Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Convention / Conference Dos and Don'ts

My question concerns convention and conference etiquette. As I visit the publisher booths at this weekend’s ALA to collect catalogs, I also hope to find work-for-hire opportunities (and I know these exist primarily with the school / library publishers), and I anticipate meeting a few editors. I typically exchange business cards with authors and editors I meet. Is it acceptable to ask about sending manuscripts to those whom I meet in a convention setting? How would I politely look for work-for-hire opportunities? For SCBWI’s LA conference, I've been told to list my available manuscript blurb on the card’s reverse side. What are your thoughts about that? It makes sense for a novel, but what about for picture books?

Every person who attends a convention as a representative of a publishing house (whether from editorial, marketing, sales... production, even!) has to weather the same thing: random people coming around to try to get their stuff published.

This is
a) not what conventions are about or why we're there.
b) irritating.

So I appreciate your question. Just as with slush, the first step in approaching the situation realistically and intelligently is realizing that you are one of many. The next things you should realize are
1. If you want my card, fine. But I'm going to toss your card back at my hotel room, if not sooner.
2. I'm going to forget about you entirely, unless
3. You were one of those really irritating people who tried to show me actual manuscript pages / illustrations without an appointment.

I am at a convention doing my job. People who try to get a head-to-head out of me are preventing me from doing my job and usurping my company's time. They are also trying to jump the queue of patiently waiting authors back at the office. And they have almost never read the submission guidelines. And heaven help them if they try to give me materials to take back with me! I'm having a bonfire on my fire escape tonight, and that manuscript is invited.

More than anything, you want to fail to be one of these people—the people who are essentially shouting "The rules don't apply to me!" ...or even "What rules?!"

I'm happy to spend a minute or less answering a question, for instance, "I wonder if you could tell me how I would submit to your publishing company?" (note that I did not say 'how I would submit to you'). Or "I'm a work-for-hire illustrator. Is there someone in particular I should send samples to?" That would also be fine.

Try to approach publisher staff as you would a stranger on the street, if you were asking for directions. Because that's what we are—strangers. And that's what you can politely do at conventions—ask for directions.


Anonymous said...

Every single person in our booth will claim NOT to work in editorial (even if that is not the case) and will refer to our company's website where our submission guidelines are lovingly posted should a writer come sniffing around at ALA. Conventions cost publishing companies many thousands of dollars a year and are used to sell our existing books, not sign up new ones.

Anonymous said...

Could not agree more about conventions.

As for writers' conferences (where the focus is a bit more on connections with writers—as opposed to selling published titles), the same is basically true.

Almost nothing is to be gained from pitching a project (outside of formal critiques and/or conversations where the editor him/herself ASKS). The goal is to make a polite, human connection. That will serve your agenda much better in the end. Though, of course, it’s still about the manuscript/writing . . . again, almost nothing you can do or say is going to sell a manuscript. Odds are probably tipped in favor of making a poor impression, if any at all.

As for business cards, I have never seen a point to them (I toss them, too). And even for published writers, they have always struck me as odd. (Perhaps the one exception to this is a well-established work-for-hire author with a lot of strong credits, though almost all of those people have agents. And for illustrators or published authors, a promotional postcard promoting can be useful). A card with manuscript snippets or titles offered just screams amateur to me . . . but others’ mileage may vary.

If you want to have future contact, ask the editor for his/her card. People have very different philosophies about email correspondence/submissions from writers they’re not working with. Assume that card—if you get it—is for snail mail contact information, and perhaps ask if they mind emails. I’d never use the phone number, particularly for pitches or status queries.

MJ said...

Wow... I can't believe an editor can't go to ALA without getting cornered by would-be writers! As an ex-librarian, I can say that my former colleagues should know how to use Writer's Market and other reference tools to find contact and submission information without bothering people at the publishers' booths.

I also think it's inappropriate to use a conference that your employer is footing the bill for (which, granted, isn't necessarily the case with ALA—a lot of librarians pay their own way) to strenuously market your freelance work.

Anonymous said...

Geez, I know how irritating it is when asked a million times, "Can you help me publish my manuscript?"
However, today I feel like shouting...
it all starts with a blank page. Then someone somewhere has an idea
and they transfer this idea to a story.
Good grief, without the writer, there would be no publishing industry.
Give them hope. Smile and say thank you for a cute business card.
In time, their writing will improve, or go away.
Don't kill the spirit. There are too many "dark" stories out there.

Anonymous said...

If you want to have future contact, ask the editor for his/her card. People have very different philosophies about email correspondence/submissions from writers they’re not working with. Assume that card—if you get it—is for snail mail contact information, and perhaps ask if they mind emails. I’d never use the phone number, particularly for pitches or status queries.

Amen. I'd add: be careful about when you ask for an editor's business card. I speak and do panels at SCBWI conferences, and anyone who meets me there will already know my name and title and company, so I'm always a little leery of people there who flat-out ask me for my business card--folks whose reasons to contact me are no more urgent or extraordinary than any of the other writers there. I don't want to give out my card with caveats like, "Please don't use the email address," but in situations like that always make me wonder if I should. (Or have another set of cards made without my email address.)

A good rule of thumb is: editors' business cards are not status symbols. Don't ask for an editor's card just to have it as a trophy. And don't think an editor can't tell when you're just collecting his or her card on your "everyone who's anyone" safari.

Anonymous said...

Plenty of people who are not librarians attend ALA on their own dime. For the writers and illustrators who attend, it's a chance to pick up publisher's catalogs and to learn from other writers and illustrators. It's good to know that those working at the booths are happy to "give directions" as Editorial Anonymous put it. It's also helpful to hear an honest list of what annoys editors.

Anonymous said...

I think an emphasis on professionalism is important for everyone. Almost nothing you can do at a conference—from a pitch you’ve polished and rehearsed to perfection, to an adorable business card with kittens on it and quirky, writerly slogan next to your name—is going to sell a manuscript. There are no shortcuts and there is nothing that sells like quality. Spend the time on the manuscript.

Writing is raw talent and craft and business. There’s nothing precious about it.

And, for what it’s worth, I think it’s the very desire not to kill the spirit that makes form rejections and euphemisms a necessity, as frustrating as that may be.

Stephanie J. Blake said...

Oh yes, please kill the spirit of the wanna-be writers who show up and corner the editors and agents. Save the slots for the ones who triumph with good writing and professionalism.

Anonymous said...

It distresses, frustrates and even saddens me, that there are writers who have so little lack of perspective on the business side of writing. Publishing is a _business_, people - act like professionals! It does everyone a disservice to be anything less.

Anonymous said...

I've never quite gotten the point of a writer having business cards, so I'm glad to hear my instincts are right. FWIW, I've had fellow conference-goers give me their cards as well, and I'm just another not-yet-published writer! I have no idea what I'm supposed to do with the things.

Wendie O said...

I've changed from business cards to bookmarks with the covers of my books on the front and a tiny bit of information about me on the back.

I carry them during conventions. (both writer's and librarian's conventions) When people see my "author" ribbon, they somtimes ask me about my books. It makes it easier to hand them the bookmark. Seeing the covers often reminds them that they've seen my books. It's also a good way to show interested people what your new book will look like.

I have the bookmarks available in a pile when I'm signing at my publishers' booth. (and put one in every book signed.) They're available for anyone to pick up without them feeling they have-to purchase a book. Sometimes the publisher asks me to keep a pile of MY bookmarks at their booth for a while. (I say "my" because I designed and paid for them.)

I hardly ever use my writer business cards any more.

And, as a working librarian, I love bookmarks. When there are handouts at a booth, I'll take the bookmarks before pencils or any other handout. (But, bribe me with dark chocolate and I'm yours.)

-librarian/ writer

Qual said...

I remember when I was a kid we had a dog. One Sunday my mother took a succulent joint of roast beef out of the oven and placed it on the table to cool. The dog knew damn well that the meat was forbidden fruit, yet the scent was mesmerising and irresistable. Instinct kicked in and she gobbled it up in a matter of minutes.

Prospective writers are like my old dog. When they meet an editor face to face they smell a rare opportunity to network - you get the gist - and the primitive part of the brain takes over. Remember, editors often work behind a cold corporate wall (with the greatest respect, it can feel like that), screened from the outside world on top of a mountainous pile of slush.

I know editors understand that writers essentially place their beating hearts on a platter when they submit a manuscript. Despite the inappropriateness of such conference approaches, and I'm not amongst those nuisance writers, I do understand what motivates them to do it.

In the same way celebrities are obliged to sign nuisance autographs at times, perhaps editors at ALA etc. should keep standard little flyers at hand outlining company policy on submissions. That way, editors can feel perfectly comfortable not handing over personal contact details and all the would-be's go away with something.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Yes, and I always try to be kind and helpful. I understand that these advances are usually innocently motivated, but it's worth noting that a number of hopeful authors go to these events with the *goal* of harassing editors.

And it's also worth pointing out that there are lots of types of narcissistic behavior that are innocently motivated. The guy in the Hummer who's talking on his cell phone and cuts you off so suddenly you nearly have an accident truly didn't mean to inconvenience (or kill) you. But just because he doesn't know he's a jackass doesn't mean that he isn't one.

Qual said...

Those who turn up with the express goal of harassing editors ... there is a solution: cattle branding.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I think you're all ignoring one important source for all these desperate advances:

"How to get published" books.

Almost all of these include a chapter on networking and SWEAR that the only way to get published is personal connections with editors through conferences and trade shows. They always include TRUE STORIES!!! of someone who shoved their manuscript down an editor's throat and was rewarded with fame, fortune and a huge advance...

I used to read these accounts and despair... After all, I don't have the time and money to aggressively network....

Then I came across an interview in a copy of Poet's Market. The interviewer asked a poet/editor what a novice could do to ensure publication. Her response? "Write something worth publishing."

Talk about a life-changing revelation.....

My husband was at a library conference where Jerry Spinelli also stressed this point.

He told about how he had spent a bunch of money at a charity auction to win dinner with a famed author......

He had an interesting dinner, but it didn't help his career as a (then) unpublished author one whit.

What did? Writing more, editing more, and rewriting more until he had written something worth publishing....

But, at the same time, you should have some sympathy for these insane conference goers... They're REALLY trying to do things by the book....

They're just using the wrong book....

Anonymous said...

I admit I'm rather confused on the conference portion of this discussion(I understand completely the inappropriateness of this type of aggressive behavior at conventions.) However, if an editor invites conference submissions and you ask the editor whether she'd prefer you to mail her the submissions or give her copies right then and she says "either is fine," is it wrong to hand her manuscripts? Is she truly just going to toss them??? Am I somehow missing something?

Editorial Anonymous said...

Oh, that's different. If an editor actually requests conference submissions, then take her at her word. And if she says either mail or handing it to her right now is fine, then either is fine.

I should just mention the difference (not for you, anonymous, but for the record) between an editor requesting a manuscript and simply saying 'yes' to the question "Can I send this to you?" They're different. "Can I send this to you?" can also be understood as "Can I submit this to your publishing house?" and at my house the answer is pretty much always yes. But some newbies take that "yes" to mean "I'll have a look at it personally and get back to you"... which definitely NOT going to happen.

Anonymous said...

Even at SCBWI conferences where events are set up for the sole purpose of speaking with and getting critiques from the editor, I get very frustrated when large groups of people hound me and try to hand me their manuscripts. I make it clear that I will invite certain submissions and will look at query letters, so it's doubly annoying when five people are trying to pitch to me while I'm eating or standing in line for the bathroom. Do. Not. Stalk.

Anonymous said...

I am a published author and we also get harassed and stalked at conferences and other events by a small but obnoxious percentage of people who not only see us as possible connections, but clearly do not care what they do or how I feel as they pursue their goal.

I cannot blame people who think I may be able to help them, am often happy to talk to people about getting published. Like the person who wrote in the original question that started this topic going, many people really are polite and respectful and really do want solid information about how to go about placing their work. But lets call bad behavior bad behavior, no matter what is written in cheesy how-to books. Someone can read in a book that connections are everything, and then try to make them respectfully and with an open mind and eventually figure out that the industry doesn't really work that way. Other people read stuff like that and suddenly feel like it is OK to go to a conference and act like a moonie.

Also, what kind of person reads a cheesy how-to book and thinks that trumps basic politeness or common courtesy? Those books do not turn nice people into monsters, they give people without healthy boundaries bad ideas that a respectful person would not pursue in the first place. Only a wingnut would feel like they 'scored' to get a business card from someone that they alienated in the process! Who would think of that as a 'connection'??? If you truly believe the myth that connections are 'everything', you have to be really stupid to go around doing that exact thing that will insure you never have any: being manipulative and pushy to people who will and do see right through you.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Go you!
Extra points for use of the words "moonie" and "wingnut," which I just don't hear enough.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious to know which editors out there are actually publishing the information in the "cheesy how to" books, that results in increasing their stalked status! Seems like a preventable problem to me!!

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