I’m a big conference fan. Not only are they places where writers are respected (unlike neighbors or distant family members that might roll their eyes when you announce your profession), these gatherings serve as great opportunities to learn industry news and changing trends. Regional conferences are wonderful, but the national ones serve as the best occasions for hearing about news and developments in traditional publishing. I participated in Thriller Fest for several years and enjoyed every minute. However, this year I decided to check out the 2015 Writer’s Digest Conference in New York as a change of pace.
In short, it was fun and frantic. The one down side, in my opinion, was the venue. Although lovely, some of the hotel’s conference rooms seemed small for so many people and were divided by massive pillars that blocked the views of the speakers and the large screen presentations. The elevators served as the weekend’s nightmares, always being slow, filled to capacity no matter which direction you were going, and frighteningly creaky when in motion.
The Pitch Slam
Another great offering of national conferences is that they focus on interactions between writers and industry leaders, such as well-published authors, publicists, agents, and editors. In fact, one agent pointed out that she gets about 38% of her clients through meeting them at conferences and only about 14% from the slush pile. Do the math. Your chances of getting representation are simply better at writers’ conferences because the agents can get to know you as a person.
In the case of the Writer’s Digest Conference, they featured four one-hour Pitch Slam events where hopeful scribers of fiction and nonfiction could throw story ideas at about sixty literary agents (and a few editors) in a speed-dating style frenzy. Since the number of participants in the room was limited, most people had a chance to see at least six or more professionals before time was up. The conference organizers helped by starting the weekend events off with Chuck Sambuchino, editor of the 2015 Guide to Literary Agents, giving us a pep talk and great advice about pitching. According to Chuck and several other experts, the elevator pitch is quickly becoming history. Its replacement is the idea that you engage the agent or editor in conversation and then give them your pitch, rather than throwing it in their faces as some explosive attempt to sell your book.
The agents at the conference were extremely friendly when faced with the hand-shaking, heavily-sweating hopefuls in front of them. I know this because of my dismal performance in front of my first pitching attempt.
To be clear, I’ve pitched at several events before. ThrillerFest runs a four-hour, mad dash across three large rooms. It is open to everyone paying for the event, which often leads to long lines in front of the most popular guests. However, having a few years of experience doesn’t stop the stomach from knotting up and the obsessive repeating of your pitch while waiting in line to see the next literary agent. You know this is your live-or-die moment. It’s not, but you feel that way anyway. You are desperate not to screw it up.
In my first attempt at the 2015 conference, I approached Ms. Kirsten Carlton of the Waxman Leavell Literary Agency, ready to make conversation and launch into the best elevator speech that the world has ever seen (my opinion). I shook her hand, sat down, smiled, and began to talk. Some loud noise drew my attention away and “POOF!” my rehearsed speech disappeared from my brain in mid sentence. She stared at me, looking concerned, as I sputtered, tried to find my thoughts again, failed, and then banged my head against the table in frustration.
Yes, it was that bad.
She told me to take a deep breath and we began again. She listened to my pitch, we discussed its merits, and I went on my way to the next table with more calm and confidence. (Dear Ms. Carlton, I’m mentally sending you many blessings for being so kind and understanding.)
I took a ton of notes and will be sharing them in the next few blog posts. However, nothing I say here replaces the real thing. As I mention some of the experts that I’ve met, check out their websites and blogs. Look for the books that they’ve created. The information I can provide is just the tip that they gave out at the too-short sessions.
Finally, if you are serious about writing and publishing (self or traditional style), attend a conference if possible. Be wise in choosing one that fits your genre and needs so you don’t waste money. However a little research on the Internet, through the writing-oriented magazines, or in many of the Writer’s Digests Guide books will provide a wealth of options to choose from. You may even have trouble limiting it to just one event a year.
And as ever, happy writing!