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I have just returned from a weekend at Confluence, in Pittsburgh. It's a small convention, but I really like it, and I always have a good time when I'm there. This year was a little sad, because it was the first year at which there was no Ann Cecil, but the memorial service was a strong reminder of her presence, and what it's meant to so many people.

I usually do a reading, a signing, a kaffeeklatch and a number of panels over the course of the weekend. This weekend was not an exception. One panel, however, made me return to a topic that's been at the back of my mind for a few years now. This is not a commentary on Confluence because Confluence, by and large, doesn't have this problem, and the lack is one of the reasons I do love the convention and I do continue to attend it.

Publishing and its environs have changed in the last decade. They're changing pretty much as I type now. What was once unthinkable for most of us, in part because of the sheer cost, has become both possible and even, in some cases, smart: self-publishing.

Because this is the case, I predict a convention future in which the authors convention goers are reading are self-published, and as conventions cater in part to their attendees, self-published authors will as a matter of course be part of the attending pro contingent, and will be on panels that are relevant to their written genres.

Let me say up front that I have no problem with this. Daniel J. Sawyer is self-published, and the panels I've been on with him were fun; he was engaging, and had that type of self-deprecating humour I truly enjoy. His presence on a panel was a plus. I don't actually care if you are self-published, non-published, or human, really, if you are entertaining. I say this as someone who attends panels as both audience and participant.

However - you knew that was coming - I have been on panels with several people in the past few years, and they were not Daniel Sawyer. Instead, they were of the variety which starts pretty much every comment with "Well, in my novel, I blah blah blah", which goes on for far too long, and which - I'm sorry to say - is 99% of the time about as interesting as it sounds.

I have seen new pros do this as well; it's not a failing of how your book has been presented to a reading audience, but rather of what you see your role on a panel as being. My husband points out -- with a wince -- that NYC published first-time authors are as guilty of the "my book" approach to first conventions, because they're under so much pressure to get the word out there, to promote themselves. They aren't comfortable with this, because they interpret self-promotion as the things they actually hate.

So, although people sometimes privately complain about the behaviour of self-published authors, this is a behaviour that is present in many, but by no means all, neopros of any stripe.

Here's the big clue: You are not there to make every possible discussion about you and your book. Period. Full stop. If there is anyone in an audience who has not read a book by Tanya Huff, for instance, you can bet after the panel those people will remember her and will head toward the dealer's room to check out her books. Why? She's funny as hell. She's incredibly entertaining. She's not pretentious. And she is not attempting to divert all attention to herself; she gets attention as a by-product because she's entertaining.

The same is true of someone like John Scalzi.

But, you say, you know you are not as funny as Tanya Huff or John Scalzi? Well, welcome to my ship. I'm not, either. But I do my best not to suck the entertainment out of the room by turning everything into a well in my book drone. Look, I understand the desire to talk about your own work. It's natural because I am incredibly interested in my own work. But if I don't want to listen to anyone else talk about their own books for hours on end, it's pretty clear that the only person who is quite as interested in the topic is...me.

So if you need to have that long droning talk - do it in your room before you join the other panelists.

But, you say, you're at the panel to promote yourself. Yes, you are. And do you want to promote yourself as a boring, solipsistic, and slightly desperate drone? No? Well, then. See the above comment re: Tanya Huff. You promote yourself at conventions in a slow and subtle way - by simply being an interesting panelist. Trust me; I've been doing this for years, and I've seen - from the audience - what works and what doesn't.

This rant has a few parts. So, grab some popcorn.

I know many published authors who are more reluctant to attend certain conventions because they've been stuck on panels with Mr. or Ms. "Well in my book" for several weekends; they're now feeling a bit gunshy. Why? Because they are much nicer and much politer than I am, and they sit and endure, as much a captive--or more of one--as the rest of the audience.

No one has that much fun on these panels and no truly entertaining discussion is allowed to go on for longer than it takes someone to start talking about their own novel for twenty minutes. The goal of entertaining an audience--and having fun while doing it--fails to be met. And this serves no one.

I am going to suggest that anyone who is new to panels consider the Connie Willis rule of being a panelist. Connie is kind of like Tanya, but less earthy; she is incredibly funny and incredibly engaged when she's on panels. The Connie Willis rule of thumb while being a panelist is: Never talk about your own books. If you need to make a point in a discussion, or if you want to point out written examples as an illustration of a point, refer to someone else's novels. You wouldn't want to be a writer if you didn't read, right? Show that you've read enough to have a cogent discussion without falling back to the "In my novel" approach. Refer to your novel if someone from the audience specifically asks a question about your specific novel. When this becomes second nature - and at the start it might be hard if you've been told that you have to push-push-push and you've misinterpreted what this means - people will then think about what you've said, and will hopefully go to check out your works, the way they do Connie's or Tanya's or John's.

But actually, the incredible boredom factor is only one aspect of the difficulty.

I am now about to launch into the second one.

When someone like John Scalzi or Connie Willis is on a panel with four other people, it's a good bet that if you don't recognize any of the four, many, many of the audience members are present because they want to hear Scalzi or Willis. Does this mean that you should shut up and be silent? No. Both Scalzi and Willis are not microphone hogs; they're not there to stand on their own soapboxes. (I kind of like a Scalzi soapbox; I find it entertaining. But mostly, he does that on his blog, not in person). This is not a criticism of you; it's a fact of life. They've both developed an audience by being entertaining and by writing works that have a broad appeal.

This doesn't mean that your work is inferior; it means that your audience is of necessity much smaller. Mine is, too. I understand if you feel intimidated or overshadowed - I've been there as well. If a panel is composed of four people, and the other three are Gene Wolfe, Tim Powers and Pat Cadigan, you can bet that I'm not the person people are there to listen to. It happens to most of us.

But if that panel is about the business of writing, about the business of making a living as a writer, the audience is still there to hear John or Connie, not you. This doesn't mean you have nothing to contribute. It does mean that your rant about how no one gets published in New York unless they've sold their souls--or worse--is entirely inappropriate. I understand that you failed to find an agent or a publisher who recognized your genius. Several very well known novelists had the same difficulty when they started out; it is not fun. But the point is: the audience doesn't care if New York personally slighted you. They want to hear what John or Connie have to say.

When you start a long, bitter, chip-the-size-of-California-on-your-shoulder rant about how New York shits on the little guys and doesn't care about talent, you are, among other things, obliquely insulting your fellow panelists; you are implying that it was not their craft, their talent or the fact that they demonstrably drew a sizeable readership that lead to their success. You are, in fact, implying that their work, their talent, and their own struggles - which they are not trotting out all over the place in aggrieved and endless babble - was and is entirely beside the point.

Unless the panel topic is The trials and tribulations of writers who never made it in NYC because gatekeepers are evil sons of bitches, devote no more than two minutes to the topic of the difficulties you've faced--and make sure that you make it clear that it is you who faced these difficulties. Try not to sound like a crazed conspiracy theorist, and try not to make your own resentment and envy at the success of the other panelists so obvious, because it is, frankly, ugly and revolting. I'm sorry.

Because here's the thing: the audience who is there for Connie or John isn't interested in twenty minutes of your spleen. They just aren't. What they hope to learn is how John, Connie, or any other big name pro got their start.

If you cannot judge the desires of the audience - at all - this says something about your ability to tell any other story to an audience. It implies, by action, a type of self-indulgence in narrative that doesn't lead to entertainment.

And it insults everyone in the room; it insults the people who have been working very hard in this business for decades. And it can drive them away from the conventions at which they used to have fun, because no one wants to enter a battlefield of insults--no matter how unintentional--when they go to a convention to meet their readers. Nor do they want to be watchdogs; they don't want to correct the information that you are delivering with such passionate vehemence, even if their own experiences are quite the opposite.

But you know what? You are not excluded. You are perfectly capable of joining any conversation about writing, about highs, lows, and craft-theory, about research, Amazon ranks and reviewers (although tread with care there), and a host of other things that you have in common with your fellow panelists. Writing is writing. Being read is being read.


( 64 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 26th, 2011 07:58 pm (UTC)
I think this is very much about the function of the moderator--whose job it is to keep directing the topic (and the participation of the panelists) back to That Which Actually Interests The Audience and/or Addresses The Topic.

In addition to writers behaving poorly, I've also see panels where an agent or an editor, too, takes over and dominates the panel with some personal verbal journey that has nothing to do with the audience and/or the topic, or which may be self-indulgent, rude, insulting, embarrassing, or nonsense, rubbish, and self-aggrandizing manure... while the moderator sits there in compliant and enabling silence for 30 minutes, not doing a thing about it.

I've also seen panels where a moderator did nothing to manage the problem of an obnoxious audience member who kept interrupting, or who gave no one else a chance to ask questions, or who TALKED ON A CELL PHONE while in the audience, or several people talking together while in the audience--loudly enough to disturb everyone, etc.

Obviously, yes, it places too much of a burden on the moderator when panelists (or audience members) are badly behaved. But when someone badly behaved dominates the panel, the moderator hasn't moderated effectively.

OTOH, yeah, the writer who doesn't dominate the panel, but whose comments are nonetheless all, "In my book blah blah blah," is harmong no one but themselves. Do they REALLY think anyone's going to rush out and buy the book of someone so self-absorbed and tedious?
Jul. 27th, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC)
It's True!
I am a self-published author who goes to cons to promote his books. A couple of weeks ago, at Polaris (in Toronto), I was on panels on British Comedy and Science Fiction and Comedy (I am primarily a humour writer, although I have been writing a lot of comic sci fi lately). I did a little research before the con on both subjects and hope I spoke knowledgeably about them, but, except for a brief introduction where I did, I did not speak about my own work.

On the last day of the con, somebody came up to my table and bought both my books. I gave him my usual disclaimer: humour is a personal, subjective thing and I cannot guarantee that you will like my books, but people who do like them tend to like them a hell of a lot. His response (paraphrased from memory): "I was at your panel yesterday and, from what you said, I'm sure I will like them."

It's absolutely true: you don't have to push yourself on panels at cons. Being a conscientious contributor to your panels works wonders.

Ira Nayman
Jul. 27th, 2011 11:11 pm (UTC)
Re: It's True!
It's absolutely true: you don't have to push yourself on panels at cons. Being a conscientious contributor to your panels works wonders.


It’s the best way to garner genuine curiosity about your work. I understand that people are often nervous, and they’re afraid of failing their books if they don’t push their books--but conventions aren’t that kind of space. I’m tempted to say nowhere is that kind of space.

I have seen people guilted into buying books they don’t want - but it’s a sure bet that they won’t be buying anything else from you, ever, so generating that one sale isn’t helpful.

Whereas in your case? I think it will be :)
Jul. 27th, 2011 08:24 pm (UTC)
I'm really glad you enjoyed Confluence. And that, for the most part, your panels, etc. went well. I was just wondering if you meant Robert J. Sawyer when you write "Daniel J. Sawyer"? As far as I know, there wasn't a Daniel Sawyer at Confluence.

Also, as someone who enjoys attending panels, I will say that if all an author can contribute to a panel discussion is to turn the discussion toward his/her books, then that's a guarantee I won't be buying them.

You will be pleased to know that I am a fan of the "Cast" series and purchased a couple at Confluence.
Jul. 27th, 2011 09:26 pm (UTC)
"Daniel J. Sawyer"? As far as I know, there wasn't a Daniel Sawyer at Confluence.

Robert J. Sawyer is so multiple-award-winning it would be hard to be publishing the same field and not know him :). No, there was a Daniel Sawyer at Conclave some years ago who had self-published a novel. It is not the J. Daniel Sawyer who self-publishes ebooks at the moment (who might be very nice, but I’ve never met him).

You will be pleased to know that I am a fan of the "Cast" series and purchased a couple at Confluence.

Thank you :D

Jul. 27th, 2011 08:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
One of the Norwescon panalists ruined a panel they were on with the Butcher's with her constant "In my book" interruptions and sales pitches.
Jul. 29th, 2011 02:25 am (UTC)
It was an absolute pleasure being on panels with you this weekend, and I look forward to doing it again sometime soon. Thanks for helping show a newbie how things work.
Jul. 29th, 2011 02:33 am (UTC)
It was an absolute pleasure being on panels with you this weekend, and I look forward to doing it again sometime soon. Thanks for helping show a newbie how things work.

Definitely next year at Confluence, if you’re there :). You did a great job as moderator on the Steampunk panel -- moderating is often nerve wracking.
(no subject) - elektra - Jul. 29th, 2011 03:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 29th, 2011 02:53 am (UTC)
The only time it's right to mention one's book
Was at Confluence too--on four panels--none of us mentioned our own book except when introducing ourselves. Then we went on to the topic.

John Alfred Taylor
Jul. 29th, 2011 03:03 am (UTC)
Re: The only time it's right to mention one's book
Was at Confluence too--on four panels--none of us mentioned our own book except when introducing ourselves. Then we went on to the topic.

I was on a panel at Ad Astra one year, and Robert Charles Wilson was also a panelist. During the introductions he mumbled a very short “I write SF novels” because he’s quintessentially Canadian and doesn’t like to blow his own horn.

But that was ridiculous, so I grabbed the mic (since I was up next) and redid his introduction by pointing out, among other things, that he was up for the Hugo. (He was, that year). Well, and a bit more because I really admire his writing immensely and believe it is worth more than a shy mumble.

So yes, of course, during introductions is the right place to mention your books - but even there, if there are 5 of you and you’re taking 5 minutes to extoll the virtues of your single book which you have for sale in the dealer’s room after the panel - it’s probably too much.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 29th, 2011 11:41 pm (UTC)
I don't see what the big deal if an author mentions his/her book while on a con panel, particularly a new author. If the author is trying to make a point, he/she is going to use his/her experience to support the point. I think the inclination is to use material that you are familiar witht to do that.

I have read many author interviews when asked "What are you reading right now?" The author sometimes says that he/shenot read anything in the genre because he/she too busy with my mansucript and I don't want to be influence by something I read, but may have read something out of the genre while doing research.

Authors are most familiar with their work and it is understandable that they would use examples from their own works to make their points while on the panels.

Authors, like people, willl talk about things they are most familiar to them or what interests them. If they are writing books that interet them, then they will talk about them.

Of course, this has to be done in moderation.

I know, as a reader, when I attend conventions and sit on panels, I am interested hearing about authors talk about their books, otherwise, I would not have gone to the panel.

If I went to a panel where Michelle West or Michelle Sagara was a panelist, I would prefer that she talks about her books that is why I would listen to that panel. I don't think I would be as interested if she was talking about some author's work, unless she said if you like my books, then read this author's book.
Aug. 1st, 2011 05:55 am (UTC)
Of course, this has to be done in moderation.

The point of the post is that this is not done in moderation, and if it can't be done in moderation, it should be avoided. Twenty minutes of anyone talking about their own work - unless the panel is about them and their own work - is too much.

At a convention of reasonable size, there will be 5 people, and the panel will be 55 minutes long. Doing the math, this results in eleven minutes each. I'm not joking about the 20 minutes; it's not hyperbole. I have timed the worst of the offenders at 20, 21 and 23 minutes (I was in the audience for the last one), and in each of these cases, the audience was bored and somewhat resentful by the time the droner was asked, more or less politely, to please for the love of god stop.

Talking about your experience as a writer is not the same thing. If you are blessed enough to have never attended a panel that has been entirely hijacked by someone and their "in my book" drone, you are lucky.
Aug. 1st, 2011 01:46 pm (UTC)
I would rather die than talk about my book. I hate talking about my writing.
Where I fail is when someone asks me about my academic speciality, though: I can fall into lecture mode too easily, which is bad.
(no subject) - Dana Stabenow - Aug. 5th, 2011 11:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Rebecca Phillips Dahlke
Aug. 7th, 2011 04:58 pm (UTC)
good blog
saw your link on this month's SinC members e-mail. I too hate talking aout my books at conferences. I'm happiest promoting writers, writing, sharing what I've learned. That's how I ended up publishing a FREE e-newsletter featuring 12 new books by 12 authors each month. I promote NY Times best sellers as well as Indies with colorful covers and links to Amazon. I think of this as a karma thing, and seems to be working and did I say it's free? www.allmysteryenewsletter.com
Aug. 14th, 2011 04:36 am (UTC)
You know, you're absolutely right! I realize now how many times I've gone out and bought a book by an author because I found them so entertaining and interesting on a panel. Jane Yolen, Bruce Coville, Brother Guy Consalmagno, Tanya Huff and definitely Connie Willis all spring to mind. Oh and "Into the Wild" by Sarah Beth Durst who was on a panel about Bruce Coville that I somehow lucked into moderating. She was just so... charming and intelligent and ... (cute... I didn't say that)... and.... delightful that I had to get her book. Fortunately I found the book quite fun to read as well. :-D Phew!!
Aug. 17th, 2011 08:52 am (UTC)
Excellent post! I'm a little late to the party - here by way of John Scalzi's link.

In addition to the deliberate 'I want to make everything about me and my work' approach, I think some folks just let their nerves get the better of them. You can see it in their eyes and hear it in their tone of voice. They make a point, but can't seem to stop talking.

Another thing I've noticed is when folks tell me they don't need/didn't read the questions in advance because they're 'An old hand at this', with rare exception, they eat up panel time with long-winded answers.

I've been moderator on a few author panel/Q&As now. I'm learning to spot the warning signs so I can jump in :)
Sep. 10th, 2011 11:40 pm (UTC)
the place and time for the time and place
how many time i do not do what i want to do but do what i dont want to do
Sep. 24th, 2011 10:38 pm (UTC)
In the past there is that but in the future there will be notihing
how many time i do not do what i want to do but do what i dont want to do
Nov. 26th, 2011 11:57 pm (UTC)
I want to say, Bless your heart, I sorry you had a bad day; however, I would also like to ask if you forward this advice to the person who cause this rant? They really need it...
Apr. 15th, 2012 06:34 am (UTC)
steel roof
hi there its my bro`s site just say paul told to ring and to look after you
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