Shhh! It’s a Conference Secret

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

It’s conference season and I’ve decided to share one of the best-kept conference secrets.

Here’s the secret: An appointment with an editor or agent is not the best way to connect.

Every time I go to a conference attendees are frantic to get on the appointment schedule. I wish I could convince them it’s not the best way to make an impression. Picture this: you finally get that longed-for appointment with your number one choice agent. Fifteen whole minutes after lunch. You stress about it from the time you get up in the morning. What to wear. What to bring. How to pitch. You go over your elevator pitch at least a dozen times.

You get to the appointment fifteen minutes early. The agent seems to be running late with the appointment ahead of you. Twenty of the worst minutes of your life pass and finally the agent smiles and signals for you to join her.

Just as you get settled someone else sidles up and turns to you, “Please excuse me I just have one thing to ask her and I’ll get out of your way.” Five minutes later the agent finally stands up to usher the clueless interloper away. The next two minutes she apologizes to you and asks if you can hold the fort for just a moment while she makes a quick pit stop.

She comes back and you have exactly one minute left. The next conferee slated to meet with this agent  is already seated nearby, looking at his watch.

She says, “Don’t worry about the time. My fault,” and she leaves to explain to the next appointment that she’s running late.

Finally. You are sitting across from her and you go into your spiel. “Picture a deep cavern. Twenty people caught in the—”

She puts her hand on your arm. “Let’s back up. Let’s introduce ourselves first.”

You sputter your name, wondering if barfing on the table would make you memorable. Could this be going any worse?

“And you are writing fiction? Nonfiction?”

See what I mean? Could any setting be less likely to show you at your best?

So then, what’s the secret?

The best way to connect at a conference is in a relaxed, natural setting. One of the reasons I love the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference is that we have ten meals with conferees– eight to a table. And that doesn’t count breakfasts. I get to meet with seventy different conferees in a convivial, relaxed setting. We table hosts make it a point to go around the table and get to know each person and gain an insight into who they are and what they are writing. Here’s where I tend to hand out my business cards with an invitation to submit.

Here are a few reasons why this is my preferred setting:

  • I get to meet the person in context. I see how they connect with others. I see them laugh and joke and encourage new writers. They are not thinking about pitching me but when they tell the table about their project and fellow conferees ask questions, I get a much fuller picture than I could ever get after doing a dozen-plus fifteen-minute appointments in a row.
  • Often a conferee will sit with a friend. They humbly begin telling us about themselves and the friend breaks in to say the wonderful things the conferee would never say himself. I get a much fuller picture.
  • The potential client gets to ask me questions and see how I react to others around me. Here’s another secret: this is a two-way street. Over a meal I can also be evaluated. The conferee gets to observe the “normal” me. Is this someone you could trust with your career?
  • I delight in seeing where God is already at work. I almost never fail to witness what will be lifelong connections between writers at my table. Watching this happening is humbling and a sign of great things to come.
  • And, besides meals, faculty members are sometimes just sitting around a fire pit or on a bench. Consider this an open invitation to sit down and have a word with them. If they wanted to be alone they’d be holed up in their rooms.

Remember something I’ve said often– it’s no secret– it will probably take more than one meeting to sign on the dotted line. Talk to any of my clients about how our partnership came about. I think you’ll be surprised.

So now, it’s your turn to share about appointments vs. informal meetings. Tell us your stories.

37 Responses

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  1. My husband calls them “divine appointments.” That’s because God sets them up. They aren’t a product of my organizational skills.
    * I’m amazed how God uses social media, which I both love and hate, to accomplish his purposes. I’m delighted by the list of friends, as yet unseen, I found right here. Divine appointments, indeed.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this information. This will be the first year that I meet and reach out to potential agents and your post takes a little bit of the weight off. I wish I could make it to Mt. Hermon this year but it is one conference a year for me and as an East Coaster, it will be the ACFW conference. Although I don’t have stories about meeting agents, I do have stories of meeting and making lifelong friends. My first conference was a little one, the Kentucky Christian Writer’s Conference and I was just going to learn how to be a better writer with no personal goal or desire to seek publishing. I met Ralene Burke there who was an instrument in getting me to join ACFW and see God’s push to seek something I hadn’t imagined ever really doing. Because of Ralene, I met many people online and eventually in person at the national conference that have become my absolute best friends, not just in a writing context but in a real and spiritual context. We pray for each other, share about our families, make trips to visit each other if the opportunity arises, and even send Christmas cards. I prayed for nearly twenty years for Christian friends, and even though I went to church, I didn’t find those until God opened the door to the writing world. Even if I never publish, the blessings poured upon me through those two conferences has changed me forever.

    Thank you for being a light to God in the publishing world and sharing your insight with those of us hungry, searching, and a bit scared of this process. I hope I one day get to make it to Mount Hermon and meet you in person.

    To others, go to conferences not with the focus of “getting an agent/editor” but of meeting, encouraging, and creating friendships with other writers. You never know if God may bless you with the greatest gift of all – lifelong friends who go beyond the superficial.

  3. I’ve always wanted to go to the Mt Hermon conference. I’ve heard it’s a more relaxed setting than ACFW (as much as I enjoy ACFW). The way you describe the more organic way professionals and writers get to interact sounds just about perfect to me. 🙂

    I’ve been fortunate in the appointments to not be interrupted, but a couple of times the editor/agent has run a little late. It does add stress to the person waiting to meet with them. Informal meetings are fun when you run into an agent/editor and have the opportunity to just talk. After ACFW a couple of years ago, I was at the airport waiting to go home. An agent I’d pitched to came, sat down, and we chatted about life and careers until we each had to head to our gates. That was a fun, unexpected way to end my conference. 🙂

  4. Informal is best; to truly learn a man one must listen carefully to the words he never speaks.

  5. Jane daly says:

    Such a great article. Susy Flory and I were talking about this very thing last night. I loved meeting you at OCW over lunch. I respect you so much!

  6. Wendy, thanks for letting us in on this important secret. Here’s something else I wonder about appointments: I’ve read/heard that some agents will ask authors to send chapters after the conference because it’s hard to disappoint someone face-to-face. That would make me wonder if a request for materials is legitimate or an act of kindness. 🙂 I love the idea of agents eating dinner with writers at Mount Hermon. However, I’m not sure I could actually eat. I would feel like a teenager on a first date. 🙂 But the appointment setting you described would be frustrating, so I guess I’d have to put my big girl panties on and enjoy dinner. 🙂 (Can I say that here?) 🙂

  7. I’m so excited for the opportunity to attend Mount Hermon this year. It’s such a gift. I’ve heard good things about it through y’all for years now. 🙂

  8. Wendy, great post and good advice. I actually met my agent at a conference years before we teamed up. I eventually gained representation from her as a result of her blog. I met lots of folks at conferences, connections that served me well in subsequent years, but I don’t think I ever got the attention of an editor or agent through one of those 15 minute appointments. Relax, folks. God’s got this. Don’t stress out.

  9. Oh, one PS. Just because I said don’t stress doesn’t mean we need not be ready to present our elevator pitch when asked for it. The first time I was presented this situation was at the toaster at a Mt. Hermon breakfast when a wonderful editor asked as we waited for our bread to brown, “Tell me about your work.” I stuttered and stammered, and made a vow to be ready the next time.

  10. Carol Ashby says:

    At the Colorado Christian Writers Conference at the YMCA camp in Estes Park, I ran into an agent who was on my schedule in the breakfast line at the cafeteria. We both like to eat early and got into line just after it opened, so it was just the two of us at breakfast. We had a good discussion of whether my career goals were better matched to traditional or indie publishing. (He confirmed indie for anyone wanting to keep rights to support missions.) I was then able to release my appointment time with him so someone else could have it.
    *He was a delight to chat with about life in general. I find it’s a good thing to arrive alone at the cafeteria, even if you link up with someone you know after you get there. If you’re already with your group, you might miss out on the chance for a great conversation with someone you never met before. But this assumes you’re willing to start chatting with a stranger as you wait in the line. I found I usually had to start the conversation, probably because I’m a natural extrovert among writer introverts.

  11. Ah, those fifteen minutes appointments. At ACFW last year, I nearly gave my pitch with a British accent because my nerves wouldn’t allow me to practice any other way! I much prefer a casual setting with the focus on people and relationships.

  12. I learned this the first conference I went to. The one-on-ones really weren’t ideal, nor a connection. I was just one of a sea of authors to the agent. I could see the blank stare across the table as I sat down. And even thought I got requests, nothing every came of it. Again, I was just one of a sea of query request. So, my next conference I went to just learn and observe. No agenda to “sell’ my book. As I was drinking a glass of wine a woman walked up to me and we began chatting. About wine, family, stuff. She then asked, “So, what are you writing about?” I stumbled, “What, right now?” And then threw out my “ideas” I was working on for my current manuscript. Nothing planned. No elevator speech. No perfect pitch. Just an adulterated passion about my work. The woman said, “Sounds fascinating, I’d like to see that when you’re done.” The woman was a big editor for a major publishing house. Unfortunately, she had since left the publishing house before I finished the novel. I wish I could give people a grander ending. But to your point…the most unexpected happens when just relaxing, talking, sharing, and finding a real connection. Great blog today!

  13. You couldn’t be more right, Wendy. I’ve been blessed to be a client of both you and Mary, and I never pitched to either of you! The same goes with the two acquiring editors who contracted me. I never pitched to either of them, either. The relationships I have enjoyed with all of you came from networking, referrals, and real-life experiences where we were able to get to know one another. As writers, I think we put too much stock in those fifteen minute appointments. I’ve learned that they are just one touch point. There are many other ways to get to know agents and editors, and you’ve pointed out several.

    • Patrice Doten says:

      That’s so encouraging, Gabe! I’ve always been a connector and much prefer to collaborate with a network of people I’ve had an opportunity to interact with and observe interacting with others. I’ve met agents and editors at conferences who sounded great on paper, but I’d have been unhappy working with.

  14. Mary Kay Moody says:

    What a gift and joy to read this, Wendy. When we start writing (CBA), we’re told the process: get an agent in order to submit to publishing houses. And the best way to get an agent: go to conferences and make appointments. Like many here, I’ve found the 15-minute appointments educational, and I enjoy meeting various industry professionals. But the limitations ~ you’re so right. One editor over-slept and arrived with 1 minute remaining. While I’m much like Karen in that eating meals together can also be a nervous time, it has the benefit of meeting others and learning about their projects too. I like that about Mt. Hermon. Would sure like to be there this year, but must wait for another time. Hope you have a great conference.

  15. Penelope Childers says:

    This is timely advice. Thank you for sharing it. See you at Mount Hermon😊

  16. A terrific writing assignment came about because my husband and a magazine editor were chatting at breakfast (at Mount Hermon) about their mutual love for long distance running (which is in no way MY thing at all.) That led to “What does your wife write,” and the rest is history. We serve a very creative Lord. I think he uses the unexpected to remind us once again that we are never in control of the plan.

    • Judy Morrow says:

      Love this story, Brenda! I’ve seen things like that happen time and again when at the Mount Hermon conference–just one of the many reasons I keep returning! Will you be there next week, I hope?

  17. The conference I’m used to, did round table pitches. Five or Six writers each get five minutes to pitch the agent or editor. That was fast and crazy. The 15 minute pitches seemed luxuriant in comparison. But yeah, still stressful. I’ve stumbled through a few of them, but they are such good practice that I keep doing them. I do love meeting people at the meals though. That is such a great time to connect.

  18. Patrice says:

    Thank you for this affirming post! I’ve always passed on conference appointments (I knew my work wasn’t ready and don’t want to pitch until it is). For an upcoming summer conference, however, I’ve decided to avail myself of the appointment included with my registration. I plan to tell the editor up-front I’m practicing and want her honest feedback about both the project and the pitch. Because it flies in the face of standard industry advice, I’ve doubted the wisdom of this course of action. Your timely post eases my mind. 😊

  19. Wendy is spot on here. I love Mount Herman for all the reasons she states. I call it church camp for writers because of its more laid back atmosphere and emphasis on worship. It’s also where I met Wendy and got to know her, first as a fellow writer and then as my agent when this editor dude told us we should work together. Thank you, Chip McGregor, for matchmaking! 🙂

  20. Wendy, I’ve wondered if it’s wrong to sit at the tables of people I consider personal friends (like you) just because I like them when that space could be used by someone wanting to pitch a book or project. Is doing it only once okay? What do you think?

  21. William Cowie says:

    Do you ever have authors pitching secular books in that setting?

  22. Joy K Massenburge says:

    Confirmation! I’d decided not to pitch at conference this year but to relax and experience it. With friends, mentors, and teacher. So excited for conference 2018!

  23. Lara Hosselton says:

    I found this post comforting, like a good friend just gave me great inside info. Thank you, Wendy!

  24. That sounds like every appointment I’ve ever had at a conference. I love that hosted meals are offered at Mount Hermon, Oregon Christian Writers, and a few other conferences. Whenever an aspiring writer asks me about writing conferences, I encourage them to look for that feature because not all offer it. At mealtime, I’ve gotten to know a lot of editors and agents that I never would have requested a formal appointment with.

  25. Wendy, thank you for this terrific post! I was nodding my head during it, I’m sure, because your points rang so true. Some of my best connections at Mount Hermon have come from wanting to get to know someone. An editor I met six years ago talked with me about our mutual love of children’s books, while in the snack shop one night and at one meal. She had me send her some projects then, but changes were going on in the company, so things fell by the wayside. Just weeks ago, she contacted me on Facebook because her position had changed, and she asked me to send her my picture books. She wrote, “I can’t promise anything will come of it, but I can promise I will give it my attention!” (As an aside, she also wrote that she enjoyed my Facebook updates.) 🙂

    One more story from Mount Hermon: I became friends with an editor who encouraged me to mail her my small gift books (published by another house). She especially loved one of them, and her company published four more gift books of mine focused on that same theme. So fun!

    See why I appreciated this post? 🙂 It so resonated! See you soon!

  26. We hold our agent meetings in the morning for the WriteAngles Conference at Mount Holyoke. That’s because we have an agent panel in the afternoon where they talk about submissions, what they are looking for, etc. Ours are somewhere in the middle of the chaos you describe and Mount Hermon (my goal is to go one day): all meetings are in a separate room and a member of our committee is time keeper, so she–not the agent–ushers people in and keeps things moving along.

    I’ve enjoyed the meetings I’ve had, but no success yet. Last year I met with a small press person instead. I’m still looking for an agent and continue to pray on it. If it’s in God’s plan, it will happen.