Debut Author Lesson: Your first Guest of Honor gig

This entry is part 15 of 21 in the series Debut Author Lessons

I will grant that this is not likely to be something a debut author hits, but at some point in your career, you will receive your first invitation to be a Guest of Honor at a convention. My first was MidSouthCon, which was fun, but I felt like I was flying a little blind. Thank heavens they were very kind. Here’s what I’ve learned since then.

Before the convention

What does being a Guest of Honor mean?

On the surface it means that the convention is going to honor you by promoting your work and introducing you to their audience. In practice, this is a two-way street. You are there to make the convention a success by bringing your audience and helping the attendees have fun. Your role is to attract people to the convention and to provide engaging programming while there. This means being present, being friendly, and working hard.

Travel/Accommodations/Per diem

The convention should offer to cover your travel expenses, room, and food while you are there. That should be in the invitation they send you. If it’s not, make sure to clarify before accepting. You are going to be working hard. Here’s a sample letter.

Dear Mary:

I have the pleasure of extending an invitation to you on behalf of [convention], [description of con], to discover your availability and interest in being our Author Guest of Honor for our upcoming [convention]. The dates are [dates], held in [place].

[description paragraph of convention]

We would be honored to have you join us in [date]! Typical compensation includes coach airfare, accommodations and meals for you and a travel partner. If you’re able to reply as soon as possible, it would be very appreciated.

Some conventions will give you a cash per diem. Some will ask you to charge meals to your room. Make sure you get clarification. Do not, under any circumstances, use your own credit card to pay for the hotel room if they have said they will cover it. At a reputable convention, this won’t be an issue but some new cons have cash flow issues which could mean that you’d never be repaid. Which brings us to…

Research the convention

If you know the con, fine. If you don’t, make sure that there haven’t been problems in the past. You can do this by posting a query in the SFWA forums, contacting the previous GoH, or doing a quick google search. Do this before accepting. Later, you’ll also be looking to see if you are a good fit with their audience, but for your first one you’ll probably say yes, even if it’s a Death Metal SF Horror con and you write Regency Fantasy.

Your Schedule

Arrive the day before the convention, leave the day after. You will be more rested and it will also give the people running the con a chance to hang out with you. They invited you there because they like your work, but during the con they are buried with work.

For the con itself, be as available as possible, while recognizing your own needs. I can do eight hours of programming a day without a problem, but I have to have regular meal breaks. What I usually say is, “I like to be busy and I’m there to work. Schedule me as heavily as you like, but please make sure I have regular meal breaks.”  Other people can only handle three program items a day. Some can do fourteen. Know what you can manage and offer that. Offering more is a disservice to everyone involved because it means you will be dragging.

Publicity

Part of your role as GoH is to attract people to the convention. Some authors can do this passively, simply by letting the convention use their name. For a newer author, you have to tell your existing audience about the con and try to encourage them to come. This does not mean endless flogging. Just making sure it’s posted on your site, that you use the social media of your choice to point people to it, and that you express your excitement about going.

Bio and Headshot — They will ask for this very early, because they need to set up the website. Send it as soon as they put in the request. Here are what mine look like.

The Gift Basket

Conventions want to treat you well. They know how hard you will work when you’re there and want to make sure you are taken care of so they’ll ask you if there’s anything you want. What they are looking for are cues about what to put into a gift basket for you.

Be kind and give your preferences, but don’t be a dick and take advantage of their generosity. I ask for water, granola bars, and some fresh fruit because that will help me get through the weekend. If they ask any specific questions, like favorite drink or chocolate preference, don’t hem and haw in an effort to be polite. Just tell them. If you don’t, it increases the amount of work they have to do because then they have to do research.

They will ask you if you want to bring someone with you. Say yes.

My impulse was to say “No thanks” because I didn’t want to be a bother. At MidSouthCon, I had my nephew with me since he could drive over. Although he was great at fetching things for me, he was not the same as having a minder, which is what they are really asking when they ask about bringing someone. They are wanting to make things easy for you by letting you bring someone who will be good for your mental health. That can be a spouse, or an assistant.

At BayCon, I had Sandra Tayler as my +1.  Let me tell you, Sandra is better than a saving throw any day.  Besides being a friend, she’s also been a minder for her husband Howard Tayler, of Schlock Mercenary. She knows how to keep you at peak levels all the way through the convention.

They will offer you a liasion/wrangler/minder. Say yes.

Your job is to be present and help guests have a good experience. This makes it very hard to say no to fans. A minder can say it for you. “I’m so sorry, you can’t have an hour long conversation about every book ever written. You have to be at the next panel right now.” A minder can make sure that you eat. They can remind you that you have time to go take a break in your room. They can walk you from one panel to the next so you don’t have to remember where you need to be, navigate there, and can help you avoid getting stopped en route.

At the Convention

Set up cues with your minder ahead of time.

If you are talking to a fan/guest, you will look engaged and interested. Sometimes, you get trapped by someone who doesn’t realize that this is your only break during the con, or that you need to talk to other fans too, or just need to pee.  The trouble is that your minder may not know you well enough to recognize when the conversation has moved from engaging to trapped. A hand signal will help.

Yes, like in baseball, but more subtle.

Pick something that you might do in normal conversation but that isn’t part of your regular body language. A tap on the side of your neck, resting a finger along your nose, fiddling with your name badge… whatever, just make sure you have something. I only find I have to deploy that once or maybe twice at a con. And no, sorry, I won’t tell you what my signal is.

Once your minder gets your signal, all they have to do is step forward and say, “I’m sorry, but I need to get you to the next thing,” or “We need to keep moving, I’m afraid,” or something similarly generic. It shouldn’t be some elaborate lie. You, in fact, do need to get moving.

You can use the same signal when you receive an invitation to game/have drinks/dinner/party. Just look at your minder and ask them if you have time to do [x]. If you do not want to accept, use your hand signal while asking.

Your minder will regretfully say that you don’t have time. This allows you to be gracious to the person asking, which lets them have a better con experience.

If you want to accept, still ask your minder if you have time because you might have forgotten about something on the schedule.

There’s also an old trick from the vaudeville mind-reading days. You insert the word “no” into the sentence when you ask the minder, to tell them which answer to give.

  • “No time to do [x] is there?”
  • “I don’t suppose we can squeeze that in?”
  • “No way would I want to miss that!”

Again, this is something you probably won’t have to use, but it is better to have it set up than not.

Take host gifts

You know how you go to someone’s home for dinner and take flowers, or a bottle of wine? I do the same when I go to cons as GoH. From Portland, I would take a box of Voodoo Donuts to go in the volunteer room, and bars of chocolate for people I had direct contact with. Head of programming, my liaison. Remember, these are almost all volunteers.  They are there because they love the genre and since you are Guest of Honor, they are essentially throwing a large party in your honor. Be nice to them.

Don’t expect recognition

Your first GoH gig does not mean you’ve made it. It means that the people running the convention like your work and want to introduce you to their audience. Be prepared for people to have no idea who you are. It’s okay. At one of my first GoH gigs, my name and photo were on everything and I had this conversation.

Fan: You look familiar. Are you famous?

Me: Um… I’m the literary Guest of Honor.

Fan: Oh. I thought you were famous. (turns and walks away.)

The point of that, isn’t that he was rude, but that he voiced what other people will think. That person looks familiar… but they don’t know you. Yet. Don’t be depressed by that.

What are these SMoFs that people mention? — The Secret Masters of Fandom

This started as a joke description, but actually there really is a sort of inner circle in SF/F fandom that runs the conventions. They are dedicated volunteers who do this because they love it. They also want things to go smoothly so they ask other SMoFs about guests. This means that even if your natural inclinations are to be an jerk, if you want to do more conventions be nice to everyoneToday’s gopher may be tomorrow’s conrunner, or might be today’s conrunner’s daughter. People talk. I mean, in general, one should be nice because that’s just the right thing to do, but even if you aren’t a nice person at least learn to act like it for the good of your career.

What will the programming be like?

This is actually not that much different from what you do at a normal con, except that you might be scheduled more heavily.

When you aren’t on programming, try to spend at least some time in the bar and green room, so you can talk to people in an informal setting. It will make it seem less like work. Do remember to be aware of your own limits though. If you need downtime, go back to your room and rest, just make sure your minder knows where you are.

They might schedule an interview. If you can arrange with the interviewer to do a pre-interview, it will be easier for you both. They’ll know how to steer the conversation, and you’ll have rehearsed some answers so will spend less time saying “um.” If nothing else, ask for a list of topics. And if there’s anything you don’t want to talk about, make sure to tell them.

Post Convention

  • Do some form of blog/tweet/FB/social media about your experience and be as glowing as you can genuinely be. It’s the tail end of your publicity duties.
  • Send a thank you note. Because it’s nice.

What tricks do you have?

 

 

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20 Responses

  1. Anne Lyle

    My tip is: don’t stand just in front of next year’s GoH who has the same first name as you when the announcements are made at the end of the convention and you’re so mentally drained from an exciting weekend that for a moment you think they’re pointing *you* out 🙂

  2. Kay Demlow

    Wonderful post, Mary! You made me feel as if I was there at the Con trailing along behind you.

  3. Alex Haist

    I’ve spent my morning reviewing this whole post series. Thank you for the useful, specific advice. If you ever have the time and inclination, I would be Most Curious to hear what you have to say about starting conversations, continuing conversations, and generally engaging with people.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      The tricky thing about the Con Suite is that you still have to be very much “on” when you’re there. The Green Room will have other people in it that are in a similar state of fatigue and who will understand that if you aren’t sparkly.

  4. Glenn Glazer

    As a conrunner, I would like to thank you, Mary, for this most excellent and thoughtful piece on the subject.

    I believe you nailed it on all counts and from all perspectives.

  5. Ell

    I was a con committee person 30+ years ago at a fairly small local con, and I sure hope things have changed because it never occurred to us to have minders! It’s a great idea, though. I’m sitting here remembering screwups… It was mostly fun, but oh the burnout!

  6. Marc

    This is wonderful, and I’ve taken notes! I hope I can use this as a GoH someday, but I appreciate this now because I run a relatively large program. This article is a great manual for con/event organizers.

    An additional piece of advice I’d like to share is that if the con isn’t treating you right, just tell them. Despite appearances, they might not know what is expected of them.

    This was only my second year running any sort of con event. I did my research, but I’m basically making it up as I go. I really want to be a great host, so I appreciate it when a guest says “You know, many of the cons I attend provide X. Is this something you are able to offer?” Please help me to help you, and we’ll all have a better con experience!

  7. Maureen McHugh

    When I first started going to conventions, Mike Resnick was my local pro. Mike is a fan as much as he is a pro and he thoughtfully explained to me that fandom is really more than ‘people who are fans of science fiction.’ It’s true, I became a fan after I was a professional writer. And fans are really an extraordinary community that all got to know each other because of genre but really have far ranging interests beyond it. They hold these great weekend parties where they can get together and be with other fans. Sometimes they invite pros to their parties and pay for them, because they DO share an interest in genre.

    When I go to any con, and especially when I go as a GoH, I remember that these people are inviting me to THEIR party. They don’t need me. Their party would still be great without me. My work wouldn’t probably be published, read, appreciated, talked about, and written about without them. Some of them may be socially awkward. I owe them. Which does not mean that they can over-schedule me or forget to allow me to eat or that creepy sexual overtures should be ignored, but that my basic operating procedure should be openness, generosity, and genuine curiosity. Because that’s what they’ve offered.

    Mike gave me lots of other insights about the business when I first started and was always thoughtful and kind to me. But that insight, that the con doesn’t need us, was particularly useful.

  8. Dan Bell

    This isn’t tips or advice so it won’t be helpful to anyone, but thank you for this post, Mary. I’m working on finishing my first novel (with the goal of having it done by Oct. 31st to be able to participate in my first NaNoWriMo) and I’m grateful for writers like you that pay it forward and don’t forget those that are still struggling to make it.

    I suffer from mild chronic depression and whenever I’m down my wife (I couldn’t be a writer without her help), my wife gets me to dream big about my budding writing career. This post helped me to dream big as well.

    Thank you.

  9. Kimmi Allbee

    I had the pleasure of being tapped to interview Mary when she was the GoH at BayCon, as well as getting to be her “helper” during one of her workshop programming items. Despite some hiccups along the way (which happen at EVERY event), she was consistently gracious, witty, funny, and pleasant to be around with every single person I saw her interact with over the weekend.

    Considering it was my first time interviewing anyone in a public setting like that, I consider myself lucky that it got to be Mary, and that she was so wonderful to work with.

    Having been on Programming and Operations staff for numerous conventions over the years, I can only say that I wish every single person who is ever invited to be a Guest of Honor, be they debut or established “big name”, would read this article, and take it for the sage and insightful advice that it truly is.

    Thank you, Mary- and know that you are welcome at Convolution any time your schedule allows you to come over to San Francisco for a visit!

  10. Kelvin Kao

    This is very interesting. I like the minder part, especially. And I would be so confused if I get a “we ain’t got no time for that, no?” from the guest of honor. I guess it’s not likely to happen for a con of writers.

    Also useful technique for blind dates.

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