Thursday, July 10, 2014

Strangeways, Here We Come

By Alex Segura

My day job - and some of my writing life - occurs in the land of comic books. Like I noted last time, I do publicity for a living. In the world of comics, that means conventions. We’re in the midst of prepping for the mother of all comic cons: Comic-Con International: San Diego. It’s a week-long marathon of meetings, panels, social gatherings and two-minute conversations. It’s a blur. By the end of it, I usually start to wonder if my life at the con - waking up early, standing around a convention center for 10 hours, going to panels, going to dinners, seeing people I only interact with via email in person, living out of a suitcase in a hotel - is now my “real” life. You’re there that long. It’s fun to see old friends and so forth, but the trip is exhausting and there’s little room for rest or quiet contemplation.

But this is a crime fiction blog.

Working toward San Diego got me to thinking about events and conventions for authors in general. Whether it’s a big one like BEA or genre-specific ones like Bouchercon - or if you’re doing a reading at your local bodega: events matter. They connect you to your readership in a very personal and direct way.

I’ve had the pleasure of doing a lot of events while promoting my first novel, Silent City. I imagine I’ll do as many or more to push the second book when it’s ready. I like them. I’m a people person and enjoy making new friends, connections and networking with other authors and publishing folk. That being said, events are really exhausting. Your brain has to be turned up a notch and you have to be doubly mindful of everything you say, do and so on. But the fun and potential upside outweighs any of those concerns.

So, with “con season” in full swing and with books launching weekly from author friends - new and vets - I thought it’d be a good time to share my experience and tips about events, from readings to panels to just walking the floor.

Be concise. This applies to a lot of appearances, but mostly panels and book readings. Leave people wanting more. For panels, you don’t want to be seen as the guy hogging the limelight. When reading from your book, you want people to be intrigued but not looking at their watch. For readings, I usually stick to 3-4 pages. Maybe a few more if I have more time. You want to give readers a taste of your work - ideally a good one! - and leave them curious enough to buy the book. You don’t want them wondering where they should go for dinner after or if all the readers are going to take this long. Panels are trickier because you’re not in complete control - you have to play off a moderator (some are great, some not-so-great), fellow panelists and the audience. You will get questions from left field. You may not get to share that great joke you thought about on your way to the event. Roll with it. Be yourself, make sure you’re not taking up more time than you should and, most importantly, have fun. The audience can tell.

Don’t be a promo bot. Fans go to events, cons, etc. to interact with their favorite authors, meet new authors and make new friends. They don’t want to hear a pre-packaged blurb about your book, nor do they want everything you say to tie back into your book. Be yourself. Mention your book when relevant but also allow yourself to riff on things that show you’re more than the writer of Book X - music, TV, hobbies, sports. Fans want to feel like they know you, and if they do, they’re more inclined to become supporters of your work - especially if the work is good.

Mix and mingle. Not every event is going to center around you. As noted above, you will probably have to share the stage with other authors, critics or editors. These are not bad opportunities. It’s good to show yourself and your work in a greater context. I relish these opportunities because they allow me to show that I’m part of a much bigger writing community and fit in with various groups. Not long ago, a few writers and I did a really fun Latino Crime Writers panel in Astoria, NY. Low key, very thoughtful and engaging - one of the best panels I’ve ever been on. I think it was a good example of how to pool your audiences with fellow authors and showcase a larger literary picture. We all sold some books, had some laughs and enjoyed each other’s company for a bit. So, play nice. It helps.

Let people know what you’re doing. I know I yapped about social media a while back, but seriously: you cannot complain about no one showing up to your event/panel/signing/rodeo if you didn’t promote it. Talk to the venue and see how you can help. Plug it - reasonably and regularly - via your channels. A lot of times, venues depend on the authors to do the heavy lifting in terms of promotional support. It’s a hard balance to strike, because I for one hate to seem like I’m begging people to come see me blather on about my book. But if not me, then who? Get past the ego part of it and push the event. At the end of the day, it’s better to feel like you sold your soul a bit to the publicity gods than bummed because no one came to your signing.

Be nice. Conventions and most events are supremely tiring. You’re on little sleep. Your feet hurt. You’re nervous. You see that annoying person from college in the audience and are feeling weird. It’s stressful. There’s a lot going on. But never forget: you’re there for the readers. Be kind. Be thoughtful. Spend that extra second with the person talking to you about their cat's health issues. Give advice to the guy asking what he should do with his manuscript. Be present. Fans will remember that and you’ll feel more successful about your interactions with them. Readers are what help us keep writing. They buy our books and support us and often befriend us. Don’t make them feel like an annoyance because you just want to get through the whole thing. If it’s that annoying, don’t do it. But if you’re there - make it count.

My writer friend Chuck Wendig also had an excellent post at his blog about conventions and panels you should all check out.

What about you, fellow readers? Share some of your event experiences - either as an author or attendee.


Kristopher said...

Excellent advice Alex. I think for the most part, authors usually get it right. But those few times when things go horrible wrong are just the worst.

You want your readers to remember you for who you are, not for who you were trying to be (ie. the center of attention, a robot promoter, or generally, just an ass).

Alex Segura said...

Exactly! The challenge is that readers don't want to be marketed to: they want to meet good writers and read great books. So, be yourself and let them discover your work, which is probably good!

Steve Weddle said...

Yes. Be tight with your public readings.
No one has ever asked me to read longer.

Kristopher said...

I would actually go so far as to say that maybe doing a reading is not at all necessary (it depends on the event of course).

If your time is limited, authors are going to gain more traction from interacting when the audience than from reading from their book.

We (I speak as a reader) can read. We want to know who you are. For many, this is their only time to be in the same room with an author - and I think most readers are in awe of all writers regardless of skill level - so let them see your personality. They can (and likely will) go home and read your book themselves.

Alex Segura said...

I always value the Q&A more than the reading, because I usually have 2-3 sections I read from. When you do a handful of events, you feel like a broken record, even if it's the first time these readers have heard you.

Holly West said...

At my recent readings I've been reading a 700 word flash fiction piece that first appeared on Shotgun Honey. It's complete, concise, and for me, just long enough.

Regarding conference fatigue, I'm usually very high energy until day 3. That's when I hit a wall and just want to sit in my hotel room. I love conferences but haven't found a way to sustain my energy throughout.