What makes a conference right for you?

Well, it’s that time of year again, folks: spring is in the air (at least in my neck of the proverbial woods), those of us in the Pacific Northwest get to see the sun in brief, blinding glimpses after our long annual bout of being locked in a closet by Mother Nature, and a writer’s thoughts begin to turn to literary conferences.

Or is it only me?

I suspect not; this is the season when most of our mailboxes, literal and e-mail, begin to break out in conference brochures — that is, if you’ve ever subscribed to Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, or The Writer, taken a writing seminar, entered a literary contest, or attended a conference before. One of the plagues of modern civilization is the sale and resale of mailing lists, and the let’s-help-writers market is not immune.

Why pay attention to all of this recycling bin fodder now, rather than wait until the weather warms up? Simple: the summer conference season actually starts in the spring, running through October — and, since there is quite a bit of competition amongst conferences for attendees, early registration often carries some tangible benefits.

Commitment incentive, if you will. For instance, as I have mentioned before, the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association’s conference is offering an extra pitching appointment to the first 150 registrants. Not a bad reward for the ability to put a stamp on an envelope or log onto a website faster than other people, eh?

The benefits of conference attendance are, of course, clearly spelled out on the brochures and websites — masses of informative classes, famous keynote speakers, perhaps the opportunity to meet a favorite author or two in the flesh. But let’s be honest about it: most writers go to conferences primarily to pitch their work in person to agents and editors.

Why is this a good idea, given that books are acquired based not upon how well their authors can speak about them, but rather upon the writing, plot, etc.? Well, essentially, in-person pitching allows you to skip a step of the process. A very annoying step, as it happens, and well worth skipping: the querying stage.

It is really, really helpful if you walk into a conference understanding that: you are there not to be discovered by the agent or editor of your dreams, signed instantly, and swept off to literary stardom, but to garner invitations from agents and editors to skip the otherwise-requisite cold querying step and move right on to the send-me-the-first-50-pages step. You are there, in short, to grab at a chance to have your work judged on the merits of the writing, not on how a screener reacts to a 1-page letter.

And that, my friends, is not an opportunity at which to sneeze. Pitching at a conference can speed up a book’s journey to publication by years. So, as investments in your writing career go (especially tax-deductible ones, as a literary conference can be for a writer who files a tax return for a writing business), it can be a doozy.

Provided, of course, that you work the conference well.

For those of you who have never pitched at a literary conference before, here is how it works. Most conferences invite one or more agent(s) and/or editor(s) to speak. At some conferences, like the PNWA or the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, to name two of the best in my neck of the woods, every attendee is given, as part of the price of admission, a brief pitching appointment with an agent and/or editor. 5-15 minutes is average, but at some conferences, it is as little as 2.

At others, such as my favorite small conference, the Flathead River Writers’ Conference, only a limited agent and editor appointments are available. These appointments are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, so it pays to register early.

Thus your first step in considering a conference as an investment should be to ask yourself: realistically, how likely am I to get face-to-face time with an agent or editor? Will I be able to register in time to get an appointment?

If you can land one of those coveted appointments at a smaller conference, it tends to be very worth your while to attend. Usually, in venues where every attendee is automatically booked for face time, the agents and editors will not have read any of your work prior to the appointment, but in a smaller, more seminar-like environment, attendees are often asked to send excerpts of their work beforehand, so the agents and editors can read prior to the appointments. (One of the few larger conferences where everyone gets an appointment AND the agents and editors read work first is Words and Music.)

At a larger conference, however, it substantially easier to pitch outside your scheduled appointment time, and thus to more agents and editors, for the extremely simple reason that there are more of them wandering the hallways. If you are brave enough to attempt the high dive of the conference circuit, the 1-minute hallway pitch, a larger conference will give you more opportunities.

Don’t worry; as we get closer to conference season, I shall be going over how to prepare both a standard pitch and the swifter hallway variety. (You didn’t think I was going to send you in there unprepared, did you? Perish the thought.) Right now, all that is important for you to do is think about the kind of environment likely to be most conducive to your presenting your work well. Not every conference venue works for everyone.

For instance, I have noticed that in conferences in the South, personal appearance is far more important than it is at conferences in other parts of the country — a bit odd, since most of the agents and editors trolling there for new writers tend to be Manhattan-, Los Angeles-, or San Francisco-based, where different standards prevail. (In New York, they notice whom you are wearing; in LA, they notice the body under what you’re wearing, and in San Francisco, they’ll notice how friendly you are. Seriously.)

As a Westerner born and bred, it took me several forays to Southern conferences before I figured out why relative strangers kept asking me if my luggage with all my high heels had been lost in transit and offering to loan me their hair dryers: where I come from, looking good without apparent effort is prized.

Suffice it to say, I now wear heels, and even — sacre bleu! — nylons to Southern conferences, suits in the Midwest, sleek black in the Northeast, and whatever happens to be clean in the Pacific Northwest.

Just as not every outfit is appropriate for every conference venue — leave the Mickey Mouse ears at home, unless you happen to be pitching to Disney executives — neither is every book, or every writer. By giving some thought to the kind of conference experience you are seeking before you send off that check, you can maximize your investment in your writing career.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into the thorny issue of how to decide whether the array of agents and editors scheduled to attend any given conference is right for you and your book. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Avoiding the faux pas, part II: is it hot in here, or is it just that guy in the leather pants?

Yesterday, I began talking about the terribly counter-intuitive etiquette expected of writers just entering the publishing industry. As is true of so much in the querying, pitching, and submission process, folks in the industry just assume that writers know how things work.

And then get insulted when we guess wrong.

I have always hated tests designed to trick the test-taker. Ask any student who has every taken a class with me: as a professor, I was NOTORIOUS for stopping lectures cold and saying, “Gee, that would be a great question for someone to ask you on a final exam. I’m going to stop talking for a second to allow you to write that down, just in case.”

So, true to form, for the next week or so, I’m going to be walking you through an array of these tricky situations, to help you avoid the most common pitfalls. To make it more interesting for everyone concerned, I am going to couch each in a hypothetical case study. To play along, try to guess what fundamental rule of the publishing rule the protagonist of each inadvertently violated.

Scenario 3: Connie, a writer of books for the K-3 market, is going to her first literary conference. As one of the perqs of conference attendance, she has been assigned one appointment with an agent, and one with an editor. She preps her pitch like mad.

But when Connie goes to the agent and editors’ forum at the conference, she is stunned: there isn’t an agent there who represents children’s books; Clarissa, the only YA agent on the panel, says point-blank that she does not represent books for readers under the age of 13.

Dispirited, Connie keeps her assigned appointment with Agent Claude. Claude is kind, but he tells her the truth: his agency does not represent YA at all. Editor Charlie tells her that her story sounds interesting, but that his publishing house has a policy against accepting unagented manuscripts (as all of the major houses do, incidentally). So Connie becomes completely depressed, and goes home from the conference without having made any connections at all.

Okay, what did Connie do wrong?

“Wait just a second,” I hear some of you saying. “What did CONNIE do wrong? Don’t you mean what did the conference organizers do wrong, in assigning her to an agent who doesn’t represent her kind of book, and in inviting an editor who is institutionally barred from helping her?”

Ah — this is a common misconception about how conference pitch meetings are assigned: they are NOT assigned by the kind of book you are pushing, but by your expressed preferences and slot availability.

Which, if you think about it for a moment, makes perfect sense. If the conference organizers were to take responsibility for hooking everyone up with the perfect match, they would have to read a sample of each attendee’s work, wouldn’t they? (Note: a conference and its affiliated contest are generally organized by different groups of people.) They would also need up-to-date lists of what the agents were seeking — and no agent could ever pull out of attending at the last minute, which happens all the time.

So how are these matches actually made? Usually, conferences will ask attendees to rank their top choices for agent and editor appointments, and try to fit as many people with their first choices as possible, then as many with their second, then their third…until finally there are a few luckless souls who get none of their choices at all. It’s a simple logic problem, handled as such.

Relying upon attendees’ stated preferences throws the onus on the writer to try to figure out who would be the best fit — and, as those of you who were reading my blog last spring already know, the blurbs that agents and editors submit for writers’ consideration are often not very informative. This is why, in case you were wondering, I spent a full blogging month last spring going over which agents had sold what within the past three years, to help my readers make this choice more efficiently.

Avoid Connie’s first mistake: make sure to check BEFORE you pay the conference fees that there will be agents there who represent your kind of work.

Literary conferences vary widely; don’t attend one simply because it is geographically closest to you. Your time and money will be MUCH better invested in a conference that caters to YOUR specialty.

At a big conference, it is fair to expect to encounter agents who represent a broad array of types of book, but do not assume that a large conference is going to meet everybody’s needs. If you are not sure if a conference is geared toward your genre, e-mail the conference-giving organization, tell them what you write, and ask if there will be at least one agent there who represents your kind of work.

Specifically, not generally — if Connie had just asked about YA, the answer would have been yes, right?

So while Connie’s conference should arguably have invited a broader range of agents, the other big mistake her was probably hers: unless she was randomly assigned to Claude, the most likely reason for being misassigned is that she did not check the backgrounds of the agents before she expressed her preferences for pitch appointments. Or she may not have expressed any preferences at all (which happens more than you might think).

Connie’s third mistake was not taking action the NANOSECOND she realized there might be a problem. She could have, for instance, charged up to Clarissa and asked if anyone at her agency represented K-3 books. If so, could she use Clarissa’s name in a query letter? Are there agents that Clarissa would recommend for someone writing for that age bracket?

She also should have tried to switch agent appointments. At most conference that sponsor agent and editor fora, you will notice that immediately after it, the pitch appointment desks are generally swamped by writers wanting to give up their assigned appointments with agents who have just said that they are not in the market for what these writers write. Switching appointments is entirely appropriate under these circumstances; it helps everybody.

Connie’s case was a little depressing, so I can’t resist writing her into a new scenario, to cheer her up a little. Let’s try another version of the same problem — or, at least, what would look like a similar problem to the people involved.

Scenario 4: Daniel, a writer of bodice-ripper romances, was sitting next to Connie during the agents’ forum. Like her, he has an assigned appointment with Agent Dottie, whose blurb sounded good on the conference’s website, and a group meeting with Editor Domenico.

After Daniel’s appointment with Dottie, Connie spots him wandering the conference corridors with tears in his eyes: Dottie represents romances, but positively despises bodice-rippers. When he emerges from his editor meeting, he reports to her that Domenico is only interested in books for the male market.

So cast-down they are barely able to move, Daniel and Connie retreat to the bar. (Trust me, there’s always a bar within a hundred yards of any writers’ conference; there’s quite a good literary conference that takes place smack-dab in the middle of New Orleans’ French Quarter, even). There, they commiserate, decide that they’re never going to go to a conference again, and ultimately engage in one of those brief-but-torrid conference affairs that my SO remains convinced are endemic to conference life, all evidence to the contrary.

Okay, assuming that both are consenting adults and unattached, what did Daniel do wrong here?

Well, he probably made at least one of Connie’s three initial mistakes: not researching the agents before he expressed his preferences. (Stop thinking about that torrid affair. I’m trying to teach you something here.) Even a cursory look over Dottie’s recent sales record would probably have revealed that although she represented romance, she didn’t represent his particular sub-genre.

Daniel also made one of the most common of conference mistakes: he simply assumed that he was limited to pitching to only the agent and editor to which he had been assigned. But at a large conference, the hallways are practically infested with pitchable agents. Why wasn’t Daniel pitching to them?

Because he was getting mileage out of playing on Connie’s sympathy, that’s why. There’s been at least one guy like this at every conference I’ve ever attended: big, sad eyes, a laudable ambition to write the Great American Novel — and a wife back home who he claims doesn’t understand him at all, because she isn’t a writer. But YOU are, and it’s been so long since he’s been able to talk about his true passions…

Uh-huh. What a bore.

Instead of heading to the bar with Connie (okay, instead of heading there with her so soon), Daniel should have buttonholed one of the conference organizers — perhaps one of those nice people staffing the Pitch Practicing Palace — and found out who DID represent his kind of work. And then he should have either tried to get an appointment with each and every one or followed them around in the hallways until he found an opportune moment to ask if he could give a 1-minute pitch.

Then, he could have walked away from the conference happy, even if he ended up being too busy promoting his writing to have that fateful drink-and-smooch session in the bar with Connie.

But that’s okay, too, because actually, conference regulars tend to frown on that sort of activity. Contrary to my SO’s paranoid delusions, writers’ conferences tend to be LOUSY meat markets; everyone at the tables adjacent to Connie and Daniel was probably arguing over the relative merits of Hemingway and Raymond Carver or telling one another the stories of their books.

Hey, Daniel and Connie: get a room, for heaven’s sake. We’re trying to be literary here.

Okay, I was only going to do two case studies today, but this lead so beautifully into another conference no-no that I just can’t resist. I’ll keep it quick:

Scenario 5: Fresh out of an MFA program, Frances is attending her first literary conference, and all of the bigwigs are there. One of the speakers is Ferdinand, a well-respected book reviewer. She asks an intelligent question during his seminar, and Ferdinand smiles upon her in an avuncular manner.

Eager to find a home for her literary fiction, Frances walks up to introduce herself afterward, asking his advice on which agents she should target. Flattered, Ferdinand agrees to meet her in the bar (which, as we all know, was within easy walking distance, because it’s a literary conference) for a drink and a discussion.

Okay, what did Frances do wrong?

Absolutely nothing. She’s being smart, working the conference to get connections to help her work. Well done so far, Frances! But pitfalls yawned beneath her unwary feet after she got to that bar. Let us continue:

Frances meets Ferdinand in the bar, and at first, she is thrilled by the envious looks she is getting from other writers: having drinks alone with someone of that stature! Yet, after the third drink, Frances notices that they have not been talking about her work for a good 45 minutes now. It turns out that Ferdinand’s wife doesn’t understand him.

What was the probability?

When Frances makes a move to go, Ferdinand mentions that he would love to give her a signed copy of his collected reviews — and if she would come up to his hotel room (conveniently located, like the conference, mere steps away), he would be able to give her the address of that agent they were discussing. Flattered, Frances agrees, and they wander unsteadily toward the elevator.

Okay, if you’re over the age of 25 and didn’t see this one coming, I can only suggest that you need to get out more. It is NEVER considered acceptable, or even ethical, to expect sexual favors in return for career assistance. Period. (And if you are over the age of 17 and didn’t realize that this was why Ferdinand was luring Frances up to his hotel room, honey, you need to read more books. The wife who didn’t understand him should have been a tip-off.)

And yet there are a smarmy few bigwigs who haunt the conference circuit with precisely this expectation — or rather, holding out the vague promise that they will provide assistance they have no intention of providing. There’s quite a well-known agent, for instance, who routinely refuses to allow any woman over 40 to pitch to him — and wouldn’t you know it, he never seems to sign any clients after these conferences. There are a couple of editors who suggest that they could bend the rules about not being able to read unagented work, if properly convinced. There’s a prominent essayist who has been known to suggest that the road to NPR leads through his bedroom.

That sort of thing. And while I’m not saying that Ferdinand isn’t a figment of my fertile imagination, if you walk into a conference event and see a prominent book reviewer wearing black leather pants, run, don’t walk to the nearest exit. Neither his wife — who seems to understand him all too well — nor the publication for which he writes so ably would want you to stay in the room.

Frances, darling: no. It’s not worth it, and believe me, it won’t help your book get published.

I guess that’s enough etiquette, and more than enough smut, for today. Do your research, don’t take any wooden nickels, and keep up the good work!