As we head into the final days of prep before my local Conference That Shall Not Be Named*. I have a fun-but-practical topic for today: what materials should you bring with you to a conference — and, more importantly, to your agent and editor meetings?
Other than good, strong nerves and faith that your book is the best literary achievement since Madame Bovary, of course.
At minimum, you’re going to want a trusty, comfortable pen and notebook with a backing hard enough to write upon, to take good notes. Also, it’s a good idea to bring a shoulder bag sturdy enough to hold all of the handouts you will accumulate and books you will buy at the conference.
This is not an occasion for a flimsy purse — don’t underestimate how many books you may acquire. It’s rare that a literary conference doesn’t have a room devoted to convincing you to buy the collected works of conference speakers, local writers, and the folks who organized the conference. (At the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, for instance, only organization members and conference presenters’ work will be featured.)
Don’t expect any discounts — for some reason, offering a writers’ discount never seems to occur to organizers — but it’s usually child’s play to get ‘em signed. Do be aware, though, that when major bookstore chains organize these rooms (and at large conferences, it’s often a chain like Barnes & Noble), they often take an additional payment off the top, so a self-published author may well make less per book in such a venue.
This is not to say that you should hesitate to purchase a book from the writer with whom you’ve been chatting in the book room for the last half an hour. You should. However, if the book is self-published, you might want to ask the author if s/he would prefer for you to buy it elsewhere.
But I digress. Back to the contents of your conference bag.
In addition to my notebook, I always like to include a few sheets of blank printer paper in my bag, so I can draw a diagram of the agents’ forum, and another of the editors’, to keep track of who was sitting where and note a few physical characteristics, along with their expressed preferences in books.
Why do I do this? Well, these fora are typically scheduled at the very beginning of the first day of the conference — a very, very long day.
By the time people are wandering into their appointments at the end of the second day, dehydrated from convention hall air and overwhelmed with masses of professional information, I’ve found that they’re often too tired to recall WHICH editor had struck them the day before as someone with whom to try to finagle a last-minute appointment. Being able to whip out the diagrams has jogged many a memory, including mine.
And by the way, at a conference that offers an agents’ or editors’ panel (and most do), do not even CONSIDER missing it. Attendees are expected to listen to what the agents and editors are seeking at the moment and — brace yourself for this — it does not always match what was said in the conference guide blurb.
There was a reason that I used to post the recent sales of agents and editors scheduled to attend the Conference That Shall Not Be Named: tastes change. So does the market. But blurbs tend to hang around from year to year.
No comment — except to say that you will be a much, much happier camper if you keep an ear cocked during the agents’ and editors’ fora to double-check that the agent to whom you were planning to pitch a vampire romance isn’t going around saying, “Heavens, if I see ONE more vampire romance…”
I always, always, ALWAYS bring bottled water to conferences — even to ones where the organizers tend to be very good about keeping water available. A screw-top bottle in your bag can save both spillage and inconvenience for your neighbors.
How? Well, when you’re wedged into the middle of a row of eager note-takers in a classroom, it’s not always the easiest thing in the world to make your way to the table with the pitcher on it, nor to step over people with a full glass in your hand.
If I seem to be harping on the dehydration theme, there’s a good reason: every indoor conference I have ever attended has dried out my contact lenses, and personally, I prefer to meet people when my lenses are not opaque with grime.
I’m wacky that way. If your eyes dry out easily, consider wearing your glasses instead.
Even if you have perfect vision, there’s a good reason to keep on sippin’. If you are even VAGUELY prone to nerves — and who isn’t, in preparing to pitch? — being dehydrated can add substantially to your sense of being slightly off-kilter. You want to be at your best. Lip balm can be helpful in this respect, too.
Both conferences and hotels, like airports, see a lot of foot traffic, so the week leading up to the conference is NOT the time to skip the vitamins. I go one step further: at the conference, I dump packets of Emergen-C into my water bottle, to keep my immune system strong.
If this seems like frou-frou advice, buttonhole me at a conference sometime, and I’ll regale you with stories about nervous pitchers who have passed out in front of agents. Don’t lock your knees, don’t drink too much coffee or alcohol, and if you need to sit down, say so right away. A conference should not be an endurance test.
Trust me, this is a time to be VERY good to yourself. If I had my way, the hallways at any pitching conference would be lined with massage chairs, to reduce people’s stress.
While I’m sounding like your mother, I shall add: don’t try to pitch on an empty stomach. No matter how nervous you are, try to eat something an hour or so before your pitch appointment. If you are anticipating doing a lot of hallway pitching, or dislike the type of rubber chicken and reheated pasta that tends to turn up on conference buffets, you might want to conceal a few munchies in your bag, to keep yourself fueled up.
Since you will most likely be sitting on folding chairs for many, many hours over the course of the conference, you might want to bring a small pillow. I once attended a conference where instead of tote bags, the organizers distributed portable seat cushions emblazoned with the writers’ organization’s logo, and you should have heard the public rejoicing.
In the spirit of serious frivolity, I’m going to make another suggestion: carry something silly in your bag, a good-luck charm or something that will make you smile. It can work wonders when you’re stressed, to have a concealed secret. I used to advise my university students to wear their strangest underwear on final exam day, for that reason — it allowed them to know something that no one else in the room knew.
(It also meant several years of students walking up to me when they turned in their bluebooks and telling me precisely what they were wearing under those athletic department sweats — and, on one memorable occasion, showing me à la Monica Lewinsky. Allegedly.
Trust me: resist the urge to share; it’s disconcerting to onlookers.)
If you suspect you would be uncomfortable wearing your 20-year-old Underroos or leather garter belt (sorry; you’re going to have to find your own link to that) under your conference attire, a teddy bear in your bag can serve much the same purpose.
That’s such an interesting image that I believe I shall leave you for today to ponder it. Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit about marketing tools you might want to have in your bag, and for the rest of this week, I shall be wrapping up the last loose ends of conference lore, before moving on to how to apply the skills we learned in Book Marketing 101 to query letters and submissions.
A full summer, but a fruitful one, my friends. Keep up the good work!
*If this reference to a conference that may or may not be being held next weekend seems mysterious to you, or if you’re wondering why I’m not doing a Pitch Practicing Palace this year, please see my post for April 14.