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Want to Speak at Writing Conventions? How to Write a Great Pitch

by | Jan 6, 2016

As publisher-backed press tours dwindle in an uncertain publishing age, authors are asked to do more to sell their books.

But whether you’ve penned the latest undiscovered bestseller or dabble in more academic fare, writers and book professionals of all stripes can find new audiences for their work through an often-overlooked venue.

Literary festivals and conferences are a wonderful way to target market your writing while networking with other writers, publishers, and agents — especially for authors promoting a first book, freelance journalists looking for exposure or academics searching for exposure outside the classroom. Plus, most festivals and conferences are tremendous fun, with author parties and free access to other events.

“As an editor and writing mentor, I’m grateful for literary festivals as places I’ve connected with brave writers in need of support, which means the opportunity to do more of the work I love,” says author, developmental editor and writing coach Jen Violi.

As Violi points out, literary events are a wonderful way to find your tribe and garner more business.

So how do aspiring presenters get started?

Many festivals and conferences are open to unsolicited proposals, and writers of every genre and type can find a way to get on the dais as part of a panel if they know what steps to take.

Some conferences, like The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), have a strictly structured submission process that even has its own handbook. But there are dozens of literary festivals in the North America alone, many of which are programmed by understaffed nonprofits who welcome a well-crafted proposal.

As the former Associate Director of the The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and an executive director of an arts center, I’ve seen firsthand how unknown-to-me authors who understand the process of programming a festival can persuade me to give them a chance.

The problem is that many writers don’t know how to present themselves in a way that makes it easy for festival or conference staff to say yes. Below are a few tips for those who want to make the most of their marketing opportunities at literary events.

1. Do your research

Of course, it’s best if you can attend a festival first to get an idea of the atmosphere and make in-person connections with the organizers — but doing so isn’t always possible.

If you haven’t attended before, make sure to research the event guidelines. Many organizations offer an FAQ or author page that provides guidelines for submitting ideas for their upcoming events.

Be certain to look for these before you craft a proposal. If you don’t see anything, you can email program staff to see if they have a preferred method and format.

Browse past years’ offerings to get a sense of the focus of the the festival or conference. If you’d like to talk about your latest memoir but see that the previous year offered a similar panel, develop another angle. If all the events are aimed at an edgy, younger crowd, don’t spin yourself as a boring fuddy-duddy.

Some festivals are genre specific, like Travel Classics, which only deals with travel writers who have an established reputation. Knowing the event and its audience assures not only that you might get a green light to take part, but also that your appearance will be well-received by attendees.

That success leads to sales and other opportunities.

2. Plan ahead

Many literary festivals and conferences set their schedules up to a year in advance. If you’ve got a session topic that you think might be perfect, you can always try to submit in the hopes of a last-minute cancellation; but you’ll have far more success if you start early.

Some organizations have specific proposal submission periods, so again, research and tailoring are key. Timely submissions are another way of showing programming staff that you respect the hard work it takes to pull off events like these.

3. Craft a pitch that persuades

Don’t say, “I’m a great writer with a new book coming out and I’d like to come to your event.”

Instead, provide a brief bio (really, one paragraph should suffice) and then suggest a panel you think fits well with the organization’s programs.

Think like a journalist: Create a succinct pitch that compels organizers to see how your topic might work at their event. The more complete your proposal, the more likely you are to advance in the process.

Many literary festivals look for a wide variety of content, so if you don’t write mainstream fiction, don’t be dissuaded from pitching a great idea.

Some of The Tennessee Williams Festival’s most fascinating panels have come from academics exploring leprosy or literary theory. Remember, festival staff want smart, new ideas that come fully formed.

Cookbook author? Propose a session where you tell the stories behind a few choice recipes, offer tastes to the audience, and share tips on getting a cookbook published. Such an event appeals to foodies and aspiring Ina Gartens alike.

Think about what you would like to see at a literary event or conference and move beyond the staid and well-worn topics to offer fresh insight.

4. Be specific, but flexible

Sometimes, even if you have a terrific idea, the staff simply has no more room on the schedule grid.

Most festivals and conferences take place at venues with strictly limited space and time. As part of your pitch, let staff know what other topics you can speak to. They may not have room for your particular idea, but have an extra seat on a panel that’s already committed.

Alternately, you may become more attractive if staff can place you in several events. So if you’re an academic that wrote a book about feminist theory, but you also edit a literary magazine, let them know about your versatility.

5. Be upfront about your financial needs

Many nonprofit literary festivals operate on tremendously tight budgets with top honoraria reserved for big-name draws. If you need airfare and hotel in order to come and expect an honorarium of a certain dollar level, then be upfront about it.

If organizers pay $100 for a panel appearance but you want $2,000, it’s not worth it for anyone to proceed. But if you’re flexible, mention that — and keep in mind that many festivals and conferences pay nothing or offer only small travel reimbursements.

“The key is to estimate ROI,” says Matt Peters, writer and founder of Beating Windward Press. “Will you make more from the exposure than it will cost you to get to and participate in the [event]?”

Peters says that even some unpaid conference appearances have ended up as wins and have helped him make contact with new authors, publishers and agents.

Some writers can look outside the festival or conference for funding. Many universities offer travel grants or stipends for academics to attend events. Perhaps you have another partnership in mind that would share in the costs.

Writing is a business, so think like a businessperson and present yourself as a smart buy.

6. Build your portfolio

All writers need to be comfortable with rejection, and you may not get into to every festival to which you apply.

Don’t take it personally.

While many organizations have some wiggle room in the number of new voices they can feature, it may not be your year. However, you can still gain exposure by going local. Before jumping into the bigger waters of major literary events, get comfortable on smaller stages.

Reach out to your local library to ask if they’d like you to do a talk or a discussion. Inquire at your area arts center to see if they offer workshops or events from writers, and pitch a program there.

Doing smaller-scale events will help you be more at ease once you get to the most prestigious stages, and if you have a friend film them, you can offer a quick clip to the bigger festivals when you pitch (just make sure you have participants sign a waiver so you can use the footage).

So get going, writers. By taking the time to create a well-tailored idea, you may just get the chance to go interesting places, meet fascinating people and sell more of your own work.

To get you started, here are some links to a few great literary festivals:

And some international biggies:

Have you spoken at a literary event? What tips would you add for aspiring conference speakers?