Picking a conference for its agents, and picking agents at a conference

Sorry, regular readers — I went and got you all excited on Wednesday about how to pick a conference, and then I did not post my follow-up yesterday, as planned. Actually, I did not do anything at all yesterday; I had a migraine that would have stopped Godzilla in her formidable tracks. Hard to peer at a computer screen when light makes one wince.

I’m back on the job today, though, and raring to go.

In my last couple of posts, I stressed the importance of researching both a conference and the pitching opportunities associated with it BEFORE you pay your registration fee. This is true even if you’re not going in order to try to find an agent or a publisher — if what you really want is an intimate venue geared toward craft, where you may be able to have a conversation with a writer you admire about your work, a primarily marketing-oriented conference will probably be a disappointment to you.

If you want a small and seminar-like on the West Coast, try the Squaw ValleyNapa Valley, or Tin House conferences. Do be aware, though, that seminar-like conferences tend to limit their enrollment. You generally have to write your way in — the industry term for having to apply for such an event — by supplying a writing sample; in effect, admissions work in much the same way as contest entries.

Even at a small conference, whether you have to write your way in or not, it is worth double-checking to see if the agents and editors who are attending have some interest in books like yours. You’ll get better feedback that way, and you’re more likely to end up with a long-term connection that will help your career.

The vast majority of literary contest attendees, however, sign up for conferences with an eye to pitching their work. If this applies to you, take this as your rule of thumb: if a conference does not have at least one agent whose DEMONSTRATED (not just stated; of that, more later in this series) interests coincide with your work, choose another conference for pitching.

Cling to this practical little axiom for dear life, especially if you are shopping a book at all outside the mainstream adult market. If your book is YA, for instance, make VERY sure that the agents and editors at your target conference actually do represent it; if they do not, they will not even listen to your pitch, alas. (And with YA, always double-check to make sure they represent your intended audience: not all YA agents represent children’s books, and vice versa.)

Similarly, if you write SF or fantasy, it would behoove you to pick a conference known for helping writers in your genre. Also true of romance and mystery, which have their own excellent conferences. I’m singling these out, because when agents and editors do not deal with these categories, they have a nasty habit of saying flatly, “I don’t want to hear anything in category X.”

Far, far better to receive that dispiriting news BEFORE you register for a conference than when you’re sitting in the dry air of a conference center or hotel, right? Remember, no agent in the world has universal tastes — given the sheer volume of submissions, they all have to specialize, at least a little.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “Wait a minute,” I hear some of you pointing out, “there are plenty of agencies in the standard agents guides who list practically every genre there is in their — ‘we want to see’ blurbs. Surely, this means that they are generalists?”

No, Virginia, it doesn’t. Typically, super-broad listings mean one of four things:

(1) The agency in question is brand-new, and doesn’t have strong connections to particular imprints yet. By intimating that they are open to every kind of book (the way they usually put it: “we love good writing”), they can garner the broadest array of submissions, and thus are not in danger of categorically rejecting the next DA VINCI CODE.

(2) The agency in question is HUGE, and has agents that specialize in a number of different areas. Generally speaking, it is the writer’s responsibility to pick the right agent from the available array, although some large agencies do have screeners that sort queries to land them on the appropriate desk. Why do they do this? So they won’t run the risk of categorically rejecting the next DA VINCI CODE.

(3) The agency in question actually does have a specialty, listed amongst the many in their blurb. However, the only way aspiring writers can find out about it is to send a query; if I had a dime for every writer I know who has queried based upon a listed preference, only to receive a huffy form rejection letter stating that the agency does not represent that particular kind of book, I could take all of you out to lunch and still have change left over.

So why do they throw open the floodgates to varieties of book that they do not represent? Well, they would consider representing the next DA VINCI CODE, if it fell into their laps.

(4) The agency in question is a fee-charging agency, one that makes its money not by selling its clients’ books, but by charging authors for various services. Sometimes, these soi-disant agencies never sell any books at all. (If you are unfamiliar with what fees are and are not appropriate, please see the Fee-Charging Agencies category at right.)

In other words: don’t make the very common mistake of assuming that just because agents are in the business of handling art, they are not primarily businesspeople. They represent what they are relatively sure they can sell, using connections built up over time. The broader the array of book categories an agency represents, the more resources it will need to invest on an ongoing basis to maintain the necessary contacts. It would be prohibitively expensive for an agency to hire enough agents to keep ties open to editors of every conceivable genre.

Unless, of course, the next DA VINCI CODE comes flying into their office — and everyone who sees it recognizes it instantly as such. (Which did not, incidentally, occur with the DA VINCI CODE.) Then, most of them would be willing to make a pitch in the dark.

Tomorrow, on to selecting editors. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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