by SFWA Safety Committee
Small events can be some of the most rewarding experiences for an author. Signings, readings, classes, and panels offer an opportunity to connect directly with readers. They also offer some unique challenges when planning for safety. (Pack a towel for any reading in a bar, since it seems inevitable that beer will find your books.)
By definition, small events are usually low on staff. Independent bookstores, coffee shops, and bars often lack the staff to plan, let alone plan for safety; many authors will show up to find themselves setting up their own tables and chairs.
This means that safety planning is another item on your to-do list, though it doesn’t need to create worry or occupy too much of your time.
Each of these items is something to think about and isn’t an indicator that small events are unsafe or should be avoided. Small readings and their discussions can be highlights of a career.
- Think about safety. Is safety a pressing concern? Are you experiencing harassment, or is another attending author the target of harassment? If you have experienced harassment, are there indicators that someone will attend one of your events? Have they made direct threats?
- Are there other aspects of the venue, like location or time, that increase the need to think about safety?
- Tickets or RSVP. Even small events can benefit from using some form of tracking. Tickets can be revoked if necessary, and reservations can require attendee information to verify identities. Behavioral barriers asking participants to follow the rules can help determine if someone is going to act out before the event even takes place. For events on public property, where standards for behavior may be undefined, clear guidelines outlined in the ticket agreement will help staff know when someone is acting out, and give security or law enforcement the necessary context to enforce a trespass notice. If a ticket is revoked, it is clear that the attendee has forfeited their right to attend the event.
- A friend can assist with many aspects of the event that the venue can’t handle. Carrying boxes, walking to and from vehicles, watching the room to intervene if necessary, or help keeping the event on time schedules.
- Park in a well-lit area as close to the venue as possible.
- Keep your hands free. Use a luggage cart or dolly to move boxes so your hands aren’t occupied.
Location, Location, Location
- Distance creates safety, so think about where you will be sitting or standing in relation to the audience. Tables and chairs can be used to create space during a conversation. If sitting in a circle of chairs, sit closest to an exit path. Can chairs move so you could place a chair between you and an enthusiastic fan?
- Does the podium allow a full view of the audience? Can you easily leave the podium area? Bookstores are often constrained by shelves to create corridors with only two exits.
- What is acceptable behavior for the venue? Shouting is inappropriate for a bookstore, but a reading in a bar after 9 p.m. could have different standards of behavior. If there will be alcohol served, who would cut someone off if they’re acting out? Normalcy Bias is the tendency to believe everything is fine and not react, even when something breaks the norm. You don’t need permission to respond in a way that makes you feel safe.
- Buy your own drinks or bring a water bottle. This is where your friend can help. For events in bars, the author is often handed a drink while speaking—it’s never safe to accept a drink you didn’t purchase yourself, and it’s probably a better idea not to imbibe during a work event, anyway.
What’s Your Agenda?
- An agenda provides shape to the event and makes it easier to move on if someone is acting out. If the venue can’t provide an event manager, ask your friend to provide opening remarks, introduce the participants, and keep activities moving forward. A clear cut-off for questions can help de-escalate potential debate or aggressive participants.
- If you have boundaries or accessibility needs, have them made clear to the attendees. If you don’t like people in your personal space, or you aren’t a hugger, or you may run out of spoons more quickly than others, sharing that info early will establish boundaries without creating confrontation.
- A set end time, communicated at the beginning of the event, lets the audience know what to expect. Depending on how things are going, the author can always extend the event, or choose to end things at the set time.
Exit Stage Left
- You don’t need an excuse to leave. If someone is making you uncomfortable, practice saying “Great talking to you” (or whatever comes naturally) and leave the interaction. Often people will say they’re going to leave, then wait for permission from the other person. Don’t wait, just leave. This can take practice and can get harder under a stress response.
- Returning to the car can be a little tricky if someone offers to help carry boxes, etc. This is where the luggage cart helps. Venue staff can assist, and it helps to ask beforehand if this is available. A friend can also help. If you’re alone and prefer that someone not accompany you to your car, an excuse about going to the restroom or a follow-on meeting with venue staff can help move attendees along.
Don’t let these points worry you too much. These can be used as a starting point for planning or questions to ask the venue. Many new business owners may be excited about hosting events but haven’t thought through the details. Discussions about how the event will be managed can help mitigate concerns with volunteers or inspire creative scheduling to ensure there are enough employees present.
Now get out there and do a reading.
The SFWA Safety Committee maintains the Safety Resources on SFWA’s website at www.sfwa.org/safety. These resources contain useful information for creators maintaining an online presence and touch on safety considerations for in-person events for both attendees and event planners. We are here to help individuals and organizations navigate the speculative fiction publication industry with increased consideration for safety.