Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
This morning, at 9 a.m. Central Time in St. Louis, a ribbon-cutting ceremony opens the 2013 International Christian Retailing Show. All five Books & Such agents will be there. Which brings up the question: What do agents do at book conventions? How does it benefit their clients?
Before we plunge into my answers to those questions, let me say that I’m characterizing what an agent does at a book convention based on what we at Books & Such do. Some agents seem to meander through the show with fairly open schedules, picking up conversations as they see individuals from publishing houses lingering around the exhibit floor. That’s not how we operate, as you’ll see below.
What agents do
–A book convention is a once-in-a-year opportunity for agents to meet face-to-face with publishing folks. The meetings will consist of:
- an agent talking about high-profile projects to publishing executives and editors. While this introduces exciting new manuscripts to publishers, it also reminds a publisher that this agency can deliver significant goods. It’s sort of like creating a headline for a newspaper that results in enticing the reader into the whole paper. Our goal is to engage the publishing house about not just that headliner but also with projects from clients whose careers are in the building process.
- the publishing house representatives talking about new areas of emphasis, what they’re looking to buy, and a sense of how the publisher is doing. Not that any publishing executive is going to say, “We’re about to close the doors!” But when a vice president admits, “We can’t seem to make fiction work any more” and then shows little interest in nonfiction projects, an agent doesn’t walk away from that meeting with confidence the house is doing well.
- a discussion of industry-wide issues. Last year our agency presented a White Paper to publishers to discuss changes we felt publishing houses could make that would result in a healthier industry. This year we aren’t approaching these meetings with such a specific agenda, but we do have concerns that are bound to surface during the interplay.
All in all, we will meet with 33 publishing professionals in the three days at the convention. That translates to wall-t0-wall meetings. I’m a pretty merciless organizer of these meetings in that I don’t schedule time to move from meeting to meeting–or to take bathroom breaks. Fortunately for all of the agents, because there are five of us, we can do tag-team beginnings and endings to meetings. So if, say, Rachelle is engaged in a lively conversation about a project she’s presented, but we need to move on to the next meeting, everyone else will leave meeting A to head to meeting B (with some peeling off from the group as we pass a bathroom). Rachelle will join us at meeting B when she finishes up with meeting A. It makes for a tightly-packed day, but since we can have these meetings only once per year, the goal is to make the most of the time.
–We’ll attend social functions. This includes publishers’ events as well as award ceremonies. While that sounds like “let’s party time,” these social occasions give us a chance to chat with clients, other authors we know, and publishing personnel in a casual environment. I usually have a lineup of people I want to be sure to spend some time with. One vice president of marketing is always on my list. Talking to him is like downloading a layered report on what’s selling for his house and what isn’t–and why. It’s an important glimpse into the industry that I can then explore further by asking other publishing houses’ personnel, “So how are sales going for memoirs for you?” By the end of the convention, between these events and our meetings, I’ve gathered a strong sense of what’s happening in the industry.
The award ceremonies are also key because we generally have finalists at these events whom we want to support with our presence. We cheer them on and pout (just a teeny bit) if they don’t win. This year I have the honor of presenting, with agent Sara Fortenberry, all the finalists at the Christy Award ceremony. My being onstage is a subtle way to communicate the standing our agency has in the industry. It lifts our agency’s boat and thereby lifts our clients’ boats.
We also hold an agency event in which we invite all of our clients attending the convention to spend some time with us agents. Sometimes we’ll have a brunch and sometimes it will be a reception. We want to have some time from the otherwise hectic schedule to pause and connect.
–Walk the convention floor.
Since each publisher exhibits its new releases, we have a visual of what publishers are emphasizing and what we see little of. One year I noted that white and purple seemed requisite colors to put on book covers. Who knew!? I never would have observed that trend if I hadn’t walked the floor. (And realized I wanted to steer my clients’ upcoming covers from those colors.)We’ll also have a chance, as we peruse the booths, to chat with sales reps, marketing staff and the publisher himself. Asking them which books they’re most excited about or which ones they’re seeing the most interest in from bookstores adds to our collection of information. We’ll observe in what ways publishers are promoting our clients’ books. If we can’t find a title on display, that’s a bad sign; if immense banners announce a client’s title everyone sees from the escalators outside the exhibit floor, well, that’s worth a really big grin.
How our presence benefits our clients
We’ll leave St. Louis exhausted but exhilarated. As you can see from our schedule, every minute of each day is calculated to increase:
- our awareness of industry trends, which will inform the way we steer our clients’ writing and help us to determine what publishers to show each project to throughout the upcoming year.
- the agency’s relationships with publishing personnel. Sharing a meal or a meeting or a coffee break creates bonds that hold when meaty discussions have to occur in the next year. Nothing can beat being face-to-face.
- our agency’s standing in the industry. If our agency is viewed as one with a list of significant, interesting projects; as astute about the publishing trends; as fair but tough to work with, our reputation helps every one of our clients.
Since I’m likely to be bustling through our overstuffed schedule as you read this blog post, I won’t be able to participate in the discussion, but I do want to leave you with a question to get the conversation going.
What surprises you most about an agent’s schedule at a convention? Is there something you wish agents did more of?
What does a literary agent do at a book convention? Click to tweet.
One way a literary agent learns about publishing trends. Click to tweet.