The Dos and Don'ts When Meeting Agents at Writing Conferences

Writers often attend conferences to meet face-to-face with agents. Rita Rosenkranz and Lisa Hagan offer tips on how you can get the most out of an agent meeting.
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Writers often attend conferences for the opportunity to meet face-to-face with literary agents. WD talked with Rita Rosenkranz of the Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency and Lisa Hagan of Lisa Hagan Literary for tips on how writers can get the most out of an agent meeting. Both Rita Rosenkranz and Lisa Hagan represent adult nonfiction titles.

What are your suggested tips for writers meeting agents at conferences?

Rita Rosenkrantz

Rita Rosenkrantz

Rosenkranz: Given the limited time an author has for both the pitch and then the agent’s response, brevity is key. Where applicable, the pitch should be tailored to the agent (“Since you are the agent of XX, I thought my project might be of interest.”), argue the merit of the work, detail what sets it apart from the competition, explain what personal and/or professional experience you bring to it, and show the need in the marketplace—making the strongest case possible for the book. Be mindful of time, leaving enough left for the response and clear follow-up steps if the agent is interested in seeing the work.

Hagan: There isn't any need to be nervous; use your notes. I am just as interested in what you have to say as you are to share it with me. Do not suggest that your genre will change my mind and make me want to represent a project out of my field of expertise. I get that every single time. Your novel will not be the one to change my mind and start repping fiction.

Lisa Hagan

Lisa Hagan

How can writers make a good first impression?

Rosenkranz: While it’s understandable that some writers will be nervous when meeting agents, I’d hope that wouldn’t get in the way of the conversation. We genuinely want to hear about your project! Writers should be ready with any accompanying materials and should be focused.

Hagan: Be passionate about what you are writing. Show how much you care about sharing your work with the world. At the end of the day, I want to still be thinking about what you have shared with me.

What turns agents off?

Rosenkranz: I‘ll speak only for myself. Sometimes a writer is very set on working with me and for whatever reason I don’t think I’m right for the project. It’s not productive for a writer to be insistent and argumentative when that happens. Writers should keep in mind they are looking for the right (if not the best) match, where they have a full embrace from the prospective agent.

Hagan: Stating that you don't care if it makes money or not. Really?

What should writers bring with them to an agent meeting/pitch?

Rosenkranz: The most effective pitch is when the writer isn’t reading from notes but describing the project while looking the agent in the eye, so it’s best to keep display items to a minimum. A writer might show artwork if that is a crucial part of the project. Again, be mindful of time and use it effectively.

Hagan: Being prepared to leave a well-written, short and detailed pitch, author bio with contact information and marketing ideas.

What questions should they ask?

Rosenkranz: I’d recommend before the conference that writers look at the agent’s website to have insight into the agent’s titles and taste. If the agent expresses interest in the work, the writer might ask what publishers the agent would have in mind for it, commercial or academic? A major publishing house or regional press? Does the agent accept simultaneous submissions (most do), and how best to follow up if there’s interest? The writer wants an agent with a shared vision. This is the first chance to establish that connection.

Hagan: Have you had success in this genre? What are the publishing houses you enjoy working with? Do you see my proposal reaching any of them?

Have you ever had a negative encounter with a writer at a conference? If yes, what were the circumstances?

Rosenkranz: Often, memoir pitches are difficult to convey because there can be such a strong emotional component to them. Over the years after receiving thousands of pitches, I hope I’ve learned how to respond honestly and with compassion. But even the most sensitive agents who are careful with language can mis-step. Despite best intentions, I am sure I have mis-stepped a few times when the writer has felt personally challenged by the rejection.

Hagan: Only once. The person pitching me was not well and I got a little concerned for my safety and had to call in help.

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What have you found to be the most common mistakes writers make when meeting with agents at conferences?

Rosenkranz: Not doing their research in advance. When an author pitches me fiction, for instance, I realize they haven’t reviewed my list. Also, as much as I try to break in before this happens, sometimes writers will go on and on with extraneous details that take up all their time, limiting my available time for feedback.

Hagan: Agents represent specific genres and do not generally go far afield of their expertise. No amount of begging will change that. It is uncomfortable to have to say no to an aspiring author face to face, but if we don't think we can sell your work, we have to say no. Please respect our decisions. There are plenty of agents to approach and using email is easy. An agent is but one opinion out of hundreds and it only takes one YES to get to the next step. Conferences inspire me to be a better agent and hopefully inspire the writer as well.

Any final advice?

Rosenkranz: There are many great agents, and with luck, writers will get interest from more than one and make an informed decision moving forward. The more a writer is prepared, the more likely the results will be positive. In the end, I hope it’s a successful, enjoyable experience for all parties!

Hagan: Take what you have learned from the conference and use it to enhance your writing, content, grammar, and how to write a proper proposal. I send people to Writer's Digest at least once a week to learn how to write the perfect proposal. Don't take shortcuts.

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