From an editor's perspective, writers conferences can be a mixed bag. For those of you planning to attend one in the near future, or wondering whether you should, let me offer some dos and don'ts that apply to any writer's conference you might attend as an aspiring author…
Do know your genre. Everything may be expanding into new genres and sub-genres, but there will always be a line of books that precede yours in content and style, both informing it and categorizing it for a quick comparison. You may not like that others have written books like yours, but the fact is, it's your duty to know them and how you're improving the mold. Categories help us know what we're getting, even as barriers are breaking down between CBA (Christian Book Association) and ABA (American Book Association). Some people may not like categories, but they help readers. Some people may not like books that push the boundaries, but they're a sign of health and vigor.
Do get a publishing professional to sit on a panel and use you as an example of a fresh, and engaging voice. It was at the Northwest Christian Writers Renewal conference (in 2008 or 9?) that I was introduced to Ann Voskamp. She asked me to help her edit, and went on to publish an amazing book called One Thousand Gifts. Her distinctive, individual voice is what makes that book work, a voice she developed for years of writing and blogging and seeking out gifts for which she was thankful. So many things go into making a book a best seller, but her experience in writing and reading developed her voice and that was absolutely a factor in getting her published, not to mention talked about. Don’t be conniving and crafty, but do be a crafter of unmistakably unique work.
Don’t simply go to the conference to be fed. I hear this often: “The singer / food / accommodations / teaching is so wonderful!” Well yes, but these are compliments for the organizers, and they need to hear them. When you’re with a pro, don’t gush. They're not interested in your experience of the trappings. Would you be here if it was the worst, backwoods conference on the planet, just to deliver my the book that’s going to make me fall out of my chair? (more on this in a bit) Which leads me to,
Don’t be a sycophant. If you don’t have the definition memorized, please go do so now.
Don’t miss the point. IN 2005, on a panel at ACFW, I recommended The Time Traveler's Wife as the best book I’d read that year. In a rare moment of foresight, I included a warning that it might be offensive to some, but for months after that, I still heard about grumbling: “I can’t believe a Christian editor would recommend that book.” Dear ones, you have a responsibility to know what’s being written and read currently. Professional editors, agents and writers are readers. If you aren’t, that’s a serious handicap. Yes, do skip the sex/language/violence, but don’t misunderstand: you need to find out why an editor is recommending a book. Understand what that author did and that’s your ticket into his stable.
Do pay attention. Much of the benefit, if not all, of a writers conference is what you learn while there. Authors' and editors' names, literary terms, methods of writing, clarifying, editing, working, thinking, appealing to the muse. Don't waste your time worrying about your pitch, selling your idea, trying to force your way up from the place you need to be to learn. It's not about getting published. It's about being in a place where you are being courted because you've acquired so much knowledge, and your book begs to be published. While many bad books do get published, publishing the good ones is inevitable.
Don’t listen to amateurs. There is more slippery sludge thrown around by well-meaning Christian newbies than any of us can shake our fingers at. The blogging world has made this bad advice proliferate, and there’s far too much posturing and speculating that goes on in absence of good data and some honest humility. Pride and ego can get the best of anyone—so be smart and listen to those who know.
Don’t tell me your entire story. Just stick to the P’s: Pitch, Package, Platform. PITCH: Give me the essence in as few words as possible. (caveat: “Aliens meets Blue Like Jazz” is not helpful. “Philip K. Dick meets Don Miller” is better, but explain that genre with a more specific comparison like, “Dean Koontz meets Graham Greene.” (I've actually heard this one. And that gave me a great picture.) PACKAGE: Tell me about series potential, what else you've written, what your "brand" is, any foreword or endorsements you’ve got, good-sized* publicity and promo opportunities, which leads right into PLATFORM: How big and how wide is your network? Are you bringing any guaranteed pre-sales through your blog, business, website, contacts in ministry, media, or miscellany (schools, churches, professional organizations, etc.) *total network of 1000 or more is fairly baseline for mid-size Christian publishers. That won't get you in the door a big of NY publishers.
Do know something about what publishing houses publish. Know the catalog and general sales figures (CBA top 50 titles, at least), especially for books like your own. You can find info on sales figures by asking questions: an author/agent/editor or clerk at a larger bookstore.
Do get in a crit group with real writers. When you say you’re in a crit group with a promising author or authors I recognize, it’s a big indication you’ll be an author I want to take more seriously. This is an alternative to getting a respected agent’s highest regard, though having both would probably make me fall out of my chair.
Do make me fall out of my chair. I really am a nice guy. But I have to be efficient as an acquisitions editor making pitches against the competition of other editors and publishers. A vast majority of the pitches I hear at conferences are not good. Learn what you're doing. Read this blog, have a professional help you, and if you’re pitching know the person, their house, and publishing guidelines. Even better, know their publishing goals. Follow what they've published and read their blog! The professional in the chair across from you is looking to see that you get it, you understand the situation, and you’re well-prepared. Do that, and you won’t have to quiver and freak out. Learn the criteria of a good proposal. Read the publishing trades (mainly PW & GalleyCat for ABA, CBA Marketplace and Christian Retailing for CBA market) and relevant editorial (Christian Communicator, Books and Culture) so you know what’s happening in the business you’re hoping to join. And remember, it's a business.
So go to writers conferences and soak up the knowledge and the community of like-minded individuals, and help someone grow! When you do that, you win. You get noticed. You get inspired. And those around you will remember or realize for the first time how great it is to be in a place like this, doing work they love, with people who are making a difference.
I mean, that's what I hope for…
A repost from the archives as I head out to the OCCWF conference this weekend. Maybe I'll see you there!