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  • Why Literary Agents Attend Writers Conferences (It's Not What You Think)
Why Literary Agents Attend Writers Conferences (It's Not What You Think)
Written by
Karen Dionne
April 2013
Written by
Karen Dionne
April 2013

Every week literary agents receive hundreds of query letters from aspiring writers who are hoping to interest the agent in their project. Why then, would agents take time from their busy schedules to go to a writers conference and meet yet more writers in person?

As co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, I’ve been organizing the Backspace Writers Conferences held twice-annually in New York City for the past 9 years. Recently a writer who is considering attending Backspace’s newest offering, the Salt Cay Writers Retreat taking place this October on a private island in the Bahamas, wondered how we’re able to assemble such a high-level group of bestselling authors, editors, and agents for a week-long workshop. 

“Other than the locale and swimming with dolphins,” she asked, “what do you think the faculty members hope to get out of this retreat?” 

It’s a great question. I’ve worked with well over a hundred literary agents, so I asked a few of my favorites why they attend writers conferences. Their answers may surprise you.

Scott Hoffman (Founding Partner, Folio Literary Management):

Why do agents go to conferences? Three reasons: relationships, relationships and relationships.

First, it’s great for us to get the opportunity to spend time with editors and other agents in an informal setting. And if that happens to be at a conference in Miami in February rather than one taking place the same time of year in Minneapolis, all the better.

Second, although any given agent won’t necessarily sign even one client from any given conference, expanding one’s network is a critical part of success in this business. From a purely financial standpoint, I can tell you that if you include writers we’ve met at conferences and people they’ve introduced us to, we’ve been able to do at least eight figures’ worth of book deals.

Particularly for first-time authors, there’s no better way to get to an agent than at a conference. Authors love one-on-one meetings with agents, but we know where the best writers can be found: at the bar. You think Hemingway would have given an elevator pitch at a 7:30 A.M. meet-the-agents session?

Third, well, what better kind of people is there than book people? You know you’ve already got something in common, right? I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t meet lots of friends (and before I was married, a few significant others, too) at writers’ conferences. Oh, and talk about scoring an agent — I know at least one writer who’s now married to an agent he met at a writer’s conference!

When books are on the table, all things are possible.

Jason Allen Ashlock (President, Movable Type Management):

I have to believe there’s a kind of reciprocity in the publishing community, a bit of karma, I think: give to the writing community and the writing community will give to you. I’ve certainly signed writers I met at writers conferences, but it doesn’t happen often. It’s less about the straight line from conference to client and more about the idea that we all benefit from getting together to talk about what it means to live a writer’s life and what it means to be in publishing today.I think there’s a net benefit that trickles down to the community of agents and editors: when we all work hard to educate writers, they send us better work, better queries, become better equipped to understand the way we make decisions. I often say that everyone’s job in publishing is to make the next person’s job easier. Writers should make agents’ jobs easier, agents make editors’ jobs easier, editors make booksellers’ jobs easier, etc. By really involving yourself in the work of teaching writers both craft and industry knowledge, you build a smarter writing world, and that’s better for everybody.

Personally, I also like the opportunity to share my ideas on radical mediation and the new role of the agent in the digital publishing economy. Connecting with industry professionals gives me a chance to hone these ideas and to hear how others are handling their own transitions.

Stephany Evans (President, FinePrint Literary Management):

To be honest, I have numerous reasons for attending conferences…

1. Looking for talent – of course! While it can be an endurance event, I actually look forward to the one-on-one pitch sessions that some conferences have. Often an in-person pitch can be misleading and when your receive the requested materials there can be some disappointment, but I’ve also uncovered some gold nuggets. In one instance last year, a writer I’d passed on when she’d first submitted her novel “revisited” me during a pitch session and I got a second chance to work with her on her next book.

2. Getting to spend time with clients who live in different parts of the country — it’s nice to have that “in person” time, even if it’s just a few minutes.

3. Grabbing some (sometimes) more leisurely time with editors — either ones I’ve known for years or meeting new ones.

4. Keeping current at the “in the trenches” level. Learning about new ways authors are marketing their work, which I can sometimes pass along to my clients. There’s always a new twist — I try to keep eyes and ears open and see what I can learn.

5. Marketing the agency — or maybe being more of an “ambassador” for FinePrint. I think showing up and giving back (taking pitches, offering critiques, participating on panels, etc) puts a human face on who we are and what we can do for an author, as well as hopefully strengthening the industry as a whole, however incrementally.

6. Meeting new people, seeing new places. Many conferences have too little down-time to really check out a new place, but if I’m invited somewhere I haven’t been before I’ll sometimes see if I can take an extra day or two just to look around.

Katharine Sands (Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency)

Conferences are great for sourcing talent. We seek the holy grail: the publishable writer. Writers I have signed at conferences are often unexpected in some way, and not what I might have chosen from a query letter. For example, an IRS expert and a dominatrix…neither was what I was on the lookout for, but both turned out to be marvelous writers!

It is great to debate and discuss topics, share intel with the other agents and editors, especially in their cups. And authors are on the circuit too. Conferences afford agents and writers the chance to hang with childhood heroes and author idols…But if author mystique is something you prize….you might not want to watch as the poet laureate is hitting on co-eds; or be there when your literary goddess starts dissing the industry.

Most of all, I love being in the trenches. I want to affirm a writer’s quest and creativity. To see the light come on in someone’s eyes is a thrill to anyone who loves teaching. Advice is a lovely thing to be able to offer.

The role of a literary agent at a writer’s conference is very empowering. People are so excited just to meet agents, and this keeps their dreams alive—the dream of the chance meeting that changes your life—as it can!

Suzie Townsend (New Leaf Literary & Media):

I go to conferences to interact with writers--and with people in the industry. Interacting with other agents and editors that I don't get to see that often is awesome. And of course, there is always the chance that I might find that amazing manuscript that I just have to represent. It certainly doesn't have often, but I've seen enough success stories to know that it could.

Jeff Kleinman (Founding Partner, Folio Literary Management):

Writers conferences can be fun and rewarding for all of the reasons that my colleagues have elucidated far more eloquently than I can. But these types of events sometimes leave the editor in me feeling a bit frustrated. Part of what motivates me as an agent is sinking my teeth into a manuscript — to really figure out what makes it tick, to live inside a character’s head — and, to some extent, inside the author’s head. Editing, plotting, determining what motivates the characters: all of these are my bread-and-butter and make the job of being a literary agent fun.(Don’t get me wrong — it’s also fun to sell those books and make the authors’ dreams come true, but sometimes that almost feels secondary to just helping work on a book that I’m proud to be affiliated with.)

I’m really excited about the Salt Cay Writers Retreat because of its focus on craft. Backspace has invited only Folio agents, and all of us Folio agents are supportive of each other and play well together in the sandbox (or sandy beach, I guess!), so there’s not even going to be competition among us agents (“Did you see Author X’s work? Are you going to try signing them? I’m going to!”, etc.).

It’s a chance to really allow agents, editors and published writers to focus on what is important in writing: writing. Not how to get published, not the eBook revolution, not marketing your work, not developing a platform. Writing. A week to dig into manuscripts, to share thoughts with some of the best editors and the most talented authors in the country in a gorgeous, inspiring environment. What agent wouldn’t want to go to a retreat like that?

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  • Nina Gaby

    I just attended the CNF conference in Oxford, Mississippi, and while I didn't get an agent, I did get to meet Julie Powers Schoerke, see her comment below, which was TOO MUCH FUN, and spoke very briefly with an agent who was on a panel, who gave me some fabulous advice and encouragement. What she shared with me will help in my dialoging with another agent that I'm already in contact with. One never really knows where any of these conversations will end up...

  • Thanks Karen for this insightful post. I especially like Jason Allen Ashlock's observation: "I often say that everyone’s job in publishing is to make the next person’s job easier. Writers should make agents’ jobs easier, agents make editors’ jobs easier, editors make booksellers’ jobs easier, etc. By really involving yourself in the work of teaching writers both craft and industry knowledge, you build a smarter writing world, and that’s better for everybody."

    Well said and so true. I've always found agents and editors approachable and fun to talk to at conferences. They get just as pumped up about talking shop as newbie writers do.

  • olga


    Great article. Thank you. OIga

  • Danyelle C. Overbo

    Thank you so much for putting this out there.  It is so important to learn as much as we can about these processes.  I wish I could bookmark this for future re-reading! 

  • Karen Dionne

    Thanks for reading, Alonna and Julie - I'm glad you enjoyed the article! It's funny, because in all my years of conference planning, I never thought to ask *why* agents and editors attend. Now we know!

  • Alonna Shaw Writing

    Karen, nice article! Jeff Kleinman's description of sinking his teeth into a manuscript... editing, plotting, char. motivation, etc. reflects back to "the days of Max Perkins" in my mind. (The spirit of MP keeps me motivated.) I love the journey craft makes possible. #aminspired

  • Great article and information!