Chip MacGregor

July 31, 2013

How does a new writer get noticed?


A regular reader of the blog sent in this question: What can a new author do to get noticed by an agent or editor?

The most essential thing you can do as someone new to the industry is to be a great writer, of course. All the agents and editors have seen wannabe writers who are anxious to get published, but haven’t put in the time to really learn the craft. We see stories that have plot problems, shallow story lines, weak characters, bad dialogue, tons of description… And the surprising thing to me is that I’ll sometimes see that from a writer at a conference who is pushing hard for representation.

It’s why I’ll frequently ask people at a face-to-face meeting, “What’s your goal for this meeting?” I mean, some people at a conference are looking for me to react to their story. Others want to show me some writing and interact a bit on it. Some people just have questions about the business or their career. But if a writer sits down at a ten minute meeting and expects an agent to offer representation, that’s probably unrealistic. A much more realistic goal would be to have a discussion about the salability of your work, and see if the agent or editor wants to take a more in-depth look at some later date. Maybe have you email the manuscript to him or her.

If you want to get noticed at a conference, show up for your appointment on time. Dress professionally. Have a brief pitch prepared, and make sure you’ve actually practiced it out loud, so you know what you’re going to say. (Your family will think you’ve gone crazy for talking to yourself in the basement… but that’s okay. If you want to be a writer, you probably already qualify as “crazy.”) Do some research on the agents, to make sure you can target your pitch. (I’ve lost count how many times people have set up meetings with me at conference to talk about their poetry, or their children’s book, or their fantasy novel… even though it says clearly on our website that I don’t represent those genres.) And try to relax. Most of the editors and agents you meet at a conference are volunteering their time to be there, so they WANT to find a good writer to work with. Just think of it as a conversation, and try to engage the editor or agent a bit.

A couple other things to keep in mind: Have a great bio of yourself, and include all your writing experience — if someone is really interested in you, they’ll ask for that, so have it ready. Make sure you talk honestly about your platform — all the avenues you have for helping promote your book. It’s best if you have a story that stands out, rather than version 137 of The Same Old Thing. And be ready to talk more in-depth about your book if someone wants to have a side conversation later in the bar or restaurant — something beyond retelling the story. And, of course, if the editor suggests you make a change to your manuscript, show that you’re easy to work with and actually make the change. No manuscript is perfect — we’re all still learning and growing.

One thing to keep in mind at conferences (and I’m struggling to say this the right way)… Be pleasant. Don’t be The Weirdo We’re All Talking About In The Back Room. There’s frequently somebody like that at a conference — too friendly, too overbearing, too in-your-face. I remember one conference in Chicago where I had this guy right behind me ALL DAY LONG. Every time I turned around — BANG! There he was, smiling. The conference staff finally had to pull him aside and ask him to tone it down before I felt the need to stab him with a pencil. Another time I had a guy follow me into the men’s room, rambling on about his manuscript, and he actually slid it in front of my face as I was standing at the urinal. Let me repeat: As I was standing at the urinal. (That’s a true story, by the way. It’s become sort of apocryphal in the industry, but it really did happen to me at Seattle Pacific University about twelve years ago. I yelled at the guy, “NOT NOW!” But I wish I’d turned to face him when I said it…)

There’s really not a magic bullet for all this. We like pleasant people who we get along with and who show an ability with words. I think you stand your best chance to get noticed by an agent or editor if you spend time preparing to be that person.

All right, everyone: What advice would YOU give to a new writer going to a conference this summer? 


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  • Jaime Wright says:

    My advice? I stalk coffee. That is all I stalk. Outside of that, my best conversations with agents/editors have been just knowing we’re all real people. The whole “do unto others” thing works well (which is why bathroom pitches aren’t top on my list). It is comforting to read agent blogs prior to meeting them. That professional reality, is great. WOW! Chip is a real person with a sense of sarcasm. Sweet. But he’s also professional. So you go with it. Be yourself, unless yourself is overbearing and rabid, then … assume another identity.

    • Jaime Wright says:

      OH… another word of advice is read other blog comments before commenting yourself and then finding out you just repeated other great posts 😉

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Naw. We all repeat ourselves, Jaime. Nothing wrong with echoing what someone else has said.

  • Edwina Cowgill says:

    Great advice! I just presented to two publishers at She Speaks, sponsored by Proverbs 31 Ministries. The last appointment I had with a publisher (several years ago and too long of a horror story to share here!) was a complete disaster. I was determined these appointments would not be. So I determined to 1) be myself and 2) enjoy the appointment. The appointments went well and both accepted my book proposal for further review. But the point is I really enjoyed the appointments. My “I probably shouldn’t have done that” moment came when I approached an agent after she presented the workshop I had attended. I explained that I was on the wait list to have an appointment with her but because the conference was half over, I didn’t think I would be able to meet her. I asked, politely, if she ould be kind enough to accept my proposal. I could instantly tell by the expression on her face and the below-zero temp in her voice that I had probably overstepped my bounds. But hey, “You have not because you ask not,” right? And besides I didn’t approach her in the bathroom!

  • Wow, the urinal? I think it’s important to remember that the agent is just a normal person who’s away from home and is probably having a long day. I’m always appreciative of any advice and have found that most are interested in helping me!

  • floyd says:

    Good advice. I’ll be the thug blocking the door to the bathroom offering admission for the price of reading my manuscript… Just kidding… I never even stole anyone’s lunch money as a kid…

    I’m always fascinated by the intricacies of other people’s professions. There’s an ugly side to all that shines…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I actually love what I do. But you’re right, floyd — with all jobs there’s a bad or weird side. We see some weird stuff. (Today Amanda got in a proposal for a novel about a guy who becomes famous using his penis as a puppet. Um… probably not a fit for her.) But for all that side of things, I still like this. I get to work with books and words, and talk with writers and artists. That’s fun — especially when I get to be part of the creative vision.

    • floyd says:

      That illustration certainly makes your point! I appreciate your passion. Success follows passion like a shadow… Yours is looming large, brother.

    • Lynn Morrissey says:

      I told you that Chip writes a great column, Floyd–all weird stuff aside.

    • Lynn Morrissey says:

      Poor Amanda. She could write a book……!!!!

  • Carey Green says:

    Chip, it’s been a very long time since I laughed out loud while reading a blog post… but your urinal story did it. Especially the part about wanting to turn around! HAH!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      My dad used to tell a story about being in a bar with John Wayne. Claimed that every time the Duke would go to the men’s room, he’d come back with one pant leg all wet. After three or four trips, my dad said he finally asked him what’s going on. “Pardner,” the Duke responded, “every time I stand at the urinal, the guy next to me suddenly turns and says, ‘Hey! You’re John Wayne!'”

  • Rhoda Berrios says:

    You mention a great deal about connecting with the industry through writers conferences, which I suppose is the ideal for someone unpublished and new to the industry, but what about those who neither have the means or the time to attend writers conferences? Is there another option for establishing relationship with key players in the industry virtually – I did read the blog idea below, which was amazingly helpful! Thanks!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Sure, it’s possible, Rhoda. People still try to make connections through friends, or online, or locally with editors and agents. Wherever you are, you seek connections. Publishing is simply a business, and every business I know runs on relationships.

    • Rhoda Berrios says:

      Chip, thanks for the answer – that gives me hope! Blessings!

  • Lynn Morrissey says:

    Chip, you made my day! Honestly, I needed a good laugh. I could tell some bathroom stories, too, but this is neither the time nor place. That said, I think you demonstrate that agents and editors are real people and humor has it place; so does privacy! I have no earthly idea in what manner I approached you back in the nineties at a CBA CLASS Reunion, but I was in the long Chip-line, and you treated me admirably. So I must not have been particularly offensive. Moreover, you were especially accommodating and encouraging (and have been ever since). I agree that a practiced pitch is extremely helpful; that said, two ICRS’s ago, I had nearly memorized a very short speech to an editor, and from the moment I started talking to her at our appointment (to which I was on time), God stopped me dead in my prerehearsed tracks. Earlier that morning, I had felt led by Him to read Jeremiah 1 (and knew not why). And suddenly, as I nervoulsy opened my mouth to spill out my passion in preconceived words, God spoke to me silently. “Lynn, I have put my words in your mouth.” Instantaneously, I knew that parroting words I’d memorized (even though they were my own), would not have the same impact as speaking passionately about my passion, from my heart, extemporaneously. There are some things you need to wing. And God was faithful. He enabled me to speak passionately, knowledgably, (and more succintly than I have here!!), and the editor caught my vision!
    I hope to catch yours as well, and want you to know how happy I am to have discovered these marvelous posts (to which I direct others). They’re a goldmine!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Wow. Thanks for telling that story, Lynn. Nice to hear when someone gets an inspiration and another person catches the vision. (And thanks for the nice words about meeting so long ago at CLASS. I always appreciated my times to talk with new authors at those conferences.)

    • Lynn Morrissey says:

      You’re the best, Chip! Tx for the airtime!

  • Mary Weber says:

    *laughs* That’s hilarious and super disturbing!!
    Awesome advice, Chip. I think if I could add anything, it’d simply be that I second Jan’s comment. 🙂 Definitely have in mind which editors and agents you want to pitch to, but don’t let your focus / emotions tunnel-vision so much that you neglect connecting with the people around you. After all, it’s relationships that make the journey so much more awesome, and it’s relationships that we ultimately take with us into eternity, not a publishing contract. And…you never know what might come of those friendships. They just might rock your writing world too. I think the key is being open. 🙂 Annnnnd not pitching at the urinal.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, that gets into the notion that a writer doesn’t want ANY agent — he or she wants the RIGHT agent. Do some research, and see who meets your needs. Then meet him or her and see if you’re a fit. I am not a fit for every writer.

  • JeanneTakenaka says:

    So much of what people have already shared today were things I was also thinking about for new writers getting noticed. I’m not “noticed” yet, as far as having an agent, so I may not be one to speak with a lot of authority.

    When I attended ACFW last year for the first time, I was excited and nervous about meeting with an agent or editor. If I could say one thing to my “last year’s self” I would tell her to relax more about those 15 minute meetings. Spend some time talking with the agent on a personal, friendly level and don’t get stressed about getting the pitch out. Know your pitch, but also take time to relate to an agent on a person-to-person level. Getting to know them ahead of time through their blogs gives a writer an opportunity to open up a conversation that is more than small talk when you actually meet with them.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate that, Jeanne. And I agree — getting to know editors and agents a bit is the best foundation to lay for working together later.

  • Peggotty says:

    I’d give the same great advice I received as a child-“Stop, look and listen before you cross the street.”

  • Emme Gannon says:

    My advice is one I’m taking myself. Talk to an agent you respect. If he’s interested and will read your work, get his feedback on what you need to do to make your story better. Then, do it. Make every change, whether you agree or not. I’m doing this very thing. My novel is almost complete and it is far better thanks to the good suggestions I got. Be humble, teachable, and trust your agent!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      And that will require getting to know them a bit, Emme — perhaps by doing some research, checking them out, asking others, reading their blog, doing some digging on Publishers Marketplace, asking editors, etc.

  • Jan Cline says:

    Chip, for me it’s all about building relationships within the business. I tell my writing group and those that attend my conference to meet and network with other writers and publishing professionals. Making friends with several authors and publishers has been not only a joy but a huge boost to my personal writing journey. Conferences are a great place to do that. The other things is to keep your eyes and ears open and soak in as much as you can about the craft of writing in those few precious days. It’s all there…you just have to set aside your selling agenda sometimes and understand that craft and relationships is the foundation for your future in this crazy business. Just my take on it.

  • Oh my lands, laughing so hard at the bathroom “session!” But I’m sure it was quite unnerving for you. Yes, authors can be quite desperate at times, but that never excuses lack of basic good manners. I look forward to meeting my agent and hopefully editors in person some day. Not to mention all the writer friends who have backed and encouraged me every step of the way. That’s one of the best parts of this business, and I know it’s what makes conferences so rewarding.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, people think I’m kidding, but it really happened. I barked (and most people will tell you I’m not much of a barker in person). Still find it hard to believe.

    • I totally believe it…just sorry you had to go through that. A bark was definitely in order.

  • Lisa Van Engen says:

    Oh goodness, this makes me laugh. But I know not funny at all in the moment.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It just made me mad, but it’s very funny in retrospect. I often wonder if that guy ever reads this blog and think, “I messed up.”

  • Meghan Carver says:

    Wow, Chip. Stalkers. Or maybe it sounds better if we call them groupies. Since I’m one of those new writers hoping to get noticed, I don’t know that I have any advice to add, except perhaps to read the agent blogs. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know said agent, his likes and dislikes, his voice. And, perhaps, when that new writer walks in to her appointment and says, “Hi, I’m Meghan Carver. It’s wonderful to meet you,” the agent has, perhaps, a flicker of name recognition.

    • JeanneTakenaka says:

      This was what I was thinking on, Meghan, the getting to know the agents on their blogs beforehand.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes — I’m frequently surprised when somebody has set up a meeting with me at a conference, but they haven’t spent ten seconds researching me, Meghan. Thanks for this.

  • Make a short list of exact expectations. If it is your first time to a writer’s conference it might be a tad overwhelming and it’s easy to forget your actual goals. Write down 2 or 3 targeted questions that you really want to ask an agent during the face-to-face time and I don’t mean questions like, “Where do I sign?” or “How big an advance am I gonna get on my bestseller manuscript I brought with me today?” Be realistic and open minded to the experience itself and you will come out a winner no matter what!

    • Robin Patchen says:

      Great advice, Donna, to know your goals. I was once told that a goal is something you have control over. Since you don’t have control over whether or not your dream agent likes your pitch, him requesting a proposal isn’t a goal, it’s a hope. A dream, maybe. So the goal can be to talk to three or four agents and editors, even if it means striking up a conversation in the lobby or following them into the men’s room. (Just kidding about that last one.) Your goal can be to present yourself professionally and learn a lot. And be patient, because this is a long process.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I like that — “a goal is something you have control over.” Thanks, Robin.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Excellent advice, Donna. Having some good questions to ask is a great idea. Thanks.

    • Thirteen years of training in TaeKwonDo has hopefully given me more than just a 4th Degree Black Belt ranking…lol…it has taught me patience, focus, and perseverance. All traits I can use in my writing endeavors as well…;~)

  • Be prepared. Be pleasant. Be patient.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      MaryAnn is clearly a Baptist preacher — three points, all beginning with the same letter. :o)

  • Rick Barry says:

    This is sane advice, and I appreciate level-headed approach you recommend for conference interviews: to relax and think of it as a conversation. At my first face-to-face with an editor, I’m sure I was as nervous as anyone. After all, wouldn’t that 15 minutes determine my fate for all time? (Of course not, but it was easy to feel that way the first time.) So, rather than try to add any advice, I will simply underscore what you’ve said here. Thanks again for a worthy morning read, Chip.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Rick. And I”m sure I was just as nervous as my first appointment. But after a while, you begin to relax and see the value of meeting face to face. That’s why I encourage writers to do more than one appointment, and to have realistic goals.

  • Ron Estrada says:

    May I start by saying I would at least wait for the flush. Your tips are priceless, Chip. It’s amazing that I can be completely comfortable and confident in my full-time profession, but feel like a kid applying for his first job when pitching my book. I’ll be sure to relax and enjoy the feedback.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes — but as writers, we’re putting ourselves out there when we reveal our work. It can be frightening, just as signing in front of a group, or displaying our artwork, or dancing at a competition is frightening. I understand that. Comfort comes with preparation and practice.

  • Anne Love says:

    As someone who scores just two points left of center (on the extrovert side) of Myers-Briggs extrovert-introvert scale, I suggest if you are like most writers who tend toward the far end of introversion, that you practice doing some extrovert things. Conferences are packed with talking, mingling, presenting yourself and your work. Your pitch is a mini speech. If you are someone who would rather die than give a speech, push yourself. Next time someone at church asks you to do something “up front”–do it. I promise, you won’t die. But you might feel a little more comfortable in your skin when you stand before Chip to pitch your book! 🙂

  • Rachel Leigh Smith says:

    Being nervous is nothing to be ashamed of. Every single other writer there is nervous too! And the agents and editors don’t bite. Really.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I don’t know… I heard Steve Laube once bit someone. (I doubt he broke the skin, but still…)

    • Lynn Morrissey says:

      I just reconnected with Steve at an AWSA conference, and he didn’t bite. So I’m relieved! But thanks for the heads-up, Chip!

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