Think Like an Agent
How to Make the Most of Your Conference Experience
By Quressa Robinson
It is that time of year where editors and agent start the conference circuit. So far I’ve been to three with two more still scheduled. When I first started as an agent, I ambitiously attended eight conferences in one year—all in different states. It was overwhelming, so I cut it down to five this year—four in different states and one local. Five is a fine number, but my workload has changed. I’m still a newer agent, but my client list has grown and so has my responsibility. Five conferences were just too many, and I ended up working far more nights and weekends to catch up on my regular responsibilities post-conference. And, let’s face it, as an agent I’m already working tons of nights and weekends, so down time has become extremely sacred. This means only three conferences for me next year.
Conferences are great places for authors to meet new agents who are actively building their lists. But as I mentioned, over time agents attend less and less. So when you have the opportunity to meet and agent in person, how can you can get the most out of that interaction? What are the other benefits of writers conferences?
While a conference is a great way to make a connection with an agent or editor, it is also a great place to meet other writers! All of my clients have critique groups, or CPs (critique partners). This was obviously beneficial as their CPs helped them whip their manuscripts into query-ready shape. But it’s also a benefit to me. I know my clients will be running their works-in-progress by their CPs before sending them off to me for comment. That’s a load off my overworked reading brain! I know my eyes won’t be the first, and that my clients have done their due diligence to make sure they’re sending me the very best work possible. That is a level of professionalism I can appreciate.
You can find your CPs at writers conferences. You’re in a hotel full (mostly) of people at the same stage. I know most of us in this industry are introverts, but you can do it! Talk to people, make friends, make connections.
When I attend conferences I participate in various ways from manuscript critiques, to query critiques, to one-on-one pitch sessions. Often, the time I need to share my thoughts doesn’t take up the full allotted time, so I ask participants if they have questions. Almost always, they don’t. They aren’t prepared. They have a whole, live agent in front of them but don’t have any inquiries. I find this puzzling. You have me at your disposal. If there is time for questions, seize the moment and ask. If you think you’ll freeze up, prep beforehand and write your questions down. I won’t mind if you need to pull out your sheet of paper. I absolutely am delighted to answer questions and demystify the world of book publishing.
I didn’t learn about BarCon until I started working on the adult SFF side as an editor. For those of you who aren’t familiar, this is when conference goers and those who might not have signed up for the conference—for financial reasons or because it became full—hang out at the hotel bar where the conference is being held. BarCon seems to have picked up outside of the SFF conferences and are happening at your standard writers conference. This gives you the opportunity to chat up agents and editors who are hanging out at the bar to give writers another chance to interact with them.
It’s great to offer to buy an agent or editor a drink. After our drink tickets run out we tend to start inching toward the door. But, BarCon is an awesome opportunity to give an elevator pitch, ask questions, or even expand on a story idea and get feedback.
And don’t feel intimidated if you see agents and editors hanging out in a group. Conferences are a great way for us to network with each other. Just come on over!
Please don’t elevator pitch agents and editors in the bathroom, in the elevator as we are on our way to our room, in the hallway as we walk to our room, or while we are trying to have a quiet moment alone. But when you do have a chance to grab our attention and we ask you for your pitch, give it to us. And be sure to ask for feedback.
Don’t Be Defensive
I know it’s hard to get critiqued in person, but that is what you signed up for. We are professionals who have been doing this for many years (over six in my case). The feedback we give you is no different than the feedback we give our clients. It may actually be gentler 😀. I know it’s tough, but please refrain from getting defensive, argumentative, or dismissive. If you don’t agree, you don’t have to take our advice. So nod, ask questions if there is time, say thanks/good luck/have a great conference and move on.
One of the benefits of attending a conference is that if an agent requests to see your work you get a quicker read. Instead of going into the unsolicited query—or slush—queue, you get bumped up to requested query. But there is a timeline in which you have to actually send your query. Every agent is different. For me I only consider something from a conference a “requested query” for about six months. That’s about the length of time I might remember meeting a writer or their pitch. But beyond that timeframe, I won’t bump it up in my queue. It now gets read in the order received. This is especially true if I receive something after a full year.
If you aren’t ready to submit when you get a request, that’s okay. You can let the agent know. It’s fine to attend a conference to learn more and to grow as a writer. That’s the point. You get to refine your ideas and work on your craft while learning about the industry.
Now that you’re armed with the right mindset, remember to have fun! Hopefully, I’ll see you on the conference circuit!