Back in my very young and salad days, when I was around 15-16, the original Star Trek series was the hot new thing on TV and my parents took me to see Leonard Nimoy in a summer-season play at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. After the play, Mr. Nimoy not only came out and answered questions, but graciously offered to sign autographs, and my folks agreed to let me stand in line for one.
“Stand in line” proved to be a euphemism; Mr. Nimoy was at a folding table with half the audience crowded around and people shoving forward with their program books from every direction. I managed to find a spot near one end of the table, but I was 15 and shy and the only teenager there. So I stood waiting for the crowd to clear out and get less pushy.
And then, all of a sudden, Mr. Nimoy (who had been signing as fast as he could and exchanging an occasional comment with people while moving everyone along at a rapid pace, and who surely did not have any attention left for anything else) turned to me and said in an extremely kind voice, “Do you want your program signed? You’ve been standing there an awfully long time.” And then he signed it for me and went back to dealing with everyone else.
The signed program book has long since gone the way of things that vanish in the course of multiple house-moving, but I have never forgotten that moment. I never expected to have any use for the behavior, but I never forgot it. It set a standard for me in dealing with “the public” at conventions and autograph sessions that I didn’t know I was going to need…but boy, was it a lesson worth learning. I don’t expect that I will ever have a chance to meet Mr. Nimoy again, but if I ever do, I hope I remember to thank him for that moment of kindness to a shy fifteen-year-old, and tell him how its influence has rippled down the years.
Because one of the very best ways I know to get a sense of how to handle the change from unpublished wannabe to newly-published professional, reasonably successful midlist writer, or red-hot property, is to listen to and closely observe the people who are farther up the ladder than you are. “If you want a better job, dress and act like the people who already have it.” And pay attention to which of those folks are well-liked and approved of by fans and other professionals, and which rate a headshake or an eyeroll and an “Oh, that’s him again,” because it is a rare person who can pull off the truly-obnoxious-bad-boy persona among fans and other professionals and still have a solid professional career.
Behaving badly, whether to fans, to would-be writers, to fellow professionals, or to publishing professionals (editors, agents, etc.), is almost certain to hurt your career if you do it. I’ve watched a number of folks over the years try to imitate various well-known “bad boy” or “brat pack” authors. I only know two whose careers were as successful as they should have been (and that’s not just my judgment; I’ve had editors and agents weigh in with similar opinions in all cases), and both of those two not only recognized that there was a line they shouldn’t cross and tried not to cross it, but to my personal knowledge also admitted and apologized sincerely on those occasions when they did cross that line.
So assuming that you are not trying to become known for bad behavior, I present some recommendations for the published who are doing events and autographings. Note that many of them sound similar to last post’s tips for would-be writers. This is because, as before, a lot of it is common sense and basic good manners.
1. Be polite. Always. To everyone, from the pushy fan to the shy fifteen-year-old to the obnoxious old pro. (Note that “polite” does not mean “pushover.” If you have trouble politely dealing with obnoxious people, practice ahead of time.) Do not be a diva. Don’t kvetch if nobody shows up; it isn’t the staff’s fault. Bookstore autographings, in particular, are feast or famine: you either get five people in two hours, three of whom are family, or you get fifty people in the first ten minutes. Guess which is more common.
2. Be on time. Do not plan your travel so that you will sweep in at the last minute, because there is sure to be a traffic jam or a flat tire, and even if there isn’t, you will make the event organizers worry enormously for no good reason, which is not polite (see #1). Also, if you arrive spang on the moment, you will not have any time to correct potential problems (see #4, below), and believe me, you will regret it.
3. Allow enough time. Try not to schedule an important meeting or dinner with your editor such that you have to leave at the end of your one-hour autographing on the dot (or worse yet, ten minutes before the hour is over). There are often last-minute arrivals, and they’re usually the ones who drove eighty miles in the snow to meet their favorite author. Also, staying a few minutes more allows you time to schmooz with the bookstore people, who may like you enough to hand-sell some more copies of your book.
4. Don’t leave early, even if there are only ten minutes to go and no one has come by since the two people who asked where the bathroom was, forty minutes ago.
5. Be prepared. Really prepared. Yes, the convention committee or the bookstore staff or the publisher’s handle should have made sure you have water/soda/coffee/tea and pens and comfortable seating and enough space and a working microphone and so on, but they don’t always. Bring a copy of your book (yes, I have arrived at “autograph sessions” to find that the books didn’t come). Bring pens (more than one, that you are sure work). Bring a water bottle, just in case. It is also nice (but not required) to have something to give away to people, like bookmarks, and it is frequently helpful to have a stack of plain book plates that you can sign for people who didn’t or couldn’t bring all their books from home. It is often useful to bring your own author placard (at conventions, you can usually swipe one from a panel, if you are on one).
6. Don’t go overboard. Having giveaway bookmarks is one thing; setting up your autograph table with souvenir mugs, T-shirts, and key rings with the cover of your book on them (for only $15 each!) is tacky at best. At worst, you will annoy the convention or bookstore people. If you want to sell your book-related stuff, make arrangements with someone in the dealer’s room (at a con) or check with the event organizers or bookstore people in advance to see what you can set up. Do not expect a bookstore to take your leftover bookmarks and put them by the cash register for more free publicity. Publishers pay money to have bookstores put their stuff by the cash register; they are not going to put your stuff there for free.
7. Unless you have stated up front that you will not put anything in the book but your name and the date, always ask if the person wants an autograph personalized, who to, and how to spell the name. You’d be surprised at how many ways there are of spelling even a simple name like “Kate” (Cate, Kait, Cait, Cayt…).
8. Try to exchange a few words with everyone, especially the shy ones. Keep an eye on the line, though; some folks will want to start a ten-minute conversation when there are still twenty folks waiting. Be pleasant. If somebody is really interesting, make an appointment to meet them later; don’t try to find out everything they know about obscure poisons or the weather in Kathmandu in the middle of an autographing.
9. Establish a policy ahead of time about pictures – yes, or no. Feel free to change it if the line is longer or shorter than you expect, but try not to change in the middle of a session. It’s not fair to the folks who came through earlier. And don’t let people take up loads of time getting different shots if there’s a line. They can wait til the end of the autographing if they want more than one picture. (If there’s no one else around, of course, you might as well spend the last fifteen minutes on an amateur photo shoot.)
10. If you have reason to believe that there will be a lot of people there, bring a friend who can and will gopher for you (“gopher coffee; gopher another pen; gopher that thing I left in the back seat of the car”) and who can sit and open books to the signing page to speed the line along. Also bring a pad of Post-It notes or 3×3 cards. If the line is really long, it will speed things up enormously if people write their names for you and mark the signing page. If it isn’t, you can doodle on them.
11. If the event organizers screw up, do not take it out on the fans. If they told you to come from 1-2 and the publicity said “will be signing from 3-4,” try your best to stay or come back when people expect you to be there (and if you can’t, sign some books and leave some signed bookplates if there’s anyone there you trust to hand them out).
12. Be polite. Thank the people who invited you, even if they are the only ones who came. Blame the weather or the home game for the lousy attendance. Offer to sign their stock if they don’t ask. Don’t rant on your blog about what a horrible job they did.
Next time: professional behavior at conventions/trade shows.