Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Slave Labor

I’m attending a number of writers' conferences this year, more than I had planned, and am always fascinated by how differently each of them is run. Some are more professional and better organized than others, some are considerate of their guests, and some are just looking for slave labor.

When we first started BookEnds I was an easy conference attendee. I was looking to build an author base and would head off into any direction asked of me. Now, though, I’m picky. I don’t want to work too hard, I want to be treated well, and I like a nice location. I don’t think I’m asking for too much and I don’t think I’m a pain. It’s just that if I am going to give up my weekend to work for free then I expect it to be a nice weekend for me too. A lot of conference organizers think they are doing editors and agents a favor. They think that by asking us to their conferences they are giving us this amazing opportunity to find great talent and new clients. The truth is very few agents ever find a new client at a conference. In fact, I think I can only name one or two who I actually took on after meeting at a conference. And the conference had nothing to do with it. I would suspect that these people would have submitted to me anyway and I would have offered representation anyway. You can correct me if I’m wrong.

If I offer to attend a conference I expect that I’ll be asked to speak and I expect that I’ll give appointments. I happily attend all social events—dinners, lunches, cocktail parties—and I really do enjoy giving advice to and meeting new writers. I don’t, however, want to be given additional work that’s going to have to be done outside of that weekend. In other words, I prefer not to be asked to judge contests or critique work before I attend. Of course, I do it anyway. I’m too nice to say no sometimes and therefore I know I should just keep my mouth shut and not complain, but I’m complaining anyway.

So what’s my point? It’s to let conference organizers know that you’ll have a much easier time finding qualified agents and editors to attend your conferences if you offer the following:

* Plenty of time to plan. Asking people six months to a year ahead of time is smart. Our schedules fill up fast and I can’t attend conferences on two months' notice.

* Consideration of their time. Appointments should be no more than two hours (ten minutes for each appointment), and you should never expect agents or editors to read material ahead of time.

* Workshop guidance. Help people out. Give some suggestions of what your attendees would like to hear. I’m sure conferences will have more success when attendees aren’t hearing the same workshop on how to write a query letter every single year.

I actually enjoy conferences. I enjoy talking to writers and meeting people personally. Most of all, though, I truly think that I can help teach people more about publishing as a business, calm their fears and soothe nerves. I wouldn’t attend conferences if I didn’t want to. However, when I return from a conference feeling exhausted and worn out because I was run from place to place and never had a chance to just sit and chat, it’s not a conference I want to go back to, or would recommend to other agents or editors. And we do talk. We do recommend conferences to each other and even contact organizers with names of others who might consider attending.

What about authors? Those of you who have attended conferences either as speakers or attendees, what drives you crazy or what are you looking for? What would you like to see from me, as an attending agent, or from organizers, to make your experience better?

—Jessica

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