Writers’ Conference Etiquette

It’s conference season again. Whether you are in the middle of your project or have published your fifth book, attending a well-run, reputable writers’ conference can be beneficial. Conferences offer networking opportunities as well as educational workshops. In most cases, the person who stands to benefit the most from a conference is the unpublished author who is in the query stage. Conferences sometimes give writers access to agents who are not accepting queries except by referral or personal contact.

Now, I love conferences. I look forward to networking and am comfortable in group settings both large and small. Having performed on stage and been a teacher to 150 high school students a day, pitching my novel in person or talking to someone I don’t know doesn’t faze me. I get nervous, of course, but it provides a positive energy and I enjoy it. That doesn’t mean I’m always good at it–it just means I’m more at ease than some. The idea of meeting the Great and Terrible Oz that is the literary agent face-to-face is terrifying for some writers. So terrifying, it ruins the whole conference for them and they end up spending hundreds of dollars for nothing more than a bad case of freak out. As with most things, the best way to succeed at a conference is do your research, be prepared, and be professional.

Do Your Research

Find out which agents and editors will be at the conference well in advance. Many conferences allow for a brief one-on-one pitch session with an agent or editor of your choice. Research every agent (or editor) on the list and see if they represent the type of books you write. I know this is obvious, but if an agent only represents children’s books, do not schedule a pitch session with her for your Vietnam vet memoir. You are wasting everyone’s time. I saw this happen at the last conference I attended, and when the agent asked the writer why he was pitching a genre she didn’t represent, he replied that he had registered late and she was the only agent that still had a slot open. If that is the case, let the session go and register earlier next time. All is not lost if you don’t get to pitch to your first choice. In most cases, you will have ample opportunity to talk with the agent you prefer sometime during the conference whether it be at a meal or in the bar.

Research the workshops and the speakers. Pick the ones that are most relevant to your genre and stage in the publishing process. Most conference coordinators post workshop information on the host website well in advance of the conference. If you have questions, email or call the listed contact for the conference ahead of time, rather than try to hunt her down at registration. Registration for larger conferences is like a trip into one of Dante’s inner rings of hell for some of these coordinators; the last thing they need is a question about which workshop would be more beneficial for you while they are trying to track down someone’s awol registration paperwork or placate an irate attendee who wants blood for not getting her first choice of agents to pitch.

Be Prepared

Approach the writers’ conference as if it were a job interview. If you are looking to catch the eye of an editor or agent at the conference, the number one thing you need to do is prepare a pitch. I addressed the pitch in my post on the QueryTracker Blog, “The Elevator Pitch.” For a conference, I recommend having two versions ready. One would be the 30 second to 1 minute pitch to deliver at your pitch session. The other would be the one sentence pitch. You will use the one sentence pitch a lot. At most conferences, it is easy to engage agents and editors in conversation in social settings. You will be surprised how many times you will be asked, “what is your book about?” Nobody wants to hear a writer launch into a 5 minute oration on her masterwork when this question is asked. If the one sentence pitch is effective, the writer will usually be asked to reveal more about the book. This makes for natural discourse rather than a memorized speech. If you do not have a prepared pitch, click here for more on this topic.

Questions that most first time conferees have are: “What do I wear,” and “What do I take?” What you wear is a matter of personal taste. Most conferences consist of long days. 10 hours in panty hose is not a feasible option for me. Uncomfortable suit is out. As long as you look nice and are not wearing shorts or jeans with holes in them, you will be fine. It is not a Sunday finest affair. Be yourself. Be professional.

Even though you will receive a goodie bag upon signing in at most conferences that includes a pen and paper amidst the plethora of promotional material, you should bring your own pen and paper so that you can take notes during workshops or write down other authors’ email addresses or websites.

If possible, bring business cards. I know this might feel pretentious if you don’t already have them, but a simple card with your name and contact info is enough. You don’t need the byline, “Future NYT Bestselling Author” under your name. You can get cards printed for very little money online. Some companies print them cheaper than you can print them yourself on Avery forms. If you don’t have the time, money or inclination to print business cards, that’s okay. I’ve had writers hand me a pre-printed slip of paper with their contact information on it. I’ve never handed my card to an agent or editor at a conference. I use them to network with other writers.

If for nothing more than your own peace of mind, bring a copy of your synopsis, your first three chapters, and a copy of the complete manuscript. Chances are, you will not need these, but on the remote possibility you wow an agent on the first day of a three or four day conference to the point they want to read your work right away, it is good to be prepared. This happened at the last conference I attended and the writer was offered representation before the conference was over.

Be Professional

I think this one is the most important of all. Conference etiquette is pretty much the application of good manners and common sense. Be polite and aware of what is going on around you. Be courteous during workshops and presentations.

People pay a lot of money to attend these events. Agents, editors and authors take time off to teach the workshops. Turn off your cell phones and do not talk to the people around you during the presentation. Do not take notes during workshops on your laptop–it is noisy and distracting (use paper and pen). Some workshop settings are okay for computers, like ones where writing is part of the curriculum, but there is nothing more annoying than listening to “tap, tappity tap” the entire workshop. Wait, yes there is! More annoying than the laptop tapping and whirring is someone munching chips right next to you. Or how about the person with the iPod? Teeny squeaks barely more audible than a gnat emanating from the earbuds making you fantasize about ripping the device out of the wearer’s ears. Why would a person pay for a conference and then wear an iPod through a workshop? I wish I had asked her.  Workshops rarely exceed an hour. Go to the bathroom first. Eat your snack at another time. Talk on the phone and listen to music on your own time. Chat with fellow writers between sessions.

No agent stalking. None.

The agents usually go out of their way to make themselves accessible. Be respectful and pitch to them at appropriate times. If you are in the bathroom together, do not pitch your project. Do not follow them onto the elevator and corner them. It’s called an elevator pitch, but refrain from using it there. You might think I’m going overboard with all this obvious blather, but look around at the next conference you attend. It happens all the time.

If a group of agents and editors are having a conversation, do not go up and interrupt. Sure, agents attend conferences in search of new clients, but honestly, they also do it to network. They get to talk to other people in the industry they don’t see while doing their everyday job as an agent. They are there to make contacts too. Writers are not the only ones with agendas.

Some conferences have dinners or meals. Often, an agent will sit at a table with writers. This is a good time to mention your project if it appears the agent is receptive. They expect to be wooed at these meals. Do not usurp the conversation. Let the other writers talk. You want to be charming, not pushy. “Charming” and “pushy” are mutually exclusive. Ask industry questions. Intelligent questions. As long as you do not get personal, you can ask the agent things about himself/herself. Pets, favorite books. Think of some things you want to know ahead of time so that you come away enlightened even if the agent has no interest in your project.

Do NOT try to hand your manuscript to agents during a conference. Now, I know I said it was prudent to have a copy just in case. If you bring it for a “just in case” situation, leave it in your hotel room or car. An agent does not want to lug a hard copy of your manuscript through the airport. She will ask you to email your submission or snail mail it to her office if she is interested. I have a clever friend who put her manuscript on a usb drive and attached a laminated card with her contact information and title/genre on it with the thought that if an agent wanted to read it on the return plane trip home on a laptop, this would be a good thing.

Conferences are a blast for me, but are not some people’s scene. I certainly understand that. If it is a miserable, stressful experience, it is not worth the money, time or energy. But if you are going to put the time and money into attending a conference, do your research, be prepared and be professional.

All conferences are different. If you have anything to add regarding your own conference experiences or funny stories stemming from conferences, please post it in the comments below.

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11 Comments on “Writers’ Conference Etiquette”

  1. Christine Fonseca Says:

    Well done Mary. Excellent advice – no matter where you are in the game of writing. Thank you

  2. Tara Maya Says:

    Thanks for this. I attended one conference for agent pitches and found it immensely helpful. I wish I could afford to go to another this year. I’ve heard of several that sound wonderful.


  3. Thanks so much for the info! I’m just about to go to my first conference this weekend and this has set my mind at ease.

  4. Jennifer Says:

    Please do! Congrats and good luck on the contest…how exciting for you!

  5. Ruby Says:

    Thanks for the info…I’m quite nervous as I am attending a writers workshop next week. I think I’m more nervous about the criticism I will receive on the 15 page manuscript I turned in. 🙂


  6. […] Writer’s Conference Etiquette […]


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