Author appearances - some rules of engagement

Some thoughts about author appearances, specifically at conferences. This is partly based on my experiences at the Virginia Festival of the Book, which ended today. It probably goes without saying that an author appearance is basically a commercial: your opportunity to sell yourself to the attendees. If you do a really good job, the people at your talk or reading will go on to rave about you to all their friends. Take Barry Eisler, for example. In addition to being darn cute, he did a fantastic job of presenting himself during his panel with four other mystery writers. MJ Rose was also great, but Eisler is the one (the only one) who stood up when he spoke. Because the room wasn’t set up well, the speakers sat at a table on the same level as the audience, and it was difficult to see them—and part of the point of going to conferences is to see authors. I still don’t understand why the others didn’t follow his lead, but it felt like they just couldn’t be bothered.

Eisler also always spoke up so everyone could hear. He smiled and joked, and had great stories to tell. And he had a background that was inherently fascinating: three years in the CIA. The rules this illustrates:

  1. Make sure the audience can SEE you.
  2. Make sure they can HEAR you.
  3. Be engaging and interesting.

This one may seem difficult. I mean, what if you haven’t worked for any three-letter acronym agencies? But as a writer, you should know that everyone has something interesting about them. If you have to sit down and come up with (or even embellish) stories about experiences that motivated your writing, or adventures you had while doing research, do it. Being on a panel or answering reader questions is a lot like being on a job interview. Preparation is key!

  1. Dress up.

In the past, I’ve seen authors show up in jeans, ratty skirts, boots so worn they looked like they were purchased from Goodwill twenty years earlier. Dress nicely to respect your audience, your hosts, and to make a good impression. Make it seem like the audience and the event are important.

  1. Lie if you need to!

There have also been authors in the last two years who have seemed to go out of their way to convince the audience not to buy their books. Emphasizing that you can write a novel in six weeks and that you never revise, for example, is unwise. Saying “I do it for the money” is crazy. If you don’t feel passion for your work…LIE to me! Please. I mean, if you actually want to sell books. Otherwise, why show up?

  1. Be generous.

While waiting for one panel to start, I heard a woman going on and on to a cluster of people about authors and their bad attitudes. She had wonderful anecdotes about one writer who agreed to come speak to her class but then blew her off. And she mentioned another writer who was openly hostile to an audience member who asked about her writing process. You will hear questions that seem trivial, idiotic, intrusive, and insulting. Suck it up. Learn good strategies for dealing with such things, and never give the audience a chance to think, “Wow, that was rude,” after you’ve spoken.

  1. Practice your reading, for god’s sake!

It makes me crazy when an author is getting ready to read and can’t find the page, isn’t sure where the piece ends, stumbles over words. Mark the beginning and ending with tape flags, post-its, pens, whatever, and practice reading enough times that you have it down. One author who just blew me away at the conference was Luis Alberto Urrea. Not only was be amazingly engaging, he actually had his piece memorized. He did accents, he distinguished characters by the way he spoke, and he even used body language to help convey the action. Brilliantly done.

OK, back to my real life, already in progress. I hope someone finds this useful!

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Comment by Darden North, MD on August 3, 2009 at 3:03pm
This was great, Meriah. I followed the link from the post on the SIC listserve. I have served on several panels and hope to be included in more, so I found these ideas and suggestions for "proper behavior" valuable.
Darden North
Comment by Meriah Crawford on June 27, 2007 at 9:23am
Hey Steve,
Yeah, I suck. I know. I keep wanting to write about my cases and my students, but I also need to respect privacy and confidentiality. Should have built myself a fake identity for my web stuff, I guess. Such a complicated life.

Hey, does this system e-mail you when I respond to something you write here?
Comment by Steve Allan on June 27, 2007 at 6:59am
So, this is where you've gone off to - and I see you update here about as often as your blogger blog.

You really should put your opinions out there more, I mean you hardly have anything to say...
Comment by Meriah Crawford on March 27, 2007 at 9:14am
Laura - the guy who memorized made a point of saying he'd read that piece for an audio book and used it a lot at readings. He handled it so skillfully and humbly that he avoided seeming showy, which was a risk. When it was over, I felt like I really wanted to sit and have a beer (or six) with him and talk, which is exactly how you should feel about an author after an appearance like that.
Comment by Meriah Crawford on March 27, 2007 at 9:12am
Hey David,

I don't think it was apathy, but it was a mistake - and they should have followed Barry's lead. I don't want to complain about the other panelists, though. I wrote this to help other authors think about how to handle speaking at conferences. It's always easy to sit back in the audience and find fault.

And, yeah, the setup was weird. You did a great job of moderating, though. So many moderators come unprepared, ask inane questions, or spend too much time talking about themselves. You had great questions, though, and kept the conversation interesting. Well done!
Comment by Laura Benedict on March 27, 2007 at 5:59am
Meriah, this is great--really sharp observations. The whole memorization thing sets a very high standard, indeed!
Comment by David J. Montgomery on March 27, 2007 at 12:45am
Thanks for coming to our panel!

That room setup was unfortunate. To be honest, standing up to speak never would have occurred to me. So I wouldn't necessarily attribute it to apathy on the part of the other panelists.

Of course, I was already standing -- wayyyyy over on the other side of the room. I've never moderated like that before, and I didn't care for. I felt so isolated.

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