How does one appear at once human and professional, jovial and competent? As you know, many business transactions--hirings, firings, team building--are based on much more than your qualifications on paper--they're based on your likability. In publishing, it's even more so--as so much of the industry is subjective, if we like you, you have a much greater chance at a lot of benefits:
- Personalized feedback
- Faster turnaround (depends--sometimes it takes us longer because we want to give you a more thoughtful response)
- Willingness to forgive mistakes (rather than thinking, "Oh, that author's not paying attention," we'll think, "Oh, ha ha, they mentioned their quad-shot mochas--mmm, that sounds good right about now--well, I guess they must have had a few too many of them. Next page! Onward!")
- Better advice at conferences--if you have a one-on-one, and if the work doesn't fit, we'll try harder to think of suggestions.
It's not about your appearance. We'll forgive a lot in that department, as long as you look more like you're at something for work than on vacation. Just think business casual--not jeans, t-shirts, sandals. (And you may wish to leave the neon mumus at home--same with open-toed shoes. Once I had a woman approach me in head-to-toe purple, with a braid sprouting from the top of her head and sticking straight up for the duration of our speed date. Her work wasn't for me, but I did listen attentively.)
We're very good at sensing literary sensibility. If you're obviously smart and literate, we'll forgive poor word choices and grammatical mistakes.
We'll even forgive you if you drop your conference snacks on us.
Chuck Sambuchino, editor of the GLA blog, had a wonderful post on how to behave at conferences. He notes that the most important thing--rather chatting only about your project--is to treat agents like humans.
That's right--humans. And humans who, unlike our robotic brethren, need a little downtime--time to think about things other than work.
In other words: you can always pitch to us. You can always send us queries, send us your work--even if you're in Fiji without electricity and a waning Blackberry battery and we're on August break, probably swimming with fishies somewhere far, far away from New York.
But meeting us in person is a rare opportunity. I've seen a lot of authors make the following mistakes:
- Being afraid to talk about anything but their work, for fear of seeming unprofessional
- Thinking that if they run over their allotted author-agent speed-date time (ie, if they just talk to us long enough) we'll decide that we like them and will take on their work
- Coming to a conference with a big box of thirty copies of your proposal. You may recall that we like personal notes with our work--we hardly feel special when we see you reach into a giant box and pull out an identical copy that's addressed to Dear Sir/Madam.
- Taking every "I'm afraid that's not a good fit for me" as a personal rejection, and thus having to pick themselves up again before visiting with another agent.
Something to note: you can always look up agents before you go, and then prepare a line for your five favorites, if you do meet them. (Though don't try to say hello to everyone--you'll wear yourself out. Sometimes these conferences are like Disneyland as a kid--you *might* meet Mickey, and Minnie, and Donald Duck--but don't count on it.)
Elevator Pitch Face is easily remedied by chatting first with your other conferencegoers--warm up, feel friendly, feel chatty. Keep in mind that most agents and editors are very nice people. (I call a lot of them; I would know.)
And what are they, at this conference, really judging you on? If you're nice.
Yes, I said it--if you're nice. It helps if you're also not pushy (but not timid), respectful but not stiff. I hate it when people say it, but it's true: be confident about your work. Give yourself a pep talk about how great your work is, if you like. Smile and it will (the pop psychiatrists say) make you feel better. Space out your sugar/caffeine consumption so that you don't crash at crucial moments--and take care not to drink more than two alcoholic beverages.
A few things to remember:
- Just like when you're meeting new people, ask a lot of questions, and try to politely figure out if you like them. This takes the pressure off of you and, like most people, agents and editors like talking about themselves. Even, "Gosh, so do you read, like, 100 manuscripts a day?" is better than, "So, I have this book about cats--oh, and I'm Jeff, here's my card, here's my manuscript, so can I hear from you next week?"
- Do have an elevator pitch prepared--but only give it if the agent asks. That said, you must have this, so when someone asks, "What are you working on?" you'll have a good answer.
- Don't keep your elevator pitch the same down to each word. And don't take a huge breath before, as if you're going to say something recited. Think about each word as you say it; pause briefly to picture your characters and scenes. Act natural, not rehearsed.
- Have a number of back-up plans in place. ie, "What if they ask about ____?! OH NO! That'll be TERRIBLE!"--then, well, have an answer prepared.
- Say "please" and "thank you"--as you would, I hope, normally.
- Make sure your hands aren't sweaty before you approach an agent to shake them. The awkward hand-on-pants wipe? Not so suave.
- Be warm, kind, happy--not nervous, clammy, scared.
- If you are nervous, clammy, or scared, be sure to make a friend at the conference and hang with them before approaching anyone scary. All of the other writers are in the same boat, and most are available for nervous laughter.
- Some say not to ask for an agent's card--but to let them offer it to you. I think this was the rule back in Emily Post's day--but it's not terribly practical now. We'd end up with a huge stack of cards and no clue how to match them with the hundreds of faces and handshakes. That said, if it would be awkward, just make a note of their name and find their e-mail online later. Most agents are very easy to Google. If all else fails, try [their first name]@[their agency domain].com.
- When you get the card of anyone interesting, take a moment to write a line or two about who they are and something they said. This way you don't end up with a huge stack of cards and no clue who anyone is.
- Within 72 hours of meeting someone, send them a quick email that references something they said or you talked about together--ie, something from the notes on the back of your cards. Then, even if they don't reply immediately, they have a record of who you are.