Talking to Agents at Conferences

September 9th, 2010 • Kate

bathroomstallI’m prepping for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference this weekend, and it got me thinking about pitch appointments. But more than just that, it brought to mind all sorts of questions about how authors behave in face-to-face meetings with agents and editors — many of which occur at conferences. What are the dos and don’ts? What are the faux pas? What should you absolutely, never, ever think of doing?

Let’s start with the easy one first — don’t ever try to slip your full manuscript to an agent or editor while they’re attending to personal business in a bathroom stall. That’s pretty much a no-brainer.

But what if you’re washing up next to an agent in a multi-sink bathroom? Can you talk to them? Acknowledge them? Yes, absolutely. Tell them you enjoyed their panel, if they’re already spoken (and you did, of course), or that you’re looking forward to their workshop, if it’s an upcoming event.

How about in the halls, or the elevator? Same thing, unless they’re clearly on their way somewhere else, and your conversation is going to keep them from making it to that next appointment. Be aware of visual clues to tell if they’re standing somewhere open to conversation, or in the middle of trying to get somewhere else. Remember, agents are at these conferences to meet and talk to writers, too, but their days may be more tightly scheduled than yours. Be courteous, and ask if they have a minute to talk. If they say no, don’t take it as a slight.

Now, maybe you’ve made an appointment to talk to an agent or editor one-on-one, whether they’ve already seen your manuscript, or you’re going to pitch it to them. If it’s a pitch, be ready to TALK about your manuscript, don’t just READ from your query letter. Have questions ready to ask the agent — and if you can, make them specific to the agent, not just general questions, though those can be fine, too.

If the agent or editor is giving you a one-on-one critique on your material, don’t be afraid to take notes or ask them to clarify their comments. And if you want to avoid an uncomfortable answer, don’t ask them if they want to see more material. If I want to see more than what I’ve already seen, trust me, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, please take my comments as a chance to improve your work (if you agree with them), or take the opportunity to ask me for other helpful hints about the querying or writing process (if you think I’m off base).

Try not to argue with the agent or editor you’re meeting with. You are perfectly within your rights to disagree with our comments, but do be aware that it’s hard for us to talk sometimes about a manuscript that doesn’t work, and tell the author why. Let’s not get into a fight about why you think your work is the most perfect thing ever, and I disagree.

I’m sure there’s more tips I’m missing — and there’s a good chance I’ll think of some of them this weekend. But what tips do you have for your fellow conference-goers? And as attendees, what do you wish agents or editors knew? Let me know in the comments!

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11 Responses to “Talking to Agents at Conferences”

  1. Kater Says:

    I'd imagine it's not a good idea to show them pictures you've drawn of the main characters of your novel, especially if you've already designed the cover in your head. I met a guy at a conference who had done that, and he seemed a little off.

  2. Suzanne Casamento Says:

    Just reading this post reminds me of how nerve-wracking the whole process is. I remember, years ago, attending an agent panel at UCLA where agents gave us a few minutes to pitch a story. I had rehearsed my elevator pitch a zillion times at home, but when I got in front of the agent, I sputtered something so nonsensical that the only clear words were the title.

    So I guess the only advice I can add is to try to stay calm. Easier said than done. 😉

    Hope you have a great weekend!

  3. Red Boot Pearl Says:

    I would probably die if someone handed me a manuscript under a stall…literally.

    (not that they would, because I'm not an agent)

    But that is sooo ridiculous! And just gross.

  4. Alicia Says:

    I'm actually going to a conference weekend after next and pitching to an agent. Although I'm nervous, I keep telling myself she's just another person and even if she doesn't like my pitch, someone else hopefully will. The thing that I don't want to do is sound like a robot while saying my pitch. I want it to come up smooth and like its part of a natural conversation. But it never sounds that way.

    Do you think it makes a difference to the agent to if the author sounds like they're reading a script? Or is it only the story that matters?

  5. Matt Says:

    There's a conference coming up that I'd really like to attend because it's focused on my genre and only happens every other year, but I won't be ready to query yet at that point. I'm wondering if it's still worthwhile to attend from a networking perspective (it's being held on the other coast, so it would involve some expense). I've heard that agents aren't usually interested in hearing pitches for projects that aren't finished yet. But I wonder if there would still be value in attending and just meeting agents at that point, maybe mentioning my project casually without actually pitching it yet, and then querying several months later, when I'm ready, and saying in the query letter that we met at the conference. Any advice? Thanks!

  6. Kate Says:

    Just wanted to pop in and answer a few questions! Alicia asked, "Do you think it makes a difference to the agent to if the author sounds like they’re reading a script? Or is it only the story that matters?"

    I definitely prefer hearing an author TALK about their manuscript, rather than read me their query. The point of a face-to-face pitch session is that you can be more expressive than just the bare words on your query letter, so why wouldn't you want to take advantage of that?

    And Matt wrote, "I wonder if there would still be value in attending and just meeting agents at that point, maybe mentioning my project casually without actually pitching it yet, and then querying several months later, when I’m ready, and saying in the query letter that we met at the conference."

    Absolutely, Matt! This weekend, I actually was *only* open to pitches during the designated appointments I had scheduled. At other times, when I was sitting in the hotel lobby chatting with writers or other presenters, or sitting at dinner with a number of different participants, I was happy to talk in more general terms about books and NOT be pitched to. Getting a query letter months later that references a conversation we had is a nice way to reconnecting with an agent.

    Another note to add based on my experiences this weekend — when you have a set time for your pitch appointment, try not to take up the ENTIRE time with a long description of your plot. Have that short Elevator pitch ready, and be open to expand upon it when the agent or editor you're meeting with asks for more details. But don't just keep droning on about your plot until the agent's eyes glaze over. Leaving time for questions and back-and-forth discussions.

  7. Kate Says:

    Steve Laube has another great post here on the same topic!

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