The time has finally come. Your flight and hotel (or friendly couch) have been arranged. Your stomach is a curious swirl of dread and excitement. After months of planning, you’ll soon be on your way to that writing conference you’ve always wanted to attend.
Before you left, you assembled the basics. Comfortable but professional-looking attire? Check. Business cards? Check. Pens, notebook, and a tote bag (with a few snacks)? Yep.
And now you’ve arrived, a schedule of speakers and appointments in hand, maybe even a manuscript evaluation or agent pitch session ahead of you. You walk into the conference center, and it’s packed. You sweat slightly and wonder, Who are all these bookish-looking people, and how am I going to keep my cool during this exciting chaos? How can I make a good impression—or at least avoid doing or saying something embarrassing?
We can help you with that.
When you attend a writers’ conference, there are certain rules of etiquette that must be recognized—just as there are in any professional situation. It can feel like a lot of pressure to meet new people, learn as much as you can, and try to pitch your own work, especially when the one person who might change the trajectory of your writing career (nay, your whole life) could be sitting next to you at lunch. To make the most of your conference experience, here are some of our favorite tips for putting your best foot forward.
1. Be a pro.
We’re offering the most crucial piece of advice first. If nothing else, behaving in a professional manner is the single most important thing you can do at these events. Even if you’re not a full-time writer, behave like you’re working. That means dressing appropriately, being on time, being considerate, and avoiding alcoholic beverages until such time as you are “off duty.”
Though you might be anxious, be conscious of your language and tone. Some authors can be filled with overconfidence; bragging (or humblebragging) and grandiose claims are great ways to alienate editors and agents. But writers can also swing in quite the reverse direction and downplay their craft through self-deprecating humor, which is equally unprofessional. If you are feeling panicky, give yourself a rousing pep talk and try not to put yourself down when you are discussing your writing. If you’re feeling insecure about yourself or your lack of experience, focus on your book and what excites you about it. Let your writing and passion speak for themselves.
2. Do your research head of time.
Writers’ conferences offer rare opportunities to interact with editors, publishers, and agents, so whether you have an appointment with one or more of them or not, make sure you know their names and who each professional works for. Before you sign up for a pitch session or manuscript evaluation, ensure that the publisher, editor, or agent is actually interested in the kind of book you’ve written. Knowing who you’re speaking to before they’ve introduced themselves shows that you are genuinely engaged in the industry and also gives you the opportunity to ask the right questions. And that is one of the best ways to make a good impression.
3. Perfect your pitches.
Practice makes perfect, and with only a few minutes (or less), you have a very narrow window of time to catch an editor’s or agent’s attention. Keep a note card handy in case your mind goes blank, and practice with family and friends in advance. You’ll need to prepare two pitches:
For your pitch appointment: Usually a scheduled meeting with an editor or agent, these opportunities allow you some one-on-one time with someone who can help you. Come up with an original, creative pitch (avoid any grandiose or overdone statements like “I am the next James Patterson”) and answer any questions they have about your work as succinctly and honestly as you can.
For spontaneous encounters: The “elevator pitch” is well known to entrepreneurs and business folks. Essentially, the idea is that you may have a brief and unplanned opportunity to tell an agent or editor what your book is about. Imagine you’re sharing an elevator and they ask you about your book. The pitch should be just a few sentences, and if done effectively, it can open the doors to a bigger opportunity. This method definitely requires practice.
In a bid to try and be memorable, some authors have taken to bringing strange promotional products with them or worn rather outlandish outfits. Resist! Keep the focus on your book and a good, solid pitch. This is more likely to make a positive impression.
4. Be mindful of others’ time.
While it’s tempting to want to chat at length, the kindest gesture you can make toward editors and agents is respecting their schedule and their time. And the same goes for attending panel discussions and workshops. Be on time (or a few minutes early), and try to avoid the disruption that comes with leaving before the program has concluded.
If you’d like to speak to a panelist after their session, it’s OK to approach them, but before you launch into your question or comment, ask if they have a moment or if they’re in rush to teach another session. If they’re unable to talk at that time, ask if you can catch up with them at lunch or on a scheduled break. Never ever follow them into the restroom! (You might be rolling your eyes, but it happens.)
5. Be friendly and genuine.
Writers aren’t exactly known for being the most outgoing people. Even if you’re a card-carrying introvert, take risks and strike up conversations with other conference goers—not because they can boost your career but because these events are also about community. Today’s coffee-line buddy might just become a supportive friend or beta reader. And sometimes you might be in the position to help them. The literary community is a fairly small world, so we tend to reap what we sow.
And that goes for your communication with agents and editors too. They wouldn’t be attending the conference if they weren’t excited to meet writers and talk about their work, and if they indicate as much, they want to hear about your book. But remember that you are still talking to people. Often new authors are so focused on promoting themselves that they forget to relate to agents and editors like humans. Take a moment to ask them how they are doing or how they manage to retain their sanity in the chaos. Remember that this is about creating relationships with people in your industry. Be sure to thank any industry professional who takes the time to speak with you.
6. Listen to the feedback you receive.
Sometimes we humans have a hard time with constructive criticism, and writers are no exception. Remember that any advice you are given might be just what you need to take your writing to the next level or to help you find the right agent or publisher.
“The most heartbreaking and frustrating thing for an editor is when a writer or artist can’t hear what we’re saying,” Elizabeth Law told the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. “I have taken my glasses off, stared a writer in the eyes, told them one clear, simple thing, and had them keep talking as if I hadn’t said it.”
7. Respond graciously when you hear "no, thanks."
No one likes to hear no, especially when it comes to a book you’ve worked hard on. But agents and editors have very good reasons for not taking on your book at that time, and being a professional means accepting their response with grace. Try to save your tears, outrage, or frustration for your significant other or perhaps a beloved pillow.
8. Read the room.
Pay close attention to body language, especially if you spot an author, agent, or editor who you would love to speak with. Before you hustle over to introduce yourself, take a moment to assess their mood or activity. Are they in rush, or do they look frustrated? Are they already being mobbed by a line of people? Part of the art of a good pitch is timing. Look for a chance to speak to them when they don’t have a mouthful of food or are otherwise engaged or distracted.
9. Leave your manuscript at home.
Not only is it a hassle for you to drag around several tons of paper, agents and editors don’t want to do it either. (Remember that most, if not all, of them are taking a plane home if the conference isn’t in New York.) Shoving your stack of pages into their hands will only land your manuscript one place: the conference center or hotel recycling bin. If an agent or editor is interested your book, they will invite you to send it to them after the conference.