Chip MacGregor

December 22, 2014

Ask the Agent: What do I need to know to speak at a conference?


Someone wrote and said, “I’ve been asked to speak at a writing conference next year. What advice would you give to prospective conference teachers?”

Well, I’ve taught at a couple hundred writers’ conferences, and I’d probably say there are a few things to consider…

1. If you’ve only done something once, you may not be an expert. Wait until you’re experienced at your job before giving too much advice on it. My friend and fellow literary agent Steve Laube and I were at a conference once with a brand new agent. I’m sure she was a very bright girl, but her answers on the panel were awful — she was an amateur, and her responses in front of a group made her look that way. The difference between her replies and those of an experienced person like Steve were dramatic. Had she waited a year or so, in order to learn her new job, she’d have done much better. Maybe you don’t have to be in a hurry to teach. (This lesson isn’t just for agents — it’s for anyone working in an area of publishing that would be of interest to conferees.)

2. If somebody is already covering one topic, pick something else. Writing conferences have a tendency to repeat the same information, and much of it is aimed at entry-level writers. Take the time to consider some niche or alternative topics that might be of interest to that group. (Here’s an example: Most conferences these days need someone teaching a “creating an ebook” workshop. Every conference needs something on the changing face of publishing, career paths, and contracts, but few choose to cover those topics.)

3. Give participants the real deal. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there’s a lot of inspirational hopnoodle at conferences. Too much of the “let’s stand up and cheer” stuff, which gives people a short-term rush, but doesn’t provide them with tools they can take away and use. It’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of general sessions that come across more as pep rallies than reflections on the craft. When I teach my writing workshop, I have students actually WRITE stuff. When I teach my contracts workshop, I actually go through a contract. When I do my focusing exercises, people are taking the time to write their answers. You’ll find you quickly get popular with the conferees if you give them practical information. (And I’m sorry if this makes me sound like some sort of hero. I’m not. Others do this much better than I.) One example: a couple years ago, author & speaker Ellie Kay did a day-long training session at a writing conference on “how to do interviews on camera.” It was real, usable information, complete with video camera and rehearsal time, and I don’t know of anyone who didn’t come away thinking they got their money’s worth with her material. A couple years later, people are STILL talking about her seminar. That’s the real deal.

4. If you’re going to be teaching a group, make sure you’re prepared. I don’t know about you, but I HATE walking into a class and sensing that the teacher is winging it. I figure the participants are saying, “I paid money to come, this clown is getting paid to be here, and he couldn’t take the time to organize his notes?” I also hate walking into a class and seeing the teacher look like he just rolled out of bed. They gave him the schedule weeks ago — buy an alarm clock and figure out how to iron your shirt! Most of the conferees are beginners — they need a strong example.

5. Speaking of examples, I was at two conferences last year where somebody important cancelled at the last minute. Okay, I realize that things happen. Emergencies can arise. But I happen to know that in one of these instances, that wasn’t the case. The teacher was just busy and decided not to attend at the last minute, and I find that a lousy example. People have paid money to attend these conferences. Sometimes fairly big money. I realize that, on occasion, some of those people signed up because they wanted to meet folks like me, or at least introduce themselves, or maybe pitch me their idea. To cancel at the last minute, after my face has been in the ads, and after people have paid money to attend, seems unconscionable.

6. If you go as a teacher, take some time to talk to people. YOU are one of the reasons they chose to attend. Look, in reality, I’m not a big deal, and I always figure people are going to be disappointed when they finally meet me. But giving writers the  opportunity to meet a “real agent” or a “real editor” or a “published writer” is part of the reason people attend. So don’t try to skip out on actually talking to the newbies. Schedule one-on-ones. Sit and talk with people at your table. Don’t ignore the beginners — they’re paying the bills.

7. If you’re evaluating proposals, don’t tell everybody “send it to me.” Doing so officially qualifies you as a weenie. (Besides, your in-box is going to be swamped with bad proposals for weeks.) If you’re looking at proposals, find something good to say about each one, then give the writer a couple ideas for improving his or her craft. But if it’s not very good, be honest and tell them it’s not ready. If you know if doesn’t fit your organization, tell the author you won’t be publishing it. If it’s a bad or wacko idea, tell them you don’t think it is salable, or doesn’t reach a wide enough audience, or is only going to appeal to people on medication. But don’t give a bad writer the false hope of thinking that he or she is GOOD when they are not.

8. Learn to speak the truth in love. Yeah, I’ve been accused at times of being too blunt. And yes, I’ve had people start to cry because I didn’t like their book idea. I once snapped at a guy for trying to hand me his proposal while I was standing at a urinal. (Yes, that’s a true story. It was at a conference at Seattle Pacific University. And yes, I yelled at the guy. I should have just turned to talk to him…) But the goal at a conference is to help people WRITE better, not just help them FEEL better. Authors who work with me know I don’t have a mean streak — I’m not trying to hurt someone’s feelings by saying a manuscript isn’t ready, I’m trying to help them understand how tough it is to be good enough to get published. Part of my job is to help them improve as writers. We have a tendency to “nice” ourselves into accepting bad work at conferences. We see crap and call it creme brulee. But that’s lying. Learn to tell an author something isn’t great. Learn to share lessons with writers that will help them improve.

9. Go to some of the sessions. You might learn something. Even if you’re an expert. (And don’t misunderstand me… I rarely go to the big-group gatherings at a writing conference. Usually they’re at night, and I’ve been teaching and meeting people all day. I’m worn out, and I won’t be bringing any value to the big group meeting. But that’s me – you might love the general sessions.) Again, this doesn’t mean I can’t get something from some of the workshops. I always like to hear what other experts in the field are saying, and I try to make it to one or two workshops at every writing conference. At ACFW last year, I went to Cara Putnam’s workshop on contract language, and found it very insightful.

10. My friend Cecil Murphey likes to ask a good question of prospective conference teachers: “Why do you want to teach?” I was away from conferences for a while, thinking I’d said everything I really had to say, and, besides, people needed a break from me. Then a few years ago I did a bunch of conferences again, frankly because I needed to let everyone know that I had started my own agency. I wanted to get my name out there and remind people that I really do know what I’m doing, even if I got the axe from Time-Warner. But the fact is, I also find teaching at a conference a ton of fun. I enjoy speaking. A conference gives me an outlet where I’m helping people, not just pitching them. I love the mentoring side, talking to people who are just starting out. I can’t represent them all, but I can certainly take an hour to talk with them in a class, or 10 minutes to review their latest book idea. I probably won’t do very many in the next couple of years – once again, I’m feeling as though I’ve said all I have to say. But the past year or three have been a great time for connecting with newbies. You may find it helpful to think through your own motivation for wanting to teach at a conference.

If you’re a conference speaker, what advice would you share with prospective speakers? 

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  • Cameron Bane says:

    I’m late to the party (as usual), but I just wanted to echo everything Chip said. I taught fiction tracks for three years running at the old Glorieta Christian writers conference. It was a ton of fun, and I hope I brought some value to the attendees.

  • As a conference attender, I agree speakers should read this. When I pay for a conference, I’m paying to actually learn something. When I meet with an agent, I want truth. It’s how I grow, how I make sure I can be the best I can be. If I come away without anything changing my life, even just a little, I feel I’ve wasted money and time.

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