Learn from my mistakes: Three things not to do at a writers confererence

interviewThe first time I went to a writers’ conference, I’m certain I reeked of hope and delusion–a mixture that smells, by the way, a lot like a third cup of coffee gone cold.

I had “finished” (or so I thought) revising my first novel about 12 hours earlier. I marched into my three agent pitch sessions with high hopes. Hopes that were, almost immediately, crushed. Why? Because there are unspoken rules about this sort of thing, unbeknownst to me at the time. And I violated many of them.

  1. Don’t pitch something you’re not ready to send out. You know how it goes. You see Miss Fancy Pants Agent’s name on the conference roster and think, “This is my only chance! I have to pitch [insert name of fledgling WIP in dubious stages of coherence here].”  But let me tell you a secret: IT’S NOT YOUR ONLY CHANCE. There will be other conferences and other pitch sessions. Even if Miss Fancy Pants is your dream agent–especially if she’s your dream agent–you need to take a hard look at your work-in-progress and ask yourself, “Is this the best I can do?” Just because you have typed “the end” or have read it over once or twice does not mean your manuscript is ready. A follow-up query letter later with a more polished manuscript is stronger than a face to face meeting with a sloppy manuscript in hand.
  2. Do not say that “a book tour” is part of your marketing plan. The agent I met with in my first pitch session asked me what my plan was for marketing my book, if it were to get picked up by a publisher. I had not been expecting this question. I was still under the newbie assumption that writers wrote and publishers marketed. So I muttered something like, “Well, besides the usual stuff, like a book tour…” The agent laughed at me. When she got out the last of her guffaws, she sighed and said, “Don’t ever say that again. No one goes on book tours anymore unless they are James Patterson or Jennifer Weiner. Especially not debut authors.” Okay, then. Lesson learned.
  3. Don’t pitch to an agent who doesn’t represent your genre. I live in Madison, Wisconsin. We don’t get a whole lot of literary agents visiting these parts. So when I saw that three agents were scheduled to attend the conference I’d signed up for, I scheduled pitch sessions with all of them, even though one of them represented only middle grade and YA novels. I write women’s fiction. My logic? Maybe she’d see how amazing my book was and pass it on to someone else within her agency that did represent my genre. Yeah…no. That didn’t happen. I just ended up wasting her time and taking up a slot that could have been filled by someone else who actually did write in the genres she was looking for.

So there you have it. I’m not trying to scare anybody. Agents are, first and foremost, people and book lovers. I’m just hoping that, by sharing my missteps, I can save another aspiring author from learning the hard way, like I did.

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Susan Gloss is the author of the novel VINTAGE (William Morrow/HarperCollins, March 2014). When she's not writing, toddler wrangling, or working as an attorney, she blogs at Glossing Over It and curates an online vintage store, Cleverly Curated.

5 thoughts on “Learn from my mistakes: Three things not to do at a writers confererence

  1. Ouch. We all have some silly thing we’ve done at a writer conference, but I have to say, I think agents expect a certain level of newbie mess-ups because that’s what a conference is for. 🙂 But girl, look at you now!

  2. The first conference I went to, I went with the full expectation that I would sign with an agent RIGHT THEN AND THERE. I, too, had just finished a draft of my book. And I’d gotten it bound at Kinko’s and everything!

    Oh, how far we’ve come 😉

  3. This made me cringe in an amused way! I started pitching so far before my manuscript was ready it wasn’t funny. And for the longest time I didn’t understand why I was getting rejected (even though the agents said why) — now I know this was because I was so new I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I just didn’t get it.

  4. We learn, or at least I think we do. Not too long ago I pitched a novel to the first agent I’d scheduled at a conference. She sat listening as I spoke two or three minutes. When I finally wound down she said, “That’s a synopsis. What I’m looking for is a pitch.” And she (bless her heart) articulated what a likely pitch would be for my novel. I was about to pick up my papers and wipe the sweat off my brow when she added, “Even so, I’d like to see fifty pages.”

    The best thing, really, was I went into the restroom, patted a cold towel on my forehead and came up with a new pitch. I memorized it (can still spew it months later). The next three agents all asked for pages. I’m still mortified, but ever so grateful.

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