Attending a Writers’ Conference? Here’s How to Prepare

Attending a Writers’ Conference? Here’s How to Prepare

(This column is excerpted from Chuck’s latest book, Get a Literary Agent.)

GIVEAWAY: Chuck is giving away a copy of his book, Get a Literary Agent, to a random commenter. Comment within two weeks to enter! (Must live in the United States or Canada to win.) (Update: Lila won!)

If you’re planning on attending a writers’ conference to learn more about writing as well as pitch your book to agents and editors, make sure you brush up on some etiquette and strategy basics before you go.

Being prepared and knowing what agents and editors expect could make the difference between a great pitch and a mediocre one.

I’ve put together this list of do’s and don’ts based on my own experience, but you don’t have to just take my word for it. Keep reading for advice from literary agents themselves on how to make sure you have the best and most productive event experience possible.

Are you ready for your next writers’ conference?

What to do at a writers’ conference

  1. Do practice your pitch in advance. You want to be able to converse with an agent without rambling.
  1. Do be able to explain what your book is about in one sentence. (This is called “a log line.”)
  1. Do go to as many educational sessions as possible to learn from authors, agents and editors — and take notes. You’ll get insights that help to perfect your book and your pitch, and you may learn which agents might be good fits for your book.
  1. Do bring business cards in case an agent asks for one.
  1. Do your best to be friendly and open. Smile!
  1. Do dress the part. You don’t need a fancy dress or a three-piece suit, but don’t come looking like you just woke up. Remember that an agent is looking for a business partner.
  1. Do bring some extra cash. In addition to buying some books at the event, you’ll also want to schmooze and make writer friends. Often, that means gathering at a hotel bar with other attendees and ordering something while you get to know one another. Occasionally these social events attract agents, but they’re also great places to meet writers who, over time, can give you referrals.
  1. Do read other writers’ blog posts describing their experiences at conferences before you go, so you can get a better sense of how to best spend your time. Especially seek out writers who’ve met with agents at the conference in previous years.

What not to do at a writers’ conference

  1. Don’t pass agents or editors any pages during a pitch. Agents can’t carry around sample pages from all the writers they meet. They’d collapse from all that weight, and it would make their suitcases explode.
  1. Don’t come to a meeting with an agent with a long, rambling pitch. Aim to discuss your book and yourself in 90 seconds.
  1. Don’t skimp. Most conferences charge a base fee to attend, and then they charge for add-ons, including pitches to agents, critiques or the fancy dinner with the evening keynote speaker. If you can swing it money-wise, take advantage of all aspects that you believe can help you.
  1. Don’t be afraid to start conversations — whether with industry professionals or fellow scribes. Be bold, but use your best judgment. Don’t pitch an agent in the bathroom or interrupt someone’s conversation to step in and introduce yourself. Creating such an awkward moment will work against you.
  1. Don’t monopolize an agent’s time. If you sit down at a table and an agent joins you and others, know that most if not all of the people next to you will want to chat with the agent. Be respectful and don’t dominate her attention for long periods of time. Hogging an agent’s time doesn’t make a good impression.

Quick note from Chuck: I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. If your query or synopsis or manuscript needs a look from a professional, please consider my editing services. Thanks!

Pitching tips from literary agents

Relax. We are people, too, and we are there because we want to meet you and find someone to represent.  Some conferences do a better job than others in preparing writers for these things, but just remember to be yourself. Act professionally and remember the more relaxed you can be about things, the better for both parties.”

— Elisabeth Weed (Weed Literary)

Make sure I represent your genre to make the best use of your money and time. If you encounter an agent [including me] that dismisses you because they don’t handle your genre, ask if you can practice your pitch or ask their general advice.

“I suggest every writer take advantage of agents at conferences, even if your work isn’t ready; this is good practice, and an agent may ask to see your work when it’s ready. Many of the writers I have signed I have met at pitch sessions.

“My best advice is to practice and hone your pitch well before you attend the conference. Practice out loud, in front of people, and practice a shortened version in case we meet in the elevator. A composed, professional-appearing author will live on in my mind. Focusing your pitch on plot, themes and premise will help you communicate it effectively.

“Lastly, never pitch an agent in the bathroom.”

— Elizabeth Kracht (Kimberley Cameron & Associates)

Don’t read from a page in your notebook! If I ask you what your book is about and you can’t tell me the plot in a concise, compelling way without reading word for word from your notebook, then don’t bother.”

— Jennifer De Chiara (Jennifer De Chiara Literary)

“I love when someone meets me with a big smile. Always take a deep breath before you approach an agent — and smile. This makes me feel relaxed and in turn will make the author feel relaxed — and that is the only way you are able to really connect and share your story.

“I’ve had authors sit down with something to prove or even with a bit of anger or defensiveness. This does not work. I spend most of my time trying to deflect this energy and it takes away from the purpose of the meeting. Keep in mind that we are here to meet you and we are hoping to find a match.”

— J.L. Stermer (N.S. Bienstock)

“Relax, make it conversational and not too plot-heavy. Try to condense your pitch into the equivalent of a pitch letter or jacket flap copy. Anything longer is unnecessary for the limited time. Leave time to discuss.”

— Stacey Glick (Dystel & Goderich)

By the way, if you’re looking for a conference, perhaps one of these below is in your neck of the woods. I’ll be presenting at the following events in 2019:

What’s your best tip for a writer about to attend his or her first writers’ conference?

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  • Theresa says:

    Schmoozing is my favorite part of any conference!

  • Robin says:

    I love going to writer’s conferences when I am able to. My first writer’s conference was an LA SCBWI conference 10 years ago. I was completely awestruck and actually cried when Walter Dean Myers and Hope Anita Smith became instant friends and mentors of mine, sharing their lives, and writing processes. Jacqueline Woodson was there and Linda Sue Park and so many others that I just remember being myself and soaking in the rare opportunity to learn from others the beauty behind the hard work regarded as effortless when profound literature enthralls.

    The cost although often times can seem quite steep it truly is an investment. Your tips are great reminders for all of us and I’m excited about the new book as well. Keep it coming, and I’ll keep soaking it in.

  • Melonie Wilson says:

    Thanks for all the great advice!

  • Cynthia says:

    I am so new to this that I’m not sure I would’ve thought of anything on this list. I am so happy I came today to Chuck’s article. Thank you so much.

  • I would also suggest not pitching to an agent before breakfast. Last November I was at a conference and having breakfast in the hotel restaurant when I saw an agent that had yet to get back to me on my partial also having breakfast, but I figured that agents shouldn’t have to deal with “So, have you read my pages yet?” before coffee.

  • Betty clemens says:

    Great advice. My first pitch session I flunked big time. Then I got back in line with a shortened view and grabbed an agent’s attention. But, not having prepared in advance, I walked out of the session before the scheduled time, missing more pitch time. I thought,”Wow! I’m the first one out” while others were pitching. Not winning! So much advice is sorely needed. Writing is more than paper, pen, and keyboard.

  • Nancy Mullen says:

    I’m planning on my first conference this summer. This is super helpful. Thank you!

  • Kellie McCoy says:

    Thanks for the tips! I assumed I should bring copies of sample pages and now know it isn’t necessary or expected.

  • Thanks for publishing these tips before the conference, not as a post-conference analysis. They focussed me, and calmed me down. It helps to know I’m preparing the right way. Life, business, love — they’re all theatre. Getting your shtick in place before I go will make it more entertaining and effective.

  • I just recently went to my first Writers’ Conference. I met other authors attending. I went to some phenomenal workshops. But I decided not to pitch an agent. I was worried that my genre did not match and I thought I was ready. Had I been more open to looking for general advice I could have learned even more.

  • :Donna says:

    EXcellent list, Chuck! I agree with everything you said 😀

    I don’t know if anyone said this already, but two things that come to mind are these:

    Don’t approach an agent or editor with the thought in your head that EVERYthing is on the line with that particular meeting. THAT is what creates the nervousness, and you don’t want to be nervous—you want to be YOU 🙂

    Know that, even with all the research you may do, all the hopes you may have, etc., you simply cannot predict when someone’s tastes or needs will or won’t fit your work. You can’t force someone or convince someone to like it, and even though you HOPE they will like it, know there’s a good chance they might not OR they might like it, but not enough to take you on, and if you just happen to end up with that rare and wonderful circumstance where you are a “match,” it’s a bonus! It is always good to take on that old adage: “Hope (a little) for the best, but prepare for the worst.” Publishing is slow and it takes time for stars to align 🙂

    The second thing I have to say is VOLUNTEER! If you are at an SCBWI event, if there’s something you can do to help—do it! This takes your experience to a whole other level. You get to know your fellow writers/illustrators by working with them AND, depending on what you volunteer to do, it can help increase nice interaction (not pitching!) with agents, editors, art directors, etc. There are so many wonderful people to meet and get to talk to, relish the interaction and relationships you may develop, always keeping in mind that it’s as much about that (if not more!) than it is about craft and getting published 🙂