You've heard the story: An unpublished writer goes to a writer's conference, armed with a dog-eared manuscript and grand hopes. Her schmoozing pays off when she meets a big-time editor who, charmed by the writer's charm and enthusiasm, takes a look at her manuscript, adores it, offers her a publishing contract on the spot.
If you go into a writer's conference with this expectation, you're likely to be sorely disappointed. It's true, however, that conferences can help you make the connections that may eventually result in sales. "I don't often go to writers' conferences," says Sophia Dembling, "But one of the first ones I went to as a writer (rather than editor) -- I ended up with a book contract resulting in my first book."
Michael Steven Gregory, Executive Director of Southern California Writers' Conference, says that more than $2.6 million worth of book and screen deals have been signed as a result of manuscript troubleshooting and "contacts nurtured" at the Southern California Writers' Conference in San Diego over the past 17 years. "Tom Youngholm's The Celestial Bar was picked up by an agent in attendance, who read it on the flight back to New York, then sold it at auction for a quarter-million dollars; Peggy Vincent's SCWC 14 NonFiction Award-winning manuscript evolved into the smash hit Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife, which sold for six-figures. Of course, big-dollar payouts like these are an exception in the publishing world for most first-timers, which is what makes them news. The more common, less 'newsworthy' acquisitions are where many other books have also come out of the SCWC, spanning a variety of genres. The successful publication of every one them marks the accomplishment of its author."
Peggy Tibbetts originally attended writers' conferences for inspiration and the chance to meet well-known writers and be introduced to their works. "However for the past 15 years I've used them more for networking and promotion. When I was an editor for Children's Magic Window magazine, I went to conferences to promote the magazine and let writers know about the market. Now that I have books published, I go to conferences to let others know about my books. These days I prefer to speak at conferences rather than attend, so I promote myself more in that direction. I haven't actually sold to an editor, or signed with an agent. But since I've been promoting and selling my published books at conferences, yes I do make sales that way, to the participants."
Business cards, flyers, and press kits: At the very least, make sure you have business cards, and keep them handy. Most conferences will have a place where attendees can place flyers and other promotional materials. See my article, Creating an Author Press Kit, for more information.
Consider registering for a one-on-one manuscript consultation: Some conferences will offer a manuscript critique session with an editor or agent for an additional fee, but often you have to register for this ahead of time. Find an editor work you respect. Have realistic expectations, realizing that very few conference consultations directly result in publication sales. "Time after time I've had editors praise my work, then turn it down when submitted," says Peggy Tibbetts. "I think it's a good experience for writers to submit manuscript pages for critique, but I don't think editors seriously look for projects this way."
Bring books to sell: Some conferences have a table where authors can sell their books. Contact the organizers ahead of time and find out more about the process, and how you can get involved. [Editor's Note: In some cases the book table is open only to presenters. In others, such as the Cat Writers Association annual conference, it is open to organization members who attend the conference, but not to those who don't.]
Find out who else is going to attend: Read through the promotional literature or Web site for the conference to find out what speakers are going to be attending. More on this later in this column.
Consider giving a workshop: One good way to promote yourself at a writers' conference is to give workshops. In addition to helping you establish a reputation as an expert in your field, you'll be getting extra publicity wherever the conference promotes its workshops. Some conferences offer a free conference membership; others might offer a cash payment as well as covering your hotel and transportation.
Be cautious about pitching ideas while at the conference, no matter how brilliant you believe your story to be.
"Don't approach editors or agents unless you have something specific to pitch," advises Peggy Tibbetts. "Then don't actually pitch, just introduce yourself and ask if you can send them something. The best approach I find is something like this, 'My name is Peggy Tibbetts, I'm an author. Thanks so much for coming to speak to our group today. I really enjoyed your talk. And I think I have a manuscript you might be interested in. Would it be all right if I sent it to you?'"
Sophia Dembling never pitches ideas to an editor at conferences. "I try to be interesting, interested, fun, clever, charming -- everything good thing I can muster up so that the editor will think well of me. Then, after I'm home, I send a note expressing my pleasure in meeting the editor and pitching a few ideas." Dembling has attended writers' conferences both as a writer and an editor. "As an editor at writers' conferences, I've felt horribly beaten down by the constant stream of freelancers pitching me. It was exhausting, I felt objectified, and the newspaper section I worked for read on spec anyway. It turned me off writers' conferences, and since then I've been very sensitive about not making editors feel like I see them as dollar signs with legs."
In the event that a good opportunity to pitch an idea to an editor does come up, however, be prepared! Laura Hayden is President of Pikes Peak Writers, an organization that hosts an annual conference. "At Pikes Peak Writers' very first conference (1993)," says Hayden. "We invited Denise Little, who had just been hired to work at Kensington books. As chance would have it, this was her first conference as an editor. During the course of that weekend, several writers had a chance to pitch to her, including me. I'd had a chance to sit by her at dinner. (Rule #1: Proximity coupled with pleasant conversation is a very good thing.) Denise turned to me and said, "So, what are you working on?" (Rule #2: Be prepared with a pitch should an editor ask and yes, they do ask.) I pitched and gave her my card. (Rule #3: Always have business cards at hand.) The result? Six months later, I sold her that completed manuscript on a two book contract and beginning an editorial relationship with Denise that exists to this day. That weekend she also met two other writers (Deb Stover and the late Rick Hanson) whose work she also bought on multi-book contracts. Since that first conference, PPWC has celebrated more than sixty success stories--first sales, subsequent sales, contest winners, and many, many talented writers getting professional representation."
Michael Steven Gregory has the following advice: "You never get a second chance to make a first impression. This applies not only to your work, but to you. When presented an opportunity to meet with an agent or editor, respect their time and attention span. Don't appear desperate, and absolutely do not shove a completed manuscript at them. Your aim should be to simply present yourself as a respectful professional and solicit a legitimate request to see your work during follow-up after the conference. Too often too many writers working in isolation undermine the prospects of their manuscript by exposing it prematurely to agents and editors. It's far better to get comprehensive, authoritive critique of your work by qualified professionals at the conference, so to fix problematic areas that can often easily be fixed before blowing your one shot."
If you're shy, it may be intimidating to think of going to a conference where you don't know anyone. Or even if you do know a few people, how do you make new contacts? "For the first few conferences it's a good idea to pay attention and learn the ropes," advises Peggy Tibbetts. "It's best if you can go with a writing buddy. But don't be afraid to go alone. You will meet people. Keep yourself open for possibilities. Writers' conferences can be very inspirational."
Holly McClure is president of the Southeastern Writers' Association, which sponsors an annual conference. She advises conference attendees to try meeting new people rather than sticking with the safety of friends you already know. "Have the courage to approach professionals even if you think they are far too important to talk with you. Don't monopolize their time but introduce yourself and give them a chance to talk to you if they want to. It's good to take classes, but don't isolate yourself in the classroom and miss making contacts that might be more important in your career than another lecture."
Tracee L. Garner advises doing some research on attendees before you arrive at the convention. Most conferences will have information about their speakers and workshop leaders online or in a print brochure. Pick out the people you're most interested in meeting and try to find out more about each of them.
"I always try to think of or research something that really intrigued me about the person and their work," says Garner. "Wherever I'm going, I make sure I know whom I want to meet, either simply by making a list, or highlighting the program schedule and circling the sessions that are 'must attend' for me. Either in a notebook or in the margins of the schedule booklet, I write down questions I may have, things that struck me about something they said and something that can serve as a prompt to aid me in striking up a conversation with them." She advises trying to find a photo to make it easier to identify them at the conference.
Most conference organizers try to make it easier for attendees to meet new people by scheduling casual social get-togethers. These gatherings are the ideal place to make new contacts, so be sure to attend a few of these, especially earlier in the convention when many people are meeting others for the first time. When you arrive at one of these gatherings, grab a drink (if they're available and if you'll feel more comfortable holding something), then join one of the conversations. Don't worry about intruding; remember that most of the people in the room are there to meet new people.
"Don't forget to introduce yourself," advises Garner, "And mention your current level in the field: 'Hi, I'm Janey Doe and I'm an aspiring writer working on a contemporary multicultural romance. I read your interview with 'name of publication' and I was intrigued about...'" Garner says to keep your introduction short. "You're trying to find out more about them, their break into the biz (for editors, what kinds of work they represent/best ways to submit) and any advice they'd be willing to share with you, NOT divulge the struggles of your writing life's history."
Make sure you get contact information from people you meet, if you're interested in following up with them after the convention. "I like to come home with as many writers' email addresses as I can get and add them to my newsletter list if they have indicated that they want to receive it," Julie Ferguson says, and advises shy types to get out of their comfort zone and talk to as many people as possible. "Attend all the meals and do not sit with those you know. Attend the extra sessions in the evenings that pertain to your area of endeavour. Try and remember that there are others shyer than you and make it your business to get them out of their shells. By putting yourself out to help, you will forget your own discomfort.
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