Julie Barrett is a freelance writer and photographer based in Plano, TX.

So You Want To Be A Convention Panelist?

Fresh when it gets here from Julie Barrett
Thursday, February 8, 2018

Yep, it's time for my annual(ish) guide to becoming a panelist at conventions. The short version is that it's not as easy as you think. The long version is based on years of attending and running cons. I've attended - and helped run - all sizes of cons. But I don't speak for any con I now run or have helped run in the past. This is based on my experience, and of course, your mileage may vary.

So you have a book our a game out, and you've heard one of the best ways to promote it is to attend a convention. Yes, but... 

Let's talk about small-medium fan-run cons. These are probably your best shot for getting on programming, partly because there are more of them, and also they're generally non-profit and not autograph shows. They also provide a better chance to meet and mingle with fans, and network with authors, agents, and publishers. Yep, there's a lot of action going on in the bar, and I'm not talking about pickup artists. (Even if you don't drink, that's the place to be if you want to network. And you want to do that, along with promotion.) But we're talking about promotion.

The first thing is to set your expectations. You're very likely not going to get an hour to talk about your book. If you get an autograph slot, you will likely share it with other authors and artists. Most small-medium cons are run by volunteers, and they get their income from people who pay at the door, just like the big gate shows. So just like the big gate shows, their guests, panelists, and programming needs to appeal to their audience. Think about that when  you apply or make your pitch.

Have you never attended a convention before? Please attend one. Sit in on some panels. Soak up the culture. Every con is different, and every culture is a little different, but the focus is on having a good time and imparting some knowledge. Along with panels on writing and the business of writing, you'll probably find workshops (writing, costuming, art, prop building, etc.) and even plain fandom panels. There are probably tracks on art, maybe comics. Observe how other artists and authors promote their work. I guarantee you'll walk away with some good ideas. And maybe see some things you don't want to touch with the proverbial ten foot pole.

Target a convention or two you would like to attend as a panelist. Following are some Dos and Don'ts:

DO check out the convention web site first. There may be an application for panelists and/or a list of what the convention is looking for in a panelist. If the convention keeps an archive of past web sites, dig through the last couple of years and see what they did for programming. 

DO note deadlines. 

DO NOT apply at the last minute. Six months or longer is usually a good time, but cons may vary. 

DO send your inquiry/application to the proper email address. If they ask you to contact the chair, do that. If they ask you to contact programming or guest relations, do that. 

Please DO NOT spam every contact on the site. Don't copy your inquiry to other addresses unless you are asked to do so. 

DO make a pitch that shows how your presence can benefit the con. Do you have some expertise that you can share? We know you have a book (mention it, please!), so tell us something else about yourself. Are you a librarian? Pitch a panel on research. Are you an organization specialist? There's a panel! Are you an accountant? Pitch taxes and record keeping for writers and artists. Maybe you have a hobby that you can share. Do you teach writing at a school? You get the idea. Remember, the con is looking for programming that will sell memberships and engage the fans once they're on site.

But how does that tie into promoting your book? You get to mention it on every panel. (Just don't build the proverbial fortress of books. People want to see you, not your backlist.) If someone finds you interesting and engaging, they may be more likely to check out your books. Bring promotional materials, because virtually all cons have a "freebie" table. 

So you didn't make the cut? Here are a few tips:

DO NOT take it personally if you get turned down. Often, there are more people who want to be on panels than a convention has available slots. 

DO Thank them for their consideration and ask when you can apply for next  year.

DO buy a membership (non-profits often call that fee to get in the door a membership instead of a ticket or admission) and attend, particularly if you're local. Take advantage of those networking opportunities. You may be able to take it as a business expense. (Yep, ask a tax specialist. That ain't me.) 

Did you buy a membership? Then DO contact programming and make yourself available as a last-minute fill-in. DO NOT make yourself a pest over this.

DO NOT mount a word-of-mouth campaign to get yourself on programming. There's nothing wrong with asking a friend to recommend you for programming, but it can go too far. This falls under taking rejection personally. That can only end in tears.

DO ask if you can send promotional materials. Most cons will be happy to put your stuff on their freebie table for you. (This is also a great way to spread the word at cons that are too far away for you to attend.) 

If you do get onto programming at one convention, be aware that conrunners attend conventions. If they see you on a panel and like what they see, that no may turn into a yes, even if it's for next year. 

One other thing to keep in mind is that you're not going to be a good "fit" at every convention. This falls under not taking it personally. 

Conventions love finding new talent and helping to promote it. Just keep in mind that it's not always easy to get onto programming. Persistence can pay off. 

If you see me at a con, do say "hi." While I am running one con this year, I'm not the person to contact to get on programming. But I can put you in touch with them. 

And I just want to say, "good luck. We're all counting on you."

Filed under: Conventions            


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