I did a bit of a Twitter rant on this topic a few days ago, but I thought I might expand it into a full post, so here’s a Newbie’s Guide to Convention Etiquette.
Are you an aspiring author or someone who’s made a first sale, and you’re heading to a writing conference or genre convention? Great! That’s a good way to meet people in your field, promote your work, and learn a lot. But it can all backfire if you behave badly. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind (that probably apply to just about any writer at any experience level):
1) Remember that there will be a lot of writers of varying degrees of experience there, from bestsellers to aspiring authors. Your credits may put you higher on the ladder than a lot of people, but there will still probably be people above you. It’s safest not to make any assumptions about where you stand compared to the person you’re talking to. It can be really embarrassing and won’t make a great impression if you think you know it all and start lecturing people you meet about everything you know about publishing — and it turns out that you’ve been talking to a bestselling grand master (I’ve seen it happen) or the convention’s guest of honor (it’s happened to me).
No matter your level of experience, if you go into a convention with an attitude of wanting to learn as much as you teach, you’ll probably do better. Learn something about the person you’re talking to. Have a conversation in which you ask questions and exchange information rather than being so hung up on the fact that you’re published and you might learn something. That person lecturing the grand master-level author on the basis of his one small-press sale missed the opportunity to have a real conversation with a major author because he was so hung up on how important he was.
You should also read the room before you approach anyone for a lecture or conversation. Are the people you’re approaching already having a conversation? Does it look like they’re just chatting casually because they happen to be near each other and possibly open to others joining in, or is it a two-person conversation? Even if it’s open to someone joining in, you should listen for a little while before diving in with your two cents. In the lecturing the grand master case I mentioned, she and I were talking, and the know-it-all interrupted our conversation to teach us about writing.
By the way, this isn’t entirely mansplaining. While it does seem to be men doing it most often, I have seen female authors do it, too, where they come to their first conference soon after their first sale and assume everyone will be impressed with them, so they go on bragging about how important they are because they’ve sold a book without realizing that they’re being condescending to a bestselling author.
2) At the same time, don’t be so hung up on looking for people of perceived higher status that you ignore anyone you consider beneath you. This is a funny business, and longevity doesn’t necessarily translate into higher status in the long term. There are people I met as fans when I first started going to conventions who have gone on to become a much bigger deal than I am. If I’d snubbed them at those early conventions because I was too busy trying to network with more famous people, I might have missed some valuable contacts and friendships.
3) Authors, editors and agents are people, too, and they have other interests in their lives than just their work. They enjoy talking about those things in social settings. Not every conversation has to be about business. If you find yourself sitting next to an editor at lunch, you might make a better professional contact by discussing what you’re reading, that movie that just came out, or that editor’s hobbies than by trying to pitch your book over lunch. Have a conversation, and if the editor is interested in learning what you write, she’ll ask about that.
4) Develop a 30-second pitch for your book. Only use it if asked about it (“what do you write?”). Don’t elaborate on that pitch unless asked for more detail. It’s incredibly painful to be cornered in the con suite by someone going into excruciating detail about his epic 300,000-word fantasy novel, and not doing a very good job of it because he has to keep backtracking to pick up details he forgot. Use the old show biz adage of “Leave ’em wanting more.” Better to have your audience asking questions than their eyes glazing over as they look for a way to escape.
5) If you didn’t get put on a panel, don’t try to panel from the audience. You can ask questions, but making comments to the extent that you’re talking more than the panelists is a bad look. If you have specific expertise on the topic of the panel, the moderator might ask for your input. But showing up to the panels you wish you were on and then pretending you’re on them from the front row of the audience isn’t going to endear you to people. If your question is so specific that the answer would only apply to you and/or your book, ask one of the panelists privately after the panel if the opportunity arises. Don’t use the Q&A portion of the session as a thinly veiled opportunity to promote your book. Your 30-second book pitch should not be part of the wind-up to your question. This is especially true in panels with editors that are not designated pitch sessions. There are some cases in which the panel is about the editors or agents taking and critiquing pitches from the audience, but if they aren’t asking for pitches, then starting your question with something like “In my book, a 100,000-word contemporary fantasy novel about elves living among us …” is tacky.
6) Don’t hijack another author’s fans. Many cons have group autographings, or the autograph session will involve several authors sitting in a row. It’s okay to talk to fans who came to see other authors near you and even hand them promo material, but don’t interrupt their conversations with the authors they came to see, and especially don’t put down those authors. True story: I once had another author interrupt a fan’s conversation with me to hand over a bookmark for her books and say, “If you like her books, you’ll love mine.” (Actually, that happened more than once with the same author, and I learned to avoid her at signings, which was a challenge because she seemed to have identified me as someone whose fans she could poach, so she made a point of trying to be near me. Don’t do this.)
7) Relax and have fun. A single convention probably won’t make your career. Yeah, there are stories about people making that one contact that changed everything, but if you’re busy trying to make that happen, it probably won’t. Those sorts of things usually happen as a byproduct of someone relaxing and having fun. Even if you screw up a bit, it probably won’t break your career entirely. Not everyone who makes the big decisions will know if you put your foot in your mouth or do something tacky. Just don’t do something illegal or that goes against the convention’s code of conduct (getting kicked out of a convention for harassment might break your career).