We all know what its like to watch a golden opportunity pass by because we were unsure if our intentions would be well received. Only then, when the moment is gone does the fog clear and we say “if only I had . . . “. Conferences are a breeding ground for this type of regret. The anticipation of being surrounded by so many published authors, agents, editors, and industry professionals leads to a build-up of expectations and also nerves that can be our own worst enemy when faced with a situation that can ultimately change our career.
I know that for many of you reading this post, attending any conference means having to take vacation from other jobs, make family sacrifices, and spend a substantial sum of money all in an effort to take your writing career to the next level. For all of us industry professionals one of our goals is to help you make the most of these investments. So, with that being said I want everyone to remember these brief pointers – seriously, if you keep these SIMPLE things in your head you will definitely walk away from the conference without any hesitation towards saying “Now that was worth it”!
*I have said this before on this blog, and on many other blogs, and on many panels and in many interviews,* but still, it can never be said too many times – “Agents are just people!” Let me tell you folks, when we step on an elevator and we see people drop their eyes and go quiet, we notice. We can feel the awkwardness that oozes off situations when people are essentially afraid to talk to us. And guess what? It makes us feel just as awkward. I wake up every morning and brush my teeth, and drink my coffee and read the paper just like you. Don’t EVER hesitate to acknowledge us with the same common courtesy that you would any other conference attendee. We will not be walking around the Marriot just waiting to breathe fire at the casual passer-byer who politely says hello as they pass. We will not pull out our “blacklist” for the person who makes small talk during the ridiculous line outside of the coffee shop. And we certainly won’t call NYC and have it posted in Times Square if you dare enter the restroom at the same time as us. Just act normal!
The conference is a time when we are all focused on the business of publishing and the craft of writing, but remember, this is not all there is to life. We all know that its not always appropriate to pitch your book i.e. that moment you enter the bathroom at the same time. However, it is appropriate to groan about the fact that every one of the soap dispensers is empty. It is not important if I catch your name or what you write during these casual encounters, what is important is that when another instance presents itself that DOES lend itself to pitching I’m going to remember your friendly face. I’m going to think to myself “Oh I remember them, they were so lovely back there”, and that is going to make me want to stop and learn more about you as an author. Its a chain reaction. Conferences are great because we are all co-existing, there are hundreds of opportunities to build up a “rapport” that can come back later and really work to your advantage when the time is right.
So what about the not so casual encounters? What about those moments that you *really* want to talk to someone about your novel? When is this ok? Well – building off of the “we are people” mantra use your people skills and some common sense. Realize that at these events we have meetings scheduled one after another. Your best opportunities are going to be after a panel or a session when the hosts are standing around the room waiting to talk to the audience. But remember, be receptive and don’t take it personally if the agent is running off to another meeting and seems harried. If you see an agent sitting alone casually approach them and see how the mood “feels” – if they are open to chatting you will know pretty quickly. Sometimes in my down-time I like to just walk around and feel the vibe and energy that is associated with the conference. I am up for meeting new people and often when someone approaches me I’ll pull them over to the side and have a great conversation. However sometimes I need a few minutes for just me, to collect my thoughts and prepare for my next event, in these cases my stare is a little blank and my responses are pretty clipped, if someone keeps saying “I need to go”, wrap up your conversation. Read the signs and you’ll be fine! If I represent your best friend or critique partner ask them if they can introduce us at the literacy signing or during the keynote luncheon. When possible I try to attend the publisher signings and spotlights, if you see me browsing around casually say hi!
And now the negatives, a few things that are never appropriate. (And yes, I know these may seem obvious but yet I’m never surprised). Do NOT try to force material on me, or hand me your sample pages at any point during the conference. This is NEVER a good idea, nor will it ever be; Instead ask if you can query me following the conference. Do NOT ever feel the need to open up a conversation with “Hi, you rejected me six months ago”. What good is this ever going to serve, really? It only makes the conversation awkward from the get-go. Be mindful of what you say, where, and to whom. Seriously, voices carry and we all have ears, no one ever looks good in the process of smearing someone else. One would be shocked at how much gossip is casually “overheard” in the shared spaces of the event. Do not ever interrupt me when I am in the middle of a sit-down meeting. Period. Do not stop me if I am obviously running through the lobby, I’m probably already late and I don’t want to be forced to be rude to get away. And lastly, (and no I’m not kidding), no knocking or slipping things under my hotel room door, its happened before and its never ok. Its creepy. See? These are easy enough rules. If you avoid those major traps I think you are off to a great start and our encounters will be positive!
Remember, we are going to meet hundreds (literally) of new faces while we are out in California, in addition to the hundreds of familiar ones that we have existing relationships with. Its a whirlwind week and the chances of having an earth-shattering moment that is going to sky-rocket you to the NYT list by January is one in a million. Be smart about how to use the conference to your advantage. Attend panels, spotlights and sessions where you can learn more about your craft and how your manuscript realistically fits into the market. Have it in your head that you would like to meet 3-5 people who you can hopefully send material to after the closing remarks on Sunday. During the course of the event take advantage of the small opportunities and remember usually the opportunity to expand your network will be more valuable than the elusive request for a partial. You will be light-years ahead of the competition just by showing that you are another confidant and professional participant in our industry.