Attending a Conference for Writers: Anxiety and Ecstasy

By Krysten Lindsay Hager

The night before attending a conference for writers there’s always that excitement about going and meeting the perfect agent or editor for your work. Maybe it’ll be a magical moment where time will slow down and you’ll end up running in slow-motion toward each other,“Chariots of Fire” playing in the background as you leap, holding your manuscript in one hand, the other outstretched to literary glory. Or maybe you’ll just go, find out your genre isn’t selling and come home feeling defeated and a little poorer since you spent fifty bucks buying the speaker’s books. In reality, very few people find their editors at conferences.

In fact, in 2005 I attended a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference where I heard the most surprising news. An editor from a very well-known publishing house said that she had been shocked to find an author at one of these conferences that she actually went on to publish. The editor said it almost never happens and that she might see potential in a few writers that she had done critiques with, but she had never heard of anyone getting published from having a writing conference critique. This was news to me and the rest of us who had plunked down the extra thirty-five dollars for a critique and clung to dear life to the few positive comments that were thrown our way. This editor had been in the business for years and for her to say it was almost unheard of to find talent through attending a conference was shocking to me. However, it was also a relief.

I decided after hearing that comment that I would no longer get so worked up about missing out on my “big chance” with an editor or agent. Instead of handing out business cards and trying to corner agents and editors in every place but the bathroom (I have my standards) and missing out on the speakers’ advice because I was too busy “stalking my prey,” I was going to take advantage of the conferences in a different way.

First, no matter how interesting your work is, chances are an editor or agent isn’t going to remember what you looked like or if you told them a witty story. Instead of making editors and agents attending a conference uncomfortable by cornering them and asking if they’re interested in your new novel, take note of what the agent or editor is interested in. Find out what they’ve represented or published before and what they’re looking for now. They usually share these things in their presentations, but if they don’t you can always raise your hand to ask and, if you’re not the type to raise your hand in public, many conferences have a box for questions that is presented at the end of the conference for the speakers to address. That way you, once you’re at home, you can mention in your query letter that you enjoyed his presentation at whichever conference you attended and then ask if he’d be interested in seeing your work. The agent or editor isn’t going to remember you anyway, so you might as well do your homework and save yourself the embarrassment of coming on too strong with your proposal.

Many times it’s not the big names at the conference that will get you anywhere. One author I know spent all her time at a writing conference trying to find publishers and representation for her middle-grade novels. She ended up getting discovered through a query letter to an editor she had seen named in a writer’s guide and said the only decent contact she had made at that conference was me because once she got her books published, I wrote reviews on them in several places (both in print and online) and later wrote an article about a group book-signing she was participating in that gave her more attention as well as articles to put in her portfolio. You never know when the person you sit next to at the conference might help you more than the famous connection you’re trying to make by attending a conference.

Also, many times editors and agents come to conferences with an invisible shield up. They’re wary of taking writing and art samples at the conferences for many reasons. Your work could get lost, nobody wants to carry extra heavy manuscripts back home on a plane, and there are also the legal issues. They prefer to get work that’s been submitted in the mail. Plus, nobody likes to be put on the spot. Sure its easier for them to reject you via mail where they don’t have to face you, but may editors and agents are so put off by people trying to slip them manuscripts at conferences that they’ll give you a flat “no” if you ask about giving them work. So save your dignity and put your questions in writing.

Focusing on meeting fellow writers can also benefit you in finding out about publishers that are eager to sign on new authors. You might meet someone who gets published down the road and can later direct you to the right person to submit to at that publishing house. You can also meet people who write book reviews who, when you do get published, can later help you out by writing a great review and “bumping” a less-than-great review that’s been posted on Amazon.com. You might meet people attending a conference who are aware of great new places to submit to or critique groups or other writing conferences that might help you. I found out about a writing publication through a writing group member that later published one of my articles. I never would have found it on my own, but that publication has proven to be a great way to get my foot in the door. Finding out where other conference attendees have been published is a great way to get new leads for your work as well.

Plan to Enjoy Attending a Conference

Instead of staying up late worrying that you’ll miss your big shot to talk to the editor or agent that you “just know” would be perfect for your manuscript, relax and plan to enjoy attending a conference. You’ll end up gathering more information from the speakers and you’ll be just as far ahead (if not farther) than the people who tracked down that editor in the lunch line. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you make a personal connection at the conference because these professionals meet so many people at these things that they wouldn’t remember you anyway. So enjoy the conference, take notes on the market, and find out what each agent and editor is interested in. Then mention in your query letter that you saw them at the conference. In the long run, this will pay off more.

Cover of Krysten Lindsay Hager's book Can Dreams Come True? (The Cecily Taylor Series Book 1)Krysten Lindsay Hager writes about friendship, self-esteem, fitting in, frenemies, crushes, fame, first loves, and values. She is the author of True Colors, Dating the It Guy, and Can Dreams Come True. Krysten Lindsay Hager has a website.

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