Forced socialization never ceases to freak me out, even when it might benefit my career. Networking events and conferences can be nerve-wracking when you’re just starting out, and writer’s conferences are no exception.
I spent last weekend at the Atlanta Writer’s Conference, pouring over my manuscript and practicing my pitch in the lobby of a hotel near the Atlanta airport. Writers from around the country and every genre swooped in to sell their books and hopefully nab an agent or editor’s attention.
There is no magical formula to succeed at every writer’s conference you go to (a friend of mine didn’t do so hot at the previous AWC Conference last May, but got an agent’s attention this past weekend), but there are a few answers to common questions whether you’re a conference veteran or a first-timer:
1. How do writer’s conferences actually work?
Writer’s conferences are just like conferences in any other industry, with networking opportunities and educational seminars. However, they also offer one-on-one meetings with literary agents and editors with whom you can share your query letter or part of your manuscript and get some feedback form an industry professional. The Atlanta Writer’s Club conference had agents and editors from a variety of genres, but some conferences might be specific to literary fiction, sci-fi, or any other genre.
Always check the conference’s website before signing up, especially if you want to pitch to an agent or have your manuscript critiqued. Research what agents and editors are looking for so you don’t go pitching your intergalactic space opera to someone after memoirs and cookbooks.
In general, conferences will give you a schedule of all the seminars, events, and your pitches and critiques if you have them. Some conferences (like AWC) will give you a personalized schedule when you register, but just in case, always have the events and pitches you will attend in your personal calendar or phone. Keep in mind that there is more to conferences than the events however: Introduce yourself to other writers and chat about their projects too—you never know when you might meet a future beta reader or friend!
2. How do you pitch to an agent?
Pitches tend to be ten-minute one-on-one opportunities for you to sell your manuscript to an agent. They are usually scheduled when you register for the conference. A good rule of thumb is to arrive at the location or room where you will pitch 20 minutes early, and be sure to practice your pitch beforehand, out loud, so that it sounds more conversational and less like a memorized speech.
A pitch should touch on the main points of your plot, as described in your query letter, but keep in mind you want to convince the agent or editor that readers will be invested in the story and that the book will sell. What is your protagonist’s goal? What is their motivation? What conflict is keeping them from achieving that goal and what are the stakes if they don’t? A friend of mine at the AWC conference also suggested mentioning where the book fill fit in the market. Who will buy it and why?
Have a few questions to ask the agent or editor if you have time in that ten-minute slot. They can give you feedback on your pitch or advice on where your book fits in the market. It’s your time, so make use of it.
3. What do I wear to the conference?
What is the first thing you want an agent or editor to think about you when they see you? If you want them to think you’re professional and taking this seriously, don’t show up in sweatpants, gym clothes, a banana suit, or some unholy combination of the three. Business casual or snappy casual should be fine—this isn’t as formal as a job interview, but if you aren’t sure, it is better to err on the professional side.
4. How do I get a literary agent to like me?
Everyone’s end goal during a writer’s conference is to lay down the foundation for a successful book. You don’t walk out of a pitch with an offer of representation, but you can get contact info for future working relationships and have an agent ask for your manuscript.
The key to getting an agent interested is to first have a sellable book, with a solid hook and definite place in the market. However, while that is a large part of it, you must also be conscious of the impression you give off as a person. While you’re sizing people up for whether you want to work with them, they are doing the same to you. If an agent is not interested in your manuscript, do you thank them graciously or demand to know why? I met a woman at the last AWC conference who actually cussed out an agent who didn’t want her work (don’t do that).
An agent will also be more impressed with someone eager to learn the ropes rather than just push out a book. How excited are you about writing? What sort of questions do you ask them about the industry? Passion will shine through whether they ask for your manuscript or not, and there’s always a chance they’ll pass along your work to someone they think would better suit it.
5. What should I bring to a writer’s conference?
The conference will probably tell you how many copies of a query letter to bring to a critique or whether you need a physical copy of your manuscript, but make sure you have the following in your bag no matter what activities you are signed up for:
- Business cards (at least 10, 20 to be safe)
- Breath mints
- A pen and notebook
The business cards are important, because you can give them to other writers you meet in addition to editors and agents. The breath mints should go without saying.
6. No one liked or wanted my manuscript. What now?
Odds are, an agent or editor gave you feedback on why they did not want it, but what comes next? If it was the hook that didn’t grab them, refine it. If it was the concept that didn’t work, find out why—is the market already saturated? Did you get the concept across well enough?
If you are still not sure, use the conference as an opportunity to find critique partners and beta readers. Ask around and introduce yourself to find someone else writing in your genre, and follow up with them after the conference. They might spot something you haven’t caught and can fix in time for the next conference.
7. Oh my god, someone asked for my manuscript. What now??
Breathe, my dude. Make sure you get their contact information (I almost forgot to do this!) and follow their instructions exactly. If they asked for 100 pages, don’t give them the whole book. If there was something they thought should be changed, ask them whether they want you to send the work as is or give you some time to make the changes. Either way, be as prompt as you can and don’t shoot them an email six months later when you’re no longer fresh in their memory.
Keep your hopes realistic, too. This does not automatically guarantee you an offer of representation, but it does mean something is working and you may well be on your way. Good luck!