Friday, September 30, 2011

Writer's Conferences and Getting an Agent Part One

Last week when I was at the ACFW conference, one of the agents shared that they received about 10,000 "cold queries" last year (meaning query letters from writers they'd previous had zero contact with). And of the 10,000, zero became their client.

This isn't to say that query letters (where you type up a blurb about your project, a blurb about yourself, and send it to agents in hopes they'll ask to read a writing sample) are a waste of time. I have several friends who found their agents by writing a killer query letter. But with most whom I talk to, the connection happened through a writer's conference. (Quick throwback to Wednesday's post: I originally typed, "But with most whom I talk to, it happened through a writer's conference. See? Even years later, I'm constantly fixing that mistake.)

Today we're going to talk about what these agent and editor appointments look like, and on Monday we'll talk about how to prepare for them.

I'm not an expert on all writer's conferences, but at the ones I've been to, I've always had a chance to interact with agents and editors in two ways. At meals and in one-on-one appointments. 

Both can be intimidating for different reasons. At a meal, there's likely 10 people listening to pitch your project. And sometimes you're yelling it across the table. And later you might discover you have spinach wedged in one of your teeth. 

In a one-on-one appointment, you have the luxury of having their full attention for a scheduled fifteen minutes. But, um, you also have to deal with the pressure involved in having their full attention for fifteen minutes.

Sometimes your meetings are ideal. You manage to hide your shaking hands under the table, you recite your elevator pitch with enthusiasm, and the agent (or editor) is warm and receptive. He or she asks good follow-up questions and you have good follow-up answers. Maybe time even allows for you to ask a question or two about their agency or publishing house. At the end, the agent (or editor) asks you to email them a book proposal when you get home. You shake their hand in a very professional manner and somehow hold off on doing a celebratory jig until you're out of sight.

Other times your meetings are neutral. The agent or editor might smile and nod, but you don't sense much enthusiasm. Or maybe they say they like your project, but they see some places it would need rewrites if there's going to be a chance of the two of you working together in the future. (That's a really common one.) You leave your appointment with the feeling of, "Well ... that could have gone better, but it could have gone worse too..." 

And sometimes they go bad. Your appointment gets scheduled for the very last slot of the day. It's 4:45, and they've seen a different writer every 15 minutes since 9:00 that morning. You're nervous and you fumble with your pitch. You're about 2 minutes into what's supposed to be a 30 second elevator pitch when they interrupt and say they're not interested. You still have 13 minutes left in your allotted time, so maybe you ask a few questions about their agency or you compliment an author they represent. Now you have 11 minutes left. They're looking at you, waiting, and you tell them it was nice to meet them, thanks so much for the time, and then you try not to run from the room.

Sometimes the elements that make up a bad appointments (or the neutral) are not in your control. You can't help the schedule or the agent's mood or that the person who pitched before you practically had fireworks going off when they shared their manuscript. On Monday, we'll talk about the things that are in your control. Like how you present yourself, your enthusiasm, and your politeness, just to name a couple.

I'm curious, what's the scariest thing to you about finding the right agent? Or what kind of questions do you have about the process that I can cover?

Have a great weekend!


  1. Agh! I am NOT a people person. I'd probably die in a one-on-one meeting with an agent. That's it, die. I'd love to write a killer query letter instead, but it doesn't sound like my chances for success are that good...

    I'm curious - was the spinach in your teeth a real experience? :)

  2. It all seems scary to me!!!!!!!!!!!!! I'm just a kid :( I think I'll probably start out with those query letters and maybe come to my senses once I've been kicked around a little bit......


  3. The whole one-on-one appointment excites me and terrifies me at the same time. I'd be so nervous I'm afraid I'd screw up my pitch and then blow the whole meeting. :P

    I do have a question though. When you go to a writers conference, do you get to choose which editor or agent you meet with? Because, say like there was an editor from a publishing house that mostly publishes one genre, but my book doesn't fit into that specific one. Does that give you an unfair advantage then?
    Hopefully this rambling question made sense. :)

  4. haha, whoops, I meant to say "disadvantage". Sorry about that. :D

  5. I'm panicking just reading this. pitching at a conference will not be easy for me, I'm much better behind a computer.
    When I get to that point I'll probably have to practice to friends or something.
    One thing I've always wondered, let's say you had an awesome pitch & the agent wants to represent you, do you have to pay them while they are shopping your book?

  6. Ellyn, you're so funny. As far as I know, I haven't done the spinach thing. Yet, anyway :) And I'm going to have one of my friends on here who acquired her agent through query letter.

    Micah, we all get kicked around :) I was impressed; at ACFW there were a decent amount of teens. (I know of 3, but there might have been 1 or 2 more.) I don't know about general market writers conferences, but at the Christian ones, the editors and agents have all been really encouraging to the teens, so it might work out to your benefit! I went to a general market writers conference when I was 17, and they were all really nice to me. Of course I was there with my dad, so maybe they were afraid of getting beaten up or something :)

  7. Clare, that's a great question. Yes, you get to have a say in who you meet with. At some conferences, they just put out sign up sheets and you can sign up for as many appointments as you want.

    Others, like ACFW, have you select ahead of time. You can choose from 1 agent and 1 editor appointment, or 2 agents/2 editors, depending on where you are in your career. You provide them with your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th choices and then when you show up you find out who you got and when you're scheduled. And the earlier you register for the conference, the better your chances are of getting your first and second choices.

    Even though I registered early, they gave me my first and third choices, so I had to get to lunch early one day so I had a shot at sitting with my #2 choice while we ate.

    Sorry, that might have been more info than you wanted :)

  8. Tonya, that's a great question because there's a lot of confusion surrounding agents and how they make their money. Succinctly, YOUR AGENT ONLY MAKES MONEY WHEN YOU MAKE MONEY. The industry standard is 15%. This is why agents are so particular about who they take on, because they want their work to pay off.

    Practicing with your friends is a great way to go. Not only do you get more comfortable, but they often have suggestions about different aspects of the story to highlight or better word choices or something.

  9. Haha...My Dad calls agents (of any kind: acting, writing, etc.) "King-makers." My plan is to get into editing and publishing (although I still love writing), so he keeps telling me that the King-maker is who you really wanna be. Sorry, I guess that's kind of random, but it sort of relates to your comment, Stephanie, about agents only making money when writers do.

  10. This was quite an entertaining post, actually. Ooh, I'll have to remember to bring my dad to writing conference's, in that case. :D

  11. I really liked this post, too, as I have the others like it. I'm going to try to get into publishing, as well as everything else, to start out with, and these have been really informative as to how to go about making contacts, what to do with contacts once you've got them, etc.

  12. At my first conference this summer, I didn't have the privilege of having a pitch meeting but I did get to meet Anne Mateer of the Writing Spa. She was incredibly sweet and I'll never forget how patient she was when I stuttered and stumbled all through that 30-second summary. Looking back now, I laugh about it. Then, however, I felt like either giggling or crying!! :) The first time is always the hardest...After that I was able to tell anyone what they wanted to know, because, hey, it couldn't get any worse than that experience and the sky hadn't fallen on my head! :)

  13. Oh, Rachelle, that's a brilliant attitude!

  14. Something that scares me about finding the right agent... is maybe they like my work or something and they decide to take me up on writing. But then later on they realize it may have not been such a good idea to pick me haha. :)

  15. We're all a teensy bit frightened of that, Jazmine :) Just about every time I send my agent something new and there's a delay, that thought runs through my mind of, "She's going to read this and think 'Was I on cold medicine the day I said I wanted to represent her?'"

    But agents are people too and they understand we have insecurities. My agent has even said to me a couple times, "I'm in this for the long haul, okay?" I must have had some sort of panic in my tone when we were talking :)

  16. Lol I'll probably sound like that to. :)

  17. I went to the Writer's Digest Conference last January and just about had a heart attack when I got to pitch to the lit agents -- I swear, it was like meeting celebrities or something.

    The scariest thing for me right now is getting back out there. I had two agents interested enough this past year to request FMs, but they both turned me down because there was something "just a little off" about the manuscript, and now I don't know whether that means I should ditch the novel and begin working on querying my next one, or stick to it despite what they said because I really like the story.

  18. Julia, I say go with your gut and stick with it. You really like the story, and if you keep submitting it maybe an agent will be able to put their finger on what exactly is "off." But if you still believe in the story, keep putting it out there and keep writing while you wait.