Seven Lessons from an Indie Author’s First Professional Event

Chase Night
Posted on April 2, 2015

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post from Asymmetrical author Chase Night. Chase’s debut Young Adult novel, Chicken, will be published on July 28, 2015.

During the week of March 15–23, 2015, over 130 Young Adult authors participated in the 8th Annual New York City Teen Author Festival in—you guessed it—New York City. Through a series of fortunate events, I, Chase Night, humble indie author from Nowhere, Arkansas, found myself talking about my forthcoming YA novel, Chickenfirst in a Lower East Side middle school auditorium and then later the beautiful Bartos Forum of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street.

The festival was organized by one of my personal literary heroes, David Levithan, author of YA novels like Every Day and Two Boys Kissing. There were various readings and discussion panels every day that week, culminating in a two-day symposium on YA literature on Friday and Saturday, followed by a mega book-signing at Books of Wonder on Sunday. At the symposium, I sat on a panel discussing the topic Who You Are and Who You Love.

It was a huge honor to be there talking about my indie novel in front of some of the most important people in traditional YA publishing, but I have to say the highlight of my trip was The Big Read on Thursday. Over 90 authors were divided up into small teams and sent to visit schools around the city to read from our novels and talk to kids about writing. I could write an entire essay about that hour of my life, so I won’t get into the details right now, but it was exhilarating and addictive. My new motto is VISIT ALL THE SCHOOLS.

When I told a fellow attendee this was my first public event of any kind outside of college readings, they said something like, “Wow. That’s intense.” And it was. The general atmosphere was totally laidback and fun, but it seemed that most of my new peers were either old pros or had gotten their feet wet at smaller events. I definitely got thrown off the deep end, and there were times when I felt certain I was drowning. But I survived, and although I may not have made a big splash, I definitely learned a few things about swimming with the big fish.

Whether you’re an indie author, like myself, or someone going the traditional route, here are seven things I learned about author events from NYCTAF that I hope will help you. These are geared toward participants, but most of them apply equally to attendees who are going to learn more about their craft or simply to see their favorite author in person.

1. Make Friends Before You Go

Mingling is hard, especially in a profession that attracts so many introverts. It might not be so bad with a well-connected agent or editor to take you by the hand and make introductions, but if you’re an indie author it can feel like trying to jump into a high-speed game of Double Dutch. You wait and you sweat and you tense up, but the right moment never seems to come. Or it does come and now you’re out there hopping around like an idiot, trying to keep a conversation going with a complete stranger.

Luckily, there’s a little thing called Twitter that most authors are using these days. Use it too. As soon as the line-up of your event is announced, start clicking the Follow button. You don’t have to follow everyone who will be there, but you should definitely reach out to event organizers and anyone you’ll be doing a reading, panel, signing, etc. with. Making connections from the comfort of your cocoon can make all the different when it’s time to spread your social butterfly wings and soar around a crowded room.

2. Pack Plenty of Realistic Expectations

This is a tough one because if you write fiction, your entire job revolves around asking “What if…?” and spinning crazy stories from there. When you’re given an opportunity to share your work in front of some of the biggest names in your community, it’s only natural to imagine yourself becoming BFFs with that author who totally changed your life or being swamped by ravenous readers when you step off the stage. You’ll picture yourself checking Twitter and finding 1,000 notifications because everyone is talking about you. You’ll close your eyes and see your face on the front page of Publisher’s Weekly under the headline: DEBUT AUTHOR BRINGS AUDIENCE TO TEARS WITH BOOK SYNOPSIS.

Yeah, probably not. And that’s okay. You’ll make some new writer friends, get a chance to talk about your book in public, and never have to worry about your first time again. It’s humbling, but it matters.

3. Authors Are Just People

You don’t need to be nervous in the company of your peers, because they are all just as nervous as you. They’re all afraid they’ll say one wrong thing and turn everyone off their book forever. Everyone worries they’ve shown up at the Beautiful Baby Pageant with the world’s ugliest baby and everyone is going to laugh. If you’re on a panel, all but the most seasoned writers are going to start their answers with, “Um… yeah… so… you know…” It’s fine. Unless you’re giving the keynote speech, no one is judging you for this. Most people in the business understand that, for writers, words often come easier to the fingertips than the lips.

4. Authors Are Just People

You may have come here looking for a transcendent moment with the Author Who Changed Your Life. You may find out that author is actually not a very nice person. Or you may find out that author is a very nice person but they just don’t have time to stare soulfully into your eyes and impart the secrets of the universe. This is fine. They’re not gods. They’re writers. Just like you. Are you just a person? Are you awkward in front of new people? Are you pressed for time? Are you tired from traveling? Exactly. Give your heroes the break you’d want to be given. But also, if someone you love says or does something truly reprehensible, feel free to shop around for a new hero while you’re there.

5. It’s all about the book, ‘bout the book, not the author.

If you have been invited somewhere to talk about your book or a topic related to your book on a stage, then guess what? You should talk about your book or the topic related to your book. Nothing else. If you’re asked a question about your plot, don’t give a ten-minute description of your writing routine. If you’re asked a question about your characters, don’t get emotional about your recent divorce. You are here to promote your book, not yourself. If you are asked a question about your personal experiences, then go ahead and tell an anecdote, but be sure your answer actually has something to do with the question. If someone inquires as to whether or not you studied writing in college, do not describe your first awkward sexual encounter after the homecoming game.

P.S. The reverse is true off stage. Make friends, not sales pitches.

6. Interest Accrues Interest

So you’ve been given the opportunity to promote your book at a fairly prestigious event. But the event lasts all afternoon and, well, you’re in New York City and there’s so much to do so maybe you’ll just pop in before your panel and slip out the door as soon as it’s over. Yeah… the people on stage? They can see you. And guess when they’re going to go take a piss now? Yeah, that’s right. As soon as you’re on stage.

Of course, there are a million legitimate reasons why someone has to arrive late or leave early. Don’t be judgmental. Don’t piss when they’re on stage just because they missed your event. But if it’s at all possible for you to stay for every panel or reading at the awesome event you’ve been invited to? You need to keep your butt in the chair and look lively. Oh, and please don’t take your phone out unless you’re taking a picture, and if you do, wait to share it until the stage is clear. Sure, you may be live-tweeting every profound word, but it’s flustering for the folks on stage to look out at the crowd and see people twiddling their thumbs over their crotches. Take an old-fashioned pen and pad if you need to make notes for later.

7. Maintain Connections

Hopefully you’re going home with a bunch of new friends from your literary community. Treat them like friends! Let them know it was nice to meet them. Follow them on social media if you haven’t already. Tell your followers and friends about all the awesome books you heard about. BUY THEIR BOOKS. Even if you aren’t personally interested in a book, you could always suck it up for the sake of a new friendship, or you could give it to a friend or even donate it to a book drive for someone who can’t afford it to discover and enjoy. But please don’t do any of this with an I’ll scratch your back, you had damn well better scratch mine attitude. All but the most gullible authors will be able to see right through you.

Be genuine. Add value to your community. That’s the #1 way to make sure your book goes home on someone else’s To Be Read list.