Nine Do’s and Don’ts of Attending Writers Conferences

By Rachel Beck

I recently participated in two writers’ conferences, a fiction one in Seattle, WA, and a creative nonfiction one in Pittsburgh, PA. These involved meeting with several authors back-to-back over one or two days, and listening to their pitches for 10-15 minutes. Since these experiences are fresh in my mind, I thought I would use this blog post to give some conference do’s and don’ts that will help you have the best conference-going experience, and most importantly, get your time and money’s worth from the rare luxury of getting that face time with agents.

But first, if you’re wondering, Should I even go to a conference? Is it the right step for me with where I am with my writing? Will it be worth my time and money?, my advice is that if you’re serious about your writing and you have a completed or mostly completed manuscript, why not go for it. Of course, conferences can be expensive, so you’ll have to decide if you can swing it financially, but be sure to keep an eye out for conferences coming to your home city, so you won’t have to spend money to travel. In this case, it could be very well worth your money.

Now, here are my conference do’s and don’ts:

Don’t be nervous. Easier said than done, I know–you’ve poured your heart and soul into your book, and until now, it’s been you, alone, behind your computer screen. And now you’re face to face with a professional who can decide if your book is worthy or not. But be confident about the world and characters you’ve created, and pitch with that spirit of confidence. We want you to succeed. Any feedback or criticism we offer is designed to help you. We won’t bite, promise!

Do be prepared. It’s okay to have a “cheat sheet” that you read from, because I know nerves will inevitably happen and can cause even the most well-rehearsed pitches to fly out of your head on the spot. But if you’re going to read your pitch and/or query, be sure to read slowly and include pauses for eye contact with the agent. Basically, don’t sit down looking like you have no idea how you ended up here, or ask the agent how they want you to begin–have a planned opening line, and take it away from there.

Do show that you’ve researched the agent/agency. Why are you eager and excited to be sitting across from this particular agent at this particular agency? What about him or her made you sign up for the face time? What about the agency do you like? Just as when you’re emailing a query, it’s good to state upfront why you think your work is a good fit for this agent’s list, and drop in any other details about why you were intrigued to meet with this agent out of all the agents out there. 

Don’t pitch a story that you’ve barely started. When I hear these, it just makes me feel like this will be a waste of time, because I rarely if ever see these completed stories come to me. Either the author never finishes it, or changes the idea altogether, or finishes it five years later when this conference is barely a distant memory for the agent (and possibly even the writer). Save your conference dollars for when you have a completed, or mostly completed, story. I would say it should be at least ninety percent finished.

Don’t waste the time you’ve been given. The publishing industry can be cryptic and very “insider-y,” so it’s an amazing opportunity to have any face time at all with a professional. I’m always surprised when an author walks away from our session with time left in the appointment slot. You might have completed your pitch and the agent has either requested material or said it’s not for them. Still, you’ve paid for your ten minutes or whatever the timeframe, so spend the rest of that time asking all the questions you have about securing representation, landing a publishing deal and the whole process in between (and you should have many, many questions–it’s not that easy to find detailed info on the ins and outs of the publishing industry). I think many authors are scared to overstay their welcome, but this isn’t wasting the agent’s time; they have cleared their day for this and they are here for you. As long as you don’t linger beyond the appointed time, I always see an author who uses the full time and asks thoughtful questions to be serious about their craft and about landing an agent and a book deal. 

Don’t offer the agent any physical pages. This is probably my biggest conference pet peeve. It’s just messy and old-fashioned to do this. When I’m attending a conference, I’m usually traveling, so the chances of those pages ending up in my suitcase and back at my desk not in a crumpled mess are very slim. Today, almost all agents prefer everything to be handled electronically. So even if you have physical pages, assume the agent wants them emailed after the session, not left with them.

Do know the answers to basic questions the agent will ask about your book. This includes genre, word count, comparative titles, etc. Please, please know the true genre of your book. And make sure it’s a real genre that publishing professionals actually use. This information can be found online. I see it as an early strike when a writer claims their genre is one thing, but when they begin describing the book, I see that it’s a different genre altogether. Not knowing the word count is another basic mistake (see next point for more info), and not having any comparative titles shows me that you probably don’t read much in the genre you’re trying to write, which is a huge red flag.

Don’t give the word count in page length. This just screams amateur. It’s incredibly simple to look up the word count in a Microsoft Word document. Do this before you go to the conference, so you can be prepared to give the word count as 60k, 75k, 95k, whatever it may be. And while we’re on the subject, be sure your word count is on target for your genre (another amateur move if it’s not). You can find these guidelines on various writing blogs and through basic internet searches.

Do follow up after the conference if the agent requested pages. I’m always amazed by how few people I meet with actually follow up by sending me pages I’d requested at the conference–I’d estimate only around 40% do, which boggles my mind. You’ll never have another opportunity like this, where the agent is watching out for your material that they’ve already said sounds interesting enough to take a read. I know writers will immediately start fiddling with it, wanting to get it as close to perfect as possible before submitting, or potentially making major changes that derail the storyline and set off a whole new chain of revisions, but remember that it will never feel perfect, or completely ready to send. Send it anyway. And don’t wait too long. The more time that elapses, the more distant a memory you and your pitch will be in the agent’s busy mind.