. Help them to remember it when book-buying time comes around. If you know that there are booksellers in the dealer's room, get in touch to say you will be coming and ask if they can order your books. If they cannot obtain any in time, bring a few to sell.
Carl Fink has an excellent practical suggestion for neo-pros: memorize your one-minute biography. Not only will it give the tongue-tied something to say on a panel, but it will give the moderator information to build on when framing questions. You can also use it, Carl quipped, if you happen to get on an elevator with the editor of Analog.
You're intelligent enough to be a writer. If you are assigned to a panel on a subject with which you're unfamiliar, be the one who asks leading questions of the panelists who do know about it. If the subject is too far out there and you all find yourselves looking at one another in bemusement, wing it. If the subject is downright offensive, ask to be taken off that panel. We're there to be entertainment. If the audience has had a good time, you'll be a success. Regina Kirby, who has worn many hats for Dragon Con and Chattacon, including program director and con-chair, insists that if you have a problem or a time conflict, tell Programming as soon as possible when you receive your schedule, so they can replace you and proper notice can be given to the attendees.
On the flipside, can you step in if someone else has to miss an event? The committee will be grateful if you are willing to volunteer. Steven Silver pointed out that the powers that be will remember that positively in future years when your name comes up.
The con-com, except in rare circumstances, is an all-volunteer army. Do not expect perfect organization, or that the person in a certain vital job will be ideal or even prepared for that job. Some con-coms have been in existence for decades and run their conventions to a standard that the Army would envy. Others don't. The hotel is not under the control of the committee. I've heard, even witnessed, horror stories of convention function rooms being co-opted by the hotel for an event they knew they were hosting (such as a wedding) but didn't bother to inform the convention. The committee may threaten to sue, but there is really nothing they can do but scramble to re-house the displaced events. They are doing the best that they can. You gets what you gets. Don't become part of their problems.
Do not overwhelm a panel that you are on by interrupting or cutting out a quieter participant whom the fans have come to see. A few years ago, Bill Fawcett was a moderator on a panel with the noted Hal Clement and a young, exuberant female writer who interrupted Clement every time he spoke. The impression on the audience was not positive. Sure, you will be nervous and want to make an impression. Wait your turn, speak to the point, and give the big-name pro that everyone else has come to see the chance to speak. You will get your opportunity.
Who was it that invited you or sponsored you to the convention? Be cognizant that he or she put his reputation on the line to fight for you in committee meetings. Thank them in person, by e-mail, with a note, a beer or with a gift such as a copy of your book. Remember also that science fiction is a small community, and it communicates incessantly (often during panels these days—you can find yourself being Twittered or blogged as you speak). If you behave in a jerk-like fashion, expect to have the word spread. The Internet never forgets. Neither do con-runners and fans. Treat them with respect. If you get a reputation for being friendly and helpful, you will move up the ladder from a casual panelist to a paid-for guest.
Dragon Con's Regina Kirby wants you to remember that many, if not most, of the fans that you are coming in contact with at a convention have never met you before. "First impressions are lasting. As are last. Getting a reputation as 'difficult' (to put it nicely) will not get you invited to many conventions. Convention committees talk to one another." For better or for worse, the impression you make as a convention guest will last a lifetime. The con-runners with whom I spoke had some private (and rather juicy) stories of crash-and-burn guests, most of whom will never make their invitee list again. As Carl Fink pointed out, horror stories are a lot more fun to tell than "nothing-bad-happened" stories. Among them:
The big-name pro who at the convention banquet publicly insulted the con-com member who had invited him, then behaved badly to the rest of the committee the remainder of the evening.
Neo-pros who demand "don't you know who I am?" (This particular phrase ticked off all the con-runners I asked.)
Neo-pros who ask for ridiculous considerations, such as first-class airfare for them and their entire entourage, on the strength of their solo self-published book.
The science guest who invaded a panel and was warned off by the moderator, whom the science guest then made as if to punch, in full view of the audience. The moderator was in a wheelchair.
Those guests who depart early from the convention before finishing their panels, and especially those who do not inform the con-com that they are leaving.
I realize how obvious most of the above information seems, but all of it has come from long-time con-runners who have seen it all and wished it hadn't happened on their watch.
Other guidelines are available for program participants. In the 1980s, Susan Shwartz published an excellent and more extensive article than this in the SFWA Handbook. It has been reprinted in the special edition of Argentus, The Art of the Con (www.sfsite.com/~silverag/argentus.html), Steven Silver's zine, in which you will find other insights on how a convention is put together, including the Minicon Moderator's Guidelines.
If all else fails, ask an experienced fellow panelist for guidance. Use common sense.
And enjoy yourself!