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Writers’ Conference Etiquette

By Scott Hoffman

Those of you who have read some of the articles I’ve had published on how to find an agent (see here, for example) know that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of trying to land an agent by sending blind query letters. Does it work on occasion? Sure. We’ve gotten some of our best clients that way. But there’s something so… passive about the process. There’s some element of ceding control that I know that I wouldn’t be comfortable with if I were in an author’s position. To me, the whole process seems to evoke bad memories of high school, sitting by the phone, waiting for it to ring to see if you’re going to have a date on Saturday night, when you should have just been out having a good time with your friends anyway.

Besides, what do you do if your preferred agent or agents aren’t accepting unsolicited queries in the first place?

That’s where writers’ conferences come in.

As an unpublished author, attending a reputable, well-run writers’ conference can be the first step to launching your brilliant professional writing career. But it can also be an intimidating, frustrating experience if you approach it the wrong way.

For agents, writers’ conferences are a mixed bag. They can be very positive experiences, full of promising new talent—or they can be grueling experiences that leave us vowing never to volunteer our time ever, ever again.

Here are a few tips to ensure that you get the most out of your writers’ conference experience.

  1. Develop a plan for the conference ahead of time. There are as many different reasons to attend conferences as there are attendees. What you can get out of a conference, however, is often a function of where you are in the publishing process. If you’re still in the process of writing your novel or putting together a proposal for your nonfiction book, the craft seminars at the conference are probably where you want to spend most of your time. Figure out which authors, editors, and agents are teaching, and attend the sessions that are taught by the people whose work you most respect. (It’s been my experience that, regardless of the purported subject of the lecture, speakers are going to talk about what they’re best at anyway—so rather than choosing which sessions to attend based on the title of the talk, I suggest you go to the sessions taught by the coolest people—the best agents, authors, and editors. Even if a workshop is on plotting in science fiction and you’re writing romance, what you’ll learn from a master like Orson Scott Card, say, is likely to make you a better writer.

    If you’ve already got an agent you’re happy with, or if you’ve sold a book, or are a published author, conferences can still be tremendously valuable. They’re an opportunity to promote yourself and your work, make additional professional contacts, and learn what other successful authors have done to take their work to the next level. The most important thing you can do at this stage—listen. Let the pros know you’re a rookie who’s past that first stage of the game, and ask each one for their one best tip on how to succeed in the business. You can sometimes learn as much as you would in a master class this way.

    If you’re at that stage where you’ve written a novel but are still looking for an agent, however—you’re in luck. Conferences are tailor-made for people like you. Take the rest of the tips in this section to heart.

  2. Ignore the one on one meetings. I know this is going to be controversial advice, but I’ll stand by it. I don’t like formal author-agent pitch sessions for a couple of reasons. First, most conferences schedule too many of them. If you’re one of the agent’s first pitches you might be in good shape. But if you’re the agent’s 30th pitch in two days, honestly, you would have been better off sending a query letter. As to pitching editors directly, unless you’re writing romance or science fiction, they’re probably just going to tell you to get an agent anyway.

    Here’s an inside tip on how agents deal with conferences. Most agents are too polite to say “no” to your face. You can pitch them a book that they KNOW—100% KNOW– they would never in a million years sign up. But rather than deal with the pressure of rejecting you to your face, they’ll say something like “Well, I don’t know. For something like this it’s all in the writing.” They’ll ask you to mail them the first three chapters and then they’ll glance at them for about 5 seconds and then pass, politely, with their standard rejection letter.

    Here’s a statistic from experience: in the past three years, I’ve sold about ten books from people I met at conferences. Not ONE of those authors did I meet at a one on one pitch session. So, how did those authors get to me? After my workshop. In the elevator. In the bar after dinner. Basically, in normal, organic situations that aren’t terribly forced like those awful one on one pitch sessions. In ways that proved to me that they would be effective advocates for their work once it hit the shelves.

  3. Ignore what the conference organizers tell you what to do. Conference organizers are going to get mad at me for this one. But I’m on your side here, so I’m going to give you the straight dope. I’d say about half of the conferences I’ve been to are not particularly well run. They try their best, but they’re usually volunteers with jobs and lives and families and don’t always know what to do to help your career prospects along. So, regardless of what the conference organizers tell you, there are a few things you should always have with you at a conference:
    • A memorized, one sentence explanation of what your book is about that’s catchy and explanatory. “It’s a literary retelling of the Noah’s Ark story.” “It’s about a young Japanese-American man and woman who fall in love on the eve of World War II and are torn apart by the war.” Practice this one in front of the mirror. I promise you an agent is going to ask you what your book is about when you’re not expecting it. This is your chance to differentiate yourself.
    • A one page synopsis of your novel (if you’re writing fiction) or your completed, polished nonfiction proposal if you’re writing nonfiction, and a one-page bio of yourself.
    • The first three chapters of your novel, double-spaced.
    • A copy of your manuscript—just in case.

    Carry these with you at all times. Chances are nobody will ever ask for them—but if they do, bam. You have them. Don’t ever try to foist them on agents or editors, but they’ll be your secret weapon. And you’ll be more confident knowing you have them if you need them.

  4. Understand why agents go to conferences. For agents, going to conferences is as much about the opportunity to bond and network with other agents and authors as it is about finding new literary talent. Remember—it’s not an agent’s job to read your query letters. It’s an agent’s job to sell books. We read query letters and talk to unpublished authors in order to find great books to sell—it’s a means to an end, not an end unto itself. So when you see agents and editors hanging out together, understand that if we didn’t have these opportunities, we might not be at the conference at the first place. The best conferences understand this phenomenon and schedule formal time for the faculty to interact with each other.
  5. Don’t do something that’s going to put you in the LTS pile. Every agent has one. LTS stands for “Life’s Too Short.” So, although I really shouldn’t have to say this, there are a couple of times that agents are absolutely, positively off-limits. Don’t bug us when:
    • We’re on the way to deliver a talk. We’re thinking about how to best deliver that talk, not about your specific project. After the talk, however, absolutely, positively buttonhole us.
    • We’re in a situation where we can’t comfortably shake your hand. Examples: in the buffet line. In the pool. At the gym. In the restroom. (You’d be surprised. Every agent has horror stories, believe me.)
    • Understand that no means no. If an agent tells you no, that’s it. Move on. There are lots of good fish in the sea. No stalking allowed.

It’s probably possible to write a whole book on what to do and not to do at a writers’ conference. But I’ll wrap it up here.