Making the most of a conference

I had the pleasure of attending SCBWI Florida’s Wizarding World of Writing conference this past weekend.  It was a good event, and I met some talented writers and great people.  But I noticed something worth pointing out: for every person who came up and talked to me, there were at least five who smiled and nodded but didn’t actually speak with me.  Now, I’m making an assumption here, but I think those smiling and nodding folks probably wanted to talk to me.  I’m assuming that because they were at the conference.  And, if you’re going to get your money’s worth, you should be talking to the faculty!  I’m sure it’s easier for writers to talk to the featured authors; they can convey their appreciation for the author’s work and have a conversation between peers, at least of sorts.  I understand why  authors might find agents and editors  scary, but have you seen my picture?  I’m not exactly intimidating.  In fact, I think I’m pretty darn friendly!  I also love to talk to new authors, and I attend conferences not just to scout new talent, but to help people improve their craft.  Without interaction, it’s difficult to do that.  This doesn’t mean that you should be pitching indiscriminately, or interrupting someone’s workout, meal, drink or conversation.  You should still be polite.  But conferences usually offer ample networking time, and if you don’t take advantage of it, someone else will!

As anyone who works with me knows, I love to assign homework.  So for you dear blog readers, I have an assignment: the next time you attend a conference, introduce yourself to at least one agent or editor.  And if you’ve had a good experience speaking with an agent at a conference, let us know in the comments!

31 Responses to Making the most of a conference

  1. stephen matlock says:

    OK, I will do so at the PNWA Conference in August – but I am becoming more and more apprehensive that my novel will not be in shape to present at the conference – and what do you say? “Hi, I’m Steve and I’m a writer who can’t get his novel finished. Want to talk with me?”

    Maybe I should aim lower. “Hi, I’m Steve, and I wrote this neatly lettered nametag all by myself. Shows what I can do when I’m focused.”

  2. Michael says:

    If you’re not ready to query, why not talk to the agents and editors about something other than your book? As with anything else, you want to make a genuine connection. Knowing the context, I’m sure the agent or editor will eventually ask what you’re working on. You can then say, “Well, it’s not really ready for submission, but it’s about x, y and z.” And the conversation will flow from there. You don’t have to talk for hours, either. Just say hello!

  3. Steve, I’ll be at that same conference. :-)

    I find it’s hard to find the right time to step up and say hello. It seems that at some conferences, the agents and editors pack together. For example, at PNWA, the agents and editors sit together at lunch and the group social functions. If they spread out and sat with the writers, it would be a lot easier to casually start a conversation.

    • Michael says:

      Conferences should definitely encourage more appropriate mingling time. And yes, sometimes we faculty members need to be reminded to spread out. You definitely don’t want to feel you’re interrupting or being inappropriate.

  4. Jill S Alexander says:

    Michael, you are indeed pretty darn friendly — as I have found most publishing folk to be. I feel like I get the most from a conference when I’ve made an effort to truly get to know fellow attendees, editors and agents included.

    I would feel awkward walking up to someone and pitching my work. Drive-by pitching seems bizarre to me. However, I love asking and finding out what an editor or agent or writer is working on . . . what they’re excited about. This is a great way to get reading recommendations and find out more about the interests of the person to whom you are speaking. I’m also always interested in how others revise/edit. What revisions does an editor or agent suggest most often? Those tidbits are take-aways that I can use to better my craft once I return home. Not to mention the blessing of broadening my circle of friends to include other passionate readers.

    At some point in the the conversation, my new acquaintance will often ask what I do. That’s my chance to talk about my books, my writing, or my basketball concession stand responsibility. Whatever I feel like sharing.

    Whether published or unpublished, a writer needs to get comfortable making an introduction and getting to know others. These skills come in handy at book events, librarian and other conferences.

    • Michael says:

      For those of you who don’t know Jill’s story, she met me (her agent) and her editor at a conference, so she knows of what she speaks! All the points she makes here are fantastic.

    • Thank you, Jill for these great suggestions about introductions, specific to conferences for writers. As a lifelong introvert, I keep promising myself I will talk to an agent or editor at the NEXT conference. And then kick myself on the way home when it doesn’t happen. Your suggestion? I can do that.

  5. Larissa says:

    I attended the SCBWI FL conference. The only time I really saw you off-stage, you were at the bar talking to Ari Lewin and I didn’t want to interrupt. :)

    It was a lot easier to approach people on Sunday in the workshops, however, and I did talk a bit with Ari.

  6. Patricia says:

    Michael, of all the conferences I’ve attended, you are one of the friendliest and most pleasant people I’ve met in the business. It’s always nice to see you. Your advice is timely, with the SCBWI-NY conference coming in just a few days. If you’re there, I’ll be sure to say hello. :)

  7. St. Bernard says:

    How shall we get all the brown off our noses?

  8. Lee Wind says:

    What good and timely (with the upcoming SCBWI 2011 Winter Conference in NY a week away) advice! Thanks, Michael, for reminding us that you agents (and editors, too) are actually interested in hearing from us authors. That’s part of why you’re at conferences!
    Knowing that makes it a lot less intimidating!

  9. Ty Shiver says:


    I thought you were very friendly and enjoyed getting to know you a little. All your input at the conference was very helpful! The talk on social media was excellent. Thanks for coming to the other coast!


  10. Jeff says:

    Great advice as always. It’s a surprise when you first discover that most agents and editors are the scary people a lot of new authors think they are.

    One of the things I really enjoy talking with agents about are books they’ve recently sold, or books they represent that have recently come out, won awards, etc. I’ve learned a lot and had some really fun conversations that way. There are almost always interesting stories behind how agents and authors come together.

  11. Dawn says:

    Thank you for this post Michael. I will be at SCBWI in New York as well, so this topic comes at a perfect time.

    I have to say I’m a little surprised that you’re so open to mingling with conference attendees. Many other agents often blog about this topic and it seems they issue a lot of warnings on how/when to approach them — if at all. Frankly, it has made me nervous to do any type of mingling with agents because I don’t want to bother them or appear self-serving.

    I think Jill Alexander’s post offers great networking ideas, and for those of us who work in such a solitary environment, it is invaluable to make connections and become a part of a community.

    I hope to see you in NYC!

    • Michael says:

      Again, I don’t suggest that you interrupt someone’s conversation or meal or exercise, but during mingling time or when I’m staring at the walls, please do say hello!

  12. Janet B Taylor says:

    Hi Michael,
    I am attending the DFW Conference in February. We have pitch meetings scheduled, and I selected your comrade, Jim, as my first choice. If I don’t get him, you think he’d mind if I peered under the stall door, when he goes to the bathroom? You know, just as a secondary option.

  13. Well, I feel busted! I’m a terrible mingler, and always limit my contact to the scheduled agent appointment. This post gives me encouragement to do better in the future.

    I, too, will be at the DFW Conference, Janet, if you would like to collaborate on a plan to come up with appropriate strategies to avoid embarrassing and inappropriate encounters.

    • Janet B Taylor says:

      Hey Kim,
      I’d love to! You can block the door, and I’ll wrestle him to the ground. How’s that sound? :)

      Seriously- That sounds great. I am not good in front of strangers, either. We need to meet up- should make it a lot easier. Glad to see someone else going.

      • I don’t remember if there’s an opening meet-and-greet, Janet, but I’ll look for you there or at the opening session. Would love to meet someone else who’s struggling with being more assertive about promoting our work.

  14. Jennifer Swanson says:

    Dear Michael,

    I was at that conference and I can attest — you are very friendly. The informal way you handled your presentation on social networking was fun and interactive while being extremely informative at the same time. I learned a lot!

    While I tend to be one of those that sometimes hangs in the background, it was nice to learn that agents are people, too. I will definitely start introducing myself.

  15. Janet B Taylor says:

    I was pretty much kidding about the bathroom.

    Do you have any suggestions for what turns you on or off–agent wise–about a potential client?
    I think I can act normal during the social hours. “Hey, how are you? What are you reading..”
    But, when I’m face to face with an agent-and I know I only have one shot…. Might need some smelling salts..

    • Michael says:

      I mean this genuinely: just be yourself. Pitch your book, be polite, and be ready for criticism. Be sincere in any praise you have for the agent, but do know a bit about his or her list. And sieze the moment!

  16. Excellent point, Michael. I was one of the writers that mustered up enough courage to approach you at SCBWI. You were very gracious, and indulged my silly story about sending you a query letter a year ago for one of my books. Little did I know how silly that was – upon checking my records when I returned home, I never did send a query to you! My note next to your name was: “Beyond Me”, which is a terribly self-defeating attitude and upon meeting you realized you are quite approachable and may be the perfect fit for me!

    • Michael says:

      I’m glad you said hello, and I’m glad it turned out you hadn’t sent your project. I thought it odd that it didn’t ring any bells at all. Do query me!

  17. At a conference last year, a man sat down for lunch in the empty seat next to me at our table. He started talking to me and asking about my book, and when I looked down at his tag, I realized he was an agent. It turned out he repped very different things than what I write, so we talked about books in general and non-writing things. He was so nice, and it made me realize that agents are normal human beings–well, as normal as writers anyway. 😉

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