On my first day of the SCBWI writers’ conference, going up to my room, a woman joined me in the elevator. We went through the usual conference greeting:
Me: Here for the conferrence?
Her: Yes. You?
Me: Yes, third time. Very exciting.
Her: Are you a writer or an illustrator?
Me: Writer. Middle grade. You?
Her: I’m an agent.
My mind went into conniptions. An agent! In an elevator no less. My brain could not access my “elevator pitch.” All I could blurt out was, “I have a great book for you!”
Then the door opened on my floor. Flushed, smiling like an idiot, I slipped out.
Yes, I said that. What an impression I must have made. Not. I didn’t get her name and, thankfully, she didn’t get mine.
When I reached my room and went through my conference packet, I came upon a couple of pages I wish I’d read before talking to anyone — a series of questions and answers and The Do’s and Don’t’s of Conference Etiquette. Apparently the better way to approach an agent or editor is not to talk about your work, but to show an interest in theirs. You don’t need to tell them about your work, unless they ask. Instead, ask them questions that give you more insight into their personal tastes. It’s likely the conversation will turn to your work.
Makes sense. You ask what they look for, what appeals to them, and not only do they like that, given that most people are pitching their books at them, but you learn whether they’d be a good fit for your manuscript. It’s a win win.
A good suggestion for that quick summary of your project: Be able to answer these two questions in one sentence. 1) What do you do? 2) What are you working on? One sentence.
Although we go to these conferences with the hope of connecting with an agent or editor, through our desperation, anxiety and momentary lapse in judgement, we often sabotage our own efforts. We need to keep calm and remember these are people. Mostly they are very nice people who want us to succeed. When we succeed, they do, too.
We were strongly advised not to pitch to editors or agents in the hallways, at lunch, between sessions, in the elevator (oops), or anywhere in between. Again, and I guess this cannot be stressed too much, editors and agents appreciate questions that allow you to get to know them and their house/agency so that you can submit to or query them once the conference is over, if they are a potential fit.
That’s another great thing about attending conferences. Most of the agents and editors on the faculty will be open to submissions just because you were at the conference. It cracks the door open a bit.
The best thing, of course, is to go prepared and to not act like you’ve seen your favorite movie star when someone introduces themselves as an agent.
There’s so much to learn about this business. Stay tuned.