Chip MacGregor

May 25, 2016

Ask the Agent: How many authors do you sign at a writing conference?


Someone wrote to say, “I know you’re going to the Thrillerfest conference next month. Of the appointments you have at a conference like that, how many actually result in your asking for more material? How many result in you giving serious consideration to an author? How many will you actually sign to represent? Just curious.”

For those who don’t know, at almost every conference I go to the organizers ask if I’ll spend some time having short meetings with authors. I usually agree, since I enjoy meeting writers and talking about their books. One of the misunderstood aspects of those author/agent meetings is that “the agent is trying to find new clients.” That’s partly true, at least for newer agents who are looking for salable projects to fill their lists. But for someone who has been agenting a long time (I started working as a literary agent in 1998), it’s rare that my goal in attending is to sign up a bunch of authors. That might happen, of course, but generally at a conference I’m looking to be a resource to authors. Some want my reaction to their idea, others want a brief critique. Some want to ask questions about the market, or about publishers, or are looking for career advice. Others are looking for advice on their proposal, or to ask about marketing and sales ideas. Often people just want to know what is hot and what’s not. So “finding new clients” isn’t the only topic being discussed. Sure, plenty of writers are pitching their ideas, but that’s not the only reason for meeting.

So long as you keep that in the back of your mind, I’ll answer your question directly: When I volunteer to do appointments at a writing conference, I’d say I might have 15 to 40 appointments — some formal, some informal.

Of those, maybe 5 or 6 result in my asking to see more. Don’t be offended if I don’t ask you to send your proposal — there are a number of reasons I might not be interested. Maybe it’s not a genre I work in, or maybe I just signed an author doing something similar. It could be I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of market interest (for example, it’s almost impossible to sell a YA dystopian right now), or maybe it’s well done but a bit too niche for me (I’ve turned away several good business books because the overall topic was too limited, but I always try to give those authors direction on where to take the manuscript). You’ll find some agents and editors ask everyone they meet to send in a proposal, but that’s only because they hate telling an author “no” to his or her face. I’d rather not get the extra email, so if a project doesn’t fit, I’ll just say “no thanks” at the conference. So… I might ask 5 or 6 writers to send me their work for consideration.

Of those, I may get serious about 1 or 2. That is, as I go through and evaluate them in-depth, I might only find a couple projects that really interest me. What I thought was going to be great turned out to be just okay. What started with a fabulous first page turned out to have a weak next section. So I reject many of them, and after a conference I may only be taking a serious look at one or two proposals.

And what of those? I may or may not sign one to an agency agreement and represent the book. For years, many agents have agreed that they’re often looking for ONE GOOD PROJECT at each conference. If I can get one good author, that will mean the conference basically paid for itself. Sometimes I don’t get any. Sometimes I get two. And I should note that there are a bunch of really good writing conferences this summer — through organizations and universities and writing groups. Thrillerfest is one, but I love Left Coast Crime, RWA, etc. I’m speaking at Willamette Writers in Portland this summer, and at PNWA in Seattle, and at ACFW in Nashville, and I’m spending a day with the people at OCW. If you Google “writing conferences,” you’ll find regional and national conferences that might hold some appeal for you. Check to see who is on the faculty (agents? editors? famous authors? film people? poets?) and choose the one that best matches your writing interests.

I love writers’ conferences. Don’t go thinking, “I’m going to land an agent!” Go thinking something like, “I’m going to meet people and learn a lot.” It’s very rare for anyone to sign on with a literary agent at a conference — it takes time to read your work, get to know you, and make a decision on working together. But there’s great value in attending, and connecting with others in the industry.

On a related matter, I had someone ask, “What is the most important piece of advice you can give to a writer heading to an agent or editor appointment at a writing conference?”

The most important piece of advice is simple: Have your proposal and sample writings so well honed that an agent or editor has no reason to say “no.” That’s easier said than done, of course, but that should be the goal. A great idea, expressed through great writing, in a great proposal, preferably by an author with a great platform. All of those things take time and talent, of course, but that’s the best step you could take.

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  • Janelle Morris says:

    Thank you for this! I will be attending my first conference in Nashville. I do hope our paths cross! Any advice for building a platform when you’re essentially a “nobody”? More specifically, what are agents hoping to see from an unpublished author in terms of a platform? Thanks for your time!

  • Angela K Couch says:

    I don’t know why I love your answer to the last question so much. Probably because there is something empowering about having done something so well that while the answer may still be “no” for any number of reasons, it wasn’t because of your writing. Thanks!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well, I’m glad, Angela. It’s one of those things I believe in, though probably don’t say very often.

  • Ruth Douthitt says:

    Excellent advice! For me, meeting with an agent is the hardest and most intimidating part of a conference but also the most valuable. It’s worth the time and effort to get a critique that helps you hone your story and skills. Thanks Chip, for your willingness to meet with writers after all these years. Your feedback has always helped me.

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