Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Conference 101: Know Before You Go

Prior to a writer's conference, it's natural to feel overwhelmed. Most authors go to conferences with a sense of "Do-or-Die": pitch your heart out and get signed or...well...something terrible will happen. There's a sense that there are people at a conference that could make or break your writer self and the pressure is immense.

I encourage you to take a different, more laid-back approach to conferences. Here's the number one reason why:
Agents and editors don't go to a conference specifically to find new clients.

It's true. Here's why. There are other, better mechanisms in place for finding new clients. For agents, that's the query. It gives an agent time to read your pages, Google you, etc. Get a full picture of the project and of the client. For editors, it's the agent. There's a reason that most houses don't accept unsolicited manuscripts, and being at a conference doesn't mean you'll jump that policy.

The mechanisms already in place for connecting authors, agents, and editors actually benefit the author, too, by providing you a way to pitch your work in the format you're comfortable in: writing. True, some of you are as comfortable speaking about your work, but for the most part people find verbally pitching a book really, really hard. It's not an ideal way to present your work (more on this later).

So go to your conference more focused on networking than getting signed (which will for-sure not happen to you at the conference). Get to know agents and editors, exchanging Twitter handles, finding other writers that might for critique groups for you.

Go to the conference armed with the following research, and you'll be well-prepared to network:
  • Check out the photos of the various faculty at the conference. This is so you can say Hi with confidence if you find yourself in an elevator with them.
  • Find the agents and editors that will be at the conference on Twitter and follow them.
  • Have a book in mind that each editor worked on, that you would like to talk to them about--a list of books might be in his or her bio on the conference website, or you can find it on Publisher's Marketplace if you're a member.
  • Pick a client whose work you like from each agent's list and do some research on that author and his or her books. If you can't find a client you like, that's probably not the agent you want to be chatting up.
  • Take a look at blogs like Galley Cat and Media Bistro in the weeks leading up to the conference. Know what's going on in the publishing world.
  • Who are the major author guests at the conference? Take a look at their blogs and books in case you get a chance to chat.
Doing the above will ensure that you have a head start on conference conversations, and that you will come across as a well-informed publishing aspirant. If all you can talk about is yourself and your book, you're not going to get much out of the organic connections that are there to be made in a conference setting.


  1. Very useful information. I actually agree with you about pitching. I don't pitch any more. Because, like you said, it's about the writing and frankly, I've never noticed that me being able to put requested material moves me up any farther on the slush pile.

    But I love to talk publishing and writing with agents and editors. What's the best way to approach someone? I know, not with a client but how do we know since you are all always so surrounded.

  2. What are some of the reasons agents/editors go to conferences? Is there a benefit going to larger conferences versus smaller? (Ex. NYC/LA vs. Portland)

  3. This actually makes me feel better...first, that agents are query-focused, and second, that I can go to a conference without having to perform like a trained seal and not feel bad about it.

  4. The best rule to follow, and what I think answers both of the questions here, is found in Susan's comment.

    You don't have to do anything differently around agents and editors than you would in any professional setting.

    So, for Cassie: if you want to meet someone, simply saunter over, find a logical lull in conversation, and start talkin'! Of course don't interrupt, and of course have an "in" for the convo--which is where your research comes in. It's best also to have a card ready to hand over when you skedaddle, if appropriate.

    And BreakingBooks, eds and agents go for the SAME REASON you're going. To get perspective on the things that are happening in publishing, market trends, and to network. I think most agents and editors choose conferences based on who will be there, of their professional peers, more than on size. How the conference is run also plays a role: we talk, and we know the ones that work you like a dog. And I think we all always prefer conferences near where we live simply because the logistics are easier.