I've just read this fantastic blog by agent Susan Hawk on how to get the most out of a conference, and with the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference creeping ever closer, I have been thinking a lot about my first ever conference experience. It was last year, in fact, and it was nothing short of terrifying.
So there was endless support and pats on the back and easy chatter about books and writing.
A packed room! (Photo by Candy Gourlay)
And then there were the authors, agents and editors.
Goodness me, how nervous I was.
That guy over there - I've idolised his books for years. Should I go over and say hi? Nah, he's probably talking to somebody important.
Oh, and that editor standing by the bar - she edited my favourite book from last year. I wonder if it'd be worth introducing myself? Nope - she's probably got a whole list of people to talk to who aren't going to pitch at her all night.
As for that agent - don't even think about it. Even if she does represent a couple of authors who write similar books to you. She will not want to be bothered by somebody pitching at her until she feels the need to down four glasses of the good stuff.
It was only when a good friend essentially shoved me in front of an agent (who, not wanting to gaze too long in the direction of her name badge, I mistook for an author of the same name) that I dared talk to anybody I didn't already know. We spoke for a few minutes, and then she said the six words that automatically make you want to dance and curl up in a quivering ball on the floor:
So, tell me about your book.
Oh, God. Oh God oh God Oh God.
Now what am I supposed to do? Well, I suppose telling her about my book and not panicking would be a good start, wouldn't it?
So that's exactly what I did. And you know what? She was interested. She asked to see it when it was finished. And when she'd seen it, she told me that she really liked it. In this case it didn't go any further than that, but it what other way would I have found an agent to read my full manuscript so quickly? Having the ability to write "I met you at the SCBWI conference in November..." (or any other conference or event for that matter) at the top of your query letter is a fantastic thing to be able to do, and I have no idea if I'd have thought to submit to this particular agent if I hadn't met her.
Here are two things I learned at that conference:
1. Everyone's a fan-girl. Or a fan-boy. Every author at every conference expects to be approached by people, and they hope to hear that the person really likes their books. It's sort of part of the deal for authors. They like it. It's OK to approach them and tell them you're a fan.
2. Everyone's a writer. Agents and editors expect to be pitched at when they attend these events. It's why they go. They aren't there because they enjoy travelling for two hours on a cold train to be surrounded by strangers - they enjoy talking about books, and they're excited at the prospect of finding a new client.
Everyone's a fan-boy! Even authors themselves like Dave Cousins, here getting a book signed by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who looks giddy at the mere prospect!
So go to conferences. Make contacts. Pitch. Be nervous about it, but do it anyway. You never know what might happen...
Note: I don't want anyone to think that pitching is the only reason to got to a conference like the SCBWI one! It's a great learning experience, and a fantastic opportunity to figure out how the publishing industry works. Meeting agents and editors is just a lovely cherry on top!