Picking the right conference for you, part II: walking in with your eyes open

Yesterday, I began wading into the weird and wonderful world of literary conferences, letting you in on some guidelines for figuring out which conference is right for you and your book. The timing on this is not entirely coincidental: early registration for the PNWA conference this coming July is now open, and there is a nifty benefit associated with signing up quickly: an extra appointment with an agent to pitch your work.

So while last year, I waited until the end of April to start reviewing the sales records of the agents and acquisition records of the editors planning to attend PNWA, this year, I am getting to it early, to help you make your choices about whom to request. Quite a few of last year’s agents and editors are returning this year, so if you are looking to get the skinny on them right away, please see the brand-new category at right — named, with startling originality. Agents/Editors Who Attend PNWA.

In the interests of full disclosure, there is a reason that I annually single out the PNWA conference for my august attention: not only is it one of the larger ones, and noted for its many great pitching opportunities, but I will also be there, along with the Pitch Practicing Palace staff, to help attendees refine their pitches, target the best agents and editors for their work, and generally calm everyone down.

Yes, I just got word today that it is going to happen again this year – many thanks to all of you who contacted the PNWA to say that you wanted the PPP to offer its services again this year. (Fair warning, though: we may only be open for the first afternoon of the conference – i.e., the Thursday – instead of all three days, as we were last year. We’re still working out the details, though.)

So I confess it: I would love to see as many of my readers attend PNWA as possible, so I can meet you. Is that selfish of me?

Before I get down to agent and editor specifics, though, I am spending a few days going over how to pick a conference, as well as general criteria for selecting the agents and editors for your appointments. (For those of you new to the conference circuit, most big conferences will ask you to rank your preferences, so they can try to give you appointments with the agents and editors you want.)

Hint: the conference closest to you geographically may not be the best fit for the book you are promoting. Nor, hard as it may be to believe, the conference regionally closest to ME.

So back to the brass tacks of selection. When you are browsing a conference’s literature or website to see whether you want to register for it, it is not only important to determine whether you are likely to have the level of agent/editor contact you want, as I discussed yesterday – you will also need to take some time to figure out whether the agents and editors scheduled to attend are ones with whom you would WANT to have contact.

In other words, how likely is the array of agents and editors available at any given conference to pick up your book?

Contrary to an astonishingly pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, not every agent or editor is the right fit for every book. Agents and editors specialize, and furthermore, they have personal preferences as well. The more you know about their areas of representation and interests, the more precise a match you can find for your work.

Long-time readers of this blog, chant along with me now: the industry is not monolithic; no single agent or editor’s opinion represents the entire publishing world. So, logically, it matters very much that you pitch to not just any agent, but one who is predisposed to like books like yours.

Before you even consider signing up for a conference, go through its list of attending agents and editors and ascertain that there is at least one of each who represents books in your category. Ideally, at a big conference, you would like to find more than one, especially if your category is a broad one. Agents do occasionally switch specialties, and believe me, the last thing you want to hear when you’re sitting in a pitch meeting is, “Oh, I don’t represent that kind of book anymore; actually, I’m not sure if anyone here at the conference does.”

Or, still more common, “Yes, I represent YA,” — or romance, SF/fantasy, horror, mysteries, etc., depending on the agent — “but that’s not my age group /I only represent romantica/I don’t do werewolf stories/I’ve given up cozy mysteries…”

Doing a little background research on the agents and editors before you select them, even if that research is limited to reading the blurbs that conference brochures and websites routinely provide, can help minimize the possibility of this kind of unpleasant pitching outcome. And if you pick a conference that features more than one representative of your chosen area of endeavor, if one turns out to have switched specialties, you will have other options.

Checking the agents’ and editors’ areas of specialization may sound self-evident, but at every literary conference I have ever attended (and I’ve been attending them since I was in junior high school; a side effect of growing up amongst writers), I have met at least one good writer on the verge of tears because s/he realized only after s/he got there that there was no one there interested in her work – and thus s/he has just spent a significant amount of money and possibly traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles in order NOT to be able to pitch.

It’s sad to see, really it is.

There are good criteria for choosing which conferences to attend, and poor criteria. When asked, the overwhelming majority of conference attendees report selecting based upon factors that ultimately have little to do with the quality of the pitching experience: how close the conference is to home, who the keynote speaker is, snazziness of brochure, having relatives with whom to stay in Houston, never having been to Maui before.

While all of these are worth considering, if you are trying to find an agent or a publisher for your book, they are not vital considerations. (If you are not planning to pitch work, feel free to rely upon these factors.) What is vital is the array of attending agents and editors and the probability of your work being picked up by one of them.

In selecting amongst conferences, make this your mantra: since an agent who does not represent your kind of work is most assuredly not going to respond positively to your pitch, no matter how good it is, it will not serve your interests to pitch to him. If a conference does not have at least one agent whose DEMONSTRATED (not just stated) interests coincide with your work, choose another conference for pitching your book.

Tomorrow, a little more theory, then we launch into how to read those abstruse little agent and editor blurbs. (It’s not you – they really do tend to sound identical.) In the meantime, keep up the good work!

PS: Longtime reader and good writer Kris Swartz has an entry, “Fries, Lies, and Alibis” – good title, Kris — in the Borders/gather.com First Chapters Writing Competition. Winners are determined by reader reviews, so why not take a moment to hop on over to her entry and offer a fellow writer a bit of support? Her entry will be posted there through the end of this month.

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