Two Nights in Austin

I spent the weekend at the Writer’s League of Texas conference in Austin this past weekend and thought I’d share some thoughts about what the conference experience is like from an agent’s perspective.

First of all, I was unreasonably fond of Austin. It’s rare that I really flip for a city that requires much driving, but I can happily report that Austin is approximately one million times more pedestrian friendly than, say…Dallas. Or Houston. And while June in Texas proved, unsurprisingly, to be quite hot, downtown Austin basically just proved to be super-awesome enough that I was happy to sweat it out. Literally.

After lunch and some shopping with a local client, I got down to conference business with an all-attendee cocktail party. There’s nothing like being one of ten agents in a room of 250 writers to confuse your sense of self-worth. I parked it at a table and chatted with a cast of characters that legitimately rotated seats so everyone could have their chance next to me. It was like the universe suddenly realized how awesome I was. There are good and bad things to this: one the one hand, you don’t have to worry about awkward small talk because all anyone wants to know is whether you’ll read their book. On the other hand, if you need to escape to the restroom, folks will actually block your path and want to know that you’re coming back, when you’re coming back, and (again) whether you’ll read their book.

Happily, it was a charmingly aggressive bunch of authors, and while it’s sometimes disconcerting to have things you wrote on a blog three years ago quoted back to you verbatim, it is not entirely unflattering.

That was followed by an agents and editors dinner overlooking the Congress Avenue bridge, under which 1.5 million bats reside, all taking flight at dusk out into the city. Which is basically the coolest thing ever to watch. After dinner, I took the chance to go see Super 8 (such a good start; such a bad end), and then headed to bed.

Pitches began on Saturday morning, and in a series of back-to-back appointments, writers tried to convince me in 10 minutes that they’ve written the best book of all time. This rarely works. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. The fact of the matter is that there is only so much you can know about a book from talking about it. There’s no way to know for sure until you’ve had the chance to read some pages. Pitches aren’t as terrible as people think. I believe that for the most part, unless you have a project that’s really wrong for someone, they usually are willing to take a look at a query or some sample material. I did hear one pitch that sounded EXACTLY like something I would love, but it will all come down to the writing. I also heard about a bunch of stuff that I didn’t have a strong opinion on, and that’s fine. In the end, the pitch is the smallest piece of the puzzle. The material has to be able to prove itself.

Amidst the pitches, I did two panels. One was on the basics of getting started in your search for an agent. I tried to crack a joke or two. Afterwards, some people told me I was hysterical. Either I’m a comedic genius, or some authors are really willing to flatter me in order to win my favor. I suspect it’s the former. The second panel was three agents listening to queries and interrupting the reader at the point they would have stopped reading. This is becoming a more and more common feature of conferences these days. I think we’ve all just seen a bit too much American Idol. Here’s the thing: it’s really tempting to be the Simon. And, frankly, really easy. A lot of people default to that position. Happily, the three of us (including agents Susanna Einstein and Ryan Fischer-Harbage) seemed to be more constructive and kind than that. Still, you just have to wonder who in the audience is going to be pissed when you say no to their material. Of course, in some rare occurrences, that person may choose to fight back on your decision. This is what I like to call counter-productive.

In the end, I met a whole ton of writers this weekend, and I asked for a lot of material. My summer vacation isn’t too far off, so I’m pretty sure this means I’m going to have a reading backlog in 3…2… Regardless, it seems like the people who get the most out of conferences are the ones who are there to learn rather than the ones focused solely on getting an agent. Ideally, yes, you will find the person who will be able to usher you into the next stage of your career. But you may also meet new critique partners, learn tricks of the trade, or simply gain advice on how to approach specific aspects of your writing.

At most conferences, I usually encounter some bitter person who complains about not getting enough time to pitch their book or finds some way to blame the conference for their not having landed an agent. Those people suck. Happily, this weekend, I didn’t meet any terrible people. Or, at least, no obviously terrible people. No one whose terribleness radiated off of them. Actually, in the end, it was just a wonderful conference overall—not overly taxing, incredibly well organized, really friendly people, and a seriousness among the attendees about their craft that I always am heartened to see. And people kept telling me how fantastic I am. What’s not to love?

5 Responses to Two Nights in Austin

  1. Suzanne L. B. says:

    I love this perspective. You’re the literary equivalent of The Bachelor.

    I used to run a fairly successful mom blog. One night I was at a wedding reception, standing alone at the bar during cocktail hour, when I was approached by a stranger. “You’re (pseudonym),” she said. I swear I looked over my shoulder to see if my husband had put her up to it. She rattled off a few anecdotes from postings that spanned a couple of years as I realized this was it– my 15 minutes of fame.

    Good luck with the reading!

  2. I couldn’t agree more with you on “Super 8.” It’s like Mr. Abrams said, ‘I was a lot more confident going into that movie…”

  3. I laughed out loud at your description of the eager writers as “charmingly aggressive.” The only time I’ve had a large group of people jostle to talk to me was when I conducted a therapy group for men in the county jail–not quite as thrilling as your experience. :)

  4. Lisa Marie says:

    Hi, Jim. Glad you enjoyed your visit to my fair city — I live in the historic district, close to where you were hanging out. One of those Weird Austin bluebloods. Hope you got to visit the infamous Alamo Drafthouse and visit all of the places unique to Austin, not just the tourists’ spots. ☺

    I am not a member of the Texas Writers League, and yes, they are charmingly aggressive – also in trying to get writers to join. (I’m happy with RWA, thanks!) My thoughts about these conferences: only the people who can comfortably afford to go to them can afford to pitch. I am not one of these people; I am mingy as hell with my money, especially when the luxury in question is > 30 percent of a mortgage payment. Logic then dictates then, with only 64 percent of Americans employed in a full- or part-time job, that the people who show up at these conferences won’t be the hungriest writers (metaphorically speaking). So I feel that the lion’s share of exemplary writers get left out of the mix. Perhaps the very best writers.

    I did go to RWA conferences for the learning experience, when I could comfortably afford them – this was before the recession. But I didn’t pitch. Never that. I personally find it a little demeaning. If my work is solid, I shouldn’t need to rub shoulders in person. An email query is free, and a postage stamp only costs … what does it cost, anyway?

  5. Kim says:

    I appreciate your coming to Austin, Jim, and your input during the pitch session. Although these sessions can be mildly brutal (the DFW Writers Conference has a query “gong show” where each agent wielded an actual gong; hilarity ensued), they can also be very, very useful (even though my pitch never got picked). Your panel in particular was helpful and your comments shouldn’t have caused too many hurt feelings, possibly unavoidable disappointment. That just comes with the territory of marketing a book to the publishing community. Since I suspect the vast majority of us have not had the pleasure of an editor showing up at our front door begging to see our books, we have to get used to it.

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