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Sponsorship At Writers’ Conferences: A Question of Awareness

At London Book Fair 2015 in Olympia London. Photo: Porter Anderson [1]
At London Book Fair 2015 in Olympia London. Photo: Porter Anderson

‘People Are Trying To Make Money From You’

Isabel Losada [2]
Isabel Losada

At The Bookseller this week, author Isabel Losada [3] is blogging for us about her experiences as a writer here at London Book Fair [4].

Not surprisingly, much of her focus is on the Author HQ [5] program(me) with which London has led the way in attracting and welcoming authors into the big trade show’s rough-and-tumble world, beginning three years ago with Authoright’s [6] presentation there of Author Lounge.

In her Thursday piece for us, An author at LBF: Not for the faint-hearted [7], Losada writes:

Some small publishers offer no advances and some large publishers offer no advances, and now crowd-funding publishers offer authors the chance to become fund-raisers with the added attraction of no advances. Even the advice “Buyer Beware” has been reversed; this is “Seller Beware”.

Authors were warned: “People are trying to make money from you”. But they didn’t even mean the writing. They meant the other industry of all the people who will charge to tell you what to do next.

She’s right. And in author-facing conferences this year it seems — by my completely subjective count — that we’re seeing more and more such “people who will charge you to tell you what to do next” sitting on panels onstage.

I think the time has come to have a few words about this. It’s my provocation for you today. And the trickiest part for me to get across to you is that there is nothing wrong with sponsorship at writers’ conferences; the question is in how we communicate those sponsorships — or don’t — to attendees.

Because I don’t love being misquoted, I’m going to repeat myself: There is nothing wrong with sponsorship at writers’ conferences. 

Thanks. Moving on.

‘It’s Like My Head Is Going To Explode’

Provocations image by Liam Walsh [8]
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

If you’re a journalist, you’ll know that “It sounded like a freight train came through here” is the line you get after every major natural disaster. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes seem to sound like something on rails to victims cornered by television camera crews and asked (why do we ask?) what it was like.

At writers’ conferences, you don’t hear as much about boxcars but you can depend on hearing one line: “It’s like my head is going to explode.” The person who tells you this is normally listing to port, lugging a heavy tote bag filled with promotional literature and tchotchkes from various sponsors of the conference.

As that freight train of disruption chugs through the  mind of the writing-conference-goer, how clear is he on what he’s hearing from speakers in each session? Does that noggin-near-poppin’ understand that some of the people on the podium have paid to be there? Does our tote-toting attendee know a sponsored speaker from his asterisks?

I’m guessing no. Not least because it’s like his head is going to explode, right?  Overwhelm is at hand. Too many facts, too much excitement, the vaudeville of all that Kumbaya-boom-de-ay stuff is in his face and he’s seeing pretty much nothing clearly.

Even that’s okay. The immersion and inspi-vational elements of these events are, after all, part of the draw. To some degree, you want our good conference-going author to be a bit off-kilter so that old habits are loosened up and the blessed light of new ideas can enter the brain pan.

But what do we owe our writer as she feels the aspirational tide rise and we shift her moorings for all the right reasons?

One big clarification. We are not talking about industry conferences here. At such an event as Digital Book World or the upcoming IDPF Digital Book Conference [9] that I’m working to program for the opening of BookExpo America [10], sponsorship is, in fact, very much an order of the day and business people — the audience for those events — know it, expect it, and use it. That’s part of what “networking” may be about for them, and sponsored stage appearances can be deal-starters. This is all fine.

Today, our topic is not industry-facing conferences but author-facing conferences. That’s where, I think, we might want to do a bit more about communicating and revealing sponsorship.

Because at one writers’ conference this spring, I asked the organizers for their figures. And of about 67 speakers, more than 40 were sponsored. That means they or their companies had paid the conference enough money that they had that chance to speak on a panel.

Sponsors Are Good, Not Bad

Sponsors have a practical and meaningful role to play at writers’ conferences. We want them there.

At most writers’ conferences, sponsors function in two ways.

  1. They have a table or booth or stand in a part of the conference complex where attendees will be able to find them and become familiar with their services. In those settings, sometimes called “sponsor alley,” it’s completely clear to the attendees that  the vendors are there to pitch them.
  2. They may have representatives of their companies appear on panels and/or other informational sessions in a conference program, itself. Sponsorship packages frequently are sold with just such benefits listed as part of the appeal, offering a “panel appearance” or “speaking opportunity” as well as program ads, online ads, logo listings, maybe direct email blasts, that table or booth or stand, even special sessions or other events, receptions, breakfasts — lots of options. It’s in some of these formats that the pitch factor may be less apparent.

A conference’s value increases for its writer-attendees if they get to meet strong author-service purveyors and find the right assists for their career needs. Even the mere experience of what Losada calls “people are trying to make money from you” is a good education for the author who wants to function as an entrepreneur.

The question becomes how aware are the author-attendees that they’re hearing from a mixture of specialists in most conference settings?

Tote That Bag

Assume that we’re back at the conference with the excited author and her tote bag and her cranium about to fly apart.

[pullquote]”What do we owe our writer as she feels the aspirational tide rise and we shift her moorings for all the right reasons?”[/pullquote]

Assume that every person she’s hearing from onstage is an excellent specialist, a true expert in the field.

How aware is she that some of those specialists are working in advertorial mode?

As I was saying to Bryan Cohen recently in a podcast for Jim Kukral’s Author Marketing Institute [11], I wonder if we shouldn’t consider having sponsored speakers identified as such in programs, on their name-tags (please print them on both sides, organizers), on panelists’ name-slides shown onstage during sessions, and/or on the name cards put in front of them on panels.

The intention does not look like obfuscation to me. Every conference I cover does a fine job of clearly listing sponsors on special Web site pages. There’s usually lots of signage with logos.  It’s a rightful point of pride that a good conference can attract strong sponsorship. It means that author-services companies want to be in touch with the caliber of writer being attracted by a given event, and that can be a win-win-win for that conference, its delegates, and its sponsors.

But those ways of listing sponsorship are different from designating sponsors as such at the moment they’re on stage talking — which is the point at which the sponsors may have their greatest impact on attendees.

I’m wondering if the addition of “sponsor” next to a sponsored speaker’s name during a panel session or speech or demo might not help writers clarify that what they’re hearing  might be akin to a “paid political announcement.”

One respondent to the Author Marketing Institute podcast commented that conferences have every right to pay speakers. Of course they do. In fact, I encourage them to do that. And that’s not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about money going the other way — from speaker to conference. It’s all on the up-and-up and the funding is important. So why not clearly brand each paying speaker who wants to sell something to conference-goers?

So many new models of “author services” and salesmanship around us. How much “buyer beware” burden should we place on the writer who may not yet be an accomplished business person? And how much transparency do we owe them in the author-conference setting?

About Porter Anderson [12]

@Porter_Anderson [13] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [14], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [15] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [16]