Panels: They Are Not About You

Author and all-around decent person Michelle Sagara has a long post about how not to be a jerk on a science fiction convention panel (particularly if one is a new and/or self-published author), which I suggest you read if you a) ever desire to be on a science fiction convention panel and b) not be an ass when you are. As a bit of disclosure, Michelle uses me as an example of someone who gives pretty good panel, which is flattering; I do try.

If you can’t be bothered to click through and read what Michelle has to say, here’s the takeaway thing to remember:

The panel isn’t about you. Every attempt to make it about you exposes you as a bit of a desperate ass.

This is often a hard thing for new and/or self-published authors to internalize. But they should make the effort. Fact is, the audience for a panel is going to be more interested in you and your work if you say interesting things on the panel topic, are engaged with the audience and gracious with your fellow panelists, than if you build a table fort of your books and view your fellow panelists as blank ciphers wonk-wonking in Peanuts adult voices keeping you from talking about what’s really important, i.e., you and your book. I know, hard to believe, right? Yet, oddly, true.

That said, do read what Michelle has to say.

Update, 5:51pm: Can’t get the LiveJournal link above to work for you? Here’s an alternate version of the same post. Whoops, seems to be down, too. Stupid Internets!

56 Comments on “Panels: They Are Not About You”

  1. Livejournal has actually been having site connectivity issues for days. Some users can get in, but many cannot. I’d read the article, but I’m one of the (sadly PAYING users) who can’t get in. Dangit. *wanders off to grumble to herself*

  2. I missed most of Confluence Program as I was generally in my room working on Worldcon Program. That said, Michelle and I did get the chance to talk for a while Sunday as Confluence was winding down, she told her panelist story and she was spot-on.

  3. Unless of course it’s Readercon, and the panel is “The work of $Author who happens to be Guest of Honor”. And you’re on the panel.

    Next year is Straub and Kiernan as GOHs. You should drop by :-)

  4. Tony Dye:

    It’s not just hers. LiveJournal has been having Denial of Service attacks recently.

    Josh Jasper:

    Yes, if the panel description is about you, then you can talk about yourself. But otherwise.

  5. If a panel was about me or my work, I’d be tempted to stay away from it entirely…and have a friend secretly tape it.

    It does seem like a good idea. I’ll defer more detailed comment until I can read Sagara’s entry on the topic, which isn’t opening at the moment (due presumably to the general LJ problem).

  6. Not yet behind the panel table, and haven’t yet gotten through to LJ to read her post, but I would think her suggestions on giving good panel are more important than whether or not you display your books.

    If I do get behind the panel table, and am able to give good panel, I hope those attending the panel will be wondering what I’ve written. If the books are on display, I don’t have to stand up on the table and yell “buy my book!” The display should be sufficient, and I can focus on the panel topic.

  7. @8 – But displaying your books still makes it look as though the only thing you care about is self-promotion. If you give a good panel, the people attending are capable of remembering your name, going to the dealer’s room, and asking one of the many book dealers if they have any of your stuff.

  8. From what I read the last time (re: LiveJournal and DDOS), it seems to have something to do with how LiveJournal is used in Russia… so perhaps to be a tad more specific, somebody in Russia probably really doesn’t like LJ…

    Re: the actual topic… It might be the height of arrogance to assume that I’ll ever someday be behind the panel table as an invitee… but I do hope one day to find myself in that position. So I hope I can read Michelle’s post and absorb it… Maybe even bookmark it to refresh myself if I ever find myself in that peculiar circumstance.

  9. emeraldcite, fond as I am of Our Host, I don’t think his linking to an LJ page is enough to slashdot the site. As many other commenters have noted, LJ is having its own problems at the mo.

  10. John, have I mentioned lately that you rock? ‘cuz you’re exactly the sort of person who makes con-running worth the trouble.

  11. I should be clear that for a panel to be “about you” you need to be someone worth having a panel about. Most of us mortals are not GOH fodder :-)

  12. I attended a panel at Readercon on a topic that interested me a lot, and left disappointed and irritated, because almost all of the panelists were talking almost exclusively about their own work, rather than engaging with the topic in an interesting way. It made me sad.

    “Arg!” I said, to my traveling companion, in the elevator. “I know that the writers are here to sell books. And I’m here to buy books, so we’re all on the same page here. They don’t HAVE to market to me!”

  13. Contented Reader:

    Exactly. The audience at a science fiction convention is already inclined to read. Being pushy just irritates them.

  14. @Xopher:

    I know. LJ has been having these problems for a bit now (a good number of RSS feeds that I follow switched over from LJ recently). I was just lavishing some praise :)

  15. Stupid LiveJournal. *sigh*

    Regarding your other post, I’ve been trying to curtail my overuse of “awesome” by substituting “groovy,” a word I feel needs a comeback.

  16. I once attended a panel about authors using multiple pseudonyms. The writers on the panel were all people who had done so, and they talked about why. So there are exceptions. But they also talked about reasons other than their own, and not all their comments were shameless self-promotion.

  17. @John #8 — It’s better to assume the audience has enough intelligence to look up what you’ve written after the panel, if they found you interesting on the panel.

  18. For one or more of the reasons mentioned above, I can’t see the livejournal post, but I would like to add one piece of advice (hoping I am not duplicating Michelle). Don’t talk down to or insult the fans in the audience. They are the ones who allow you to have a career or a lucrative hobby in writing. Saying things like “I can’t believe you think you know anything about this if you haven’t read …..” will guarantee that several of those in the room will never read another book of yours.

  19. Eric Flint advises that the “fortress of books” is bush league and makes an author — even an experienced author — look like a nobody. Because nothing screams, “You don’t know who I am,” louder than having a wall of books propped up in front of you. However, if you’re not a bestseller who gets the prominent endcap displays at B&N, I do think it’s worth it to have a copy of your latest publication in hand while on a panel, as a calling card of competence and general ‘been there, got the t-shirt’ street cred. You don’t have to prop it up, just have it sitting to the side on the table, or something.

    And yes, it’s unfortunate that LJ is hosed at the moment, because I’d have liked to have read what was said.

    I also have a hunch that poor panelist etiquette will only become more pronounced as ever-larger numbers of e-pub and self-pub authors begin to submit their names to conventions, as “attending guests.” Once upon a time a con-com could vet you simply by seeing the titles of the houses and/or magazines you’d published with: Asimov’s, Tor, Analog, Baen, Ace, et al. Now the con-com has to think about it a little bit. Does Bob Self-Pub rate being on panels?

    It’s a subjective, murky question.

  20. Thank you, John. Amen! I consider serving on panels an honor. (“SERVE” being a key concept.) So far, most of my fellow panelists have appeared to share my opinion. Have I been unusually lucky?

  21. Also,

    I think it can be said that first-time panelists, who are newly-published authors, deserve to be cut a little slack. There’s nothing quite so bubbly and exciting as that first day at the first con where you get to be on ‘the other side’ and hold forth like you actually know what you’re talking about. (grin) After that, you settle down and can get into a groove, and by the second or third year, you kinda-sorta do know what you’re talking about. But the virgin panelist, fresh to the fight with his or her first copy of his or her first book and/or magazine publication proudly faced out for the world to see? I just can’t get upset with that, nor do I think anyone else should either.

    Of course, the onus is then on the new author to wait his or her turn, speak only when and where it’s pertinent, and of course — the black art that even many pros struggle to master — learning when it’s best to just keep your trap shut, even though you might have something truly valuable to say, because time is too short or maybe someone else on the panel has been unusually quiet and it’s a good idea to redirect to them specifically, etc.

    I think panels should be somewhat participatory, and it’s more fun being on them when the panelists together can bounce off one another synergistically, as opposed to merely waiting with clenched teeth until the next opportunity to wrench the conversation back around to whatever it was they, in particular, wanted to talk about.

  22. Brad R. Torgersen:

    “I think it can be said that first-time panelists, who are newly-published authors, deserve to be cut a little slack.”

    Oh, sure. We’ve all had our first panel once. Even better to help them not to flub up that first panel experience.

  23. Really, really, REALLY annoyed at the DDoS taking down LiveJournal right now. Because I’d really like to read this article. And my friends page. And my communities. And my own journal. Sheesh.

    I’ve never served on a panel myself, but I know many people who have and I’ve certainly heard gripes about people hogging the spotlight and derailing the topic from the one listed in the program book. I hope to never be That Guy should I reach the point of being a panelist myself.

  24. Ugh, I was on a panel like that a couple of months ago. Four fantastic panelists who wanted nothing more than to provide insight and help to the attendees… and one flaming jerk-bag who only wanted to name-drop her book every other sentence.

    The other self-published author on the panel was very smart, witty, engaging, helpful, rational, etc. A real good dude. And the other first-book author was equally awesome. Maybe it was the combination of the two factors…

  25. JS, does SFWA have any sort of easy-read primer that could be handed out or e-mailed to new authors from active or associate members? I’d certainly dispense such a thing, especially at the local cons where the number of new and/or self-pub authors is a lot higher than at a regional or national con. Which is not to say I’m Joe Cool on panels, either. But such a document could be valuable — it might even serve as a welcome reminder to certain veterans who’ve gotten used to being whales among minnows, if I may turn a phrase.

  26. Really looking forward to reading the piece when I get LJ back. Like Sheila @28, also looking forward to happy reunion with my own journal, my comms, etc.

    Although utterly unpublished, I’ve been serving on panels since *mumble mumble* okay, since 1989. I think. The happy occasions have far outnumbered the painful ones, mostly due to the solid gold wonderfulness of the folks who organize the cons where I’ve had the privilege of serving. Amongst other magical things, they provide coffee in the Green Room and limit the number of ignorant egotists who try to push themselves onto the panelist roster. I know they allow a steady stream of new people in; I’m always meeting new folks. I suspect the new folks are vetted in a process similar to the methods by which new authors are admitted into the ranks of the published. If a new author (or an old one) asks to be on a panel, and the request comes across as entitled idiocy, I think the new author is likely to meet a roadblock.

    Yes, there have been some bad panels. Remarkably few, when I think about it. The bad panels weren’t always jinxed by new authors; sometimes it’s been an old hand that came in with an attitude. Sometimes the attitude was about the other panelists. That’s especially painful.

    Have I mentioned yet how amazingly awesome, um, groovy con programming people are? And they”re all volunteers! Really, really wonderful . . .

  27. And to sort of add to Brad@25, I think it’s a polite and welcoming thing for the Old Crew to at least make sure the New Guy on the panel gets to have a word in at some point. I remember feeling bad at one convention when a group of old, established, male SF writers talked around a newer, female SF writer pretty much an entire panel while she tried to get a word in edgewise. She finally managed to say one thing, and IIRC, the other panelists didn’t absorb her comment into the conversation.

    I stood in her meet and greet line, and not theirs.

  28. I saw it! I saw it! I still have the page open in a tab because I’m scared of losing it, but I wanted to cut and paste this paragraph for posterity:

    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.

  29. I don’t have any books to talk about, but I think that “don’t talk about your own books” may be a bit overly restrictive. As a panel audience member, I generally like to hear the authors talk about their own books, if it’s in a non-slimey, non-promotey way. For example, authors often have reasons for things they do and don’t do in their books that are interesting for me to hear. “Maiming a character is more powerful than killing a character,” or “Happy endings are for chumps,” or whatever. Many authors are put on panels specifically because they are an expert in X subject. It’s rather a strain to be an expert on X and talk knowledgeably without mentioning the fifteen books you’ve published on it.

  30. Sometimes folks think that being on a panel makes it a business trip for them for taxes and that they have to prop the books up and talk about them as part of this. Not so. I’m a tax CPA in another life and simply being on the panel and waving your books about (and annoying others) does not by definition make this a business event. You’ll get far more mileage convincing the IRS it was business-related if you keep notes on all the networking you did while at the con and can then point to what business opportunities resulted from these interactions.

    And then, yes, there are the folks who just want to make the panel all about them. And a good moderator will keep them in line.

  31. Catherine Schaffer:

    “I think that ‘don’t talk about your own books’ may be a bit overly restrictive.”

    I think it’s fine to talk about one’s book if one has a direct, compact point to make and one’s work is relevant to that point. But it’s also good to provide other examples, more often than one uses one’s own.

  32. The other thing about a book fort is that it builds a wall between the panelist and the audience. I’m pretty sure that’s not the intention of those I know who did this. I did it at one time because I thought that was the thing to do. Boy howdy, was I mistaken. I discovered this when I was in the audience for a panel several years ago. Half the panelists had their fortresses built. Given the layout and positioning of the room, ALL I could see was books. I couldn’t see anyone’s lips move at all, much less the subtle facial/emotional cues that come from watching someone speak.

  33. Perhaps there should be a “get over yourself” flyswatter. The idea that someone would be on a panel and bitch about how difficult it is to get published is a hell of a lot more repellant to me than someone talking about their book. Although if I was at a panel and someone was droning on and on about their book to the detriment of the subject of the discussion, I would probably start wishing i had a supply of rubber bands on me.
    I’m not a published writer, but I do have some idea of the diffuculties of getting published.
    First, there’s a whole lot of other people who want the same thing as you.
    Second, you have got to check your ego and be ready for rejection.
    Third, you have to keep trying anyway if it is what you want.
    Fourth, you need to prepare yourself for the possibility that you aren’t as good as you think you are.
    Finally, if yours is not one of the shinier bits in a particular slush pile, it’s probably going to get rejected, especially if you are completely unknown.

  34. At the “Putting the Epic back in Epic Fantasy” panel at Comicon, Chris Paolini talked so long about himself (“I will give my answer in three parts”) that the moderator cut off responses before George RR Martin could respond.

    *That* irritated me.

  35. Actually good advice for most social situations. People hate asses in all facets of life, not just Sci-Fi panels.

  36. I’ve been told I gave good panel at various times, but reading through these comments and the ones at Michelle’s original post reminded me strongly why I keep saying “no, but how nice of you to ask!” to conventions. Just too tiring; if I’m up there with interesting people I’d rather listen to them and I have to think of things to say to get the other panelists talking so I can drop back and listen; if I’m up there with relentless self-promoters I have to do something or other to not get trampled.

    Three panel problems not yet mentioned:

    1. Dealing with fans who are there to straighten you out, i.e. they want to demand that you tell them why your books are not the books they wanted to read. The best way to handle it I’ve found is to handle it for other panelists, in exchange for their covering for you.

    2. The opposite, the gushy fan who wants to tell everyone that they should read your book, at length. The first 20 seconds of that is great but I’ve never seen a shortwinded one for me or any other book. My standard line is, “All right, you did that very well, and I am releasing your mother right after the panel. Sorry about her ear.”

    3. The stacked panel on which you are accidentally the dissident (or the one where you’re part of the stack and there’s a dissident there wasn’t supposed to be). Frankly I’ve never seen anyone handle that well, including me. (Doesn’t matter what the stacking is for or against, either. Part of why I think panels should either be stacked all the way or balanced carefully on controversial subjects; there is interest in conflict and interest in extension but no interest at all in watching one against four).

  37. I used to know a screenwriter who, at a mystery con in 2005, proceeded at his own panel appearance to explain why this writer talking about an option she had with a television producer was a sham, that no one in their right mind would ever sign. The show would never get made, and the writer was deluded.

    Which is funny, because the show was Bones, which I’ve watched many times and debuted exactly two weeks after that particular con.

    And this idiot’s IMDB page suggests he should have known better.

    (For the record, I pimped my book as a panel moderator, which the guy next to me whispered to me was a no-no the way I did it. Same con, so… Oops.)

  38. Good post. And doubly true for panels that have a variety of folks rather than just authors (a common thing at most conventions I attend). Having a fan, an artist, a costumer and someone with a giant wall of books looks especially weird.

    I was recently on a panel with another fan and two authors. Both authors made reference to their work but while the first managed to do it only twice (once when specifically asked) the other kept on going “that reminds be of the protagonist in my book X” which was tedious and doubly awkward since the examples he was providing frankly sounded like very poor examples of the subject of the panel. Even more than the self-promotion, the constant self-back-patting was unseemly.

    That said, most panels will start with a little intro so that’s usually the opportunity to (briefly) tell the audience who you are and what you’ve done, wave your most recent book or CD or whatever and even add “available and such and such table in the dealer’s room”. Just keep it short and sweet and if at all possible tie it in to the panel subject.

  39. Actually waving was one of the best techniques for me back when I used to go to cons. “Hi, I’m me and I done wrote this,” hold most recent book up in a brief wave, “and some other stuff. They put me on this here panel to talk about ‘Unicorns: One Horned Republicans or Vegetarian Postmodernists?’ And I think unicorns are so spiffy that I want to have a unicorn rug on my living room floor.”

    Takes matters straight to the topic, hopefully cutting off the self-promoters. And if I did a good job, then sometime during Q&A, someone would ask me to tell them the title of the book (and sometimes my name, if there were no cards). At which point I’d say who I was, give the title clearly, and say “It’s in the dealer’s room, and thanks so much for asking.” Looked somewhat better, drew focus where needed, and got me away from looking obnoxious fairly quickly.

    On one occasion a Writer Who Shall Be Nameless immediately followed my answering that way by attempting to launch into his already-given-three-times buy-my-books pitch. There were audible groans. He has never liked me since, but then he didn’t before.

  40. John 45: He has never liked me since, but then he didn’t before.

    There are some whose dislike all crave, whose loathing all cherish, and whose enmity makes friends of all.

  41. Hmmm… generally agree, but part of this sounds like a failure of moderation on the part of the Moderator.

    If one person is monopolizing a panel, there are ways that that can and should be handled, in just the same way that you occasionally have to shut down blow-hards in the audience who want to make a panel about them.

  42. Brad @25: I dunno. Couldn’t you just as well argue that a first-time panelist is more likely to be insecure and worried that the audience will see them as uninteresting and therefore be more likely to shut up, where as Bigname McNamity is the one with the ego who can’t STFU for five seconds about her next bestseller?

    I mean, sure, it’s understandable that a new writer will be a little less experienced at this panel stuff. But for the people attending the panel, it’s not a lot of comfort to have to sit through a dull, shitty panel if the author was new rather than not.

    And, as Scalzi says, the point of the article is sorta to help the new bubbly writer stay on the straight and narrow, as it were.

  43. New link doesn’t work either. Or perhaps was taken down because being linked to by Scalzi overloaded it? If it’s okay with the author, maybe you could host it?

  44. Is it utterly wrong to look at the title of this post and hear Cave Johnson trying to sell panels as an investment opportunity?

    (And crushers – they sell those too…)

  45. And if you’re moderator, it’s doubly not about you, or even what you think of the topic.
    In return, you get to be the I*R*O*N F*I*S*T of genteel guidance keeping the panel either on topic, or if it wanders constructively, interesting to the audience.
    (On rare, extreme occasions, I have gotten compliments from audience members for having simply cut someone off when I was moderating.)

  46. Daveon @#48: On occasion, an “it’s all about me or my agenda” panelist will totally steamroll a strong moderator. Particularly if they have help from a fellow panelist or someone in the audience. Abetting that situation is when a convention does not provide any panel descriptions, changes the descriptions, or fails to provide guidance as to the topic. I’ve been to conventions where there are generic panel titles and no descriptions. The panelists have differing expectations, which may not even match audience expectations. It’s a recipe for disaster, and sometimes even the strongest of moderators can’t contain them.

    Also, strong moderators (the ones who can walk softly, carry a big stick, and smack someone with it in a way that they don’t mind being smacked) are hard to come by. I know a few, and love to get on panels where they moderate.

    Now, this isn’t to say that a panel can veer off topic and turn into something amazing. I’ve seen it happen plenty of times. But at least at the start everyone is in agreement on the subject matter.

  47. @John: I remember my first panel. There were strewn bodies everywhere, the poor people. I tried to warn them about sticking me on a panel with people who, you know, “knew” what they were talking about while I, the ignorant noob, simply tread across the minefield, blissfully unawares…

  48. My problem on panels have been moderators who don’t moderate. Some dominated the talk, or only talked to a few of the panel members. And yeah, some people who give answers that are WAY too long and book centric. I was rude on a panel once, which I still cringe over, but I literally had to break in to give ONE comment for the whole panel time. Now, if I can’t get work in edgewise, I just listen and hope its interesting or short. LOL!

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