I read the lovely Jo Wyton's blog about her first conference experience with interest, because her first conference was also my first conference! And we sat across from each other at dinner on the conference Friday night and talked about our virgin conference concerns. I remember her admitting she was nervous about talking to agents and editors (although you would never have guessed). I admitted that as a newer agent, I worried that no one would want to talk to me!
Of course we were both going to be fine, as by chatting to each other on that first night, we'd both tackled our fears and could go into the next day knowing at least one person.
My message from this is to remember that mostly everyone (writers/agents/editors) has travelled to the conference alone and is in the same boat. This is a great topic of conversation to start off even the most nervous person.
Also, remember that everyone has one other big thing in common - a love of books. And who doesn't like talking about their favourite books! Despite having met Jo and lots of other people on the first day, I still remember being a bit daunted walking into the Saturday night party as everyone was dressed up and unrecognisable. However, my default mode is to smile, and this is advice I would give to anyone at a conference - look approachable and people will approach you!
As I wandered over to the bar looking a little lost, a very nice lady asked me what I wanted to drink, secured it for me and then thanked me for coming to the conference. Immediately, I was put at ease, and we started chatting about my conference experience and other stuff that I can't remember. After half a glass of wine, I asked her what she wrote and she replied with the now famous line:
'Well, I'm working on a book about a zombie goldfish.'
My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish!
That nice lady was Mo O'Hara, author of My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish (coming from Macmillan in March 2013 and launched here), one of my first clients. Of course, the purpose of conferences isn't necessarily to pitch to agents or editors. They are a chance to mix with fellow writers, to make new critique partners and to meet face-to-face those writers you have connected with online.
That said, agents and editors are there to chat to writers, and for me personally, I'm happy for people to pitch. Unless I'm queuing for the bathroom, or rushing off to a panel, please see me as available to chat! Come and say hello, I'll ask how you are enjoying the conference, we'll discuss the keynote or panels and then I'll probably ask that question:
So what do you write? Make sure you do have an answer for this in case you do find yourself chatting to an agent! It's best to practice this response a few times before the conference and keep it to a paragraph or two maximum.
I actually met two clients at my first conference. Mo, as mentioned above, and also the very talented Julienne Durber, who I met while taking part in the group critiquing on the Friday night before the conference kicked off. I got to read the first chapter of Julienne's wonderful book, and was totally hooked, so requested more.
Meeting both Mo and Julienne in person meant that even before I got to read their full manuscripts, I knew they would be the sort of people I could spend more time with. Agenting is a long term relationship and it's so important for me that I get on with my clients on a personal level.
Obviously, my first conference was a great success because I met Mo and Julienne, but I also enjoyed meeting other members and becoming part of the SCBWI community, and when the people I met email me with submissions, I'm always able to have more of an informal conversation and give more than a form response.
In fact, when I get an email saying, 'Having talked to you at XYZ SCBWI event, I am submitting....' I will always try and get to this email quickly and I give some feedback.
So if you are coming to the conference, remember two things:
1. I expect you to be a writer, so don't mind if you pitch or ask my opinion on something publishing related. Equally, I love to hear about what books you are reading or what you thought about the panels.
2. Don't worry if you're nervous and can't pluck up the courage to talk to an agent. If you're not that sort of person, then you will stress yourself out every time there is potential for you to run into an agent/editor. Don't put pressure on yourself that you MUST pitch. Instead, use the opportunity of the conference to talk to other writers and learn from the fantastic panels and workshops.
The Bent Agency, and represents authors who write for children, from fiction 5+ to Young Adult. Before joining The Bent Agency, she worked as a literary agent at Bright Literary Agency, representing a wide range of authors and author/illustrators, from picture books to YA. Originally from London, she started her publishing career while living in NYC for three years. She has since moved back to the UK, and now works with both UK and US authors.
Slushpile note: Seeing as we're so nice here at the Slushpile, we'll add that Gemma is currently looking for books with a strong voice - she has a soft spot for funny fiction aimed at 7+ with series potential. She's also keen to see Middle Grade fiction with a good mystery and Young Adult fiction told from a boy's point of view. Author/illustrators writing Middle Grade or chapter books would get her immediate attention! You can find info on submissions here.