Sunday, September 30, 2007

Pre-conference planning, Part Deux

The basics of pre-conference planning came to me one of the first few times I spoke at a conference. I greatly enjoyed meeting scholarly authors who were in various stages of book manuscript preparation. Afterward, however, attendees rushed up to me, forming lines and attempting to give me portions of their manuscripts to read and evaluate. This was especially interesting, as I am not a literary agent and I make that clear, but they didn't seem to mind. They just wanted help... desperately. I felt overwhelmed, ending up with an armload of submissions -- so many that one of the conference organizers kindly offered to take them out to my rental car during a break.

For the most part, the submissions were extremely professional. Authors usually gave me either an envelope or a folder with the usual stuff those how-to-write books tell you to provide: a cover letter, a writing sample, and a proposal of some sort, followed by that cursed self-addressed, stamped envelope that hasn't been necessary for almost two decades, but people usually enclose anyway (why the heck would anyone want a dog-eared pile of papers back?). Even though I prefer electronic submissions, I was touched that people would try so hard.

There were only two major problems with this scenario if you set aside the fact that I really did not want to lug home a pile of manuscripts from would-be authors, and I'm not an agent anyway (I do consult privately -- for money -- but that's not what they were asking). First, it was flattering, but simply too much. Everyone wanted a connection, and they wanted it now. People tried out their "elevator pitches" on me (and yes, even in the elevator), they gamely recited their matchbook-cover-sized synopses, and they sang and danced through all the moves those silly writers books tell you are smart things to do when you meet editors or agents in public places. It was ever so sweet, but impossible to navigate. I couldn't wait to get to the bar and sit quietly with a nice glass of wine, either alone or with someone who wasn't trying to sell me something. Second, 95% of these submissions were not right for me anyway. I haven't any guess what to do with a fantasy manuscript, for example, and ditto your mystery series. No notion. My area of professed expertise is nonfiction, period, and even then you have to have a substantial scholarly or professional background in a field related to the book in order for me to know what to do next.

So who were the winners? Of all the people who approached me, who made the strongest impressions? Whip out your parents' dog-eared, musty copies of Dale Carnegie, folks, because the answer will either surprise you or not, depending upon how closely you have attended to his timeless words. (If you haven't experienced his mid-20th-century widsom, do read How to Win Friends and Influence People forthwith!) The answer is simple: I responded best to people who showed friendly interest in me and my work, rather than insisting on talking about themselves and their books. I met with folks who wanted to hear more of what I had to say about publishing, and who were happy to buy me a glass of wine and offer an interested ear. The people who were the most memorable were the ones who took the time to understand what my philosophy is, what kind of books I can help with, and then where their efforts fit in. Out of the scores who approached me over two days, I can count the members of this worthy and interesting group on one hand. Some of them I continued to correspond with for months after the conference ended. To this day I would be happy to help any of them in any way I possibly can.

In the next conference post I'll write more about how you know who will be at these conferences, and how you can set up helpful opportunities to get to know them very well beyond a handshake and a hurried "Will you read my manuscript?" You'll be amazed how many publishing professionals would be delighted to know you -- and help you -- once you master the right conference approach.

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