what acfw conference taught me {about literary agents}

Lit. agent panel featuring Karen Ball, Dan Balow, Tamela Hancock Murray, Chip MacGregor, and Nicole Resciniti (Photo by Betsy St. Amant)

I have yet to write a conference recap because I simply don’t know how to describe such a magical weekend. It gave me the chance to be around 600-plus people who *get* me.

Only, it’s a lot less fifteen-year-old-girl than that sounds.

So this is where I’m going to start, because I had really great experiences with the agents I met. Here’s what I learned about them and from them.

Agents are really, really informative. 

Many literary agents maintain blogs with helpful posts for pre-published authors and seasoned industry professionals alike. They range from author-agent etiquette, pitching pointers, industry trends, marketing tips, and more. You can learn a lot about the industry by keeping up with these blog posts and also get a sense about an agent’s strengths based on their content–all without ever stepping foot at a writers’ conference. I would have been a goner and looked (even more) like a total newb if I wouldn’t have had these valuable resources when prepping my pitching materials for conference.

Moral of the story: Read up!

But agents are real people.

With real feelings, real preferences, and real schedules. I went into conference like a sponge. My mind was filled with said blog posts, the kinds of authors these agents represent, and lists of work they were looking for. But it was strange seeing the proverbial men (and women) behind the curtain. The first night, they did a big agent panel with blind questions from the audience, and I loved seeing their different personalities. I made it a point to introduce myself to the agents I’d be pitching to in a no-pitch-zone manner to take the edge off. (It helped me SO much.)

Then after the panel, some of my friends and I ran into the founder of one of the biggest agencies in the business at the bottom of an escalator. I thanked him for giving his time, planning to move along, but he ended up asking us about our books. It turned into a substantial, thirty-minute conversation about his experiences from other conferences, the craziest pitches he’s ever heard, and various tidbits about the book industry in general. That he would take the time to chat meant the world to us and made us feel so much better going into our pitches.

So, what did I learn? Agents deserve genuine conversation and respect for their time. Even though agent appointments at conferences are essentially like speed dating and these professionals have the potential to hold so much of your future in their hands, they are real people who don’t deserve to be blindly accosted or info-dumped. I witnessed this happen to agents on multiple occasions–and I felt violated for them!

Moral of the story: Don’t go into an appointment or meeting without doing your research. Don’t be pushy. And don’t be a robot. Breathe.

Agents value boldness. And solid writing. 

Based on my personal experience and my friends’ experiences, the general consensus is that agents like you to stand out from others. They want you to be intelligent about your story and where it belongs in the industry. They want to see your passion and confidence in your work.

But they want that to translate to the page, too. Even if you nail your pitch and earn an agent’s invested conversation, they are ultimately concerned with the writing. That’s what will be most memorable for them. But on the bright side, if you somewhat flub your pitch but have a brilliant manuscript, there’s hope for you!

Moral of the story: Be bold, but professional. And definitely don’t be creepy. Make sure your writing is strong enough that it speaks for itself. 

An agent can look great on paper, but has to have passion for your project. 

Even if an agent has so much to offer, a great track record of sales, and a personality that really clicks with you, he or she has to be right for your project. The benefits and statistics may look great on paper, but unless that agent takes ownership and resonates with you and your work, it won’t be the ideal match.

Sometimes it’s really true that your work is fantastic, but just not the right fit for a particular agent. If you’re currently in that stage of your career and this happens to you, don’t let it get you down. Just continue looking for the right one because trying to force it or settle for the wrong one won’t do you any favors. And that goes the same for the other side of the coin, too. Don’t settle on the first agent who offers you a contract if you have an inkling of hesitation for some reason. 

Moral of the story: Sometimes you might not have “chemistry” with an agent. But settling doesn’t help anyone.

Agents are game-changers for your writing. 

And not just because they can help you land a contract. They know what works and doesn’t work in the industry. What readers want, what editors want. What sells. They have the spidey sense for those kinds of things. During one of my appointments, an agent asked me a single question that ended up changing a significant backstory thread in my book. I’d hesitated going that direction, but after hearing her reasoning and feeling it out for myself, I’ve fallen completely head over heels for this storyline and feel my characters have more dimension with a few simple tweaks.

Though you have to use discernment and go with your gut in every decision about your work, a teachable spirit goes a long way when working with an agent. It can really take your stories to the next level.

Moral of the story: You won’t get far if you’re not willing to accept a little direction or constructive criticism. And trust your agent. He or she wants to make your book the absolute best it can be.

So this is where I am right now, priming my manuscript for agent requests. Hopefully I will return some time in the near future with more insight from the other side. But until then, happy writing and pitching!

Agents and agented authors, since you are more knowledgeable on this subject, what are some other pieces of advice you can offer yet-to-be-agented authors?

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