Monkey see, monkey do. Or, more accurately, when a human sees someone failing, the human tries something different. The human sees someone succeeding, then he/she does exactly the same thing. Our ability to learn from the examples of others can get us in trouble sometimes, as we all stampede towards a particular stock or children’s toy. But it’s also one of the fastest ways to learn.
What does this have to do with DragonCon? Well, together with my trusty notebook, I was that monkey this year, watching the shiny authors on the panels. Some succeeded in big ways, some failed, and a lot fell somewhere in between. Here’s what I noticed. I’ll give the people who did things well their real names, and the ones who didn’t do as well simple placeholders.
First, and most important perhaps, was what Aaron Allston called “the authorial presence” – who an author is in public, as opposed to who they are in the privacy of their home, or around friends. In public, according to him, it’s a good idea to have clean clothes without holes and to comb your hair. This seems reasonable. Timothy Zahn also mentioned it was a good idea to be nice to everyone. (The minute you aren’t, someone will put it on Twitter.) Plus, you never know who in the crowd will be the next bestseller. It’s wise not to make enemies. I didn’t see anyone at the conference (well, no authors) breaking any of these most basic rules.
Then we come to promoting your book. My good friend James R. Tuck was on a panel this year (his first book is coming out February from Kensington, called Blood and Bullets), and he did a lot of great things out of the gate. He had two foot posters made up with his cover that he put in front of his spot on the panel. He also had bookmarks that he gave out, and talked to the crowd before hand in a quiet, friendly way. Since James can sometimes be loud (he’s a big guy), taking his speech down a notch really helped him connect with the crowd. I have the feeling I’ll have to do the opposite, and speak up a bit more boldly. Altogether, I think James charmed the crowd – and they’ll have the bookmarks after the conference to remind them to buy.
On the panel with James was Larry Correia, who writes the Monster Hunter series, which I hadn’t heard of. What Larry did very well was summarize his book, not only with a sentence about his main character, but with the reasons why you’d buy the book. In his case, it’s the action scenes, violence, and humor. He even gave an example of one of the over-the-top violence scenes (flamethrowers and an RPG against the undead) and a lot of heads in the audience nodded. He did a good enough job that I bought his book later, chiefly because he didn’t dress up the book to be something it wasn’t. He sold it on what it was.
Also on a panel there that day (though I think not the same one) was an author, let’s call her Panelist Z, who described her characters, her premise, the way she built the town, her love of old movies, and so on. She never quite settled on the conflict of the series, or described the main character in any depth. So, I walked away with a lot of details I didn’t care about, frustrated. I bought Larry’s book. Panelist Z, no. What did I learn? It’s important to sell your book on its strengths and on the reasons someone would want to buy it, rather than just the bits you think are cool.
But the most memorable panel of the weekend was the “Foremost Ladies of Fiction,” which really brought home to me how important public speaking is. There were three ladies on the panel, Author A, Writer B, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. I’d showed up at the panel to see the other two ladies, since I’m a huge fan of both. Author A co-wrote the book that made me want to be a writer, and has over a hundred published books under her belt, and Writer B’s early books taught me about lush description, addictive story, and unconventional plotting. I was very much looking forward to hearing from them both, and I’d read a few books by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro along the way as well.
It was a Goldilocks and the Three Bears moment. Nancy, the moderator, would ask a good question, starting with someone new every time. Author A would give a one-sentence answer. Writer B would talk for paragraphs and paragraphs, pages and pages. And Chelsea Quinn would give the perfect response: she answered the question fully, and then she stopped. They were asked, what was the best moment for you as the author, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro talked about a letter from a man with impotence who was inspired by one of her characters to stop being ashamed and to move on. Writer B gave a ten minute story that never quite gelled. And Author A said literally “what she said.” Same dynamic when they were asked worst moment, advice to writers, and to promote their own book.
As the panel went on, I found myself leaning forward whenever Author A spoke, begging her to talk more. I was there in large part for her; I wanted to hear what she had to say, and found myself disappointed when she said too words and stopped. It felt after awhile like she didn’t really care. Who knows, maybe she was feeling bad that day. But it was a bad impression, and one I think I personally would find it all too easy to give.
On the other hand, after forty-five minutes of her talking ad infinitem, the sound of Writer B’s voice became grating. It became the obstacle that kept me from hearing Author A. It became the sound that gave me too much information about the next book, that made me wonder if it would still be fun without the spoilers. It became the sound of someone pushy, who seemed arrogant and entirely concerned with herself. Who knows, maybe Writer B was also having a bad day or too much cold medicine or something. But it was an extremely bad impression from her as well.
And all the while Chelsea Quinn Yarbro sailed on, giving interesting and informative answers that didn’t go on too long. When asked to sell her book, she said four sentences that established the world, set up the conflict and main characters, and left you with a hook that made you want to buy the book. And then she thanked her fans.
As I think about doing my own promotional activities (and actually speaking in public), my new goal in life is to be like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro or Larry Correia. I’ll borrow James’s ideas for posters and bookmarks, and speak up. Say something interesting. Be bold and friendly. Answer the question and then shut up.
For a first time author, making a good impression is everything.