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An Agent’s Thoughts on Writer’s Conferences

2017 was the year of the conference for me. At last count I attended (or will attend) eight different writer’s conferences and I still have Bouchercon in October.

I haven’t hit that number since my early days at BookEnds, back when I was building a list and a name, back before people knew who Jessica Faust and BookEnds were, and after this year I don’t think I’ll be doing another year like this again. I’ve been reminded that conferences are for the young.

Like any good blogger, I’m not going to let this experience go to waste. In eight conferences I saw so much variety in how agents (and editors) are used, and sometimes abused, that I have some tips for conference organizers on ways to make the most use of their faculty while still leaving us wanting to come back for a second round.

1. Use Us, Don’t Abuse Us: When I accept a conference “invitation” I expect to go and work, and by work I mean teach writers about publishing. That being said, and let’s be brutally honest, I am also going for the great location. I’m going to Nashville or Key West or Austin or Phoenix or Detroit because I want to see the city and experience something I’ve never experienced before. Work me yes, but also give me time to breath and explore. No one is at her best when she’s told to be “on” 12 hours a day. A 7am breakfast to 10pm cocktails with all work in between only exhausts me and exhausted Jessica is not her best Jessica.

2. Be realistic about an agent’s expectations: Believe it or not no agent goes to a conference expecting to find a new client. We’ve all been around long enough to know how truly rare that is. We go because we want to help writers, we want to meet other agents and editors (it’s a networking opportunity for us), and we love what we do. Give us time to actually chat, not only with each other, but also with authors.

3. Manage the expectations of attendees: One of the biggest mistakes conferences make is leading authors to believe the conference is all about the pitch. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be. A conference is most effective if authors attend with the feeling that they are getting the chance to network with agents, authors, and others, and learn. I’d so much rather sit at a table with a group of authors and just talk and answer questions and teach what I know about agents, publishing, and life on my side of the publishing world. Every single one of those authors is still welcome to submit, but in the 50 minutes that 10 of us sat together (equivalent to 5, 10-minute pitch sessions) so much more was learned and gained.

4. Be respectful of what the agent is providing you. I’ve had a couple of conferences where organizers have actually implied that because they are paying travel expenses I owe them. It’s expensive to bring an agent into a conference of that I have no doubt, but travel expenses are very different from paying an agent and I am not getting paid for coming to the conference. For the cost of an airline ticket, hotel, and a couple of banquet meals I am out of the office for at least two days and giving up an entire weekend to work. When I fly back on Sunday (or that red-eye Sunday night), I’m expected back in the office first thing Monday morning. No comp days for conferences (for anyone). I’m not suggesting agents should be paid, I’m fine with the system as is, but I think this points back to #1 when I suggest giving agents some free time; time to explore the city, call our clients, or catch up on email is greatly appreciated. I also strongly suggest that Sunday is never a work day for agents. It should always be seen as a travel day.

One side note here, conferences are often a fun break for writers who get to explore their passions with other writers. It’s not quite the same feeling for agents. We come because we do get to explore the passion for our job with writers and other agents, but it’s definitely a work trip so for us it’s like you going on a conference for your “day job.”

5. Pitch sessions (or similar events) should be limited to 2 hours per agent per conference. I don’t know about other agents, but I have very limited focus after 2 hours of pitches. They are exhausting and there is so much more I can provide. I would love to do panels and workshops and I’m so amazed how rarely a conference asks that of me. I get the feeling that most conferences never even think to ask agents to do anything other than pitch. If you need help I could workshop on how to write a query agents can’t say no to, how to pitch effectively, how to make the best use of your agent, what to expect when an agent offers representation, how to network with agents at tonight’s cocktail party, what the publishing market looks like today, questions to ask when an agent offers representation, what to expect once you have an agent, how to handle sticky situations with your agent or your editor, or any other topic even remotely related to any blog post I’ve ever written.

6. Assign an agent liaison: Traveling to a conference often leaves agents unmoored. The best conferences I ever attended assigned each agent her own volunteer (or at least one go-to person for all agents). This was the person who did airport pick-ups, made sure we were aware of any schedule changes, answered questions about the area, where to eat, the conference itself, and made sure we made it back to the airport on time. I’m not expecting a valet, but it’s kind of nice to meet someone right away who can be our go-to if we are desperate for Starbucks and it’s really great for the volunteer to connect with an agent on a very personal level. We become friends, we hang out, we chat and I will tell you, that volunteer isn’t expected to do much (most agents are too polite to take advantage), but the amount of information gleaned in those car rides is invaluable.

7. Provide a schedule. I’m Type A in many ways and showing up at a conference without any idea of what is expected of me really throws me off. This is a work trip so I feel the need to perform at a certain level at all times and it is a bit of a performance. When I’m at a conference you are seeing Work Jessica. She’s very different from the Jessica my friends and family know. To be the best Work Jessica I can be I need to know where to be and when I need to be there and I need to know what will be expected of me. If I’m assigned a 10-Pages Workshop I need to know what that means, because at every conference it means something different.

8. Give me beverages: I need coffee and access to coffee and I need lots of water. Agents don’t run on words alone.

This is not meant to be a diatribe on conferences, because I actually have a great love for conferences. I love getting out of the office and meeting new people, learning about life in other parts of the country (or world) and sharing my passion for publishing with others. I also believe that those who organize writer’s conferences, usually volunteers, are special people. You do something I could never do. All that being said, I want to enjoy my conference experience as much as you want the attendees to enjoy theirs and too often lately I feel that agents are being underutilized and over-worked and the people who lose out the most are actually the attendees.

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7 comments

  1. Another fantastic, authentic post! I think Book Ends needs to do their own conference! I would come in a heartbeat and bring my author friends! Thanks for continually providing such fantastic information to the industry.

  2. I attended a writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon about a month ago. I had a great time but most of that time was spent with other writers. Sure, I met my handful of agents. I pitched to three and had two request material but it was the networking with authors, meeting Christopher Moore and so much more.

    The agents I met were probably fascinating people but I will never know. I only had ten minutes. It’s impossible to know anyone in that time. I would have loved to have sat with them in a panel for a Q & A session. That’s how you get to know people. Lets face it, most of us want an agent but we want the right agent.

    I plan to go again next year but a change in how we meet agents would be nice.

  3. I would have thought everything you’ve said is common sense, but if you have to say it then I guess it isn’t. I go to one conference a year and I love it – networking and learning are the two biggest “professional” reasons while catching up with all my friends is the biggest “personal” reason for going.

  4. I think your concerns are mostly valid. The problems –as I see them–are these:
    1) Conference organizers hold out pitches as their primary draw, and I am convinced they actually are. Every budding author leaves a pitch session humming a tune and clinging to an agent’s business card with a ‘requested full or partial’ note inscribed. It’s the Holy Grail for attendees and the reason writers keep coming back. Organizers are not going to change their main draw, and therefore are loath to cut agents any slack with scheduled off time to take in the local sights.
    2) Back up to your number 5 paragraph and reread the line that begins…”If you need help I could workshop on how to write a query agents can’t say no to…” I know you are earnest in that. However, after even one or two conferences (and death by a million blogs on that subject and the other points in that particular sentence) most writers have been numbed by empaneled-agent discussions on those subjects. At some point you either have the ability to write a query or you don’t, and most writers would not attend five more conferences to figure it out. They are there for direct eye contact with agents, for that exclusive five or seven minutes that might, just might, result in an opportunity of a lifetime.
    So…hard as it is, I don’t see a break for you guys. That’s why, in a previous post, I stated I’d never bother you with an elevator pitch, or for that matter interrupt you at dinner or with friends and colleagues, etc. I might introduce myself at a bar, but then, you’d be crazy to drink at the conference hotel and present yourself for that kind of punishment, especially after a day of pitches–besides, you’ve got the city sights to take in 🙂

    1. Thank you for this. I agree wholeheartedly and it’s probably why I’ll start limiting the conferences I attend. After 20 years of pitches I think I’m tired. I do wish there was a middle ground and I will tell you that I’ve been to a number of conferences, successful conferences, where agents were asked to take a limited number of pitches. Those are definitely more appealing to me. I don’t mind 1-2 hours, but it’s hard for any agent to really give an author her full attention after the fourth, fifth or eighth hour of pitching.

      I want to clarify quickly that by workshop I don’t mean a panel. I mean I would love to sit down with authors at a roundtable and work one-on-one in a group setting to teach querying or pitching or to really dig into the struggles they are having with their books.

  5. As a sophomore author, I have been amazed at the incredible faculty at each conference I’ve attended. So many giving and encouraging people.

    As a former businessman, conferences are work. Most I attended offered little to no sight-seeing time. If we wanted to enjoy the town, we did it before or after. But…we were on the clock and being paid. Agenting is more like working on commission. It is harder to directly tie activities to revenue.

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