I distinctly remember the first conference I ever went to. I still to this day don’t know how I got the mailing list, but a postcard announcing the conference came shortly after I’d made the decision to pursue a publishing career. It was like I was meant to go.
That turned out to be true.
I arrived with not a clue what I was getting myself into, but it felt like I’d come to a Disneyland for writers. Courses on character! Plot! And they even had genre specific classes. That conference began my education into publishing and fiction. I’d learned plenty about writing in college, but this was another level—specific levels—that elevated me and put me in real contention to get published.
I kept hearing the statistics—how hard it is to get published—but I understood pretty quickly that, armed with the knowledge I was gaining at these conferences, I was going to have the upper hand against people who were perhaps writing at my same level but didn’t know how to put a proposal together. Or were missing a crucial understanding of POV. Or how to pitch face-to-face with an editor. I was gaining knowledge almost faster than I could absorb it.
I attended every conference I could afford and continued to not only expand my knowledge of publishing fiction, but also my network. I met writers, editors, agents. I realized this was the world I needed to be dwelling in, and I made a point to go when I could—to local conferences, to big conferences, to small conferences.
It paid off. I landed my first publishing contract by conference. And I also found my agent at a conference.
With that encouragement, I’d like to give you five tips for making the most of your conferences. You bet it’s an investment. When I was learning the craft, I’d pay anywhere from $100 to $1000, but I saw it as an investment into my career. And if you’re going to invest money, big or small, you might as well make it count.
So here are five tips for you—some of them may be surprising—but I think they’ll pay off for you in the end.
COME PREPARED. I have a trick when I buy a car. I learned it from my brother-in-law who used to sell cars while he went through seminary. And it’s this: carry a folder. Josh told me that when a sales guy sees you with a folder, they make the assumption that you’ve done your research. It cuts through a bunch of junk and gets you right down to business. Folders, no matter what arena, give the impression you have your stuff together, even if it’s only, literally, in that folder.
Seems easy enough, but you’d be amazed at how many times I’ve seen what unprepared looks like at a conference. Even if you don’t have a full manuscript—even if you only have an idea—get yourself some business cards and a nice looking folder. That does wonders for perception. You can store notes in it, carry your business cards and a pen, and look intentional.
But preparation goes far beyond just perception. You actually need to do some research, especially when you’re attending a bigger conference that will offer you chances to meet editors and agents. The worst thing you can do is sit down in a one-on-one and have no idea with whom you’re meeting.
“Can you tell me what kinds of books you represent?” is the last thing that should come out of your mouth. If you’re at the point that you’re ready to pitch to editors and agents, spend the time researching who they are, what they’re looking for, and other essentials that will show them you’re serious about your meeting with them.
Last, even if a conference has casual attire, make sure you look pulled together. Your favorite “I SKIED BRECKENRIDGE” sweatshirt from 2001, while perhaps the comfy sweatshirt you write in, should not be the outfit you’re wearing when you’re trying to impress an editor. Jeans (your nice ones) or slacks, and a business-casual top should be just fine. An editor has two things on his or her mind when they’re assessing you: Can she write? Can she finish? A lot of people can write. Finishing is another ordeal and whether you know it or not, they’re assessing you to see if you’re going to be a reliable author. So dress like you mean it!
WATCH YOUR MANNERS. Let me share a scenario I see often at conferences. Two people are talking. One is engaged in the conversation. The other is trying to be, but his or her eyes are darting around the room instead. You know what they’re looking for?
Someone more important.
They’re hoping to run into the editor they’ve been meaning to make an appointment with. Or brush elbows with the keynoter.
I’ve been engaged in a dozen or more of these kinds of conversations. While I understand the motivation isn’t to be rude, but rather maximize your time there, you must understand what a small world the publishing business is. An editor that you’re blowing off at the moment could very well move the next month to the publishing house you’re hoping to land at. Sometimes the publishing world is like watching musical chairs.
Here’s a true story. I was teaching at a conference once when a woman I’d been chatting with here and there stood in line with me for lunch. She expressed that she didn’t have anybody to sit with. I was with a group of writers I’d planned to sit with, but I didn’t want her to be alone and the tables only held a handful of people, so I told her that I’d be happy to sit with her. We got our trays and were headed to a table when suddenly the big keynoter walked by. She said hello and something else to him but I kept walking to find a table. A few seconds later she was by my side.
“He asked me to come sit at his table! There’s just one seat, so…” Her eyes were wide with excitement and off she went to sit with him, leaving me now alone.
It made a pretty big impact on me. It told me something about her, but it also told me something about me. I knew, whatever the case, I didn’t want to be that person. My own personal philosophy is that I’ll meet the people God wants me to meet. I never want to make someone feel “less than” because there’s somebody “more than” nearby. I have followed this philosophy for a long time, and let me assure you, it will build you a hearty and good reputation. And all those people you’re supposed to meet? You’ll find your way to each other.
And by the way, you never know when that “less than” will move up in the world and become the person you end up wanting to make an appointment with someday. So be kind and not dismissive. Spend time with people who can’t do anything for you. While you’re building a great network, you’ll also begin building a great community for yourself. Some of my closest friends have been found at writer’s conferences. They can’t do a thing to get my book published, but you better believe they’re the people I call up when I’m struggling through some things.
LISTEN MORE THAN YOU SPEAK. I’ve been teaching at conferences for twenty years, and there are two kinds of people—the talkers and the listeners. And a listener by nature may turn into a talker just from sheer nerves. But I’ve experienced it and observed it…a person gets a few minutes alone with someone who might have some good advice for them, but they use the entire time to talk about themselves or their project.
My advice has always been to go for the 20/80 talk rule…talk being the twenty percent. Of course you need to state why you’re there and what your book is about, or why you want to talk to them, but then is the time to pull out a pad and pencil and take some notes. If they ask you a question, be ready to answer. Put a lot of thought into your pitch before the conference ever starts. I’ve seen writers blow their 15 minutes by using the entire time to explain their book because they haven’t practiced how to pitch it succinctly.
If you happen to meet with an editor who hears your pitch and passes on it pretty quickly, be ready with some additional questions like, “What’s your best advice on how to get published?” Or “Could you recommend someone who might be more interested in this topic?” Or “What’s the biggest mistake you see from unpublished writers?” Utilize your time productively so that you can get the most out of it. That means listening. And it’ll make an impression on the person you’re with. They’ll know immediately you’re someone willing to learn.
Over the course of my career, I’ve been surprised by how much I learn from just listening. Sometimes at a table I’ll tune into a conversation that doesn’t have much to do with what I’m interested in, but I still gain some knowledge just by listening.
Some people have a tactic of coming in hot, pitching the book like it’s a Ted Talk, and leaving no room for the editor or agent to give feedback or recommendations. Get your pitch down, ask questions for sure, but leave some room for the other person to talk.
COME OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE. Through the years of going to conferences, I’ve often watched with envy writers who are extroverts. They can hold a room. They can tell a joke! They’re savvy negotiators of people’s attention and time.
Then there’s me.
On a scale from zero to cave-dweller, you can probably guess where I land. Let’s just say I have to be intentional about getting enough vitamin D in my life.
By nature, many writers tend to be introverts. We have our small circle of reliable friends and family and that’s about all we can emotionally manage.
Over the years I’ve learned to be more extroverted, partially because once you become a published writer, you no longer have the luxury of dwelling only in imaginary worlds. Turns out people want to meet you.
I’ve adjusted okay, but at the end of the day, I still have to spend a lot of time alone to recharge.
Maybe you can relate. You desperately want to be at the writer’s conference, if it weren’t for all the people.
I wish I had some better news for you, but you’re going to have to come out of your comfort zone.
One thing that I’m terrible at is making the initiative to meet someone. There may be someone that I want to meet. And there they are, standing in the corner, nobody around them. I’m twenty feet away. All I have to do is walk over and say hello!
Or go get a coffee. And off I go for coffee.
I think I’ve probably missed some good opportunities to meet some fantastic people just because I didn’t want to leave my comfort zone. So I urge you to be different than me. I promise you, it’s not going to kill you—and it turns out talking to people is the only way to meet and get to know them. I wish I could give you other options, but a handshake is where it starts if you want to leave a lasting impression.
And you don’t have to be the life of the party, by the way. A simple conversation will do the trick. Leave your best jokes at home and put your best foot forward instead. Not every encounter is going to be a hit, but the ones that are supposed to remain with you, will.
RELAX AND LEARN. When I was young and flying from city to city, going to conference after conference, there was a certain frenetic impulse I felt. “What if” followed me around a lot and did some whispering in my ear. “What if they don’t like your work?” “What if the editor rejects your chapters?” “What if that agent you think is supposed to be yours dismisses you?” “What if your zipper’s down?” “What if you forget all your words?”
Boy did I put a lot of pressure on myself back then. I had this idea that I was going to make or break my career at a writer’s conference. While it’s true that I did sell my first book at a conference, I don’t think feeling frantic did me any favors.
To me, the best favor you can do for yourself is come with the expectation of learning not selling. If you’re able to absorb the information, you’re going to be a better and better writer. The time will come when you’ll find yourself in front of the right people at the right time. And because you’ve been educating yourself, you’ll be ready.
On that fateful day when I sold my first book, it was the last place I thought it would happen. It was on a writing cruise. There was only one editor there. What were the chances that he’d be the one?
He was taking 15 minute appointments on the deck (what a place, eh?) and I came with a sheet of several ideas and books I’d been working on, barely noticing the ocean passing us by. I began pitching them (succinctly, like I’d learned to do at the other conferences) and it was a bit brutal.
Pitch #1 – “Nope. Already done by so-and-so author.”
Pitch #2 – “Nah. Readers aren’t into that genre right now.”
Pitch #3 – “Don’t like it. At all.”
On and on this went until I finally got to the bottom of the page. I’d run out of pitches. He looked at me. “Do you have anything else?”
“Well…” I had this idea I’d been working on in my head on the plane there. I didn’t have much more than the title and the basic idea. “I have this idea called Ghost Writer and it’s about a New York editor who begins receiving pages of an anonymous manuscript about the secrets of his life.”
His eyes lit up. “THAT’S the one I want to see!”
And that became my debut novel.
You just never know when it’s all going to come together…the timing, the person, the pages, the moment. Ghost Writer ended up being the first book I published. Pitched smack-dab in the middle of an ocean. I didn’t see that one coming.
Go to learn. Prepare to pitch. Listen. Absorb. Meet and greet. Do this over and over, as many times as you can, at as many conferences and retreats as you can afford. Consider attending free webinars. Join a local writer’s group. Immerse yourself in this world and it will pay off for you, in more ways than one.