Many people have asked us to tell them about our experience at the 2012 Writer’s Digest Conference. (WDC12) Here are a few observations and of course, the results of our trip.
First, keep in mind that there are different kinds of writer’s conferences. Some conferences focus on learning craft, others are geared more to the business aspect of writing, still others are geared for fans of writers or the hobbyist. Some conferences work hard to foster networking and relationship building and provide lots of opportunities for attendees to mingle with faculty, others don’t worry so much about that.
I’ve been to several different kinds of conferences geared to both the Christian and general market, and have found value in all of these experiences. Know what kind of conference you want, and what that conference offers so you aren’t disappointed.
A Conference For Professionals
This conference is meant for professionals, not beginning writers. I met more than a few people completely overwhelmed because they had just begun to start writing – which is OK if you knew what you were getting into. This conference was planned with the professional in mind, and focused a lot of the sessions on the business of writing, the career behind the writing. Loved that.
What became very clear was how much this industry is changing. Barry Eisler was a keynote speaker this weekend, and if you follow publishing news you might recognize his name because he recently turned down a 2.5million dollar two book deal from St. Martin’s Press to self-publish – and then accepted an offer from Amazon. He claims the book published electronically with Amazon has done better than any of his other books by a large margin. That’s astounding. I’ll be blogging more about that in the weeks ahead.
Writers come to this conference to pitch their work, and agents come expecting you to have something worth their time. Agents were not paid to come, they are there only to find new talent. It’s your chance to skip the cold query process that can last from 3-6 months, and the inevitable agency slush-pile jockey. It’s a chance to meet the person face-to-face, which is such a valuable opportunity in this digital age.
There are no meals really to socialize over. There are no editors or publishers, all the agents were from New York and just arrived for the 3hour Pitch Slam on Saturday afternoon and left again. Everyone is there to sell their book – get out of their way.
The Pitch Slam
You all want to know how the pitch slam works. As we waited in line for the doors to open, people clutched their pitch sheets, recited their pitches to themselves, forced the people around them to listen to their pitches. Not many people laughed or joked, and they defended their place in line with quiet ferocity. Many people dressed in business casual – others wore suits, a few came in jeans and t-shirts. The agents were all dressed in business casual.
The agents sat behind a table with one chair in front of them, and a small pile of much-coveted business cards at their elbow. You had 3 minutes to interest them enough to get their business card. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the goal – to get a business card. You’re not going to get signed in 3 minutes, no one’s going to jump out of the chair and declare, “I want to represent you.” It felt a bit like being lowered into a shark tank – only our intent was to look interesting enough to get snagged by a shark or two out of the hundreds swimming (or floundering) around us.
Generally the agents were intent, focused, and very business-like. They weren’t interested in small talk or chit chat – just your pitch.
Chuck Sambuchino gave a fabulous run-down of how to master the 3minute pitch. It’s different than writing a query letter, there’s just not enough time. You have to boil down your whole novel to a 90 second pitch, 3-10 sentences. It’s like Survivor Elevator Pitch. Marcy will be blogging about this process next week.
Line-ups became very long very fast. Even though we had 3 hours, I was only able to speak with 5 agents, Marcy reached 6. You can estimate how long the line is – 10 people in front of you that’s a 30 minute wait. It adds up fast. I waited in line for more than an hour for just one agent (and yes – she liked us. She asked for a full manuscript.)
Bring a notebook and a pen in case the agent has run out of cards, and to write down what the agent has asked for. We were asked for material from 7 agents, and every one asked for something slightly different.
I was very thankful for my iPod. Playing Bejeweled Blitz while waiting in line helped calm my nerves – my scores were embarrassing though.
How to Prepare
We read every agent’s bio weeks ahead of time and continued to check the website right up until the day before the conference to select those agents who were interested in acquiring our genre – this was a rather broad list. We stalked each agent on social media – what kind of person were they – was this someone we could see ourselves working with? We looked up their recent deals on publisher’s weekly, and checked the absolutewrite watercooler site to see what other writers said about them. This further cut down our list. Then we took that list and prioritized them, and there were a few last-minute cancellations. We found some of the bios were a little outdated, vague, or conflicted with what their agency website said so we had a couple of agents tell us they don’t represent what we were writing which was disappointing.
What Surprised Us
Not one agent asked us about prior writing experience or publishing credits. There wasn’t time. The questions from the agents who were interested were more intense than we’d expected. We were asked about character arcs, the history behind the story, what aspects were fantasy, how we started working together, is there a mythological tie. I was surprised by how tiring the whole experience was. All we wanted to do afterwards was leave the hotel for a bit and not talk about our book at all – just revel in our success for an evening.
The majority of the people we spoke to only received one business card. I saw at least 3 people out in the hallway crying afterwards, and they didn’t look like happy tears. Marcy spoke with one lady who got requests from all 5 agents she spoke with. Results seemed to vary. We split up to pitch twice as many agents. So, we spoke with 11 agents, and got requests for more material from 7 of them. We are very pleased with this result.
We micro-blogged our way through the conference on the GWP Facebook page. If you missed it, it’s easy enough to scroll down the wall on the page and see all the updates from the sessions. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more of the information we gleaned from the sessions and the experience in general. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, leave it in the comments.
Are you planning to go to any conferences this year? What investments are you making in your writing career?