Chip MacGregor

April 19, 2016

Ask the Agent: How do I prepare for a writing conference?


We’re doing a month of “Ask the Agent” here on the blog — your chance to ask that question you’ve always wanted to discuss with a literary agent. Last week someone asked, “If I go to a conference and get to meet with an agent or editor, what’s the best way to prepare?”

1. Do some research before you sign up. If you write westerns, for example, you don’t want to meet with an editor who is going to open with the words, “Um… we don’t do westerns.” Spend a few moments online, trying to find the agents and editors who might be a match for your writing.

2. Think carefully about your expectations before you sit down to the meeting. If you’re expecting an editor is going to hear your idea and announce, “You’re the most brilliant writer since Tom Pynchon! Sign this contract immediately!” then you may be setting the bar too high.

3. Remember that it’s perfectly all right to have a meeting and just ask the editor/agent, “What do you think of my idea?” or “What suggestions do you have for me improving my work?” A face-to-face meeting isn’t just to find an agent or get a publishing deal. I never mind having people set up appointments just to talk through ideas, explore career stuff, lay down a bet, etc.

4. If you’re hoping to get an editor to pay serious attention to your novel, make sure what you show them is 100% done. Most of the things we reject just aren’t ready to be shown yet — the author has brought in something that’s 80% done, or maybe 50% done… but it’s not 100% ready. If you bring in something to show to an agent and you want to discuss representation, it should be so strong that I have no reason to turn it down. (If you’re just coming to discuss it, then you can ignore this advice.)

5. Don’t insist I take your proposal, your manuscript, your speaker’s packet, or even your business card. The last thing most agents and editors need is a giant stack of dead trees to carry home with them. I travel light — if I want your proposal, I’ll ask you to email it to me later.

6. Don’t burst into tears if I decline the opportunity to represent your proposal. There are a million reasons I could be declining — maybe I represent an author who is writing something similar, or it’s a genre I’m currently overloaded with, or it’s a project I feel would be best served by someone else, or… who knows? There are lots of reasons for my rejecting something. That doesn’t mean your work does not have value. Just smile, say thanks, move on… and later you can tell everyone what a mindless jerk I am. They’ll probably feel sorry for you and offer to buy you a glass of wine.

7. Don’t be so pushy that you creep me out. A little enthusiasm is a good thing. Being a stalker isn’t. Chatting me up in the lobby is a good thing. Cornering me with endless stories of how fabulous you are and how many copies we’re going to sell just gets old. Asking me if I want to read more of your work is fine. Handing your proposal to me while I’m standing at the urinal might be a bit over the top. (This happened to be at the Pacific Northwest conference two years ago. No, I’m not kidding. I yelled at the guy. I wish I had turned and yelled at the guy, if you get my meaning.)

8. If you’re going to the conference and shopping for an agent, think carefully about the questions you want to ask. Again, it’s probably a bit much to expect an agent will agree to sign you after a 15-minute appointment.We all do business with people we like and trust — people we’re comfortable with. View your 15-minute appointment as an introduction — YOU are evaluating THE AGENT, it’s not just the agent evaluating you. If the two of you hit it off, you’ll both find another chance to sit and talk somewhere and get to know each other better. Take some of the pressure off yourself by having realistic expectations.

9. I’ve posted on my blog a couple times some potential questions you could ask agents, but certainly some basic ones (Who do you represent? Which publishers have you done deals with in the past six months? How many deals have you done? What are your strengths as an agent?) could be asked if the time was right and you both seemed interested in the relationship.

10. Presentation matters. Being able to talk about your basic idea in a very few words is nice. Being able to offer a couple quick notes on your platform (if you have one) can also be helpful. In my view, if you want me to evaluate your writing, you really ought to have a few pages of writing for me to look at (though, to be fair, some agents hate having anyone bring them sample chapters, so opinions on this vary). My point is that if you look nice, act relatively normal, and come prepared, you’ll leave a good impression. If you look sloppy, you lay papers and crap all over my table, and clearly haven’t thought about what you’re going to say, you won’t leave such a good impression.

Does that help?

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  • Angel Moore says:

    I’m preparing for ACFW this year and told an author friend I wanted to know the answers to the types of questions you posted here. I was warned that to ask those things might offend a good agent. Thanks for answering this for me. I’m reading all the posts this month and am very grateful for the information.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Um… i don’t know what agent would be offended at being asked who they represent, or what publishers they’d done deals with, or how many book deals they’d done, Angel. Maybe a doofus agent who had something to hide, I guess. But no, those are all very fair questions to ask, in my opinion.

  • Angela K Couch says:

    Yes, it does. 🙂 I am registered for ACFW conference, so I am busy preparing myself for the opportunity…and preparing my manuscript so it will be “100% ready”. I really appreciate your advice, including what to ask agents. I couple years ago I probably would have been happy for any agent to sign me, but I am growing beyond that idea. I look forward to your workshop in August to expand my understanding even further.

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