The idea for this has been kicking around for awhile, and I figure perhaps I will finally get it down, in hopes that it might be useful for con organizers (and artists) out there somewhere.
I have been a Guest of Honor at a fair number of conventions over the years, starting back in the early 2000’s, and since we’re coming up on ten years of GoHing soon, I figure I’m probably as qualified to talk about it as I’m going to get.
So let’s say you’re a con organizer, and you want to get an Artist Guest of Honor at the con…
1. Ask far in advance. A year is not too much. Many cons are all clustered together, and I’ve had to turn down a gig or two because it fell on the weekend of an existing con, or immediately before or after. (I try very hard to avoid doing cons on successive weekends, because they kill me dead. Other artist are better prepared or more resilient, but respect that “I’m sorry, that’s a super busy time for me,” is a valid excuse even if you’re not on the exact same weekend.)
This is also smart for you, because I’ve had to cancel once or twice owing to family emergencies. Generally I offer to come back the next year, in that case, because I feel horrible. One con, apparently cursed, had this happen TWICE. Leave time to find a pinch-hitter artist.
2. Room, board, travel. To get an Artist GoH (or indeed, any GoH) you will be expected to pay for their hotel room and travel to and from the convention. If humanly possible, you also pay for their spouse/significant other/assistant to come to the con. (9 out of 10 cons pay for Kevin to come with me, for example.) If you are a teeny-tiny con and can only afford one plane ticket, be sure to make that clear. (I’ve had a con offer to pay half of Kevin’s plane fare, because they had such a tight budget, and that, I thought, was completely fair under the circumstances.)
2A. Offer your Artist GoH a table. From the artist’s point of view, here, you are asking them to take a weekend away from their other projects, PLUS the days of prep time (and believe me, there are days of prep time) travel to some semi-far away place, hang an art show, go to a whole bunch of panels, and be gracious to strangers who have no idea who they are and who may have the social skills of cheese.
This is work.
More importantly, it also costs the artist money. Even if you are paying for the plane tickets, the artist almost always has to shell out for checked luggage these days, they may pay for shipping art, they certainly pay for food at the con. Every con I go to these days costs me money, usually more than I expect, and the only places to recoup it are the art show and the dealer’s table. As the art show generally does not cut a check until a month or so later (and MFF still wows me with their pay-right-this-minute ability) the dealer’s table is where they make money to, y’know, eat.
2B. Speaking of which… Contrary to popular wisdom, your artist will need to eat. This means that either you are paying them a per diem for food (which some cons do, and some don’t) or that they are having to shell out for three meals a day.
Do not expect your artist to live out of the con suite. This makes the artist very sad. There are some really spectacular con suites, but there are also less spectacular ones. If your GoH is watching someone run their grubby fingers through the last bowl of potato chips and wondering if they can live on a dry hot dog bun, you are Doin’ It Wrong. (Also, some people have very specific dietary requirements, re: gluten, vegan, peanuts, Judaica.)
If you cannot afford a per diem, again, it happens. No shame attaches to you. If you cannot afford a per diem and you are not providing a dealer’s table, though….um.
(Now, I do have a con upcoming where they ask that we not have a dealer’s table, but use the print shop, as they feel that their artists are more accessible floating the con and interacting with people. I’m genuinely curious as to how this will work out, as I usually find that the table is useful for people trying to find me, but I’m willing to give it a shot, and will let you know. It may be awesome, it may involve me sitting at the bar with Kevin, eyeing strangers askance.)
Side note: If you are getting an Author GoH, I assume they’re probably getting paid a separate fee, as they have no such money-making potential at the table. Realize that you are asking them to spend money on your behalf.
3. Make it clear what you expect in terms of art. It’s pretty standard that, in exchange for room, board, and plane tickets, your artist GoH will do a conbook cover and/or T-shirt design and/or badge design for you. Seriously, this is a business deal—you’re paying for them to come provide a service, and most of the time, art is included. That’s fine. It’s standard. (I’ve only had one con say “You don’t need to worry about it, we have tons of artists and we know you’re busy.”) Make sure they know how much art and the deadline, because this may influence whether they’ll be able to schedule you. (Do not say “Be the artist GoH!” and then three weeks later say “And by the way, we need you to design our shirts, book, staff shirts, posters, web graphics, decorative shotglasses, and all in full color and by Tuesday!” This is a Bad Thing.)
3a. Be a responsible art director. When you commission art, particularly art with a deadline, the artist has the responsibility to get it to you on time, to your specifications. You, on the other hand, have to make sure that your specifications are clear, that they know what you want, that they know the dimensions (dear god, get the dimensions up front! If I had a nickel for every time I have had to write back “Yes. That’s great. What are the dimensions? Yes. Firebreathing. Uh-huh. Marvelous. What are the dimensions?”) color, black and white, how much room to leave for dead space, what space on badges is required for names, etc. (That last is really important, and nobody ever thinks of it in advance, I swear.)
I have had a few cons really drop the ball on this one, where my contact stopped answering questions, weeks went by without contact, and I have eventually had to contact the con chair saying “You have three weeks til deadline, I’ve heard nothing the last three time I’ve e-mailed, if you want the art done, you have about ten minutes to tell me what you want and what size it should be.” This is very frustrating for the artist and can’t be great for the staff, either. (I should note that I had one where that happened, and I was put in touch with someone who had been made the vice-chair while she was unconscious in surgery and couldn’t object. She was AWESOME. She didn’t know anything about art, but she had exactly the right attitude, which was “I am probably going to ask some stupid questions, bear with me, and tell me what information I need to get. We Will Fix This.” She was fabulous.)
It is also totally okay to ask your artist for changes, within reason. Within reason is “We love this idea, but damnit, it’s a whiskey bottle and we can’t actually sell merch about alcoholic beverages, under the terms of our charter.” Within reason is “This is a little too adult for us.” Within reason is “Our mascot’s always shown wearing one shoe, can you take the other shoe out?” or “We’d like to print this on X, can you send a version minus the background?”
Within reason is not “Can you make the cover the con staff’s D&D group, and my character just leveled, so here’s the description of his new helmet and armor…” because you will make an artist somewhere cry.
As a corollary to this, for the artist in question, be professional. This is a case where not having something done by deadline means that the con may have to spend a lot of extra money for rush printing, OR won’t be able to use it at all. Make your deadlines. Don’t half-ass it.
4. Keep your artist secure.
I may go off on a bit of a tangent here, since I have strong feelings about convention security these days, so bear with me.
I am lucky.
I am female and not terribly physically imposing and I hate confrontation. That said, I also don’t have any serious weirdos who come after me at conventions. Other people are not so lucky. There are big name authors who hire personal bodyguards for public appearances. (A friend of mine had a signing with one once, and apparently the author had received death threats. Her bodyguards dragged bookcases into place around the table so that no one could get at her without going over the table and mapped out escape routes from the building. They nearly jumped a fan who tried to hug her. This is a funny story when my friend tells it, but also a frightening one.)
The convention that I feel safest at is Anthrocon. The reason for this is partly that I know many of the security staff, but that’s true at a couple of cons. The reason that I feel safe there is because their security wear bright red t-shirts when on-duty that say “ANTHROCON SECURITY” in big letters. You can find one instantly in a crowd. They are a visible presence.
I realize that not all cons can afford to do this—that’s a lot of T-shirts to wrangle!—but PLEASE make security an obvious presence. Big ribbons are good. Vests. Something. If I am scanning badges trying to remember what color is security staff and which one is a minor badge, or trying to read teeny text, that’s a problem.
I once had an organizer tell me, somewhat contemptuously, that sure, they had security but they weren’t “in your face.” You wouldn’t pick them out of a crowd. I grunted something noncommittal into my wineglass (see above about hating confrontation.)
What I didn’t say was that this is all very well and good for a man with a neck as thick as my thigh, but it didn’t do me a damn bit of good. If I’d been feeling harassed, my options were reduced to screaming “FIRE!” or running all the way to Con Ops, which was on the second floor, and since there were no visible security on the elevators either, it would have taken me forty-five minutes to get there.
(Do not, I beg of you, get the idea to get all cute and put your security in fantasy/sci-fi/paramilitary uniforms. I thought they were all cos-players and was starting to get a little weirded out.)
Anyway, back to topic, take your guest’s security concerns seriously. Some of them have stalkers. Some of them have freaks. If they express concern to you, pay attention. (Likewise, for artists (or anyone!) if you possibly can, report any such incidents. It may not be just you that they’re bothering. Security can’t do anything if they don’t know about it. If you do report it and they do nothing, you are at a very bad convention and can be forgiven for immediately packing up and going home.)
Okay, rant done. Onward!
5. Make sure travel is arranged well in advance. You don’t need to send a limo, but do send SOMEBODY to the airport. Hand out cell-phone numbers. Do not leave your artist to cool her heels at the airport for two hours. (Happened to me once on a book tour. I had to call my publicist at 9 at night to arrange a car, because I had no idea where I was going and the car hadn’t arrived. It was awkward.) Likewise, make sure that your artist knows how she’s getting BACK to the airport, specifically, instead of just a vague “Oh, somebody’ll take you…” which leaves her with a sinking feeling of dread that she is at the whim of somebody who is more interested in winning Klingon Bingo than in making sure she doesn’t have to spend the night at the airport.
6. Schedule kindly. Part of getting an artist GoH means that you get to put them on all kinds of panels. This is part of the service you’re buying, and the artist is absolutely obligated to show up to said panels if humanly possible, and in a semi-coherent state at that.
Do not put more than two or three panels back to back. Give your artist time to pee. She is probably running on coffee and adrenaline. Food is also awesome. Multiple panels during dinnertime are hard. I realize that sometimes you’re wrist-deep in a spread-sheet trying to make sure that George R. R. R. R. Martin is not signing opposite the costume ball opposite the panel on hot werewolf lovin’, but spare a thought.
(Likewise, do not schedule your artist at the critical hours of dealer room teardown. They need that time. I have attended very few closing ceremonies because it’s always opposite teardown, and I’m sorry to miss them, because generally they politely acknowledge your existence and I feel guilty not being there for it.)
6a. Not everyone is good with kids. Super-uber-importantly, ASK before you schedule panels with small children. I am not a kindergarten teacher. I have had cons tell me that they have a big kid’s programming track, and that’s awesome, but it’s NOT awesome when I’m in a room with three or four kids and no grown-ups and apparently I’m expected to do something with them. I realize I write children’s books, but, har, I actually have absolutely no experience with small children. (How do you think I write the things in the first place?) I never babysat anyone, ever. I had been assured (before agreeing to do the panel) that there would be a staffer there who ran the track, and when they didn’t show up, the only thing that saved the day is the fact that Kevin used to be a Boy Scout leader and is good with kids. I am pretty resilient on the panel front now, I can give talks more or less extemporaneously and joke with the audience and shut down all but the most persistent of hijackers, but stuff like that makes me hyperventilate and want to lock myself in my room.
7. Managing multiple GoH’s. I have been to cons where there was one GoH (me) and cons where there were ten or fifteen, all with spouses and entourages. If humanly possible, when you’ve got a lot whole lot of guests, a closed Green Room or a GoH suite is AWESOME. You want your GoH’s to interact with the fans—that’s why they’re there, after all!—but particularly if they don’t have tables, such a room may be their only source of temporary retreat other than running to their room. Being a GoH at a con is a little like being on stage—you are playing the role of Noted Illustrator or Famous Author or Brilliant Filker Who Has Taken The World By Storm, and sometimes you really need a place to sit down and not be on for just a minute. By the third day, the bathroom often smells too bad for this to be a viable option.
7a. If one of your guests is really really famous, don’t put the unknown on the panel with them, or “Everyone Was Very Nice That Time I Was On Stage With George R. R. Martin, But Really, Let’s Not Kid Ourselves, I Was The Comic Relief.” (That said, everyone WAS very nice, particularly Mr. Martin, and I thought it was funny as hell, but I’m pretty laid back and my ego is invested in other things. Other personality types might have had a slightly harder time of it in that scenario. And this was BEFORE Game of Thrones got on cable.) Seriously, it’s also a matter of courtesy to the fans—they’re all there to see person X, and may tend to see person Y talking as a derailment. (Likewise, do not schedule their panel OPPOSITE the Really Super Famous Person’s panel, as a room full of chirping crickets is always a sad thing.)
7b. That said, try not to make it obvious that you think one GoH is way more important. Look, we all generally know who the star of the show is, and most of us aren’t bothered by it. We have our fields. The best-known illustrator in the world is not nearly as famous as a mid-list author, and the most famous filker or scientist ever can’t compete with an extra on Star Trek. However, if you schedule a GoH dinner, call it “The GoH Dinner” and when your artist GoH comes up and says “You’ve scheduled the dinner opposite a panel of mine, where do you want me?” do not say “Oh. That’s not really for you.” Call it “A Sponsor Dinner With Bob The Writer” if that’s what you actually meant, don’t leave your filker and your artist and your scientist going “…oh.” and going to the bar to drink heavily together and vowing never to darken your door again.
8. Tell how the art show is hung. And I don’t mean “well.” Honestly, some of my art can’t hang on those grid things, but can hang on pegboard, probably vice versa. Let the artist know the system in advance, since it influences what I’ll bring. Also, don’t expect ten panels worth of art. Ask how many to reserve, don’t just leave a vast naked space at the front of the gallery where the art will look embarassingly teeny. (That said, artists, bring a good amount of art, given what you can practically manage, given the constraints of flying and all. Don’t bring two paintings and an origami chicken, unless they are VERY impressive paintings.)
Now, having said all that, what about you, the artist GoH, who want to know how to please these nice people who were kind enough to invite you out and give you a hotel room and everything?
1. Be professional, be professional, be professional. You are On The Job. You are being Semi-Famous Artist. Do not tear off your clothes and scream obscenities unless asked to do so by the staff. (After that, it’s up to you.) Deliver your art on time, show up to your panels, and even if there are three people in the audience, do your best. Sometimes there will only be three people. (Sometimes no one will show up, in which case wait for at least five minutes and then go do whatever you want.)
If there is a sponsor lunch or something where you are supposed to mingle, then mingle goddamnit. This is really not about given you food. Don’t sit in the corner and mumble monosyllables into your pasta.
Do not deal meth at the table, do not get arrested until after closing ceremonies. YOU THINK I’M JOKING, DON’T YOU?
2. Be good-humored. Odds are good that they’re trying really hard. Crazy mix-ups happen, and rarely if ever is malice involved. If you travel very badly and tend to develop a persecution complex when things go wrong (ask your spouse/partner/friends if you’re not sure) then decline politely.
3. Be gracious. Look, if you’re not good with fans, that’s okay. Stay home. Many of us are introverts and these things are exhausting, and if you have seriously social anxiety disorders, then don’t put yourself through this. I’ve gotten pretty good at these, and I still come home from a con and take two days off and sleep like the dead because even the very good ones are exhausting.
If possible, learn to do it, learn to give the panels, learn to talk to five hundred strangers in a day that know you and you don’t know them. It’s a remarkably rewarding experience. I recommend it highly. You meet some really awesome people. But don’t if you’re gonna be a dick or if it’s gonna make you miserable. Seriously.
This is a skill. It is a learned skill. I had to learn it myself. Hopefully if you’ve been in the dealer’s room at cons for awhile and on a few panels, you’ve already learned the skills. It can be learned. I am not entirely sure it can be taught.
3a. Learn to accept praise. I know, I know, when someone runs up and says “I love your work!” your inclination is to mumble an apology for wasting their time with your crappy art, or to say “It’s not that great.”
This is not about you.
If somebody says “I love your art,” and you say “My art is awful,” then guess what? You just insulted them. You have told them, in effect, that what they love is crap and that they have poor taste. Clamp your teeth down on that urge, smile, and say “Thank you.” If you can’t think of a single other thing to say, I make you a gift of this phrase—“Thank you. You’re very kind.” Say this when you want to scream that you messed up the knees on the horse and the tail on the fox and the eyeballs on the woman. If you have to say it every single time, then do. You don’t have to believe it, you don’t have to jump on the table and say “That’s right, I’m AWESOME!”—
But don’t insult them.
4. Praise is good. Thank the staff for having you out. Thank them for making life easier for you, if they do. I know lots of people who give swag to the staff in thanks. A lot of times you will have a single staffer who is very helpful with something like art check-in or table set-up or whatever. Even if, like me, you are very bad with names, try to praise them to their supervisor, or if they’re the one in charge, thank them directly. (Hell, this isn’t just for a GoH—if you’re working or attending any con and con staff do a great job, TELL THEM.)
This stuff matters more than you think.
Some seriously awesome stuff that cons have done in the past:
The cheese plate. You all know my feelings about a fruit and cheese plate. I will forgive you a LOT for a fruit and cheese plate.
Putting me on the staff floor for hotel rooms. Staff floors are often much quieter (at least until Sunday night) because these people need to sleep. This isn’t always feasible because you never know who’s gonna have the screaming room party, obviously, but I’m always grateful for a quiet night.
Taking me out to dinner. It’s not required. Neither is inviting me to parties, although I’m grateful, and wish I could get out to more than I do. (Often I am exhausted after the end of the day, particularly if I’ve been traveling, and just need sleep.)
Green Room — mentioned this already, but man, those are great.
Coffee-clatches and teas — I don’t know when this started happening, but I have lately had a couple of cons that do a panel that’s basically an hour in a room with a coffee pot or (even better!) a high tea with little cucumber sandwiches. These tend to be much less formal than “Artist Sits At Front Of Room And Stares At Audience.” You can have real conversations. These are awesome, and if you have the option, I recommend it highly.
The Basket — Lotta cons give you a token gift for appearing. Mugs are popular. (One did pint glasses, which was nice.) It’s certainly not required, but on a side note, the best one ever had a couple of small bags of potato chips, some granola bars, and a set of Micron pens. This was a con that understood the reality of an artist’s life.
Assign a staffer to check on you in the dealer’s room. This is very helpful if you need to run to the bathroom, if there’s someone breathing heavily over your art for half an hour and giving you the sticky eyeball, if you desperately need a drink. I have had staffers run out to get me coffee, and I am always VERY grateful. (I also once had a fan run out and get me a bottle of absinthe. If you’re reading this, hon, I am STILL grateful!)
Whew. All I can think of now, and that is probably QUITE enough! Now! If you are an artist GoH of past or future, if you are a con organizer or a con staffer or a liason, please, please, please, tell me what you would add to the list. Great anecdotes about why so-and-so was a great guest and why you will take cyanide before working a con with Lou Ferrigno are all welcome. (Okay, okay, be nice. Somewhat nice. If it’s a complaint about why somebody was a dick, “An Author That Shall Remain Nameless” is perfectly fine.)
Anything I can hear that helps me make things easier for the con to deal with, and likewise that make it easier for the con to deal with me is valuable data.