Public Appearances: Speeches, Interviews, and Cons

author appearances


(This is a continuation of a post about author appearances. Read Part One covering book-signings.)

2. Speeches and Presentations

The one disadvantage of doing a book-signing is that it relies on people knowing who you are to come out and buy a book. If you’re just startingauthor appearances out, the number of people in that class is pretty small. And even if they know who you are, they may not be interested in buying a book. Even your mother.

What to do? Create a presentation in which the focus is not on you, but something of value to the audience.

I ran into that situation when a mystery bookstore asked me if I wanted to do a signing. I offered instead to give a talk about Agatha Christie. I had researched and published annotated editions of her first two books, which gave me the excuse of diving deep into her life and works. I learned that there was more to her than the image of a genial elderly woman whose life revolved around her books and her trips to the Middle East with her archaeologist husband.

There was more: a lonely dreamworld of a childhood where she read voraciously and told herself stories, her life as a war bride, her beginnings as a writer, and of course her 11-day disappearance that affected her for the rest of her life. Quite a spirited young woman, our Agatha.

So before a packed house at the Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, I told Agatha’s story, accompanied by a PowerPoint slideshow of family photographs, maps, book covers, and photos of Poirot and Miss Marple. The audience got an enthralling story, I sold a number of books, and the bookstore owner invited me back the next year to give a talk about Sherlock Holmes.

Yes, the show was a lot of work to put together. I wrote a script and found the artwork and learned how to use PowerPoint (which wasn’t that difficult) to put it together. I rehearsed with the script several times. Anything that sounded awkward or off was cut and rewritten. I wanted to avoid Harrison Ford’s critique of George Lucas’ script to Star Wars: “You can write this —-, George, but you sure can’t say it.”

The preparation paid off down the road. A few years later, I was invited by a group of Agatha Christie fans to talk about her. All I had to do was print a new script, run through it a couple of times, and I was good. And, yes, I read my script during the presentation, but I knew the material well enough that I could tell the story in my own words, and go off on tangents if I felt like it. Rehearsal builds confidence which eases your worries about speaking.

3. Media Interviews

At some point, you might get the call. Someone with a printing press, a podcast, or a TV camera, wants to interview you.

Example: Typical interview on CNN.

Example: Typical interview on CNN.

Congratulations. You’ve crossed another threshold, because someone else who didn’t know you from Adam or Eve has decided that you are useful to them. It may be because of your personal story that you talked about in your memoir. It may be because you have in-depth knowledge of a particular subject, like I have of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, the Victorian era, or Sherlock Holmes. Or, maybe you live in the area the media covers, which makes you of interest locally.

So enjoy the moment; then forget it. It probably won’t affect your life or your sales.

Take the case of Elissa Stein, whose history of menstruation, “Flow” was published in 2010. The book started out with a bang, with a starred review from Booklist and Publishers Weekly calling it “perfect for a preteen’s introduction to adulthood and for women of all ages.” The publicity campaign included interviews by Dr. Oz, NPR, Martha Stewart, and The View. There was even interest from The New York Times.

What happened instead, as Stein posted on her blog, was “anticipation, mind-blowing thrills, bone-crushing disappointment.” An hour-long audio interview with Dr. Oz produced a seven-minute snippet that surfaced at A major snowstorm forced cancellation of the NPR interview. It was never rescheduled. Martha Stewart canceled. The Times ghosted. Her appearance on The View made for great television, but resulted in less than 300 sales.

So if you find yourself on the receiving end of questions like “where do you get your ideas,” here’s some things to remember.

    1. Keep your cool. Always be polite, no matter how provoking it can be. You can always says, “I have to go, thank you very much,” and hang up if it becomes too much for you.

    2. Stay on script. If you’re being interviewed about your book, be sure to mention the title when appropriate.

    3. Don’t overshare. Interviewers range from barely competent to experts at getting you to drop your guard. The former can be easily handled; they’d be happy to fill their notebooks with quotes to dump into the story.

author appearances

Whatever you do, don’t look in the lens. DON’T LOOK IN THE LENS.

The ones to watch out for are out for blood. Yours. They’ll befriend you and make you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. They’ll agree with everything you say until it’s time to disrupt you with a challenge. They’ll let you talk on and on and on and remain silent so that you’re encouraged to talk some more.

And then you’ll open the newspaper the next day and wonder where they got the story about how your spouse hated your writing, or that the publisher didn’t pay you enough, or how you hated the cover art. Answer: from you.

How far will a journalist go to betray a subject? Ask Jeffrey MacDonald. The Green Beret doctor was on trial for the deaths of his wife and two children when he asked author Joe McGinniss to tell his side of the story. McGinniss spent months talking with MacDonald and investigating the case, then wrote Fatal Vision, which concluded that MacDonald was guilty. Years later, Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer with its controversial opening lines: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

Malcolm overstates the case against journalism—there’s no doubt to most people that the evidence shows MacDonald was guilty—but there’s no doubt that there is a risk when talking to the media that the story you want to put out will not be the one they write.

4. Conventions

Another way of promoting your books is through conventions. Nearly every genre has such gatherings: mysteries (Bouchercon); thrillers (Thrillfest); science fiction and fantasy (Worldcon); romance (Romantic Times); and literature and poetry (AWP). There are even conventions devoted to sub-genres such as horror, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, and superheroes.

You can have fun at a convention. Just not too much fun.

You can have fun at a convention. Just not too much fun.

All conventions are structured along the same lines. There are panels held during the day on various topics, and social gatherings in the evening. Book signings may be held, and there’s a vendor’s room where books and other goodies are sold.

Conventions need authors to act as keynote speakers, luncheon speakers, to lead seminars and to staff panels. They also need authors to act as moderators; this takes a particular skill at introducing the guests, leading the discussion, and keeping panelists from going on too long.

Conventions typically invite authors to headline the main events in return for paying their travel and other expenses. They may even kick in a stipend. Compensation for the rest varies from convention to convention, from nothing to free admission on up.

When you’re starting out, it’s guaranteed that no one’s going to ask you to address a convention. You’ll start out by volunteering to sit on a panel. Many conventions will accept suggestions for topics or seminars, so consider submitting one that plays to your strengths and interests. If you know several authors in your genre who are going to same con, consider offering a panel as a package deal; like everything else in business, making someone else’s life easier by doing most of the work yourself is a good way to get where you want.

Conduct at the Convention

Conventions can be great fun, but any place that combines people, long hours, and alcohol are a recipe for bad behavior. This is not Spring Break in Cancun, but a business trip. Remember that each time you step out of your room, you are on stage. Every encounter with a fan, bookstore owner, fellow writer, the bartender, will leave an impression on them. It’s up to you what you want them to remember after you leave.

Of course, it’s true that success excuses much bad behavior. Harlan Ellison has left behind a long trail of stories that are told and retold until they have taken on the status of myth. At Aggie Con at Texas A&M University in 1969, he referred to the university’s Corps of Cadets as “America’s next generation of Nazis,” nearly making the first Aggie Con its last. The damage didn’t last long: He was invited back as guest of honor five years later.

Bad Behavior

There is a downside to public appearances. Every bookseller, librarian, book reviewer, and visitor to conferences and book-signings have met the Author From Hell.

* I met a well-known mystery writer when that person came to Rock Hill, S.C. I had interviewed X by phone and published not only a profile, but a positive review of her mystery. At the signing, she berated me in a loud voice for writing that X “was not just a mystery writer.” I had stumbled on one of her pet peeves. In a voice that carried throughout the bookstore, she informed me that you never, never identify someone by what they were not; you did it by describing what they were. Shell-shocked, I stammered an apology. X grumpily signed my book, and I quickly fled.

The rant made a deep impression on the bookstore staff, who apologized to me afterwards. The publicist was so mortified that she sent me a fruit basket to my newspaper (she later dropped X as a client). I donated it to the local library and struck the author off my review list, although I will admit that the writer had a point; I never made that mistake again.

* One bookseller told me about her encounter with a romance author at a Romantic Times convention. The author made regular appearances on the best-seller list, so perhaps she felt it was beneath her to make an appearance at a convention. She walked through the convention area surrounded by her handlers and armed with an attitude that made it clear she was not thrilled to be there. Her behavior was so distasteful that the bookseller returned to her store and removed her books from the table near the cash register. She stopped hand-selling her books, costing our best-selling writer 50-100 sales a year. “I have plenty of other authors I like to promote,” she said.

* An indie author came into the Hershey Public Library with his book in hand, hoping to donate it to the collection. When the librarian gave a non-committal answer, he informed her that it had been accepted by the library system in the next county. He implied that if the head librarian there thought it was good enough to accept, she should as well.

Dumb move. Librarians, like booksellers, love to talk to each other, and if they don’t, they do know how to use the phone. After he left, she called the head librarian. She was told, yes, Indie Author had paid a visit, and, no, they did not accept the book.

* There was the author who appeared at the local mystery bookstore, who told the audience that they could buy his cheaper ebooks at Amazon. This was true, and the bookseller didn’t mind that he had other versions available, but did he have to remind the audience whose money was going to keep the bookstore open?