Literary agent Jessica Faust on her experience at writers’ cons.

The take-home from this is that, for unagented writers, the big value of having agents are your cons is not pitching (any interest you could’ve gotten from a pitch session you could also have gotten from a slush query), but rather the opportunity to talk “shop”.

The inside of the publishing industry is both notoriously complex and notoriously opaque to people outside of it, including most unpublished authors. Even a lot of published authors are ratshit terrible at it, particularly if they got their careers started in the “pre-Amazon” age (and have never done work on the editorial side of things) because… I don’t know. The world was different then, or something.

In other words, if you are an aspiring author and you get the opportunity to talk to an agent at a con? Don’t pitch them.1 Instead, try asking them about their work–why the got into it, what they love or don’t love about it–and about the industry. Most people enjoy talking “shop” about their jobs, particularly to people who can ask intelligent questions and are good at listening to answers. Yeah, I know that’s not an easy skill–I’m rubbish at it, too–but it is something you can learn and you can practice.

Come with a pre-prepared mental list, if it helps. I’d suggest compliments to the books of an agent’s authors, questions about contract negotiations (e.g. “what do you look out for in a ‘good’ versus a ‘dodgy’ contract?”) and industry trends (e.g. “what are the current challenges you’re seeing in getting books into bookstores?”) are probably good places to start, and do your prep work. Know which authors an agent represents. Maybe scan insider blogs like The Bookseller or The Shatzkin Files to see if there are any Big Obvious Issues you have questions about. In other words, show interest in, a) the agent and her job, and b) the industry itself.

Why do this? Well, remember that pitching is a short-term skill that will open you a door… but the long-term skill is navigating the maze behind it. Being an author is, fundamentally, a business and your agent is your business partner. Showing interest in the industry shows an agent you’re interested in being a proactive collaborator in that partnership, rather than that you imagine agents as some kind of disposable “stepping stone” en route towards an editor (which is a depressingly common attitude in un-agented authors). Agents are not–and, often, are not even–just “gatekeeper” pseudo-editors; they’re business managers, handling contracts, royalties, and long-term business strategies. Which means they know things. Useful things. Things you’ll want to know, if you get the chance.

And then, of course, once you go home at the end of the con? That’s when it’s time to pick up that pitch, and send that email…

  1. Unless it’s, yanno, an actual pitch session.