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?



Sally MacKenzie said...

Well, Jessica, I did find you because of a conference. I was sort of meandering through the agent search. I already had a contract, so I wasn't in any big hurry. It was important to me to actually meet the agents face to face--I'm very much into "vibes." Don't hit me, but you were my third choice of the four agents at this conference--and I didn't ask to see the fourth--not because I'd heard anything bad about you, but because I thought you wouldn't be interested in historicals. Amazingly, I got all three appointments, and it turned out I didn't click at all with the agent I thought was my first choice--which just reinforced for me the wisdom of meeting agents in person. The vibes just weren't there.

When I got another contract offer a week or two later, I gave you a call and the rest, as they say, is history.

I only go to a couple conferences a year, mostly to see my pals, network with other writers, meet fans, and sign at the book signings.

Unknown said...

I think you blogged about this last year right after the RWA conference. And you'er right, a personal assistant--God knows, you'd get volunteers by the droves--to organize and smooth your way, would be nice. Anna Genoese said she'd have liked a piece of fruit.

What would I have liked? Cheaper food close at hand. :) said...

They do pay for your air fare and hotel room, right? I would think for the price of a conference, they should pay those things, and add a few perks like champagne and strawberries (or a nice bottle of wine) in your room, a gift bag of toiletries, or bag of things that would be handy to agents -- what would that be? Nice new notepads and pens? A page size magnifier for tired eyes? A clip-on book light for reading in bed? I think a really nice thank you gift is a bed tray with a place for stashing a book, newspapers, pens, etc. Or one for the bath (I've always wanted one of those, myself). And of course, some really good chocolate, just because!

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I, too, found BookEnds because of a panel discussion in which you participated, Jessica. I'd had my eye on three other agents who were there that day, but you blew me away. I loved meeting you afterward; you were smart, made great eye contact and were genuinely interested in the people to whom you spoke. I submitted, you passed my work to Kim, and now I can't wait to meet my new agent in Dallas!

And, a friend of mine met Kim recently at the PASIC conference and is raving about her good humor, her gorgeous smile, her savvy and her interest in authors. So, I'm glad you both enjoy attending conferences and THANK YOU for doing so!! With young families to consider, your donating weekends to more work is a heroic effort. If I were you, I think I'd find a nice spa...although someone would probably pass you a manuscript along with that cucumber facial, huh?

Gina Black said...

I like the opportunity to network informally. That's how I met you. :)

I need good coffee. I appreciate a good industry panel on what's happening now and what's selling now. I enjoy a good motivational speech at lunch.

I want to come home feeling recharged.

Laura K. Curtis said...

Hmmm...I'm pretty picky about the conferences I attend because my "real" job makes getting weekends off tough.

What I like:
Content, content, content.
I go to conferences to learn about the craft, the industry, etc. I don't go to get books signed. I like to have a book room where I can buy books (and meet authors who are there), but I've seen conferences where there are hours devoted to nothing but signing, which doesn't help me. As far as I'm concerned, the more panels the better.

Since I write mysteries, I also like to get the chance at conferences to meet people I would otherwise have a hard time digging up on my own. Luci Zahray, the poison lady, for example, or various small town and big city police officers from areas of the country other than my own.

And, of course, pitches and critiques. I know they're a drag for agents, but they're so useful for us. Jessica, you critiqued for me and I've honestly never had such a useful conversation about my work. So even though it probably drives you up a wall, it's really helpful to those of us trying to "figure it all out."

You said: "I would suspect that these people would have submitted to me anyway and I would have offered representation anyway." That is probably true from your perspective in that you like the work and it's a good fit for your agency, but meeting agents at a conference can make authors feel more confident, so it's possible that they might have been too reticent to send you their work without meeting you first.

Things that drive me up a wall:
Lack of organization
"ooops, I know you were supposed to see this editor at 2, but we scheduled him to be on a panel then."

The five minute pitch
OK, I know organizers want to give as many people as possible turns pitching, but the five minute pitch is ridiculous. By the time they get the person before you out of the seat and you've said hello and generally treated the agent or editor as if they're humans rather than automatons, you have approximately 45 seconds to pitch your book.

Lack of research into presenters
Research about the business side of writing is something I don't think people spend enough time on in general. In fact, I wish conferences would offer panels in how to go about researching people you might want to send your work to, etc, because so many authors don't seem to understand that all publishers, all agents, are not created equal. I know it's hard for organizers to get the cream of the crop sometimes, but I've seen...well...sharks at some of these conferences who make the Preditors and Editors list (though never the Absolute Write "20 Worst" list).

OK, that's my gripe.

Travis Erwin said...

Jessica you have attended our local confernce in Amarillo on two occasions and I thought you did a great job both times. I only hope you enjoyed your visit as much as we did having you.

As a writer living in Texas, what I crave the most is information becasue despite the easy access of internet I sometimes feel disconnected from the publishing world. Knowledge on how the business works, info on how to grab agetns and editors attention. What happnes next, effective ways to market both before and after a book is accepted.

I also think just the oppurtunity to meet and interact with agents and editors reminds authors that you guys are real people too, not evil minded dictators out to squelch our dreams.

Maria said...

I think we look for the same things that you do--we want to be treated well (I've attended two conferences as a writer where the organizers acted like they were doing us a huge favor just to allow us in the same room with agents.). We'd like chairs to sit in (same conference had people waiting for their appointments standing up in a hallway for up to half hour). There were a couple of "social" opportunties with no chairs also.

Yes, a piece of fruit and at least a table where water is available. Little things.

We too like panels to be organized. It's nice if we can send a question or two for panelists ahead of time. The organizers can send these on as one batch to the panel members (and they can review them or not if they want). But this gives agents some idea of what to expect. Even if they don't send the questions on, it helps if the MC then asks the questions rather than running around the room with a microphone...

I too attended conferences for the face-to-face. I too didn't hit it off with some agents that on paper, I loved. So that part of conferences is nice. Even if there is no opportunity for face-to-face, most agents to give a talk and that give people a chance to assess personality, etc.

The web, your blog and others like it really have made information more accessible. That has been the biggest help to me of all.

Laura K. Curtis said...

Travis --

You crack me up. On my blog, one of the things I posted that I learned at Sleuthfest last year was that agents and editors are people, too!