Choosing a Conference – an Agent’s Perspective

By Sorche Fairbank – Fairbank Literary Representation
Conference Faculty Member

Whenever I am invited to a writers conference, a familiar internal dialog kicks in. Do I really want to travel again? Where to? Will being gone for three or four or five days put me too far behind?

I, and most agents, get far more requests and invitations for conferences than we could possibly manage in a given year. I have to choose carefully. The downside to attending conferences is that they take time away from the office, or from what little free, non-publishing time I have. Add to that the fact that flying has become more and more a hassle, especially now that we moved to New York’s Hudson Valley. And what about the cost to my signed authors? Am I giving up a weekend that could or should be spent helping them with their projects?

But the upside, oh, the upside. . . When I say yes to a conference, I know the rewards will be many. Still, a number of considerations factor into my decision to accept.

Location – A selfish reason, perhaps, but location matters. Coastal South Carolina in late October – perfect! Kudos to SCWW organizers for knowing just how tempting that sounds. I love nubby, cozy sweaters and suede boots, but I’m all too aware that it will only get colder and bleaker for the next four months. A bit of sunshine and warm breeze will be exactly what’s needed come late October.

Sometimes a conference invite appeals to me because it’s a chance to see one of my own authors. Because so much of book business is conducted over phone and email, it’s a rare treat to get to sit down with an author of ours to share food and drink, meet some of their family, toast to their continued success, and plan for the next, even better thing. While I don’t *yet* have a South Carolina writer on board, two of my authors will be at the conference with me. I also contacted my beloved Georgia authors right away to let them know I’d be attending SCWW.

The Faculty / Speaker Roster – One of the first things I look at is who else is attending. Of course I look for agent and editor friends and acquaintances, but I also look at the keynoter and authors who are presenting as well. Keep in mind, we agents have our rock stars too. In the past twelve months or so I got to hang with Alice Hoffman (swoon!) as she knitted something green and lovely for a gift; I learned from Chuck Palahniuk why one should never slice off the point of a wedge of Brie cheese (at least not while in France); and I, the fabulous Meg Tilley, and a handful of others exchanged our shoes and any shyness for a low Japanese table, chopsticks all around, and a heaping pile of sushi while in the Pacific Northwest. I have no doubt that MJ Rose and others at SCWW will also rock my world in some fine way.

Reputation – Nothing is worse for an agent than a poorly organized conference, and word of sub-par organization easily and quickly spreads among agents and editors. Before accepting a conference invite, I ask past attending faculty what they thought of the conference, from accommodation to schedule to quality of attendees to ease of travel to and from the local airport. SCWW’s stellar reputation won me over in an instant.

Number and Focus of Attendees – I know you’ve been waiting for it, so yes, agents who go to conferences are hoping to find new clients there, and the size and focus of the conference matters. I am no exception; I’m hoping and indeed looking for that next great connection with a potential new author. It doesn’t happen every conference or even every year, but those times it does, the magic can be is immediate. The book is right, timing is right, it’s near ready to go; I bond with the author instantly. However, more often than not, when I sign a conference author, it happens months or even years after the conference ends. Sometimes it is the same book they pitched, but substantially polished or reworked (hopefully you’ll leave the conference full of ideas and advice for needed edits), other times I sign on a completely different book altogether. Sometimes I hear from an author I didn’t meet directly; they were in the back of the room, learning, listening, and when finally ready, they contacted me. And occasionally it’s not an attendee I sign on, but a referral from an attendee. Conferences have long shelf-life benefits for everyone.

There is one more reason I accept conference invites, but it’s far more subjective, and rather internal. I take the time to go to conferences because people trump electrons or pieces of paper any day. I spend untold hours every month sending out rejections; during busier times it’s a Dear Author form rejection. With 8,000 – 10,000 queries a year, I often do not have time for anything else. So it’s incredibly humbling and gratifying to be reminded at conferences that behind all the story ideas, behind all the pitches, proposals, and book ideas, are people. Enthusiastic, talented, interesting people. It keeps the humanity in what I do, and even if I don’t find / sign a single attendee at a conference, I return to the office refreshed and recharged, having been witness to so much collective creative energy. I’m reminded that I wouldn’t have this awesome job if it weren’t for writers like you. So a heartfelt thanks to you all for showing up, for giving me a chance to help, to acquire, and to remember that people are at the heart of any story.

See you in the South!

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