Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Few Notes on Conferences

I am so sorry for the long absence. I've been struggling and struggling with a topic several authors have urged me to address: the concept of what I think *will* sell vs. what I think I *can* sell. They tell me that many authors don't understand why I might turn down a book that I think is very saleable. So I hope it's not too cruel a tease to say that I won't be writing about that this time. I still can't figure out exactly the best way to explain this despite having several drafts saved on the topic.

What I am going to talk about is conferences. I've had a great time recently attending a few different conferences. One of the terrific things about starting this business is everything feels so new again--and so where I once might have viewed conferences with ennui and even a little dread (I'll explain why), now going seems fun and filled with possibility.

So I'm going to discuss several different concepts, which I'll number.

1. Why Agents Dread Conferences

2. How to Succeed at Conferences

3. How to Make the Most of Pitching

4. What are the Best Conferences to Attend

1. Why Agents Dread Conferences: It's the Workload, Stupid. If I go to a conference I feel a real sense of responsibilty towards the authors I meet. I want to read their material and give them some sort of personal and thoughtful response. But it's really hard, because you get back from a conference and beyond your normal backlog of work and queries, you now have that much extra--and it's a lot of extra because you ask for more sample material than you ordinarily would if it were a blind query. So the number one reason I don't go to a whole ton of conferences is that I can't handle the extra work and it makes me feel too guilty to let it sit around for six months. I still haven't responded to a bunch of material from the last two conferences I went to. Argh.

I also find conferences emotionally taxing because the people who attend have so much on the line. I don't want to disappoint them and I want to make them feel at ease when they are pitching to me. But after about ten pitch sessions I am exhausted. It's very, very hard to sit there and be responsible for potentially dashing someone's hopes and dreams. At one of the conferences I went to recently I made a woman very upset for suggesting that she self-publish--and this was after spending the whole panel explaining that I loved self-published books and represent so many self-published authors. I don't blame her at all: the point is that it's very easy to upset someone at a conference because it's an emotional, pressure-filled, scary ride for them. So I can only handle so many pitches before I am worn out emotionally myself.

2. How to Succeed at Conferences (without really trying)

Volunteer. Do whatever you can to come into lots of contact with the attending agents. Be the hospitality person or drive them to and from the airport. Volunteer to get them diet coke (okay, that one's just for me). I will confess that I did once ask someone at a conference to run out and get me an egg and cheese sandwich and I've never forgotten them (in my defense, I was really pregnant at the time). But here's the secret: DO NOT PITCH THEM. Be super nice and friendly and help them out as much as you can, but do not pitch. Two things will happen: either they will be so curious about the fact that you didn't pitch them that they will ask you what you write, OR, they won't ask you, but later on you can e-mail them and remind them who you are and then pitch them and they will like you so much, in part because you didn't pitch them, that they will be favorably disposed towards your work. It's all about the personal connection, it really is.

Also, remember that often an agent feels awkward and out of place at a conference where he/she doesn't know anyone. I know I often feel shy walking into the bar, or dining room, or opening party where I don't know anyone. So you get points for rescuing me and being friendly and welcoming. But again, don't pitch. See below.

3. How to Make the Most of Pitching. Try to limit pitches to the pitch sessions, agent/editor speed dating, etc. I would avoid pitching in places like (these are all places I have been pitched) the bathroom, the salad bar line, the bar, a noisy cocktail party, the hall going to the bathroom, a car filled with two other agents, the baggage carousel, when I'm on the phone or checking e-mail, basically anywhere where the agent is trying to have a little downtime or needs to focus on something else. It's great to meet an agent at a party and talk to them (see number two above) but pitching there probably means you'll be forgotten because the agent is so distracted.

The time to pitch is in a pitch session or perhaps after a panel. Or if the agent is available at other times.

Note, this is just my personal take. Other agents/editors may completely disagree. But pitching when an agent is distracted or busy doesn't seem very productive to me.

Also, do your homework, so you don't end up at a pitch session with an agent and not know anything about what they represent. You don't want to pitch your mystery to an agent who only does picture books. You're wasting your time and theirs.

4. In my opinion, for what it's worth, the best kinds of conferences to go to.
Go to conferences where you have intensive workshops with published authors, editors or agents. To my mind, anyway, these are more useful than having a bunch of five minute pitch sessions with agents. I think the conferences were you are working intensively with other writers and even sometimes agents or book editors are the way to go because you create relationships which end up being helpful professionally, creatively, and personally.

Next time, if people are interested, I'll go through frequently asked questions at conferences.

P.S. No, I'm not calling you stupid, by the way. Would never do that. It's a play on the famous Clintonian expression, "It's the economy, stupid."


  1. Thank you for the information. I am attending an agents' conference in a week and plan to institute some of your suggestions.

    I have considered how difficult your job must be. As a person that cares deeply for the feelings of others, I can imagine the guilt and pressure an agent feels when listening to a heartfelt pitch while knowing, absolutely, that the project will never fit in the market or the cache of projects about which I am passionate. Good luck and peaceful thoughts sent your way as you peruse the stack of dreams you've received.


  2. "Be the hospitality person or drive them to and from the airport." -----

    I've seen this whole "drive them to and from the airport" thing on a couple of blogs now, and every time I think ... "Wow. Agents get in the car with us crazy writer folk? Stranger danger alert!" :o)

    As always, thank you for the tips.

  3. A little off topic, but which writing contests/awards impress agents?

  4. I will be very interested to read your take on the whole 'can' vs. 'will' sell issue, especially with the tightening of the belts regarding acquisitions.

    As someone who is in that unpubbed and submitting category, my take on agent interest has come down to a fairly simple belief. They have to love the story/writing. They have to believe that someone out there currently will want the story. Agents can't afford maybe's and probably's at this point in time. The market changes, so my window of opportunity is quite narrow. I have to hit the bullseye with several different arrows to score success, and I'm not even sure where the target is going to be. I have to kick ass and get lucky. I can work on the kick ass part. Kicking ass can help me get lucky, but there's still a lot beyond my control.

    Thus, I don't take rejections personally. I know it's not all about the writing on the agent's end of things. They can love my writing and still believe the market won't support it. So, I'll keep working on kicking ass and firing those arrows. Patience, persistence, and talent. These are the only weapons we have, and if writers want a career, they must use all three.

  5. Hi Jenny!

    I've often wondered about the workload resulting from a conference. I've noticed some agents attend so many pitch sessions it seemed they'd have no time to actually peruse queries.

    Your advice is great and reminds me that no matter how harried or how driven we are in our careers and our daily lives, a little kindness and a smattering of politeness can go a long way.

    Since I wasn't lucky enough to attend the panel where you explained, perhaps you could do a post on why you think self-publishing is a good idea, and subsequently why you choose to represent self-published authors.

    Another good question is regarding e-publishing. Do e-pub credits sway an agent's decision one way or another?

    Thanks, Jenny! It's great to see you posting.

    Chiron O'Keefe
    The Write Soul:

  6. Jenny, I met you at Backspace and was impressed with your openness, ability to "focus in" on the conversation at hand (even with a long line of people waiting to speak with you), and your obvious love of the written word. This post is so helpful - patience is key! BTW: I was at B&N today and bought Home Repair. I loved seeing the relationship between you and Liz at Backspace. Her appreciation for you is evident in her book. I look forward to reading it, and wish you both much success!

  7. Thank you for this post. I found it via Janet Reid's blog. I really want to attend a writers' conference but am incredibly intimidated. This sort of gave me the kick in the pants to just go for it. What's the worst that can happen?

  8. Thanks for sharing your take on conferences.

  9. Thanks for the post, Jennny. Very informative and oh-so true!

  10. Thanks for the post, Jenny. Very informative and oh-so true!

  11. Great, informative post. Are you open to submissions again?

  12. Welcome back Jenny! I will be attending the WLT conference in Austin, TX. next weekend. It was interesting and actually a relief to hear that agents feel the same as we do. Wandering around sneaking a peek at someone's name badge to see if they are writer, editor, or agent and then consider saying a word OMG! Written word... piece of cake :D Even with years of professional presentations, I still get unnerved.

  13. Hi Chiron,
    I do plan on posting about self-publishing--watch this space!

  14. Good, I am interested in your take on self publishing as well.

  15. Thanks for your take on self-publishing. I'm going to go that route with my memoir and have drafted family and friends to help make it shine.
    It's a religion thing. One editor (also a friend) stated, "It's a beautiful book but the religion thing is what makes me question its commercial viability, yet you couldn't have written it any other way."
    I'll keep notes too, for other writers considering the SP route. I'll let you know when it's available. Sometime next year, according to my plan. :)

  16. When I called to volunteer for a large, national writers' conference, I was turned down. It seems they already had enough volunteers.

    Needless to say, I was disappointed because it would have been fun. And possibly cheaper, too.

    As it is, I won't attend the conference because it's costing too much for my budget now.