How to Make the Most of A Book Conference
Part 1: For Aspiring Writers
--Ask unusual questions. Everybody wants to know where authors get their ideas from. Tip: Most authors don't really know, and even if they did it probably won't be from the same place you get yours. Ask for specific advice that can aid your writing, such as how to write authentic dialogue, how to pace a thriller, the best ways to do research, etc...
--Bring a notepad and a few pens. Unless you have an incredible memory, you'll kick yourself if the next day if you can't remember that interesting tip from a bestselling author.
--Be polite. At an event recently, I was having a conversation with my agent when a woman came up and, quite loudly, said, "So you're an agent guy, right?" She then proceeded to spend ten minutes pitching her book, oblivious to the fact that she'd rudely interrupted us. Yes, agents often look for new writers at conferences, but there is a time and a place. Act like you would in a normal setting. Be polite, and others will too.
--Be organized. If you're pitching a book, have your pitch ready and your material on standby. Agents are busy bees and don't have time for you to spend three minutes digging through the hundreds of freebees and chachkis in your tote bag.
--Talk to writers outside of the panels. Keeping the polite rule in mind, authors do like to talk to aspiring writers (they were in that boat at one point too). Authors are more casual hanging out in the hotel or at the bar, and can sometimes speak a little more freely.
--Map your schedule out in advance. Running from Oak Room A on one end of the hotel to Cedar Room C at the other end at 10:03 for a 10:00 panel is no fun. Spend a few minutes the night before marking down the panels you plan to attend, and then figuring out where they are. You'll learn a lot more with that prime seat up front near the podium than in the back row behind the guy wearing the 'I Love Jack Reacher' sombrero.
--Remember that you're there to learn. Yes, there's a chance you might meet the agent of your dreams at a conference, but first and foremost you should focus on what you can do to improve your craft. Don't look at a conference solely as an opportunity for literary speed dating. Writing a great book should be your first priority, and there's a wealth of information at these conferences. It's your job to write it down and heed it.
--Don't only attend panels with famous authors simply because they're famous. Just because three #1 bestselling authors are on a panel about 'book tour war stories' does not mean that you should automatically sit in on it. Find the panels that are most conducive to your writing. Hey, maybe sitting in on that panel with three lesser known authors talking about historical fiction would benefit the historical novel you're working on...
Part 2: For Fans and Readers
--Similar to the aspiring author rule above...authors want to meet fans, but please be courteous. That means no following people into bathrooms (a rule that is shockingly broken at nearly every conference I've been to).
--Go out of your way to meet authors. Authors generally go to conferences for one reason, and one reason only: to meet readers. They want to meet you. So don't be shy. Get a book signed, chat, take a picture. Trust me, we love it.
--Buy Books. If you love an author, please support his or her work by buying a book or two at the conference. Even ask the author to recommend a fellow writer you might like as well.
--If you attend panels, try to refrain from asking questions like, "I love you and your books and I have a long story to tell you about it...". It's not that we don't want to hear your story--we do--but Q&A's are called that for a reason, and there are usually far more questions than time permits panelists to answer. So please tell it to us at a book signing or in the hotel so everyone can get the full experience. You'll have time to tell us your story, but those five panelists won't always have the chance to answer questions.
--Please do ask us specific questions about our books. I love it when a reader asks me about Henry Parker, or a certain scene in THE GUILTY. If you want to know what the author's motivation was, or why we had a character do such and such, those are often our favorite questions to answer. We love talking about behind-the-scenes stuff.
Part 3: For Newly Published Writers
--The courtesy rule extends to you too. Treat readers and aspiring writers as you would want to be treated. I've seen too many debut authors act dismissive towards fans, or rush people along on a signing line. These people want to meet you. Being published is a privilege--being read is an honor. Be humble about both.
--Never be 'that guy' in the bar. Authors like to drink. No secret there. But there's a fine line between tipping a few back in the hotel bar and having to be carried fireman-style back to your room.
--Don't hog the mic. If you're on a panel, less is often more. If you're a panel newbie, watch and learn. Take a page from the other writers on your the panel, and use discretion. Answer questions the best you can, but there's no reason to take up 10 minutes on a 45 minute panel to discuss your hatred for word processors or to go off on random tangents in response to questions that weren't asked.
--Be discreet about self-promotion. You are expected to plug your books, but don't do so at the expense of your fellow authors or your own dignity. I was on a panel last year where one author brought a massive stand-up display for his latest book that dwarfed the podium and was, frankly, embarrassing. Stand up your books (if everyone agrees beforehand), mention your latest book, but screaming "ME ME ME" won't win you any friends--or fans.
--Don't be shy about being a fan as well. At last year's ThrillerFest, I ended up alone in an elevator with Robert Crais. I had a total fanboy moment, nervous as hell, debating whether to say anything. In the end, I did. I introduced myself, told him I was a fan of his books, and he couldn't have been nicer. Be proud to be an uber book geek--I know I am--but don't let your geekiness get in the way of meeting your idols. (FYI, at last year's CrimeFest I ended up alone in a Men's restroom with Ian Rankin. I wisely left him alone.)
Part 4: For Everyone
--This is the most important tip, by far: Have fun. Enjoy yourself. The conference experience can be a wonderful one for everyone involved, and no matter which group you fall in to, you can leave having had a wonderful time, having made new friends, having learned about great new books, and having become a better writer.