Chip MacGregor

December 3, 2012

Can I meet good agents at a writing conference?


Someone wrote to say, “Authors spend big bucks to attend writers’ conferences and meet agents. Are most agents checked out and invited to participate because they have good reputations?”

I think every conference director wants to offer the best faculty possible. None of them are going to bring in an agent who is a known scam artist. Everybody wants to bring in quality faculty, and a writing conference is generally a good place to meet agents. (In fact, it’s often one of the few places left where you can be face-to-face with literary agents.)

That said, I’ve been on the faculty at more than 100 writing conferences, and on occasion I’ve certainly shared the stage with some agents who don’t know what they’re doing. (And in re-reading that, yes, I realize I sound like an arrogant putz. Sorry.) If you’re going to a conference and planning to meet agents, check them out. Look at their websites, check Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware, talk to editors and authors at the conference. Most importantly, ask questions of the agent. Who do they represent, what types of books have they placed, who have they done deals with, how many deals have they done recently, how long have they been in business, do they charge fees,what is their policy on collecting and distributing funds, what commissions do they earn, etc. (If you look through my previous “agents” posts, you’ll find a number of questions to ask.) Just because a guy shows up at investment seminar doesn’t make him a millionaire, and just because a guy shows up wearing an “agent” badge at a conference doesn’t make him a legitimate agent.

You can still meet good agents at a writing conference, but you need to do your homework to make sure you meet someone who is a potential fit for you and your work.

And someone asked, “If I meet an agent, is it okay to ask if they conduct career counseling? I had an experienced author suggest I ask this of an agent at a conference, but I never got a clear response to the question. Do most agents help their clients in that way?”

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask that question, but think through your reasoning. Are you looking for career advice? (Not every author is.) If so, what sort of advice are you hoping to get? What are you expecting to hear from your agent? My experience is that most every agent will say, “We offer our authors career direction,” but you need to follow up with them and ask what that means. To some agents, the only career advice they’re going to offer is “you need a book contract.” (Wow…thanks for that insight.) So ask for specifics — What do you do to assist with career choices? What tools do you use? What topics do you cover? What training or experience do you have? What success stories can you share? Their answers to those questions should help you determine if they can actually help in that area, or if they just have some BS lines they once read in a marketing book.

And, of course, that gets into figuring out what you really want out of your writing career. Some people are hoping to make this a full-time job; others are hoping to generate a part-time income; still others are simply hoping to get a book published at some point. If you know yourself and have some sense of what you do best and what you’re hoping to accomplish, you’ll find you can ask better questions.

One last one: Someone asked me, “What are the best writing conferences to attend?”

I get that question a lot, and the answer most likely lies in your genre. I represent a lot of thriller writers, and they’ll probably get the most out of Thrillerfest or Bouchercon or one of the suspense-writing gatherings like Left Coast Crime. I also represent a lot of Christian fiction, and there’s no doubt the one best conference to attend is ACFW. If you’re a romance novelist, RWA is the place to be. However, outside of genre-specific gatherings, there are any number of good general writing conferences. Google to find a conference in your area, then visit the site to see who’s on faculty. It’s usually the quality of the faculty that will determine the value each conference will have.

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  • :Donna Marie says:

    OK, it posted, but it looks twice as long because of the formatting. Sorry!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      And, um, once again, Donna, I have no idea what you’re referencing.

    • :Donna Marie says:

      Chip, it’s SO weird. This time it actually looked like it was there…posted…the longer post with conference info. SO weird.

  • Rick Barry says:

    Chip, one question I’ve never seen addressed anywhere: What happens to all the client authors if an agent dies of a heart attack, car collision, or random meteorite strike? If his/her associates automatically divvy up all that person’s clients as a courtesy, it seems the new load of productive authors could severely burden those agents who are alive and remain. Or do the authors start mailing out resumes beginning, “My agent passed away, and I wondered if you….”?

    Thanks for your regular insights. Always interesting.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That happens, Rick. When I worked for another literary agency, we twice had agents leave suddenly (one time an agent just decided to make a change, the other time some emergency personal stuff caused an agent to leave). In both cases it’s pretty much what you’d expect — the rest of us took the authors, divided them up as we thought best, and started calling people. The fact is, most authors eventually left, since an author and agent are friends, rather than an author and agency being friends. But in them meantime we tried to wrap things up and do good work for the writers we were suddenly working with.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    I hate typos…I meant “here,” not “hear,” in that last paragraph. Sorry! Grrrrrr…

    • chipmacgregor says:


    • :Donna Marie says:

      Hmmm…very curious. I had posted a much longer post about conferences, but it’s not here. This little post was in reference to a typo I made in the longer post. I’ll post the longer one again since I saved the info in a Word doc in case I ever needed it again lol

  • Meghan Carver says:

    Thanks for the specifics, Chip. I’m making notes and going to check my list for when that wonderful day arrives.

  • evamarieeverson says:

    Well, Chip, if I can be so bold to say … this kind of post is one reason why we’re so happy you and Amanda will join us at Florida Christian Writers Conference in February/March. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Eva.

    • Charity says:

      Eva, can I just say I’m so impressed at your literacy and typing skills. And good job on getting started on attending conferences early, like before solid foods even. 🙂 Sorry, I couldn’t resist. That is one seriously cute baby in your picture. Am I weird that my first image when I saw it was the baby at the keyboard typing a comment? Wait, don’t answer that. 🙂

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