The Perks & Perils of Author Panels

With Jonathan Mayberry, Adam Gidwitz, Marie Lu, Jennifer Ziegler & Fred Perry

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

At conference and festival panels around the globe, children’s-YA authors share our thoughts about the writing process, the writer’s life, the creative journey, book marketing and connecting with our readers.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to gain insight into favorite voices, discover new ones, find inspiration and educate ourselves about craft and the business of publishing.

For authors, it’s also a chance to raise awareness of our work, get to know one another and speak out on topics of interest.

Over the years, I’ve found myself in every role—spectator, panelist, moderator, and event planner.

Wearing each respective hat, I’ve sparkled, fallen flat, come to the rescue and said the worst possible thing. I’ve also witnessed beloved friends and respected colleagues doing much of the same.

Today, my goal is to share a few observations and suggestions, understanding that each panel—depending on its venue, audience, goals and personalities—offers its own set of demands, limitations and possibilities.

Introduce the authors.

Moderators: We would all love to assume our formidable reputations precede us. But introductions—of approximately the same length and tone per participant—set the stage and prime the audience. (For many authors, introducing and/or selling ourselves is awkward.)

Again, it’s not the credentials that matter so much as the way they’re presented.

Let’s say we’re featuring three authors, each at a different career stage. Enthusiasm and word choice can even the playing field and facilitate a more engaging conversation. Say, for example, “I’m honored to present a living legend, a thrilling new voice, and a quickly rising star.” Frame the supporting details along those same lines, and don’t forget to introduce yourself.

Announce the time and location of any tie-in signings in conjunction with the introductions and remind the audience of them at the end when you thank everyone and dismiss the session.

Authors: Just in case, be ready for the moderator to ask you to introduce yourself. Keep it short—under five sentences, and if possible, funny. Practice before you go on. No need to do a mini-presentation on your work. Leave yourself something to talk about on the panel.

Both: Mention the publisher(s) of all relevant recent book(s), no matter whether the house(s) provided author/event sponsorship or not.

Smaller panels are usually better.

With Tim Tingle and Chris Barton

Planners: You’re assembling your dream team or trying to sub-categorize a long slate or swept away by the idea of more, more, more!

But unduly large panels risk at least one participant being shortchanged.

Or there isn’t enough time to offer more than an overview of new releases and quick-hit opinions on unifying themes.

Or the program becomes stilted by the effort to keep an even pace and, therefore, skips intriguing follow-up questions or author-generated questions.

Or by the time the seventh author has answered a given question, there’s not much left to say.

A grouping of three-to-four author panelists is ideal.

Moderators: If you are trapped into a large panel, vary the order of authors to whom you address each question so nobody is consistently answering, say, first or last.

Tailor questions and answers to the crowd.

Who’s listening? Fellow writers, book creators (don’t forget SCBWI illustrators), publishing pros, teachers, librarians, kids, teens, the general public?

It can be helpful for moderators to generate a list of likely topics in advance and then for author-panelists to brainstorm what might be of greatest interest to the specific audience.

That said, don’t overdo on preparation. Enjoy the moment. Keep it mostly spontaneous. You don’t want to be mentally cycling on a specific script.

Skip the reading. Or keep it under one minute.

Audiences—especially young ones—tune out during readings.

Most authors don’t have acting experience. Odds are low that three or more author-readers, especially unrehearsed, will be able to captivate the audience for an extended period of time.

I understand the temptation to offer a quick taste of the authors’ writing and in their own voice, too. But whenever author-readers are invited, in turn, to read a page or two, invariably, one participant will go on too long.

A better option: The moderator can be the one sharing, say, a paragraph of no more than 125 carefully chosen words (or fewer) per book. This may be presented in conjunction with introductions. As part of the preparation, perhaps ask each author to suggest his or her preferred 125 words (or fewer) and go from there.

Disperse the court.

Author Greg Leitich Smith chats with fellow panelists.

A panel is a shared venue, not one in which it’s appropriate to hold court.

If one author is dominating the conversation or otherwise minimizing other participants, the moderator should step in and redirect.

Keep in mind that there’s a surreal quality to public speaking. It’s entirely possible that the self-appointed regent doesn’t even realize what he or she is doing.

Employ phrases like: “That’s wonderful, Cynthia. I love your enthusiasm for the—cough—nine books in your fantasy world. And now, let’s all hear from that adorable debut novelist who looks so terrified that she might swallow her tongue.”

Except, you know, without publicly calling out the sweet debut on her terror. Or the long-standing pro for running on. (Unless it’s me. You can throw a dead fish at me. Really, I can take it.)

If the moderator doesn’t intervene, the alpha role traditionally falls to the most well-established (or local/host) author on the panel.

Herd the audience.

Moderators: You may be hosting a big-name or hometown author or one whose fan club is crowded into the first three rows. That’s nifty.

Announce up front that any questions from the audience must be addressed to all of the participants.

Mention that specific questions for individual authors should be asked of them at their tie-in signings. Likewise, statements (rather than questions) should be reserved for this one-on-one opportunity.

End segregation.

Conversations around culture, gender, orientation and underrepresented communities are vital.


However, let’s not default to only one panel on the program where, say, all the people of color and/or Native voices are given the opportunity to speak and exclusively about how their books relate to that part of themselves.

Or put another way, let’s not exclude Shana Burg from conversations about writing African and African-American characters or Cindy Pon from conversations about writing speculative fiction.

Authors, if you do find yourself on segregated panels… Or planners/moderators, if because of circumstances beyond your control, that composition is honestly the best you can do…. Acknowledge the limitation, admit it’s problematic, and point your audience to additional books, authors and/or resources for more varied perspectives.

As a preventive measure, authors may want to ask who else is participating and perhaps make a point of thoughtfully suggesting colleagues.

Lift up.

I have publicly made the wrong call, unintentionally offended, and changed my mind after speaking. On the flip side, I’ve felt diminished and frustrated. We’ve all been there.

What to do? Laugh at yourself, lift up one another, and forgive without second thought. Or at least without third thought. Remember, our job is bigger than us, bigger than our own creative work.

We are ambassadors of youth literature.

Whatever our individual quirks, passions, predispositions and pitfalls, we’re all on the same team.

Go Team Us!

Cynsational Notes

At the Illumine banquet

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author of the Feral series, which includes Feral Nights and Feral Curse, as well as the Tantalize series, which includes Tantalize, Eternal, Blessed, Diabolical.

Two graphic novels, Tantalize: Kieren’s Story and Eternal: Zachary’s Story, both illustrated by Ming Doyle, complete the Tantalize series.

These adventure-fantasies are originally published by Candlewick Press in the U.S., Walker Books in the U.K. and Australia/New Zealand, and additional publishers around the globe. Her series are often noted for their diverse protagonists, humor, suspense and compelling action.

Cynthia is also the author of several children’s books, including Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu; Rain Is Not My Indian Name and Indian Shoes, illustrated by Jim Madsen; all originally published by HarperCollins.

Cynthia was named a Writer of the Year by Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers in recognition of Rain is Not My Indian Name.

Cynthia has been twice featured at the National Book Festival. Most recently, she was
named the first Spirit of Texas Young Adult author by the Young Adult Round Table of the Texas Library Association and the first young adult author to be honored with the Illumine
Award by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation.

In 2013, the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators instituted the Cynthia Leitich Smith Mentor Award in
her honor.

9 thoughts on “The Perks & Perils of Author Panels

  1. GREAT post, Cyn. I especially love the suggestion about moderators reading 125 well chosen words in the intros. Very great suggestion.

    I have one suggestion for the authors and moderators. I notice that when I am at the event 'bookstore' after a panel, I am most often drawn to buy the books where the authors have talked about their books in terms of craft and the choices they made as a writer. It made me interested to buy the book and read first hand how they told the story. IOW, every time an author grounded their answers in the book made me more interested in buying the book. I find that Q&A's which focus on the author's writing travails (and this from me, a writer who love to talk about the writing life)don't draw my interest to the book when I thinking about making a purchase.

    Just a personal observation…fwiw.

  2. BIG hugs, and thank you for this, especially:

    "Acknowledge the limitation, admit it's problematic, and point your audience to additional books, authors and/or resources for more varied perspectives."

    Here's to lifting up. ☺

  3. An illuminating and inspiring post, Cynthia. Fabulous food for thought, and a nice head's up for those of us who haven't been on any panels yet.

  4. Laugh at yourself, lift up one another, and forgive without second thought. Or at least without third thought. Remember, our job is bigger than us, bigger than our own creative work.

    A great reminder of the big picture. Kindness wins out.

  5. I've moderated dozens of panels at writing events during the past decade and within the past few years gotten experience as a speaker, too. You hit on so many great points here.

    I always see the moderator's role as a bodyguard, to protect speakers from the audience and sometimes from themselves. I always warn my speakers ahead of time I might have to cut them off in the name of time/pacing (I find this helps limit the chance I'll upset them if I do cut them off). I also assure them they'll never have to be the "bad guy" if a member of the audience tries to play expert on their dime. As the moderator, I always believe that's my job.

    I've come to recognize I can respond to a few questions from the audience when I'm a moderator, but it needs to be rare and very brief. When I moderate, it's not my place to be the star; I want my panelists to shine.

    If the speaker's written material is a factor in the discussion, I do my homework and read. I've benefited from reading well outside of my genre (fantasy) and market (YA). That diverse reading has made me a better writer, and I'm grateful for that.

  6. Love this post, Cynthia. It ought to be required reading for all panel participants and moderators, myself included.

    It also brought back memories. Oh, the stories I could tell;).

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