Why Literary Agents Attend Writers Conferences (It’s Not What You Think)

As co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, I organized the Backspace Writers Conferences held twice-annually in New York City for 9 years. Recently a writer who is considering attending Backspace’s newest offering, the Salt Cay Writers Retreat taking place this October on a private island in the Bahamas, wondered how we’re able to assemble such a high-level group of bestselling authors, editors, and agents for a week-long workshop.

“Other than the locale and swimming with dolphins,” she asked, “what do you think the faculty members hope to get out of this retreat?”

It’s a great question. Literary agents in particular receive hundreds of query letters from aspiring writers every week. Why would they take time from their busy schedules to go to a writers conference or retreat and meet yet more writers in person?

I’ve worked with well over a hundred literary agents thanks to my conference planning, so I asked a few of my favorites why they attend writers conferences. Their answers may surprise you.

Scott Hoffman (Founding Partner, Folio Literary Management):

Why do agents go to conferences? Three reasons: relationships, relationships and relationships.

First, it’s great for us to get the opportunity to spend time with editors and other agents in an informal setting. And if that happens to be at a conference in Miami in February rather than one taking place the same time of year in Minneapolis, all the better.

Second, although any given agent won’tnecessarily sign ev en one client from any given conference, expanding one’s network is a critical part of success in this business. From a purely financial standpoint, I can tell you that if you include writers we’ve met at conferences and people they’ve introduced us to, we’ve been able to do at least eight figures’ worth of book deals.

Particularly for first-time authors, there’s no better way to get to an agent than at a conference. Authors love one-on-one meetings with agents, but we know where the best writers can be found: at the bar. You think Hemingway would have given an elevator pitch at a 7:30 A.M. meet-the-agents session?

Third, well, what better kind of people is there than book people? You know you’ve already got something in common, right? I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t meet lots of friends (and before I was married, a few significant others, too) at writers’ conferences. Oh, and talk about scoring an agent — I know at least one writer who’s now married to an agent he met at a writer’s conference!

When books are on the table, all things are possible.

Stephany Evans (President, FinePrint Literary Management):

To be honest, I have numerous reasons for attending conferences…1. Looking for talent – of course! While it can be an endurance event, I actually look forward to the one-on-one pitch sessions that some conferences have. Often an in-person pitch can be misleading and when your receive the requested materials there can be some disappointment, but I’ve also uncovered some gold nuggets. In one instance last year, a writer I’d passed on when she’d first submitted her novel “revisited” me during a pitch session and I got a second chance to work with her on her next book.

2. Getting to spend time with clients who live in different parts of the country — it’s nice to have that “in person” time, even if it’s just a few minutes.

3. Grabbing some (sometimes) more leisurely time with editors — either ones I’ve known for years or meeting new ones.

4. Keeping current at the “in the trenches” level. Learning about new ways authors are marketing their work, which I can sometimes pass along to my clients. There’s always a new twist — I try to keep eyes and ears open and see what I can learn.

5. Marketing the agency — or maybe being more of an “ambassador” for FinePrint. I think showing up and giving back (taking pitches, offering critiques, participating on panels, etc) puts a human face on who we are and what we can do for an author, as well as hopefully strengthening the industry as a whole, however incrementally.

6. Meeting new people, seeing new places. Many conferences have too little down-time to really check out a new place, but if I’m invited somewhere I haven’t been before I’ll sometimes see if I can take an extra day or two just to look around.

Katharine Sands (Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency)

Conferences are great for sourcing talent. We seek the holy grail: the publishable writer. Writers I have signed at conferences are often unexpected in some way, and not what I might have chosen from a query letter. For example, an IRS expert and a dominatrix…neither was what I was on the lookout for, but both turned out to be marvelous writers!

It is great to debate and discuss topics, share intel with the other agents and editors, especially in their cups. And authors are on the circuit too. Conferences afford agents and writers the chance to hang with childhood heroes and author idols…But if author mystique is something you prize….you might not want to watch as the poet laureate is hitting on co-eds; or be there when your literary goddess starts dissing the industry.

Most of all, I love to being in the trenches. I want to affirm a writer’s quest and creativity. To see the light come on in someone’s eyes is a thrill to anyone who loves teaching. Advice is a lovely thing to be able to offer.

The role of a literary agent at a writer’s conference is very empowering. People are so excited just to meet agents, and this keeps their dreams alive—the dream of the chance meeting that changes your life—as it can!

Jeff Kleinman (Founding Partner, Folio Literary Management):

Writers conferences can be fun and rewarding for all of the reasons that my colleagues have elucidated far more eloquently than I can. But these types of events sometimes leave the editor in me feeling a bit frustrated. Part of what motivates me as an agent is sinking my teeth into a manuscript — to really figure out what makes it tick, to live inside a character’s head — and, to some extent, inside the author’s head. Editing, plotting, determining what motivates the characters: all of these are my bread-and-butter and make the job of being a literary agent fun.(Don’t get me wrong — it’s also fun to sell those books and make the authors’ dreams come true, but sometimes that almost feels secondary to just helping work on a book that I’m proud to be affiliated with.)

I’m really excited about the Salt Cay Writers Retreat because of its focus on craft. It’s a chance to really allow agents, editors and published writers to focus on what is important in writing: writing. Not how to get published, not the eBook revolution, not marketing your work, not developing a platform. Writing. A week to dig into manuscripts, to share thoughts with some of the best editors and the most talented authors in the country in a gorgeous, inspiring environment. What agent wouldn’t want to go to a retreat like that?