How Festivals and Conferences Can Make You a Better Author

I go to a lot of book related events, both as an attendee and as a presenter. Over the last year, I’ve been paying just as much attention to the audiences as I have the panels. Some authors capture attention, while others cause audience members to check their watches or phones.

What does this have to do with being an author?

Part of an author’s job is to capture and hold attention, and that applies to the events they do as well as the books they write. An off-putting author is one who probably isn’t going to see a long line at the after-event signing, while the author who engaged the audience and made them laugh probably will. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve purchased that I normally wouldn’t have, just because I liked the author during their panel.

Even if you’re an aspiring or first-time author there’s plenty to learn. One day you’ll be up there, and you’ll want to know the best way to present yourself and your books. Pay attention to how different authors interact with the audience and how the audience responds to them.

You can also learn a lot about summarizing your book by watching skilled authors present. Every panel opens with the authors saying a little about themselves and their books. Those who give a short, yet compelling pitch stand out from those who ramble and make their books sound generic or even boring. Hearing (and seeing) what works and what doesn’t is a great way to help you hone your own pitch.

Here are some common panel types and what they can teach you:

The Wallflower

This author might be brand new or just painfully shy, but she practically disappears on stage. She speaks so softly no one but the front row can hear her, and she doesn’t join in the panel discussions or have much to say when the questions fall to her. This is an author who might have a great book, but no one remembers (or hears) anything about it. She’s forgotten as soon as the panel is over.

Lesson Learned: People came to hear you speak, so speak up and be heard. Even if you’re shy and don’t feel comfortable engaging in a panel discussion, you’ll have a chance to answer the moderator’s direct questions. Make the most of them, even if you’re succinct in your answers.

The Attention Hog

This author is the opposite of shy, butting in while others are speaking and drawing all the attention back to herself. She acts like everyone came to see her, even if she’s the small fish on the panel. She answers every question (even ones not aimed at her) yet very little of what she says holds any value. This is an author who turns everyone off, and likely loses sales due to her personality.

Lesson Learned: Share your panel time and don’t be rude. People notice when you’re being a jerk, and even if your book sounded interesting, odds are they’ll skip it in favor of someone else they liked better.

The “Let Me Tell You About My Book”

This author just wants to tell you about her book. The whole time. Whether it’s appropriate to the question or not. She also frequently refers to her other books, even though no one asked her about them. This is an author who is so focused on selling you what she wrote she doesn’t notice the uncomfortable looks and people inching away.

Lesson Learned: There’s a fine balance between mentioning your book in context and intriguing the audience, and verbally spamming them. Try to talk about your book in a way that answers the questions and helps create a good panel discussion.

The Rambler

This author never gets to the point. She goes off on tangents, refers to vague details as if everyone knows what she’s talking about, and doesn’t come anywhere near answering the question. Even worse, she frequently drones on in the same monotone voice that puts people to sleep. This is an author who makes the audience wonder why she’s even there and they groan every time she opens her mouth.

Lesson Learned: Right or wrong, people often assume how you present yourself is similar to how you write. If you bore them while answering a basic question, they’ll assume your book is equally boring. Be interesting in both what you say and how you say it. Modulate your tone as if telling a story–pitch and inflection work like pacing when you’re speaking.

The “But I Wanted to Know More”

This author gives great answers, but she forgets to tell people about her book. Maybe she gives the title or genre, but no other details that would encourage people to buy it. This is an author who gets the audience’s attention, then fails to take advantage of it.

Lesson Learned: Don’t forget to tell people about your book. This is easily done during the introduction when people actually want to know a little bit about who you are and what you write.

The Huge Personality

This author has the audience’s attention right off the bat. She’s bold, personable, extremely likable and people just want to hang out with her. She often makes both the audience and the other panelists laugh, and spurs additional conversations through her comments. This is an author who sells books to people who never would have picked up the book otherwise.

Lesson Learned: Not everyone is blessed with a big personality, but everyone can learn from those who are. Be yourself and share some of who you are with the audience. They want to get to know you and the more they like you, the more apt they’ll be to try your book.

The Professional Author

This author engages the audience, makes them laugh, and teaches them something—either about her book or whatever the panel topic is on. She’s not afraid to disagree, but always does so in a way that’s respectful to the other panelists and offers a different view, not a criticism. This is an author who already has fans in the audience and will likely make new ones based on this event.

Lesson Learned: Being personable and professional is always a winning combination. Panels are lots of fun, but you’re also there to work, so treat your fellow panelists, hosts, and audience members with respect.

With authors responsible for so much of their own marketing these days, events are becoming more and more common. Every event is a chance to grow your readership and network with fellow authors and readers, so use the opportunity wisely.

Have you ever bought a book based on an author’s personality at an event? What made you try it? Has an author even made you not buy their book? (be kind—no names on these poor souls)

20 Responses to How Festivals and Conferences Can Make You a Better Author

  1. Anita Mar 14 2014 at 7:03 am #

    Great advice! I hadn’t even thought about these things.

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Mar 14 2014 at 2:55 pm #

      It’s not something every writer needs to worry about, but if you plan on doing events, it can be helpful to think about how you want to appear to the audience.

  2. Jenn Mar 14 2014 at 9:53 am #

    Personality is huge! I was at a book craft workshop a couple of years ago and I ended up purchasing a book from one editor based solely on his personality; He led a picture book workshop and writing exercise that was completely engaging. His book was a YA story collection, which I’m not as drawn to, but I bought it anyway. At the same workshop was an editor that I am a fan of and the interaction when I was getting an autographed copy of her book was pretty disappointing; she didn’t appear to want to be there–kind of distracted.

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Mar 14 2014 at 2:57 pm #

      It’s sad when that happens, but I’ve been disappointed by authors as well. Ultimately the book is what should matter, but we’re all so interconnected these days other factors can and do play a role.

  3. thejordache
    thejordache Mar 14 2014 at 10:15 am #

    What a fantastic post, Janice! I love discovering new authors at conferences and on panels to add to my to-read pile. It’s a great way to build an author’s brand. I’ll go to a panel to hear one of my own authors I edit or just an author I am a fan of and typically come out buying books by at least one of the other panelists.

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Mar 14 2014 at 2:58 pm #

      I always wind up with several “outside the norm” books when I go to or do an event, especially if I click with the author. It must be so much fun seeing your own authors on a panel 🙂 I get a kick out of watching friends, so it must be even better knowing you helped shape that book.

  4. tracikenworth Mar 14 2014 at 11:01 am #

    I hope I can remember these when it’s my turn!! I’m so afraid I’d be the wallflower type and fail at connecting with the audience.

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Mar 14 2014 at 2:59 pm #

      And now that you’re aware, you’ll take steps to speak up 🙂 I’ve found taking the pre-panel minutes to chat with the people right in front of me helps ease the nervousness some. You’ve already broken the ice.

  5. K Mar 14 2014 at 11:06 am #

    I don’t go to book festivals a lot except the annual Boston Book Festival. The types of books that I do buy depends on whether or not the book itself has a good premise, good writing, etc. The author having a good personality has nothing to do it. A lot of great authors have lousy personalities yet I enjoy their writing. This article was an interesting read though. I will try my best to be engaging if I ever get the privilege to be a guest at a festival or conference.

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Mar 14 2014 at 3:02 pm #

      Same here, and I don’t mean to imply that this is the only reason why people buy books. It’s just another tool an author has to market their work. We all have our favorites and we’ll buy what books sound good, but I’ve purchased books based on personalities and I’ve stopped reading authors based on their personalities. But not everyone will feel that way.

  6. Tess Mar 14 2014 at 7:15 pm #

    I’ve been to Comic Con and the Tucson Book Festival, and I’ve seen mostly great panels at both. I did buy Rainbow Rowell’s books after seeing her at Comic Con, as well as Allen Zadoff’s. I still have to read Eve Silver, Ann Aguirre, Gayle Forman, and Margaret Stohl’s latest – they told really interesting stories and were fun to listen to. There is a local author here whose books I haven’t bought ever since I heard how he treats the staff who work the events he’s invited to.

    I think smaller panels are better. Well, at least not huge ones with ten people. Since there’s limited time, if the moderator briefly names each author and her books, and then the author says something about themselves and their most recent title, and then they each answer the first real question, the session is already half over.

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Mar 19 2014 at 1:40 pm #

      A bad rep can really turn a reader off.

      I enjoy the smaller panels as well. You get more interaction and discussion in those. The larger ones are more fragmented.

  7. MeLeesa Swann Mar 14 2014 at 7:18 pm #

    Great post! I would HAVE to put you in the huge personality catagory. You were awesome at the SCBWI Southern Breeze workshop this past fall. Great lessons for future presenters and great modeling too. Look forward to seeing you again in the future!

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Mar 19 2014 at 1:41 pm #

      Aw, thanks! That was a fun workshop, glad you made it. Are you going to Springmingle this year in Atlanta?

  8. Julie Musil Mar 15 2014 at 9:18 pm #

    Great analysis, Janice! I bought one of Libba Bray’s book based on her conference appearance.

    I have to admit, I do NOT like going to these events. I hope to overcome this aversion :/

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Mar 19 2014 at 1:43 pm #

      Libba Bray is HYSTERICAL in person. I saw her do a Mad Libs version of her cover copy once and about died laughing.

      You will 🙂 Or you’ll find the right avenue to do events and still enjoy them. Panels are helpful there since you’re not the only focus.

  9. Alexa S. Mar 16 2014 at 8:41 pm #

    Yes! I’ve certainly bought books based on the way the author handles themselves or talks about their book at an event. Very often, the authors I’ve seen are engaging, funny, kind and smart — and it’s a great incentive to hear them speak so eloquently about themselves, writing, their books and whatever else.

    • Janice Hardy
      Janice Hardy Mar 19 2014 at 1:44 pm #

      It can also make you predisposed to like their books, imaging their voice or personality in their characters. I have some authors who I picture whenever I read their stuff, and it makes the book more fun.

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