‘Meet Me In The Bar’: Working A Writer’s Conference (III)

(Blogger’s note: Summer is on its way — which means, for many, the season of writer’s conferences and retreats. In this three-part series, I share the many things I’ve learned during 20 years of attending writer’s conferences and 10 years of teaching and presenting at them.)

For information on the Society of Southwestern Authors’ Wrangling With Writing Conference, which takes place Sept. 27-28 in Tucson, Ariz.

Part Three: Back to the Bar

I met with the agent in the bar. After a relaxed two-hour conversation that bore no resemblance to the 15 minutes of speed-talking in the pit, she invited me to send sample chapters and a proposal. Three months later, I received a contract.

From this, I learned two vital unwritten rules about writer’s conferences:

1)   Make your interview count. You’ve got one minute to seize the agent or editor’s initial interest, and five to seven minutes to develop your initial pitch and describe your project while the agent/editor sprints through your material. This is marketing, not creative brainstorming. You’re in the meeting to sell. The remaining half of the interview works best if you answer questions, produce additional material requested, and absorb the input you’re given; and

2)   Much conference dealing takes place away from the interview area, in the bar, hallways, hotel rooms, Jacuzzi, or across the dinner table.

In my years of presenting, I’ve seen countless arrangements develop after conference hours end, when agents and editors can relax and think through a promising prospect while getting to know the potential author. It is a good conference indeed when you’re “invited to the bar.” As a magazine editor who has purchased pieces or assigned articles to authors in that literal and metaphorical bar, and as a proposal consultant and freelance book editor who has connected authors and agents in the bar, I can assure you that the side meetings produce new author-agent or author-editor relationships.

Which leads to the next unwritten rule about writer’s conferences:

3)   Do not leave the building the second your appointment or workshop is finished.  Stick around. Rub elbows.

Chat with fellow authors, agents, publishers, editors and consultants on the premises. You never know who will like your idea or see the marketing potential of your hard work—or your potential in the writing business. You might have a book idea you didn’t originally pitch that they like. Or, they might have a lucrative ghostwriting project involving a well-known client who doesn’t write. You don’t know—nor will you, if you don’t ask and remain open to new possibility.

Let me give you two examples. An editor from a major publishing house saw the sample chapter for a book I was pitching years ago. “Who book doctored this for you?” he asked.

“I did.”

“This is clean. You should think about becoming a book editor when you’re between books.”

Ten years and more than 80 edited books later, I thank him for opening an avenue of vast enjoyment and revenue I never saw myself traveling.

Let’s revisit the agent in the bar. She asked for a book proposal.  I’d never written a full book proposal, but I’d read a few articles, including the invaluable front end of Writer’s Market (these 60 to 80 pages are required reading for all working writers, in my opinion.) As a former public relations executive with marketing experience, I already knew how to write sponsorship proposals. I also asked a couple of agents at the conference what they liked to see in proposals.

Within three days of receiving my proposal, the agent called. “Where did you learn to write this? This is excellent!”

Another light bulb flashed in my head. Out of nowhere came another service that keeps me out of the 9-to-5 punch-the-clock work cycle (every writer’s dream): consulting with authors on their book proposals, or completely writing them to be pitch- and sales-ready. Agents love it, because they’re getting market-ready proposals. Authors love it, because who really wants to write a book proposal, which is a business plan for the book, after months writing a whole or partial book? 

It all started at a writer’s conference, which brings me to the next unwritten (until now) rule:

 4)   Be sociable, conversational, and mindful of why you’re here—to learn, to network, and/or to sell your work. Use the salesman’s credo: If someone is within three feet of you, introduce yourself and shake his/her hand. Your future might be shaking back.

Sometimes, we feel intimidated or insecure around attending agents, authors, editors, keynote speakers and publishers—the faculty. That’s natural: They are living the dream we’ve carried for years or decades. They’ve made it, or so we think. We tend to be sheepish around the conference faculty, withholding questions “because they’re stupid,” refraining from sharing our wildest book ideas “because they’re too ‘out there’ for the mainstream” (as if we really know), pulling back sample pages we prepared for the editor interviews “because they’re not polished enough.”

For this, I offer two tips:

a)    Conference faculty has been urged by event organizers to be available. The faculty is there to impart knowledge and wisdom, engage in conversation, and expend energy for your benefit. They are at your service—not the other way around. Take advantage of this opportunity to visit with 35 or 40 knowledgeable professionals whose answers to your questions might ignite or even define your future; and

b)   Ask the “stupid” question. Show the sample pages. Share other book ideas if asked. Case in point: An agent told me about an author whose prepared material was well written, but the potential audience was too narrow. However, when the agent asked about the author’s other ideas, a dialogue began that, six months later, resulted in the author selling a trilogy.

Finally, think about this: You’re investing several hundred dollars to be at the conference. You’ve spent months, or even years, developing the material you plan to present. This could be your first best chance—or your last. No one knows. For a weekend, you will occupy the same space as several dozen respected book publishing professionals. To equal that experience, you’d have to fly to New York and stay for two weeks—if they took meetings with you. Not likely.

Work the conference and absorb the presentations as though your future and career are the prizes for your efforts. They often are.

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