Talking to Agents and Editors at Conferences

Reader Elizabeth wants to know the following, about approaching and talking to agents and editors at conferences. Since I’ll be doing a lot of conferences in the coming weeks (check my Events and Conferences page!), this is an issue on my mind. Read on:

As an introvert, how do I approach agents and editors at an upcoming conference? I don’t want to be rude or pushy, but I do want to take this opportunity to make connections. I know all the basic stuff, like not shoving manuscripts into people’s arms or under bathroom stalls, and I know that all regular manners apply, as well, but I would love to hear, from the other side, what agents and editors appreciate when talking to aspiring authors. What are you looking for when you go to these conferences, and how do you like to make connections? Do you want to hear pitches, or would you just like someone to introduce themselves and ask general questions? Sometimes I look at editors and agents at these conferences and worry that they are feeling hounded, and that the last thing they want is for one more person to come up and tell them about their manuscript. Can you give me some perspective?

This is a great question. I’ve talked about conferences before (do’s and don’ts and how to pitch, should I go to a conference?, conference polish syndrome), and other mentions appear throughout the blog. However, I’ve never had someone honestly ask me how I’d personally like to be approached at conferences. (This is, obviously, my take on the situation, and therefore I can’t speak for all agents and editors.) While my answer isn’t as specific as some might want, I hope it gives you some insight into how I experience conferences.

When agents and editors go to conferences, we expect to be approached. That’s why we’re there. Lovely conference organizers have flown us many miles to meet their organization’s writers. This is not our time to hide in our hotel rooms or be standoffish. Writers have come to meet with us, learn from us, tell us about their projects, and to, they hope, make an impression.

So I go to every conference expecting to talk to a lot of writers. Writers don’t need to be cautious or sensitive about that. That’s why I’m there.

I love almost everything about conferences and hope to do hundreds more over the course of my career. However, I don’t especially enjoy being pitched. There are two opportunities for pitching at most conferences: getting pitched during a pitch session, when the writer has signed up for an appointment with me, and getting pitched randomly, like at the dinner table or in line for the bathroom. Why do I dislike getting pitched? Because a pitch is a writer talking about an idea. All I care about is the execution…the writing (read more here about idea vs. execution). So a day of listening to pitches is a day of hearing ideas. I won’t know if I’ve found a new project or a new writer until I can see their writing and see how the execute the projects they’re talking about.

In most cases, I will request a writing sample — 10 pages and a query, our standard submission request on the ABLit website — after a pitch. Because I need to see the writing. Sometimes, I know that a project is just not for me. A high fantasy that focuses on world-building, is inspired by Tolkien, and that deals with the origins of golf, for example, won’t really be up my alley. I would politely decline to see more during the pitch. But in most cases, I will give the writer what they’re hoping to get: the request for more. That’s the first reason I dislike pitches: most writers are just focused on the request and don’t know that they’ll likely get one.

The second reason I dislike pitches? The bundle of nerves on the other side of the table. Writers freak out, thinking that their two minute pitch will make or break their career, or they act like robots who have memorized a query and are now regurgitating it. A lot of writers read from actual cue cards, their hands shaking, their eyes glued to the page and never rising to meet mine. They’re so focused on the pitch that they’ll get completely frazzled if I ask a question or interrupt them for clarification. It’s a very one-sided conversation.

So if you do get an agent or editor in front of you, relax. Impossible, I know. But once you relax, you can actually talk to the other person. Tell them about your book. Ask a question. Talk as well as listen. There’s nothing I appreciate more than a writer who is prepared yet flexible, professional yet casual. Someone who’ll talk to me as another person who loves books, not as someone desperately trying to get my approval.

On numerous occasions, I have quite literally held writers’ hands after they burst out crying from nerves. This is an extreme, but it encapsulates, to me, what’s wrong with the contrived pitching situation. So here are some tips. Don’t pitch for the sake of the request. Don’t just say your piece and then stare at us. We’re people. We’re resources, brainstormers, question-answerers, page-requesters.

How do you talk to agents and editors at conferences? Talk to us.

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  1. Chersti’s avatar

    Thanks for the tips! I just want to add that Mary is totally cool to talk to at conferences. I had some burning questions about grad school, and she sat down and talked to me about it. I was impressed, because she was very upfront and honest about the whole thing and ended up telling me some great things I needed to hear.

    Oh yeah, and apparently too many blog readers ask her about her cat, Sushi, at conferences.

  2. Kelley York’s avatar

    I couldn’t approach an agent in person with the intent to pitch to them. Could. Not. Do it. I COULD, however, strike up casual conversation and ask general questions, because I’m a friendly person. After getting comfortable, I might be able to mention my work, but I don’t know. Never been in that situation.

    This is a great post, though. Seeing as I hope to get to a conference sometime this year (they need to be closer to Sacramento!!) this advice will be handy.

  3. michelle’s avatar

    I think I would be too nervous to pitch to you or any other agent face to face as I watch your eyes glaze over at yet another idea. :) I would rather chat about just about anything else I think, so I am so happy to hear that’s the way it’s done! Thank you for this!

  4. Sheryl McFarlane’s avatar

    I love conferences, although I don’t get to many. So energizing. I’m a better at writing than pitching, so I have tended to avoid approaching speakers except to tell them I enjoyed their presentation. Good to know I can just talk about books, which I love and have no problem talking about.

  5. Holly’s avatar

    An excellent and timely post. Thanks, Mary!

  6. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Mary, you were my first pitch session literary agent. My work wasn’t polished yet, so we talked about writing in general, and I practiced my pitch a little bit. It was a nice conversation, although I admit I was nervous!

    As for casually approaching an agent and striking up a conversation, I don’t know if I’d have the courage. Us shy writers have got to develop that courage, or pull it out of – ahem – somewhere, because we won’t succeed in the business of writing if we sit back on the sidelines and watch the other writers talk to all the agents.

    It’s a great reminder that agents are at the conferences to talk to us. If I keep that in mind, it’ll make approaching agents easier in the future. Thank you!

  7. Caroline’s avatar

    I’m looking forward to meeting you in Big Sur in December (Just got my acceptance into the workshop!) Since it’s not a pitch type conference, I guess I don’t have to worry about the pressure of that. I promise I’ll be polite and the moment I see your eyes glaze over, I’ll stop chattering and leave you alone!

  8. Ishta’s avatar

    This is a great post. I find casually approaching agents and striking up a conversation really difficult, especially if there are two or more agents (and no writers) talking to one another. I feel intimidated by that. But I`ll try to get over it!

  9. Laurisa Reyes’s avatar

    A great post! I was just at a writers retreat this past weekend and had the wonderful opportunity to get to know several really nice editors. I had no interest in “pitching” to them since my book is still in the early stages, so I just talked with them. Chatted about normal things, asked some questions about writing and marketing and otherwise had a wonderful time. I also made sure to send them thank you notes for flying all the way across the country to visit with all of us. Maybe someday when I do have a manuscript to submit they’ll remember me, maybe not. But Editors and agents are real people, not celebrities, and should be treated as such. Thanks again for your great tips!

  10. Leona Broberg’s avatar

    Sometimes it’s difficult to remember, agents are people. Like me. Thanks for the reminder as I head to my first conference next month!

  11. Chris Richman’s avatar

    Another agent weighing in here. I agree almost completely with what Mary said above: When I’m going to a conference, I expect and look forward to interacting with writers. There’s a reason I’m going, a reason I’m getting paid to be there, and it’s certainly not to sit in my hotel room and come out only during my speeches.

    I enjoy speaking with writers and proving that I’m not just a faceless name on a website. I love answering questions, but I prefer general questions about the industry, the market, or books in general rather than questions specific to a writer’s work. I don’t typically like being pitched outside of designated times for it and, because I take submissions from all writers, why not just wait until you have a polished query to send along? It’ll be better in writing than you could ever be in person. Of course, if we’re casually chatting and I happen to ask what your book is about, it does help to have a polished, one-or-two sentence pitch at the ready.

  12. Clara Kensie’s avatar

    Thank you so much for giving us an agent’s perspective on pitches. I’m a shy person as well, and chatting with people I don’t know is my downfall. I’ve gone to one conference so far and had successful pitch sessions. That night at the bar, I watched as other writers invited the agents to sit with them and wished I had the courage to do that. My next conference is in November, and thanks to this post I’ll have more confidence in approaching and speaking to the agents.

  13. Elizabeth May’s avatar

    Great tips, Mary!

    I haven’t been able to attend a writer’s conference, but I can only imagine how anxious writers must get while they pitch. I think querying is difficult enough, and that’s without being face to face. Casual talking just sounds so much easier than a formal pitch session.

  14. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Will you be coming back to SF in February for SFWC? I plan on volunteering again and hopefully will have my new WIP ready for pitching then. I promise not to burst into tears. (Yes, if you like you may take that as a challenge. :-)

    Thanks for your patience and attention when we chatted for a few minutes in the lobby at last year’s SFWC.

  15. cj omololu’s avatar

    Great post. I actually met my agent in an elevator at a conference. It was early on the last morning and we chatted about how tired we both were and about the pants I was wearing. That’s it. When I finally did query her I reminded her of our conversation (and my fabulous pants), she said she remembered and the rest is history.

    I think the best advice is just try not to look crazy.

  16. MaryZ’s avatar

    The first time I went to a conference with a WIP, I signed up for a pitch session, because it sounded like that is what one does at conferences. Plus there is so much info out there on how to pitch, I felt pressure to do it. So, I nervously approached you, Mary. I have no idea what I said, and you were very polite. But you looked so drained, like you had been speed dating for 10 hours. Now, by your post, I see why. I get it. I’m going to a writer’s retreat this weekend, which will involve a pitch. But now I feel the pressure is off and I can just enjoy meeting and chatting with a new editor. Thanks.

  17. Caroline’s avatar

    CJ,

    Can I borrow your magic pants?

  18. Natalie Aguirre’s avatar

    Thanks for the tip. I’m going to a Michigan SCBWI conference next weekend and will definitely follow your advice.

  19. Elizabeth’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary, for your advice. I feel much better about just having a conversation!

  20. Jennifer Bucheit’s avatar

    Thanks very much for the great post, Mary. I found your website in my search for advice about pitch appointments… How appropriate, as I will see you at the Scarlet and Gray Writer’s Workshop next weekend. I will work hard to keep my shaking hands and voice to a minimum… and I promise not to cry! You have put me at ease. Many thanks!

  21. Tricia’s avatar

    Great post/topic. I’m attending my first retreat in October (one you’ll be at), and it’s nice to have some input going in.

  22. Talia Vance’s avatar

    Great post Mary. You were the first agent I ever met in person, and I was completely nervous and rambling. Yet, you were lovely, asked wonderful questions and made me feel okay even though I realized later, I probably did everything exactly wrong. Thanks for that!

  23. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    I can’t get get the cue cards lady out of my head now, I have images of her tossing her cue cards behind her as she speaks. I shouldn’t laugh at all, I’d be the one looking for the nearest exit and pretending I was supposed to be at an art exhibition or something. Great post for relieving some nerves. Many Thanks.

  24. Maureen Duffy Cobb’s avatar

    Thank you so much for your comments! I met an agent this summer at a conference and have been dying to contact her again, but wasn’t sure what the protocol was. Great advice, very positive!

    Mo

  25. Katherine Quimby Johnson’s avatar

    This is a post to share with everyone who worries about their pitch session. Thank you, Mary. As someone who hosted a conference where you accepted pitches, I can attest that people generally feel comfortable pitching to you; your pitch sessions received high ratings on our evaluations.

  26. Chris J. Behrens’s avatar

    Great post. I had a pitch session this past summer (not with Mary) and disliked it until I stopped pitching and started talking. I think I had three minutes. Within the first minute, I could tell the agent wasn’t buying, so I asked if she would take a quick look at my first page. She did. And a good 2 minute conversation ensued. I shared some interesting research the agent had never heard before, and she gave me some great advice for my first page!
    Also, I had a critique by Mary, and her critique of my first 15 pgs. was awesome. She is very easy to talk to and extremely knowledgeable. Oh, and very thorough when critiquing. I was impressed with how she recalled info. about my work without looking at it. As we know, she reads tons of manuscripts, so I was pleased to hear her talk positively about my story and encourage me to keep working on it.

  27. B. A. Binns’s avatar

    Idea vs. Execution – I like that concept. It will help me if (OK when) I ever have to pitch again. I’ve done pitching and been the nervous girl in the chair. Fortunately I found my agent the old fashioned way – through shear luck and having a MS she loved.

  28. Christy Weese’s avatar

    Having worked a couple of trade shows (completely unrelated to the book industry), I can say that three or four days of practice in approaching total strangers will really pay off. If you can’t get practice any other way, try volunteering for a local organization when they’re doing some large public event!

  29. JOAnn’s avatar

    thank you. Great information. I pitch at a conference this winter.

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