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.”

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