I set up a fair number of library panel/Q&A events for the New Jersey Authors Network, so I found the comments and ensuing debate resulting from Hildy Silverman's excellent guest post, 10 Things To Think About When Sitting On A Writing Panel, particularly interesting.
Reading through what folks had to say on the subject, it became clear that different people had different ideas about what folks can expect from a writing panel, how they should be run, and also the role of the moderator.
The NJAN panel/Q&As we put on at libraries differ from the sort of thing you might encounter at a writing conference in three ways: They're free to attend (open to writers and civilians alike); the writers on the panel are often less well-known; the panel members' books are available for purchase immediately afterwards.
We usually have a generic theme eg: 'I've finished my first draft, now what?'. The moderator provides the panel with the questions he/she plans to ask in advance, so they have time to prepare their answers. After about 40/45 minutes, we go into the Q&A session. When that's done, panelists give a quick elevator pitch of one of their books, at which point the moderator thanks the audience for coming and invites them to come and meet the panel members and/or buy a book, should they so wish.
Personally, I have several goals in mind when I moderate a panel:
First and foremost, I want everyone there to have fun.
The way I see it, if the people in the audience don't have fun, they won't come back to a similar event in the future, they won't recommend them to other writers, and the library will be less excited about having us back. I prefer a light-hearted approach to a more formal one. That's not to say the answers we give aren't serious, but I think it's much easier to connect with a smiling audience. If the other panelists agree, I also like to set up our chairs in front of the panel's table (and book display). To me, it feels less formal somehow.
I want every single person there (including folks on the panel) to leave the room more excited about his/her writing than when the event kicked-off.
We've all had them, those 'Yes!' moments when a great story idea pops into your head, or a solution to a story problem presents itself. They make you want to drop whatever you're doing and get to work on your ms right then and there. I think a good writing event can inspire/motivate people in a similar way (though hopefully, they'll wait till the event's over before leaving). Information is great, and we should have that, but sometimes inspiration matters more.
I want to get the panel members' names (including mine) off people's 'Never heard of 'em' list, onto their 'Oh yeah, I know him (or her)' list.
With hundreds of thousands of books published each year in North America alone, there's no shortage of things for people to read. Nevertheless, most of us carry a sub-conscious list of writers in our head. These are the names we look out for when we browse the shelves at a library, or peruse the 'Newly published' counter at Barnes & Noble. These names aren't just the writers whose books we've read, they're often writers we've met. Sure, one good encounter won't get your name on someone's internal writers list, but over time, I think it does. Social media works too, but seeing/meeting people in person makes a much greater impression - at least, it does on me.
Lastly, but still important, I want the audience to buy our books afterwards.
It's great to make a connection with people, but even better when they buy a book. Most panel members have a bit of a drive to the event. A few book sales makes the time and gas money spent seem worthwhile, so after the Q&A, each panel member gives an elevator pitch for one of their books. I think it's a good way to remind folks that we're also authors with books to sell.
Of course, my way may not be the best way.
How about you?
How would you like to see people run a writing panel/Q&A?