Fifteen minutes—that's how much time you'll get at a writing conference to interview an editor or agent and pique her interest in your work. These 15 minutes are a prime opportunity to make an impression that e-mails and phone calls can't begin to match.
By being well prepared and having a clear strategy for the interview, you can use this valuable face time to convince her that you're a writer who can deliver the goods.
Preparing for the interview
Get ready for the interview by making your appointments well before the conference. The program should provide you with short bios and the editorial needs of editors or agents who'll be available for interviewing.
If you're interviewing a magazine editor, review the writers' guidelines for her publication and study recent issues to pinpoint the readership. This will help determine what subjects have recently been covered. Next, prepare two query letters for that editor. Polish your queries until they shine, just as if you were mailing them. Prepare a small folder that includes your writing biography, two queries and two to four relevant clips, then label this portfolio with your name. If you'll be interviewing more than one editor, label the folder with the editor's name and magazine to ensure you're handing it to the right person.
Rehearse responses to such questions as, "Tell me about yourself," "How would your article benefit my readers?" and "Who's your target audience for this piece?" Also, practice speaking about each of your queries. It'll make you more confident going into the interview and will help you sound more professional.
If you're interviewing a book publisher or an agent, review the publisher's requirements in advance. Assemble your folder and include a short summary of your book idea, plus a description of your target readership. Don't expect an agent to accept a complete draft of your manuscript. A single chapter will suffice.
Rehearse a short verbal description of your proposal. If you can, categorize your book into a particular genre and demonstrate how it stands out from similar books in the marketplace.
Professional Touches:Business Card Basics
Make things easy for the contacts you meet at conferences by having a professional business card ready to hand out. Follow these basics: Use high-quality card stock. White is the standard color for business cards, but pastel is also acceptable and may help your card stand out. Along with the standard information—name, address, phone number—don't forget your fax, cell number, e-mail address and Web site address. Consider including a brief description under your name—"freelance writer," for example—so the editor has some frame of reference when she comes across your card later. Avoid a cluttered appearance. A clean, organized look conveys the message that you're professional. Leave the back of the card blank for notes. Have business cards professionally printed with raised type. Print no more than 100 cards if any of your contact information could soon change. Keep an ample supply of cards with you at conferences and don't be stingy about handing them out to editors, agents and other potential contacts. Include your business card in portfolios you prepare for editors and agents.
At the conference
You'll be competing against many other writers, so be prompt, well groomed and professionally dressed. Hand the editor your portfolio just after you've introduced yourself. Try to ask open-ended questions and take notes while maintaining good eye contact.
Wait for the appropriate opening to pitch your ideas. If her response is lukewarm, don't waste time defending these queries. Instead, use your remaining minutes to determine her editorial needs. Encourage her to be specific in defining topics of interest, then draw the focus back to showing how you can meet these needs.
When it's time to wrap up the interview, allow the editor or agent to keep your portfolio. Ask if it's OK for you to query via e-mail going forward. Be sure to end the interview on a positive note by summarizing your ability and willingness to write on the topics you discussed.
After your meeting, don't pass up the chance to further your relationship with the editor at the conference. Attend her workshops, sit up front and ask relevant questions. Strike up a friendly conversation at lunch, dinner or in the bar and focus on her editorial needs. If she clearly just wants to socialize, though, respect that. Be subtle in your approach to avoid coming across as a pest.
You'll want to follow up soon after the conference with a query tightly focused on a topic she liked. Include a reminder in your opening that you met at the XYZ Writing Conference.
After interviewing two magazine editors at a recent conference, I walked away with one assignment and soon landed several more as a direct result. Not bad for 15 minutes. Don't sell your face-to-face opportunity short.