Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Lauren Abramo's thoughts about writers conferences

So Jim McCarthy talked to you all last year about writers’ conferences, but with conference season in full swing it seems like a good time to come back to it!

I’ve been to two writers’ conferences so far this year (the Writers’ League of Texas conference in Austin and was at The Writers’ Institute in Madison), and it looks like that’ll probably it for me till 2009. It’s a light year for me, but between all the agents here we have attended or will attend nearly 20 conferences in 2008—that’s a lot of weekends away and extra reading material!

While we’re never hurting for new submissions to read, we’ve been pretty successful finding new clients at conferences. Off the top of my head, I can tell you our own Tom DeWolf, Richelle Mead, and Suzanne Selfors all first met people at the agency at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) conference. Just this year, Michael Bourret met Jill Alexander at The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference—and her book then sold to an editor she met at the same conference! And Jim McCarthy and I are both going out to editors soon with projects from writers we met at conferences.

Of course, the truth is, we don’t sign someone up from every conference we attend. There’s no magic number, no quota. If we love it and believe we can sell it, we’re taking it on. Likewise, if it’s not right for us—much as we really enjoy meeting writers face-to-face in a business that increasingly involves bonding with our computer screens—that face time isn’t going to change our minds. As always, what it comes down to is what’s on the page.

Knowing we may not find any new clients, we still find it worth it to go to conferences each year. For one, free travel is one of life’s great joys. We also enjoy the opportunity to meet with other agents and with editors—it’s truly strange how many people live a couple stops away from me on the train whom I’ve only ever spent time with while halfway across the country!

All that aside, though, we really appreciate the opportunity to share what we know about the business with authors who are eager for the information (hence this blog, really). An author who understands how things work in publishing is good for all the rest of us in the business. When we go to conferences, we sit on panels, do Q&As, answer general questions in pitch sessions and at luncheons, and attempt to help writers figure out just what it means when you take the work you’ve done for you and try to turn it into something others will read. And not only that, but we learn from what we hear, too. It can be really edifying to sit on a panel with a book reviewer or publicist and hear their take on the questions we know from the agents’ and editors’ sides.

And why should you go? Well, if you’re wondering how to get started, how things work, and what to do next, a writers’ conference just might be the help you need. If you have a completed novel or nonfiction proposal ready to shop, by all means take advantage of the pitch session opportunity that a writers’ conference provides. Don’t go expecting a ton of feedback or a detailed critique —it’s hard to tell much of anything from a pitch—but consider it an opportunity to capture our attention more easily than you might in the slush pile.

But more than that, go to learn. Go to attend workshops and panels. Go to meet agents, editors and other industry professionals (and learn that we’re not nearly as scary as you might think). Go to network with other writers in your area.

And don’t feel like you absolutely need to attend one. Plenty of authors are published each year who’ve never attended a conference, so while it can certainly be helpful, it’s not a must.

So to those of you who attended conferences for the first time this year, what did you think? Would you go back and would you encourage your fellow DGLM blog readers to try it out?


  1. If you're going to meet agents, be sure the conference organizes private or group interviews. I just went to the Wesleyan writers conference and to meet the agents they brought there, you had to crowd their table after their talk and try to squeeze your pitch in. Bread Loaf organizes all kinds of private time with agents. It's much better for that sort of thing.

  2. Down here in New Orleans, we have the Tennessee Williams Festival. I've actually worked as a volunteer for the master classes, and I recommend those to all writers. We have guest authors (this past year was Claire Cook, the author of Must Love Dogs), literary agents, editors, etc. come in to give lectures. We have workshops and panels. It's a great experience and a wonderful opportunity to learn a lot of info about the publishing industry.

    It's really laid-back, too. Nice way to meet and connect with fellow writers. Plus, as an added bonus, the master classes are held near the French Quarter!

  3. PS – My local Borders bookstore has Kushiel's Scion featured in one of the center displays when you walk in. Very nice!

  4. I highly recommend going to conferences. It's nice to spend time with people who "get" what you do and why you do it. Non-writer friends do their best to understand this writing business, but it takes another writer/agent/editor to fully appreciate our passion.
    I always come back rejuvenated from conferences and itching to get new ideas down. I find conferences inspiring and very educational.

  5. I've attended the Colorado Gold Conference sponsored by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers every year for the past fourteen years. It is hands down the best writers conference in the country. The next one is this September.

  6. I attended my first SCBWI confernence in 2000 thinking that my novel was ready to shop around. Boy did I have some things to learn. And one was that I needed to go back to the drawing board and work, work, work. Not the most exciting thing to discover but at least I didn't end up sending out an unpolished novel.
    Thanks to all of the presenters. Your input has been invaluable.

  7. I have a burning question that I am very curious about.

    In 2006 I started sending a few queries & went to a conf with my completed MS. It was through the conference that I realized how much more work it needed before I continued seeking pub. Then I went through some medical treatments, got pregnant, had the baby & now she's 1!

    My MS is now WIP and still trying to find time with being mommy to revise. The MS is VERY different then it was in 2006 and I'm wondering, once I'm ready to query again, how appropriate is it to query agents that rejected me in 06? And if it is appropriate and they SOMEHOW remember the MS...will they think I'm a total loser for still trying to sell this MS when I started querying in 06?

    I'm just a novelist turned mommy recently and trying to really get back into the game...but this is stumping me?

  8. Hi Elizabeth. I read your comments with interest. I can tell you this from my personal experience. You can submit more than once to the same agent or even the same publisher, but provided something is markedly different about your proposal or manuscript. I will be submitting a manuscript through my agent to the same publisher for the third time. the publisher loved my proposal, but the first time the proposal was much stronger than this weak manuscript I submitted. The second time, the manuscript was improved but not compelling enough. I now believe my manuscript is actually stronger than the proposal (I am actually revising the proposal now) and have confidence they will make an offer. So the answer is ye, Elizabeth.

  9. Adding onto Elizabeth's question. My first go-round - almost 2 years ago - was rejected (a partial) by the agent I have a pitch session with at a conference this fall.

    Should I pitch it to this same agent again? Or try a new agent, even though the genre doesn't quite fit with the others?


  10. SInce I met the publisher of my new novel at one of the first conferences I attended, I'd have to say conferences are very worth it.

  11. The first conference I attended was PNWA last year. It's nice to hear you picked up authors there! I also went to Willamette Writers in Portland. Yes, it's a lot of money. But I learned so much. That first year I had two "finished" manuscripts -- well, neither were ready. I have learned so much, and I'm still learning -- and revising. I find the pitch sessions (speed dating on steroids) distasteful.

  12. I have a hard time getting away from my menial, dead-end job to go to writer's conferences but hopefully that'll change soon.

    I've just finished a novel and, while I'm rewriting it, am also in the process of looking for an agent. I've had one before so I know all the names and the Who's Who list.

    Jane Dystel Management represents a friend of mine, Michael Prescott, and, Jane being at the top of my mental list, I looked her up at

    I was glad to see that not only is Jane still in the biz, the agency seems to be doing better than ever and even represent Barack Obama.

    So I imagine Jane will be hearing from me soon with a query letter when I finally whip this glorified first draft to my expectations.

  13. To answer your question, Elizabeth, there's no problem with re-querying agents who passed on the book if it is substantially different, but you should be up front about the fact that they've seen it already. If your manuscript is in great shape and they fall in love with it, it won't matter that you started trying to sell it two years ago as long as it was being shopped to other agents and not editors.

    And the answer to Sheila's question is pretty much the same! There's no point pitching to people you know don't do your genre, so stick with the one who does, but let her/him know that they saw a partial before. If he or she isn't interested in reconsidering, you can probably still use your time to ask a general question or two about the business. Even if you don't have a new chance to submit the manuscript after, you may learn something valuable that will help you out with the next agent you do contact!