Writing Conference Success: Agents and Editors—The People You’ll Meet

Mary AndonianBy Mary Andonian

I got lucky at my first writers’ conference when I gave my business card to the president of the writers’ association. I told her that in a former life I was a training and development professional, and I would be happy to assist with their conference program. She thanked me and we parted ways. Two months later she phoned, asking me to interview for a conference committee position. The rest is history. Seneca said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Let’s prepare for your first conference by profiling a few of the players. I’ll start with the biggies:

Literary Agents
Literary Agents attend conferences to find talented writers like you. Their job is to represent your work to publishing companies who buy what you write. Agents are like matchmakers: They find your publishing soul mate. Once discovered, the agent will negotiate on your behalf to make sure your new partner doesn’t take advantage of you. (Just like a new relationship, you might be too smitten to think objectively.) The best agents are affiliated with The Association of Authors’ Representatives, or at least adhere to their canon of ethics. Typically, conferences invite agents based on their past book sales, reputation, willingness to work with new writers, and contribution to the writing community at-large. Conferences will also try to find a good mix of fiction, non-fiction, and children/YA agents. Your job is to find the agents who sell what you write.

Depending on where you are in the publishing process, you might work with any number of editors: acquisitions editor, copy editor, or line editor, to name a few. You’ll most likely meet an Acquisitions Editor at a writers’ conference. They seek out viable manuscripts for publication on behalf of their company. Most large publishing houses will not accept unagented submissions, so it’s a coup when you can pitch directly to these people at a conference. If they like what you pitch, you can always secure an agent later to help you negotiate a contract. Your job is to find the editor who represents the imprint that publishes what you write.
An imprint usually groups books by genre or writing style. For example, Riverhead is an imprint of Penguin/Putnam. Its website states: Riverhead’s goal is to publish quality books in hardcover and then in trade paperback—both fiction and non-fiction, including significant religious and spiritual titles—that would open readers up to new ideas and points of view. Look at the imprint’s booklist and try to imagine your book alongside them. Does it fit? If so, pitch to this editor.

This Month’s Action Steps
To learn more about an agent or editor beyond what is written in the conference brochure, check out their Web site, Google their name and find them in Writers Market and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. These reference guides can be found at your local library.

What NOT To Do
Don’t pass up an opportunity to pitch to a small/boutique agency. They may be smaller, but they’ll usually give you more attention. Don’t accept an agent’s offer to read your work for a fee. This is a no-no. Don’t confuse an agent’s reading fees with copying and postage expenses. The latter is considered a legitimate business practice, although I personally don’t like it. (Hey, I don’t charge my business expenses to somebody else, why should they?)

Fair Warning
Be a teeny bit leery of Editors-at-Large. Although they independently acquire manuscripts on behalf of publishing houses, they supplement their income by selling their editorial services. More often than not, they’ll try to sell you their editorial services instead of taking your work to publishers. Purchasing editorial services is a good idea in general, but if you’re going to spend money to pitch to someone at a conference, be the seller—not the buyer—in that transaction.

Mary Andonian is the agents and editors coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference—one of the largest writers’ conferences in the United States. In past years, she was Co-chair and Program Coordinator. She just completed her second book, Bitsy’s Labyrinth. You can reach her at (maryandonianwwconferencATyahoo.com).


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