You did the research. You found the perfect writing conference where you’ll be immersed in a community of people who are as obsessed about writing as you are. It’s a perfect blend of sessions on craft and the business side of publishing, but if you’re like me, you’re feeling excitement and just a bit of dread.
This week, I’m attending GrubStreet’s The Muse & The Marketplace in Boston. Now I’m no novice to the conference game, but this will be my first time meeting with agents to discuss excerpts of my novel manuscript. This can be daunting, so I’m sharing my top five tips for how you can prepare for and make the most of branding yourself at your upcoming writing conferences.
- Bring business cards. This may seem basic, but it’s essential. There’s nothing worse than networking with an agent or editor who asks you for a card and you have to give the lame excuse that you forgot to bring yours or they’re in your other bag that you forgot to bring. It’s your call on whether or not to include your photo on the card. Some may say you’re over-the-top and cheesy to have your picture there, but luckily I don’t care what some say. I’ve learned over the years that we meet so many people at networking events that a photo can be a good way to trigger someone’s memory about meeting you.
- Research agents and editors beforehand. Just as you’d personalize a query letter, you want to do the same when you meet face-to-face with industry insiders at the conference. There’s no need to research everyone. But if there are a handful of agents you’re targeting who will be there, read their website bios, check their Twitter feeds and look up articles or blogs they’ve written. This will give you a feel for their literary sensibilities and preferences for the kinds of projects they seek to represent. Then when you meet, you can demonstrate your knowledge, showing you’ve done your homework.
- Prepare to answer: “What’s your book about?” I guarantee at least five people will ask you that question. Other writers, authors, agents, and editors will express interest in the story you’re writing. The last thing you want to do is give them that wide-eyed blank stare and then run from the room screaming in terror. Prepare a succinct, elevator pitch version that summarizes your book. It should be as intriguing as back flap copy, but try not to sound robotically rehearsed. As counterintuitive as it seems, it takes some rehearsing to pull off that natural flow.
- Use the buddy system of networking. Okay, I have to admit I stole this one from my writing friend, Julie Dalton. She’s the one who invited me to attend the Muse for the first time. Her idea is brilliant. If you have a friend or member of your writing community who’s attending the same conference, share information about each other’s books: key themes, summaries, hooks, and more. Also, make sure you’ve read at least a few excerpts of your friend’s book so you have a sense of the story, tone, and style. Then when you’re together chatting with agents, promote your friend’s book! Sometimes it’s easier to be effusive in praise of someone else’s work. If your assessment of your friend’s book is genuine and specific, agents and editors may appreciate that third party endorsement.
- Hang for the after-hours schmoozing. I know. Your feet hurt. Your brain hurts. So does your throat from all that talking you did all day. You’re emotionally spent. You’re tired of selling yourself and talking about your book. Still, stay up for another hour or two for the industry cocktail parties, receptions and dinners. These are additional opportunities to meet other writers and industry professionals who can share valuable wisdom, ask you to submit pages of your book for review or introduce you to someone else. What you don’t want to do is leave that conference kicking yourself, wondering what magic may have happened if only you’d crawled out of the hotel bed to shake one more hand and tell one more person about your incredible book.
Nancy E. Johnson is a senior communications leader with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning journalism background. She contributed to O, the Oprah Magazine which published her personal essay in the November 2015 issue. Nancy serves as secretary for Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter and was a finalist in the Women’s Fiction Writers Association’s 2016 Rising Star Contest and one of the winners of Writer’s Digest’s “Dear Lucky Agent” contest. When she’s not reading, writing or pontificating about politics, she’s running and eating chocolate, sometimes at the same time. The Chicago native is writing her first novel.