Thursday, October 04, 2007

Pre-conference planning, Three Things to Do

(1) Get the conference brochure and study it. Figure out the short list of who you want to meet at that thing, and more important, why. Get copies of their publishing catalogs ahead of time and study them, finding out what individual editors have done. It's one thing to say that you'd like to meet the biggest editor in your field. It is quite another to stand there in real life and think quickly why this person should speak to you. Coming up with the why is the most challenging part of all of this. HINT: A really good why will have to do with that individual, not you. As a well-known career coach recently said when counseling a job seeker before a meeting, "Remember, it's all about them!" Can you pre-arrange a speaking invitation at your campus? Did you learn enough about the books on their lists to congratulate them on specific awards, or to ask on-target questions about why that editor's recent bestseller did so well? Does your research dovetail with their publishing interests to the point where a post-conference follow-up (initiated by you) would be genuinely beneficial to the editor? If you are interested in publishing a book similar to others on their lists, can you think of a way to express it that sounds flattering rather than competitive?

(2) Once you have a list of these people, a collection of their catalogs (at least three per publisher), and a smart set of whys, think about how you can meet without trying to corner a poor editor on an elevator. One easy and time-tested method is to send a pre-conference note asking for a meetup in the bar either for coffee or a drink (on you, of course). Depending on the star wattage of the person you're trying to contact and the importance to that person of what you have to say, this could be quite successful. Oddly, some of the biggest names are the most approachable simply because everybody assumes they're booked. If the person claims to be too busy, it's probably true, but if you query enough target editors, you should have at least two or three meetings lined up, perhaps more.

(3) Understand the powerful problem of shyness and conferences. Even the most outgoing professionals can feel awkward at conferences. There's just something about all that mingling and all those strangers . . . sometimes really warm people seem cold, rushed, and even snobbish. Many quiet people get unfairly categorized as aloof or arrogant anyway, and conferences only make it worse, so don't assume there's an attitude problem if someone acts distant. Instead, go to the conference with simple ice breaker techniques that will get people talking. My favorite one went over fabulously at a particularly dull conference where a panel offered mis-information about book publishing. I photocopied a simple handout with a skull and crossbones that said something to the effect of "We renegades will hoist the pirate flag and hold our own mini-conference in the bar. Meet us next to the fireplace, 5:30 p.m." I announced a topic (counterintuitive facts about scholarly book publishing), and said that the first round was on me, and arguments and contrarian opinions were welcome. Then I gave it to several dozen people who looked powerful and/or interesting. Eleven people came, and we had a wonderful time together. One of them was a major publisher at the conference! Person after person thanked me for offering that oasis in the lonely desert.

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