Continuing with our theme of all things agent, I'll be discussing How To Talk To An Agent at a Conference and perhaps just as important, How to Not Annoy an Agent at a Conference. I've had some brilliant successes (and some failures!) with these, so I figure I can pass along my words of wisdom. Conferences are on my brain, cause I planned to attend SCBWI's national conference in NYC this weekend...but my plans changed when the conference filled up and registration closed early. BUMMER.
However, I have attended (and been a panelist at!) WorldCon, plus last year's SCBWI national conference, RWA, and multiple regional conferences. You could even say I'm a conference junkie.
But, enough about me. You came to hear about agents! My first bit of advice is just be yourself, only with good manners. This of course means no cornering agents in the bathrooms, no smothering them in the elevators, no interupting them in conversation or inviting yourself to their table at dinner. This also means that you must behave with poise, and grace, even if your desired agent turns out to be a cold prude who blows you off and stomps on your black-and-blue toes!
Why be yourself? Because that's who you want the agent to get to know, and because you're much more interesting than you think. After all, you may be a total unknown from backwoods Kentucky who grew up barefoot and snaggle-toothed, but that's a very unusual animal to a New York agent. Fascinating, even. If you can go one step further and carry an amusing conversation with your new agent acquaintance, you may intrigue her enough she asks about your work. Now, we all know the writing has to stand for itself and the story can't hide behind your sparkling personality, but I can attest from personal experience that a personal connection with an agent doesn't hurt. In fact, it can make the difference between a cold rejection and a careful reading. Intrigued? I'll tell you the story in a minute, but first, a few notes on where and how to meet agents at conferences.
The first step is, of course, to attend the conference and not run screaming if you see an agent. I approach with a big smile, always. This probably works well for anyone who doesn't sharpen their teeth--a small smile may be best for them. :) If a presentation has just ended and the agent is conveniently trapped on the stage, try to ask a relevant question and only bring up your work if the opportunity presents.
Sometimes you just bump into the agent randomly. Smaller regional conferences are great for this. Here, it is not unusual to find an agent 'in the wild' mixing with conference attendees. Sometimes an agent can be found standing in a side hall trying to make sense of their program. Then you, oh wise and enlightened conference attendee, can come to their aid! If you happen to sit near an agent, chat about anything you would normally discuss with a seat mate. The poor weather traveling in, the delicious lunch just finished, how the kids are faring back home. Remember, many agents are mums or dads, too! And while none of these are essential conversation pieces, they are all fairly benign when brought up with a smile and a good attitude.
Now that you're chatting with the agent, what next? Because of course you really want to talk about your book, right? Well, the agent knows this, and will probably indicate if they're in the mood to hear about it. They will do this by eventually bringing the conversation back around to you, and asking how your project is coming along. If the conversation drops, or the presentation begins, let it go. Never try to force a book chat that's not materializing.
Now for my intriguing story, which took place at a regional conference. During a prior presentation, I felt that Agent Wonderous and I had developed rapport. When I later saw her take a seat in the row in front of mine, I decided to speak up. I honestly don't remember what I said, but it was meant to be witty. She looked around, we traded remarks. I definitely felt she was someone who I could connect with, and I already knew from research and reptutation that she was someone who repped my kind of book and would be my dream agent. There was just one problem. She'd already rejected my query. A form rejection, too. NOT the most auspicious beginning!
However, I am nothing if not a determined optimist and I truly believe in my book. Also, I KNEW that my book was a good fit for this agency. The book was getting plenty of full requests from other quarters and even a couple 'I know I'll regret passing on this--please sent me any future work' personalized rejections of encouragment. So, where had I gone wrong?
As I sat chatting with Agent Wondrous, I decided to ask her. Perhaps she could give me some pointers, so I'd know if this project was doomed and I should just trunk it, and if my writing skills needed a boost before I attempted anything else. I was careful, though, cause I didn't want her to feel cornered. Better that I go without getting any insights than I be forever branded in her brain as the Unpardonably Obnoxious Writer of whom she would tell horror stories in future conferences. I waited til our chat was winding down and the presentation was about to start, then told her I'd love to get her thoughts on some questions I had about my book, if she had time later.
She seemed open to the idea, then the lights dimmed as the presentation began. I confess I was a little distracted. At one point, Agent Wondrous left her seat and appeared to leave the room. I hoped I hadn't scared her away.
The lights came back up, I said goodbye to my seatmates and gathered up my things. Only to discover Agent Wondrous had come back, and was waiting to talk to me! I explained my concerns for the book, and asked if she remembered what was lacking. She confessed she didn't--that while she recognized the title, nothing else from the query had caught her attention. I filled her in, briefly. Without any prompting from me, she gave me permission to re-send the query and first chapter. She would read them over, and give me feedback as to why the query was a miss. This was not a re-query, I was to understand. Instead it was a generous offer on her part to give me a bit of direction.
I came home estatic and thrilled with my efforts at the conference. Quickly I put together my new and improved query and new and improved first chapter, and sent them off. A few weeks passed, and I got a reply from Agent Wondrous. She was glad we'd met and chatted at the conference, and that she'd had the chance to take a second look at my query. She was intrigued. Would I please send along the full manuscript?
Well, you can guess my answer! I'd since started a rewrite of the manuscript, but I finished it up and sent it along. And I'm still glowing.
So, remember as you approach your writing conferences that agents are people. They don't like to be stalked, they don't like to be treated like a trophy, and they don't like to be the bad guy. They enjoy people who smile, and respect their time. And sometimes, they'll feel that extra interest in your work which comes from a personal connection, and they'll give you a second chance. Best of luck!