Mary's Minute: Moderating panels

Last week while preparing for an event at my library, I was hit on the head with post inspiration. MARY, I thought to myself, you've done a lot of these events! Do you think the bookish world would be interested in a post about moderating? So I asked, and Twitter said YES so here we are. I'm going to go over a few things, give some tips, and then I'll answer questions I received on Twitter.

Note: Please understand, I'm not trying to brag; I just have a lot of experience with panels and want to share those experiences, advice how to moderate / how to become a moderator, and answer a few questions. 

How are you qualified to talk about moderating bookish events?
I don't know if there's such a thing as being an expert in moderating, but if it is, I probably could be one. I have moderated nineteen panels and conversations for book launches, author tours, and book festivals for over two years. Additionally, it helps to really know YA—hot topics, trends,  themes, etc—and that's literally part of my job working in teen services at the library (it's okay if you don't work in a bookish job, but it does help!).

A photo posted by Julia ♡ Nollie (@nolliemarie) on

Step-by-step guide to moderating
First, we're going to assume there is a book event already happening in your area*, and you have already been chosen as moderator**.

*How do you get authors to visit you? Here is some advice how you can help make that happen.
**I'll answer how to be chosen as a moderator in the Q&A at the end.

Before the panel:
Step 1: Read the book(s). It's really important that you familiarize yourself with the author(s) work if you're going to talk to them about it. If you're moderating a panel featuring several authors, definitely aim to read at least one book by each author, and prioritize their most recent or upcoming title. If they're promoting a series, definitely read book one as most authors will share more about the first book than the more recent book because they don't often share huge spoilers in case they have new readers in the audience. If you are moderating a conversation with one author, try to read several of their books, and definitely be very familiar with the title they're promoting.

HOWEVER, life sometimes gets in the way so also don't be hard on yourself if you end up not reading everything. It's okay!

Step 2: Make notes! I don't care if you know the book front and back, better than your own hand, you have it memorized and are the admin of the wiki: nerves can be a real thing. If you're in front of an audience and an author, you don't want to suddenly forget details you KNOW you know. Your notes do NOT need to be extensive because you're not going to be talking about the fine details most of the time. Honestly, I just write the book's title and the main characters.

Step 3: Ask the organizer for information and expectations. If the publisher asked you directly to moderate, they'll send you anything they want you to know. If you were asked by the host–a bookstore or library–you will want to ask them if they have any info from the author or publisher. This information can include sample questions, about the author, the book's summary, a timeline of the panel, etc. Definitely ask if there's anything they want you to share (read the author's bio, etc) or not share (personal information, certain spoilers if you're talking about a series, etc). For festivals, you may need to go over some "housekeeping" issues (schedule, rules, etc).

Step 4: Write your questions! Questions are a funny thing. Sometimes I write my questions weeks in advance, and sometimes I'll write them the day of, if I'm spending any amount of time with the authors. Conversations you have with them can be incredibly inspiring and direct the conversatin you have during the panel. Again, be very careful your questions aren't spoilery or leading to a spoilery answer.  Write more questions than you think you need. It is 100% better if you don't get to everything you prepared for than if you don't have enough material.

As for what to write questions about, anything and everything! You can ask book-specific questions (tell us about x character or x plot), writing (what does your space look like, plotter vs pantser, etc), whatever! Be creative. Be thoughtful. This is the part where it helps to be in the know about trends and topics affecting publishing and YA in particular. For instance, I moderated a We Need Diverse Books panel in 2015, and it was helpful to know the catalyst that started the push for more inclusion as well as the organization's goals. For a themed panel—like festival or convention panels—definitely devote the majority of your questions to the theme, but don't be entirely restrictive to it.

Notes in the margins are those I took during the panel
I do advise that, as moderator, you stay away from certain questions: where do you get your inspiration from? Will there be a movie? Do you have writing advice for aspiring authors? There's nothing wrong with these questions, but they are fairly typical. As moderator, you should be going a bit deeper. Plus, it's highly likely there will be young fans in the audience, and if there will be audience questions, these are popular ones for teen readers to ask.

OH! And stay away from yes/no questions unless you do a lightning round or are asking a follow up. I also don't care for recapping or similar questions.

Step 5: Print off or write down anything you might need. For me, I write all my questions by hand on a notepad*, but I always print off short bios for the authors UNLESS I'm at a festival and the panel will be on the short side. Then I simply ask them to introduce themselves and their books quickly. But my point here is, again, write things down. If you read their bios and want the authors to describe their books, write that down. You don't want to forget!

*I also keep a list of questions, both regular and lightning round, on the notepad of my phone if I think of something randomly or hear an excellent question at an event.

Day of/during the panel:
Step 6: Talk to the authors. If you have the chance beforehand, definitely ask the authors if they have anything they do/do not want to talk about. ALSO CHECK YOU CAN PRONOUNCE EVERYONE'S NAME (also titles and main characters if you're not sure, but especially the authors!)!!!!!!!

Step 7: Housekeeping / rules. If the author, publisher, or host has rules, go over them. Encourage the audience to take pictures and share the event via social media (share the hashtag if applicable!), but to turn off ringers. Explain the format of the panel (moderated questions, lightning round, audience questions? Reading, moderated questions, audience questions? Tell people what to expect!) and then jump on in!

Step 8: Be flexible. Sometimes a panel can really take off, and the authors feed off one another's answers, leading the conversation in a different, unexpected direction. This is a good thing (usually)! Keep an eye on the audience to make sure they're still engaged. If yes, let it flow. If not, you may need to gently steer the conversation back on track. If during the course of the conversation you're hit with inspiration, definitely feel free to ask follow-up questions.

Step 9: You're not the star. Personally, I think I'm hilarious. Really. I am highly entertained by myself, and I try to make my panels fun for everyone, authors and audience, but honestly, no one is there to see me, and I know it. There was an event I attended when I was not the moderator, and I was disappointed because the moderator spent most of the time having what seemed like a personal conversation with the audience. Her questions were unfocused and wordy, and she talked way too much. It left little time for audience questions, and honestly, it was boring. That experience is one I have never forgotten because I don't want to be that moderator.

I like to joke around when I moderate, but I always always keep in mind I'm not the reason the audience is there. Very, VERY occasionally I'll answer an audience question (last great book someone read, or something like that), but it's super seldom. You want your event to feel like a conversation, but moderators should not be the people talking the most. Basically, a moderator's job is to facilitate and focus discussion, not necessarily to participate.

Step 10: Keep track of time. Make sure you're aware of how long the panel is going so there will be time for questions and the signing.

Step 11: Be fair. "Life isn't fair" blah blah blah. Well, being the moderator comes with a modicum of power so use it well. Make sure each author is getting equitable amounts of time to talk and respond. I am so lucky I've never had someone hijack a panel, but you have to be prepared. It's not personal if you have to nudge someone back on topic or cut someone off, but do it respectfully. Also be fair to the audience. As above, leave plenty of time for a handful of audience questions.* Do give teens some precedence over adult audience members (for a YA or MG panel especially), but don't completely cut off adults. They're fans too! If you have a lot of audience questions, try to pick from different places; don't just stick with one group of friends.

*If the audience is feeling shy, you CAN always ask more of your own questions, which is why it's good to over-prepare! Also, if the audience IS shy, do your best to make them comfortable.

Step 12: Thank everyone! Thank the authors. Thank the host / bookstore / library / festival. Thank the audience. Thank the publisher.

Moderator Must Haves
Your questions! One of the most panicky moments I've ever had is when I sat down five minutes before a panel in 2015 only to realize I'd packed the wrong notepad and left my questions at home!

Pen/pencil. I keep a pen handy so I can write down quotes or additional questions as the panel progresses.

Watch/phone. To keep track of time. I also use it to talk to my coworkers if the event is at my library or take an audience photo, but it's important to not be stuck on your phone the whole time. Stay engaged!

Water bottle. You really, REALLY do not want to be in a position where you don't have a drink. Just in case. I guess you could have a different drink, but I recommend water in a bottle with a cap because it will cause the least mess in case of an accident and because it won't make you burp or anything weird.

Sense of humor. Oh, man, this is really really important and goes with being flexible. I'm pretty sure I've made a mistake on every single panel I've ever been on. The first time I moderated, I misread Veronica Rossi's bio and said she had "two husbands and a son" instead of a "husband and two sons." I said Mary Pearson wrote Kiss of Betrayal and Heart of Deception. I interrupted Marissa Meyer. My best friend's daughter sassed me from the audience when I asked if there were any audience questions, and she shouted out, "NO!" Just a couple weeks ago, I flubbed the CRAP out of Morgan Matson's bio. Roll with it. Laugh. Make fun of yourself. Take a deep breath. Take a drink. Move on. Don't let stuff like that rattle you. Remember step 9: You're not the star so nobody will care if you make a boo-boo. Seriously, I promise it'll be okay, and no one will remember what happened (although you will likely remember it forever because brains are jerks like that).

Q & A:
I asked Twitter to send me any questions they had about moderating. I have answered a couple of them throughout this post, but here are the remaining questions.

Honestly, it's a little bit of luck, same as getting author events in your area. Before I started working at the library, my now-boss asked me to moderate one of her author panels because I had attended events at the library and established myself as a passionate and active member of our local YA book community by attending events, publicizing them, and often writing up recaps. Unfortunately, that particular invitation was rescinded because of Reasons, but she asked me a couple months later to moderate the library's summer panel, and now that I work here, I've become the de facto moderator for our events since none of my coworkers like being in front of crowds. And since my library hosts the North Texas Teen Book Festival, I always offer to moderate as many panels as possible (there were like 60 panels this year).

For non-library events, I have moderated just four (soon to be five) panels / tours outside of events that are controlled by my library. The first was a panel held at my best friend's library so hi, nepotism. Honestly, she had a last-minute opening and needed a moderator asap, and I had a free afternoon. The second was at a Barnes & Noble where a friend of mine is the event manager. It is possible the publisher asked her for suggestions, but I also have a professional relationship with that publisher after attending TLA and another one of their author tours. Either way, the publicist in charge of that tour emailed me via my blog email, and all information for the tour came through her, although I stayed in touch with B&N.

For the Penguin Teen tour I moderated in March, I am friends/acquaintances with the Half Price Book staff. I attend lots of their events and always offer assistance. In this case, the bookstore asked me to moderate and okayed it with Penguin. They acted as a liason, and I received all my information through them.

For Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff's Illuminae tour in May, this was the most incredibly lucky I've ever been. Amie and Jay announced their tour, which included a stop in Dallas. I tweeted them with GREAT enthusiasm and an offer to help*. A bookish friend tweeted to Amie and Jay saying they should pick me for moderator. They responded that they don't decide, but they'd pass it along. Eventually I was contacted by their publicist and was asked to moderate the event. I was not familiar with the staff at that particular B&N, but I introduced myself via email and stayed in contact with them until the event.

In September, I will be moderating a panel at the Mansfield Book Festival. They asked me to participate last year, but I was unable to attend because of work. When I declined the invitation, I expressed my interest to moderate in the future so they asked again this year, and I'm thrilled I'm finally able to attend. I am fairly certain they found me because of my work with the North Texas Teen Book Festival.

If you're looking to get your foot in the door, the best advice I can give you is to be active in the community. Attend every event you can, and always introduce yourself. Make contacts, but more than that, make friends. Create a wide network of bookish friends and acquaintances. Establish yourself in the community, both in person and online, and be active. I don't blog regularly and often, but I am very active on Twitter, and I attend as many events in my city and around the state of Texas. If your library hosts events, become a volunteer. If you live in a city that hosts a book festival, become a volunteer or a member of the teen press corps or street team (the North Texas Teen Book Festival and Texas Teen Book Festival both do this, Texas peeps!).

*NOTE: I would like to point out that Amie, Jay, and I had talked several times via Twitter, and I had met Amie at an event during her tour with Meagan Spooner for This Shattered World, so it was not an out of the blue offer for me to help with their signing. PLEASE do not just randomly tweet authors and publishers to be part of events!

This is a terrible situation, and I'm fortunate that I have never had this situation occur in one of my panels, but I have witnessed it both at book events I've been to and at Dragon Con, which is the only major convention I've attended. In my experience, the people who generally talk the most at a book signing are teens, and I think if they talk too much when asking a question, it's probably caused by nerves and genuine fan excitement because those things dumb the tongue, so to speak. I would know. Just check above to see my many panel fumblings. I have no problem with slightly rambly "oh my gosh I love you so much" questions and comments, and absolutely none of the authors I've worked with do either because these audience members are so sweet and earnest. They really do just love the author and his/her work and want to share the excitement and ask a question, and this is highly encouraged at these events. Teen readers, PLEASE bring that excitement to these signings and festivals. It's why we do them!

I have seen exactly one adult attending one of these events (out of 100+ I've gone to) ask an annoying and condescending question, and the authors answered it as honestly, thoughtfully, and professionally as they did all the others they'd received, although they also made it clear the question was not entirely appropriate.

While at Dragon Con, I was at a panel with Sean Astin from The Lord of the Rings, The Goonies, and Rudy. During the Q&A portion, one person DID get waaaaay too involved and asked like a five part question about some seriously deep LotR mythology. I don't know whether that man was being a condescending jackass or if he was such a fan that he HAD to know the answer to these questions (although I would personally feel a Tolkien scholar would be a better person to ask than one of the actors, but hey, whatever), but the moderator cut him off kindly but firmly, and Sean answered one of the questions. I think that's the best and really only solution. Again, as the moderator, you're the timekeeper so you need to be mindful of that; plus, it's always better to get to as many audience questions as you can. If a signing will follow the panel, you can always remind the audience they'll have a chance to ask questions in the signing line.

And there you have it. Mary's guide to moderating. If you have any additional questions, I would love to hear them in the comments!


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I have always wondered about moderating panels and what is involved. I am definitely bookmarking this post. =]

    1. My pleasure! If you ever have any questions, I'm happy to help!

  2. Yes! There is such a thing as being an expert in moderating panels...and you are one of them! Thanks for sharing your's quite helpful for people who have been asked to moderate a panel to actually follow a process...and know what they are doing!

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  4. This is seriously awesome! This is the best guide I've seen and I've bookmarked it because I feel like it's something I can look back on for future reference. Thank you!

  5. Okay totally jealous you got to meet Jay and Amie. I read the whole post and yes that the biggest thing I took away from this (my social anxiety would make moderating a non-option for me). But man would I love to meet those two!

  6. What a fantastic post! It's always fun to get a little bit of insiders information and to find out about what type of prep, etc. goes into author events.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  7. Fantastic post! I don't think moderating is for me, but you are the best person to do these (and write this post!)

  8. I'm glad I found this post, even so late. Excellent ideas here. I've used many of these points whil conducting interviews. I remember always to not ask yes and no questions unless it's a lightning round for a panel.