Conference Etiquette

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Mar 31 2008

Conferences are a lot of work for agents and a lot of pressure for authors, and very frequently I’m asked questions about how authors should and can approach agents in various situations. I know we’ve chatted about what to do in an elevator or at a pitch appointment (which I’ll touch on again), but how do you approach an agent who has already seen your work, who currently has something of yours on submission, or who has rejected you five times?

First of all, before even getting to the conference, do some research. Most conferences should let you know ahead of time who is attending, so pop on the Internet and find out what you can. Learn about the agencies they work for as well as the agents as individuals, and definitely find out what they represent. The more information you have the more confident you’ll feel when talking to an agent. And second, relax. Agents attend conferences for two reasons: to help authors by teaching them about the publishing business and to find new clients. They’re hoping to get as much out of the conference as you are.

So let’s look at a few of the possible scenarios for meeting an agent. . . .

If an agent has previously rejected your work, there’s no need to mention that when you walk up to introduce yourself. When meeting someone for the first time, try to keep your introduction positive. There’re few things more uncomfortable than an author bitterly telling you upon introduction that you’ve already rejected her work. It’s hard to have much of a conversation after that. However, if after an introduction the agent mentions that your name or the title of your book sounds familiar, don’t hesitate to spin it positively. Let her know that in fact you had submitted to her and she had passed, but you’re working on something fresh and new and you’re hoping to keep her in mind for the future. Focusing not on the rejection but on what’s next is much more appealing to everyone.

And keep in mind that just because an agent has rejected your work doesn’t mean you should avoid meeting her (unless you’ve already decided you never want to work with her). While it might seem like there are millions of agents out there, the list can seem pretty small if you start weeding people out. It’s important to remember that conferences are about networking. It can never hurt to know as many people in this business as possible and, if for some reason you don’t find representation for Book #1, you’ve already got a good connection for Book #2, a personal connection.

If you know you are going to a conference and you know you are going to have pitch appointments or just meet agents personally, do not send your work out right before the conference. In the case of a pitch appointment, you want the benefit of the pitch. Anyone can query or submit to an agent, but a pitch appointment gives you an edge. It gives you the opportunity to discuss your work with the agent before sending it along. At every conference there’s at least one person who sends me a proposal a week or two before the event. I get the feeling that they are expecting me to show up at the pitch with a critique, but what they’ve actually done is wasted a pitch. What will happen is you’ll tell me you just sent it, I’ll tell you that’s fine, I’ll read it when I get back, and your pitch is over. You’ve just missed out on the opportunity to get constructive feedback on your pitch and possibly your story. I know that often in pitch appointments the author and I will get to talking about her work, and many times I’ll have suggestions of where I see things might be off or directions she should consider.

If you have a requested full with an agent who is going to be at the conference, good for you. Definitely make the time to introduce yourself to this agent. Remind her what your story is about and thank her for requesting it. Don’t quiz her about her timing or regale her with your concerns about what’s wrong with the book, and don’t expect her to give you feedback. There’s no need to call or notify her ahead of time that you’ll be at the conference. A face-to-face introduction should suffice.

One of the reasons I advise against getting in touch with agents or submitting just before a conference is that for a lot of agents this puts them in an uncomfortable position. They feel that you’re expecting something they don’t want to give—usually feedback or more personal, detailed critiques than they would normally give. We’ve discussed before that there are a lot of agents who will honestly say that in pitch sessions they simply ask for everything. They tend not to like confrontation. I’m not one of those agents, and I will happily discuss your work if I’ve read it. However, I can only discuss your work if I remember it, and here’s where it becomes embarrassing. It’s very possible that I’ve read your work, and rejected it yesterday; that doesn’t mean I remember enough about it to give you feedback.

When meeting an agent in various public places around the hotel, here’s my advice:

In the gym: Smile, nod, and walk on. Nobody wants to make an introduction while sweating to LL Cool J on the treadmill.

In the pool: Feel free to start a casual, friendly conversation, but no business talk allowed. For one thing, I don’t want to talk business in a pool. For another, I don’t want to be reminded that now you’ve seen me in my swimsuit.

At a conference-sponsored dinner: Chat up the agent. Ask about the business, tell her about yourself. Talk about the town and what it has to offer. This is one of the best times to get to know someone. You have her trapped at your beck and call for at least a couple of hours. Use it to your benefit and don’t forget to get a business card on the way out. Whatever you do, make it your responsibility to ensure the agent is having a nice time. All too often I’ve observed agents at conference dinners left to flounder while everyone else at the table chats away. I’m not sure what it is, I suspect fear, but the worst thing you can do is leave an agent trapped in silence at the other end of the table.

In the elevator: Smile, nod, and introduce yourself. You need to take these moments when they arise, and elevators are perfectly acceptable. However, when it’s time for the agent to get off, let her off. Don’t hold up the elevator and do NOT follow her to her room.

At the airport: At this point, if you recognize the agent, she’s usually tired and exhausted. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to strike up a friendly conversation, but no one wants to be pitched at this point. We are tired, we’re homesick, and we just want to read one of our new books.

When in doubt, my suggestion is to always introduce yourself and make small talk. You can usually get a feel fairly early on if the agent is up for chatting. I don’t think it’s ever necessary to ask if you can submit. Of course we’re going to say yes, we have submission guidelines. And I don’t think it’s necessary, outside of a pitch session, to launch into your pitch. If you do feel the need to pitch, this is where short comes into play. A pitch is awkward and a bit of a conversation stopper. Instead I would simply say something along the lines of, “Would you be interested in a romantic suspense featuring a bounty hunter?” But you really only need to do this if you’re unsure. If you absolutely know your work is right for this agent, just have a chat. Enjoy your time together and query her when you get home. If the chat was nice she’ll remember you enough to request more.

I hope I covered all the bases here and I hope to see more than a few of you at conferences this year. Good luck and happy travels!


21 responses to “Conference Etiquette”

  1. Jessica-

    Wow. Good timing.

    I’m toying with the idea of going to the OWFI conference in May. I most likely won’t because of some other things going on, but I’ve considered it strongly. A rep from Baen Publishing is going to be there and I think they are ideal for my work, so it’s very tempting.

    I am definitely going to the Surrey Conference, though. I have to admit the thought of talking to agents scares me witless and I’m not normally a shy person. I’m also not much of a star gazer, but I do have a fear of saying something stupid.

    “Mama always said better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re a fool, than open it and remove all doubt,” she said in her best Forrest Gump accent.

    “For another, I don’t want to be reminded that now you’ve seen me in my swimsuit.”

    This made me giggle and put agents on a more “human” level.

    Is there a way to find out where certain agencies and publishers will be attending without scanning every conference?

    What if your manuscript isn’t finished?



  2. “my suggestion is to always introduce yourself and make small talk.”
    Easier said then done. When nervous I tend to babble like an idiot. Small talk? Whatsat?
    Relax? Ha! When we meet an agent we really want to work with its like waiting for the coolest guy in school to ask you to the prom. Nervous? Mind goes blank, stupid stuff puddles out of the mouth. Leave feeling sooo dumb. (Please! I’m not really an idiot!)
    I never thought it was a bad thing to mention I’d be rejected, but I guess I can see where it would put the agent on the defensive. That wouldn’t be the intent. More like I like the way you work so much I’ve submitted to you before.
    Question; if asked to submit a full how soon is a reasonable time to send it in? Even if I finish something, when asked for a full I have a strong urge to go over the whole thing one more time. A week? Two weeks?

  3. I just had an odd encounter with an agent. Recently, I was at a conference and spent a few extra bucks for an agent to critque 10 pages of my manuscript. The odd circumstance was that I signed a contract for that novel with a small press about 4 weeks prior to the conference.

    The first evening of the conference I was at the bar and happened to start chatting with a lady, not knowing she was the agent that had my 10 pages to critique. When I introduced myself, she said my name sounded familiar and then she remembered my work, which she said was quite good.

    After I told her I had signed a contract, she went off about my stupidity. (She was a very blunt lady.) She said that she couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t have picked up the phone and called her, or some of the agents that recently rejected it. (I had 2 agents ask for fulls a month or so before I signed the contract and they ultimately rejected it.)

    So, my question is, under these circumstances, where after you rejected a full, and the author received a offer from a small press, would you expect or receive a phone call? And would you consider reversing your decision?

  4. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Jessica has given a great common sense approach and I agree with her, BUT BookEnds is an accessible agency, where a query will get answered (even if its a form reject). More and more agency’s are not this polite. Many don’t answer queries at all.

    So before everyone gets out their billy club, please know I’m not directing this at Jessica or BookEnds. But I sometimes I wish agents would understand writer’s conferences from the writer’s POV instead of their own. After paying a lot of money they don’t have, writers are instructed to never mention their work unless they have a pitch appointment:



    Also, 95 percnet of the agents attending AREN’T looking for new writers. You can hear an audible groan from those around you when an agent/editor in a workshop or roundtable proudly annouces they haven’t taken on a new client in 5 years and don’t intend to. This is partly to blame on the conferences themselves — the hawking of certain agents/editors to newbies that think they’ll be discovered in an elevator, but still.

    Writer’s conferences have a tendency to make writers fearful. And unworthy. Agents aren’t that fragile. It isn’t a date for heavens sake. Where else but in publishing do you attend a industry event (writers conference) and it’s considered bad taste to talk about the work?

  5. Avatar Becky Levine says:

    Wonderful info, Jessica, thanks! Especially about talking with an agent who’s passed on a query or manuscript–those are great tips.

  6. Anon 9:34,

    “BUT BookEnds is an accessible agency, where a query will get answered (even if its a form reject). More and more agency’s are not this polite. Many don’t answer queries at all.”

    Many of the agents that have stopped answering queries do so because they’ve gotten such nasty replies when the do send out rejections. I’ve been heavily researching agents lately, and I find this more and more, because so much is done via email, disgruntled writers have no problem hitting the reply button and lambasting the agent for the rejection. That’s the same reason agents who once offered constructive feedback in rejections have thought twice about doing so – they’ve already taken time out of their schedule to offer help and been verbally abused over it. Granted, it stinks for the rest of us, who understand rejection isn’t personal and would love the feedback when they can give it. But, if I had angry writers reading me the riot act every time I replied with a no, I might stop replying, too.

    I haven’t been to a conference yet, so I can’t say how they’re designed or what percentage of agents are currently taking new clients. But I do follow a number of blogs, including this one, from agents that don’t rep my genre – I think there’s something to learn regardless and when you’re looking at a conference as your ‘big break’ to getting an agent, I think you’re probably putting a lot more pressure on yourself and the event than you need to. Looking at it as a chance to meet and discuss writing with other professionals might be a better way to get more out of the experience.

  7. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I’ve attended a lot of conferences over the past twenty-odd years, and the biggest surprise to me was just how friendly and accessible a lot of agents can be. They’re not ogres and they’re not all snooty (though a few are!) and I’ve actually become friends with quite a few. We keep in touch and talk about books and trends and they’re just regular people. Go figure! Of course, they became “just regular people” when I started treating them that way…

  8. Avatar Karen Duvall says:

    I’ve attended the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold conference every year for the past 14 years and have witnessed many changes in the demeanor and social interactions of attending literary agents. I met Jessica at last year’s conference (waves at jessica *grin*).

    I’m a very social person and have no problem greeting an agent I’ve never met and striking up a conversation. The conversation may last for just a couple of sentences, but it helps put them at ease because they’re in a new place, probably don’t know anyone, and there are lots of expectations placed on their shoulders. Also, they’re probably wondering if there are any writers hovering nearby who feel hostile towards them because of a rejection. Man, when you think about it, that would be really uncomfortable. So take pity on these industry professionals who really need your welcome!

    My friends and I would often host a little private party in our room for any agents or editors wanting free drinks and snacks late in the evening. These parties would usually go on til way past midnight, and we all had a blast! It’s not so common anymore. I think most of our conference’s professional guests are too tuckered out to socialize beyond the awards banquet and meet-n-greet dinner. But I really miss those late-night parties!

    A great way to get to know some of the attending agents at conferences is to be a volunteer. You could be the one handling pitch appointments, or driving them to or from the airport, moderating their panel or workshop, etc.

    And remember that agents agent because they probably love the book business. So you already have loads in common. Watch their eyes light up when you mention a book they love, or that you’ve read a book by an author they represent. If you read their blog, let them know!

    IMO, you’ll get the most out of your conference experience if you focus more on the learning than on the pitching. I’d say 95 percent of agents can’t remember a word from any of the pitches they heard over the weekend let along the writers’ names, so don’t put your focus there. Glean the knowledge they have to offer about the business and revel in the subjects that interest you both: books! And come away with your conference experience uplifted and inspired.

  9. Writer’s conferences, in some aspects, aren’t that different from other tradeshows or business conferences. I’ve been in the shoes where someone wants to sell ME their product.

    Out of a three day conference, a few hundred people who start up conversations, 90% of them trying to sell their products or services. By day two, your brain ceases to recognize most English words.

    Most of the people I met, I don’t remember. But I DO remember meeting a woman who commiserated about the idiocy of wearing heels to a trade show because they made your legs look good. She handed me a business card as she left, and when she called me at work a few weeks later, we went on to do business together.

    I think Jessica gave sage advice, and I definitely intend to follow.

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    What if it wasn’t the agent who passed on a query but (and you know this for a fact) an assistant? Assuming the book is of the sort the agent is intereste in, is it fair to repitch?

  11. Avatar jfaust says:

    Some of my thoughts on your comments….

    Julie–I have no idea if there’s a master list of who is attending what. Somehow I doubt it, but does anyone else know?

    I think going to a conference at whatever stage your writing is at is a great idea. Remember, it’s not always about pitching, but often about networking. Meeting agents now and getting a feel for who you like is great for when your manuscript is finished and it is time to query.

    Aimless: I would shoot for two weeks. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to want to review the book, but on the other hand the agent is excited now and anxious to read the rest. You want to get her while the excitement is high. You also want to get your work to her when presumably she’s looking for something, which is why she asked for yours.

    Wilfred: I’m sorry you had such a bizarre experience. My question to you would be, do you really want an agent who only seems willing to represent you because you have an offer? I wouldn’t have gone back to those who rejected the work, but it would have been perfectly acceptable to let those who were currently reviewing your work know of the offer.

    Anonymous: I think it’s a shame that conferences get themselves into these situations and I agree. Not all agents are as accessible as you’d like them to be. But if they aren’t then I guess you know you can rule them out the next time you query. And let me say, I don’t think it’s at all bad taste to talk about your work. In fact, it is perfectly acceptable. But, if you want to make yourself memorable, if you want to stand out from the pack I think it’s best to try to get to know the agent rather than simply use her as a vehicle for your pitch.

    anon 12:03. If it was just a query feel free to pitch the agent again, but remember that when your material is sent a second time it’s probably going to go to the assistant first. Don’t assume assistants don’t know what they’re doing.


  12. I have to say, for myself, I find it rather easy to talk to agents. And I’ve even broken a few rules here and there — mentioning to one agent a rejection I’d just gotten from her a month prior. Course, She didn’t remember the sub right off hand, and I said not to worry, the only reason I mentioned it was because I was impressed with her fast turn-around on getting back to me about it.

    The only thing I hate about speaking to agents at conferences (when it’s a random thing, not an appointment), is making sure I’m not interrupting them.

    Fortunately, the few times I’ve broken this particular rule, the agent, and their client, has been gracious to me, and I’ve bought a book out of the deal, so (I hope) no harm done.

  13. Avatar Rachel Glass says:

    Good advice, thank you Jessica!

    It’s slightly disconcerting, to say the least, that you actually had to put in not to follow an agent to her hotel room. Creepy! :S

    Food for thought nonetheless. Bring on the conferences!!!

  14. Avatar Katie says:

    Hi, I’m new to the publishing/book world and I really enjoy reading your blogs. They have been a great way to get to know the industry. I’m working for a company that edits manuscripts and (if they’re good) I try and get agents interested. Any suggestions for approaching agents when it is on behalf of an author? I’d appreciate any tips you have to offer!

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Here’s a thought from the dark side: A few years ago, I sat between an effete, little man who was an agent at a large agency and a woman who wrote literary fiction. I landed between them by chance.

    Mr. Agent looooooooooooves literary fiction. I write thrillers. So for the next hour he leaned across my plate and chatted up the lovely woman to my right.

    I tried several times to see if I could pass my hand through my midsection, figuring I must have gone invisible. Finding I could not, I sat quietly in my humiliation, struggling to force food down my throat.

    I know BookEnds would never do something like this, but obviously some agents would. So I’d like to give a shout-out to Mr. Effete.

    Hello Mr. Rudeness. We’re the reason you guys have jobs. And yeah, we’re human too. We paid good money to go to the conference. We had high hopes for our precious manuscript. That is until we had lunch with you. I’d really appreciate it if you’d ESAD.

    Jessica, thanks for letting me blow off steam.

  16. Anon 4:02, if I were an agent, I’d ask to look at your work purely based on that comment. If you didn’t mean to be funny, my apologies, but I think I peed myself, I laughed so hard. ESAD??? I SO know what that means! Mr. Effete? LOL!

    But look at it like this – who wants a tacky old man for an agent anyway? I’ve come to believe a writer should be very simpatico with her agent, and I’m thinkin’ an effete, literary snob wouldn’t do it for me. Sounds like he’s not for you, either. (still chuckling…)

    My favorite Writers Behaving Badly story will always be the author who passed her manuscript under a bathroom stall to an editor. I know it’s a true story – it happened to my previous agent while she was still an editor.

  17. Avatar Joya says:

    This post is so helpful, and I’m definitely bookmarking it. Thank you! 🙂

  18. Jessica;

    Thank you for responding.

    I was thinking more along the lines of agents and editors announcing they are going to be attending xyz conference ahead of time. I’m sure a master list would be something akin to finding the holy grail.

    Come to think of it, that might be a bestseller.

    *Gets out steno pad and pen.

    So, where will you all be attending this year?

    I confess, OWFI would be mainly in the hopes of getting an appointment with Mr. Minz of Baen.

    Surrey, that’s for the workshops and networking. If I get some appointments, whoo yah.


  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Stephanie, I love an audience. Thanks for laughing. Sorry about the undies.

    anon 4:02

  20. I confess to being another tongue-tied individual in front of agents.

    My RWA chapter hosted agents for an event, and I literally sat there mute. At the lunch table. With just the 2 of us.

    She started reading a full ms from her satchel.

    I mean, good Lord, I know she’s JUST a human being (and she’d been SUPER nice at the dinner reception the night before), but my mind was BLANK.

    Trying to psych myself up for RWA Nationals in August. Your post has encouraged me to write a list of converation starters!

  21. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I don’t want to meet anyone while wearing my bathing suit either. Let’s gather near the chocolate fountain, shall we?