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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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