Today One Bite at a Time begins a project of unprecedented magnitude. The scope of this event—and it is an event—is so vast, so mind-numbingly expansive, that I actually had to do work. (Relax. I left most of it to my “honored guests.”)
Every year the mystery reading and writing community convenes at Bouchercon; last month we sacked Albany NY. As at any Bouchercon, panels are a key element, but most of us show up, view (or participate in) the panel, and don’t think much about it.
Over the next several weeks, One Bite at a Time is privileged to have access to a diverse cast of Bouchercon attendees, who look at panels from every angle. Today I’m delighted to welcome Judy Bobalik and Jon Jordan, who have worked behind the scenes for years to ensure Bouchercons have come off well; this year they were the panel organizers, and their insights on panels are below.
Subsequent weeks will solicit opinions from a diverse array of mystery aficionados: a panel moderator (Peter Rozovsky); several authors, ranging in experience from self-pubbed to mid-list to an established star (alphabetically, Jack Getze, John McFetridge, Tim O’Mara, Thomas Pluck, and Zoe Sharp); a key member of what I refer to as the “firmware” of the mystery community: those who are not authors, but are more than readers (Ali Karim); and, last but not least, two of the people we do it all for: readers (Michelle Turlock Isler and Walt Colby). Interviews will run on Fridays until we’re done.
So, enough farting around. Let’s see how panels are put together from the inside of the process, courtesy of Judy Bobalik and Jon Jordan.
One Bite at a Time: Writers like to joke about spending their entire conference at the bar, but it’s safe to say it’s the panels that make a conference worth attending. What’s the first step in organizing the panel schedule?
Judy Bobalik: Once registration to be on a panel is over, Jon Jordan and I get a list of people who requested one. It has nothing to do with when you sign up; the list is in alphabetical order. I then go through and list keywords from their questionnaires (humor, historical, private eye, thrillers, etc.). Jon and I figured out in 2010 that we need to start with titles and then add a panel topic to those. In 2008 we used song titles, 2010 episode titles from The Streets of San Francisco television show, 2011 titles from television shows Bob Crais, Charlaine Harris and Val McDermid (our Guests of Honor) were involved with. 2013 Billy Joel song titles.
OBAAT: How are the topics determined, and how much guidance are moderators given when they receive their topics?
JB: Topics are chosen by what the titles lend. Moderators are given the Moderator’s Manifesto, which was drawn up by several authors.
Jon Jordan: We try to leave topics a bit broad so moderators can run with an idea and make it their own.
OBAAT: How is the scheduling of each panel determined? Last year in Cleveland all the foreign interest panels were at the same time; this year there were two hard-boiled/noir panels taking place simultaneously. Is that a result of feedback you’ve received from previous organizers and attendees, or just how things work out sometimes?
JB: I end up with a four page, single-spaced list of author availability; that determines when I can schedule a panel. We had a panel set this year and when I went to schedule one author was only available on Friday and one was only available on Saturday so I had to remove and replace one of the authors.
OBAAT: How are the moderators chosen and matched with panels?
JB: Most moderators are chosen by their familiarity with the topic. We have some moderators who can and will do anything. (My go-to moderators. We love people who tell me, “Yes, whatever you need.”) This year we had a lawyer/author moderate the legal panel. Another moderator reads and reviews cozy/traditional so she got a cozy/traditional panel.
OBAAT: How are the panelists chosen and matched with panels? Do the moderators have much say in who’s on their panels?
JB: I go through my keywords and also I go to each and every author website and troll for information. In Baltimore we had a Sherlock Holmes panel and I needed another panelist, I found one from a comment on her website stating she was a huge fan of Conan Doyle.
JJ: We do listen to suggestions, but ultimately it’s about whom will give a great panel for the fans. It is a fan convention, not a writer’s workshop.
OBAAT: Some panels are clearly designed to be held in the largest room, with more big name authors. How is it decided who is on these panels, and what their topics will be?
JB: We sometimes know who we feel will draw big crowds so we put them in the big room. Yet, we don’t always know. This year we had a panel on whether the rules of mystery still apply and we expected maybe 60-70 attendees; when I looked in the room it was standing room only, with people sitting on the floor. My guesstimate, there were over 175 people in the room. See above about topics.
OBAAT: Do you ever perceive, or learn about, friction between panelists or moderators? Has anyone come to you and said, “Don’t ever put me on a panel with him,” or “Take me off her panel?” (No names are necessary. Unless you want to give them, of course.)
JB: Unless someone directly tells us, “Don’t put me on a panel with so-and-so,” we don’t and can’t worry about whom likes whom. We are dealing with over 450 people.
JJ: it’s only come up twice that I recall. And we found out after the fact. It’s not kindergarten and most authors are professional enough to make it work.
OBAAT: What’s the most fun about organizing panels?
JB: Coming up with the topics and slotting the authors.
OBAAT: What’s the least fun? Or, maybe better put as, what’s the biggest pain in the neck?
JB: Scheduling. Jon and I can put together 95 panels in a couple of marathon phone calls; it takes me almost a week to do the scheduling. In a perfect world, everyone would be available from the start of the conference to the end but we do not live in a perfect world. Also emailing the notifications because many authors then inform me they aren’t going to be there at that time, even though we ask on the questionnaire if they have any time conflicts.
JJ: Authors being more available makes it easier to place them.
OBAAT: I can’t thank you both enough for taking the time to answer questions you’ve probably heard many times before. Waiting for the panel announcements has become, for me, not unlike a kid waiting for Christmas. Do you have any parting thoughts? Anything I missed?
JB: Contrary to what you said at the beginning, Bouchercon is not all about being on a panel. I have found more new (to me) authors by conversations struck up in the bar or having coffee in the hospitality area. If you are on a panel you are in front of maybe 100 people but over the course of the weekend you have the opportunity to connect with over a thousand. I’m not saying you should do a hard sell every time you are talking with someone (that often is a guarantee I won’t read your book), but if we have a conversation and I find you interesting I will often look up your book.
Also, contrary to popular belief, Thursday and Sunday are not the scrub panels. They often garner the largest crowds and books sales. Something else for authors to consider: if you are available for the whole of the conference the likelihood of you getting on more than one panel increases.