4 Things to Know Before You Go

Use this expert's advice to make the most of your agent and editor meetings at writers conferences this year.
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The value of writers conferences is increasing as more and more publishers refuse to consider unsolicited manuscripts. At most midsize to large conferences, you have the opportunity to meet face to face with editors and agents in 10- to 20-minute meetings to formally present your ideas for books and magazine articles.

The best-case scenario has attendees leaving the conference encouraged about future publishing success. But for others, the experience is closer to the death of a dream. Both ends of the spectrum are a reality--as is everything in between.

If you plan to attend a writers conference, don't you want to be one of the success stories? While no one can promise you'll be published, some things do give you a better chance.

I have been teaching at writers conferences for more than 10 years. As part of the faculty, I have observed that at each conference certain people are the stars, the ones whom the editors and agents get excited about, the ones editors and agents want to help and are willing to go out of their way to guide. On the other end of the spectrum, there are attendees whose names, when mentioned, generate eye-rolling. Seeing this happen over and over again, I queried the editors to find the common denominators of each group. They can be summed up in the following four P's.

1. Preparation

Before you pack up to attend the conference, do your homework. Have you studied style manuals? There are standard formats for proposals and manuscripts. While good writing can be done in poor form, editors typically find that when a writer doesn't know how to present a project, he doesn't care or doesn't have the necessary skills--both of which will be reflected in his writing. One magazine editor says she was very impressed with the writer who had all of her available articles arranged in a three-ring notebook in clear plastic sleeves. As the author presented ideas, she could easily flip through the notebook and move on to those that interested the editor the most.

Study up on the publishing needs and styles of the conference faculty. Check Writer's Market (www.writersmarket.com), and visit the publisher's or agent's Web site for guidelines and other information. As soon as the schedules are announced, make appointments with the editors and agents for whom your project is right. One editor says, "If you make an appointment to see me, come prepared. Don't waste my time."

At the conference, editors and agents often have the opportunity to share their needs and interests with the general group. If after hearing the comments you decide your material isn't a good fit for an agent or editor you will be meeting, cancel the appointment. Likewise, if you hear someone who sounds right for you and you have not yet made an appointment with that person, try to get on to his schedule.

2. Presentation

We have all heard the cliche, "You never have a second chance to make a good first impression," and this is especially true of meetings with agents and editors.

Look in the mirror. Your meeting is like a job interview. Even though most conferences are held in casual settings, you can still look professional. Appearance is important because you are the one who will be out there promoting the book. While book editors and agents focus more on an author's physical appearance than magazine editors, it can't hurt to look your best.

If you have any hesitation about the appropriateness of your appearance, seek some help. While many books and magazines cover the subject, one of the easiest ways to get personal guidance is to look around your place of work, your neighborhood or your church for people whose clothing and grooming you would like to emulate. Or, dress as you would at a conference, then approach a person whose appearance you admire, explain your goals, and ask for an honest critique of your physical presentation. Is your clothing clean, neat, up-to-date and appropriate? Is your hair clean and in a style flattering to your features? Is your cologne or after-shave too strong or do you have offensive body odor or bad breath? Listen carefully to the advice, and do not be defensive. Adjust your image accordingly and keep breath mints handy for those one-on-one meetings.

Appearing professional also means having business cards to leave with the editor. One conference attendee met with an editor who liked her work, but the specific article she was offering did not meet his needs. The editor took her card and later contacted her about a writing assignment.

Places like Office Max or Office Depot can make you professional, basic business cards in a matter of days for less than $20. Daicolo (www.daicolocard.com) specializes in color photo business cards and can produce 1,000 of them for under $100. Business cards help give the impression that writing is what you do, not a passing fancy. When it is this easy and inexpensive to look professional, there is no reason to have tacky, computer generated cards that scream "beginner"--or none at all.

3. Personality

There is a fine line between the person who is eager and enthusiastic about his project and the person who is obnoxious. It is good to believe in your ideas, but be open and teachable. When an editor offers a suggestion that will make your writing better, receive it without argument--better yet, ask for additional thoughts for improvement.

On the flip side, be confident in your work. If you have prepared by researching the needs of the publishing house, and you have tailored your presentation for each specific meeting, you enter the session from a position of strength. Have your focused 25-word, 30-second book pitch ready. Start the meeting by sharing your idea, then allow the editor to ask for more. Maintain a conversational tone and be willing to end the conversation if there is no visible interest. Do not feel that you have to use up the entire time just because you have a 15-minute appointment. Even when there is enthusiasm for your project on the part of the editor or agent, be conscious of time constraints and leave him wanting more.

Editors and agents like to help people, especially those open to guidance, people who are likeable.

4. Project

The actual writing--the project--is where most writers start. Yet, ignoring the previous P's may prevent you from receiving a fair hearing from an agent or editor. If you head to the conference well prepared, with a presentation that is well packaged and present your ideas with enthusiasm--while being teachable--the editor or agent will be eager to hear about your project.

After the meeting, be sure to follow up. If an editor or agent suggests changes that would make your project work for him, make the changes and send the project to him within a few weeks, while the meeting is still fresh in his mind. To help him remember, bring a camera to the conference and have someone take a picture with you and the editor or agent. Include that photo in your future correspondence. When the package is opened, perhaps by an assistant who did not meet you, the photo shows that you did meet and talk with this editor or agent--therefore moving your submission to the top of the pile. For more on how to follow up with an editor or agent, see the article on Page 47.

Pay attention to these P's and you will find that your next writers conference experience will leave you encouraged, successful and, ultimately, published--the final "P" of your writers conference success!

Marita Littauer is the author of 10 books including Love Extravagantly,You've Got What It Takes (both Bethany House), Personality Puzzle (Fleming H Revell) and Talking So People Will Listen (Servant). She is president of CLASServices, an organization that provides resources, training and promotion for speakers and authors. She can be reached through www.classervices.com.

This article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.

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