ACFW Conference Debriefing

I just came from ACFW, the annual conference of American Christian Fiction Writers. It’s a large and terrific writers conference, with top notch writing courses and plenty of opportunity for networking. This year there were something like 540 writers attending, and 60 faculty and staff. Donald Maass gave an all-day seminar on opening day, and Debbie Macomber was the keynote speaker.

In case you’ve ever wondered what a conference is like for an agent, here are a few notes from my personal perspective:

* I generally enjoy writers’ conferences because I love nothing more than, talking, eating and breathing “publishing” and there’s no better place to do that!

* The hardest part for me is staying “on” for hours on end, sometimes 14 hours with nothing more than a couple of five-minute breaks. By the end of the first day, my face already hurts from smiling and my throat hurts from talking.

* I love teaching workshops but sometimes I need a break from teaching. I’ve taught a lot of local workshops lately, and I taught six sessions at my last big writers conference in June, so I decided not to teach at ACFW. Turned out to be a good decision – I was busy enough.

* It can be mentally exhausting to have back-to-back pitch meetings for several hours a day, but it’s amazing how “present” I really am. I totally tune in to each writer, try hard to quickly grasp what they’re pitching me, and offer my response trying to be as helpful as possible. I love interacting with writers – it’s the reason I have this job.

* The hardest part about the pitch meetings is graciously ending the meeting in the cases where I don’t want to request a partial or proposal. It’s easier to end it by just saying, “Well, send me your sample chapters and I’ll take a look” but I never use that line as a cop out, I only say it when I sincerely want to see the manuscript. So it can be awkward to have to simply say, “Thank you for coming.” It’s like a verbal rejection letter, and I always feel bad! But I always try to give them something to grab on to, something positive and perhaps a direction to take.

* Generally it seems writers are getting more savvy, being more prepared with their pitches, one sheets, etc. Most know not to pitch in the bathroom. I’m enjoying conferences more since there seems to be a higher level of professionalism. You’re really reading agent blogs!

* Of course, sometimes people know all the “rules” but forget them in the excitement of the moment. Saturday I was in the middle of a 2-hour block of back-to-back pitch meetings, no time in between. Between meetings, I ran out to the hall to grab a glass of water and somebody started pitching me a long and detailed story. It was totally disconcerting… that’s what the appointments are for! I couldn’t find a gracious way out of it… I finally had to interrupt and say “I’ve really got to get back in, I have someone waiting who actually has an appointment to pitch me.” I felt bad immediately but then again, it wasn’t nice to try and pitch me during someone else’s appointment time.

* I always learn new things at conferences, mostly from “the buzz” and talking to editors and agents. You can be sure I’ll be blogging about some of the insights I had.

* I’m excited that I may end up with a couple of new clients from this conference, and I also began formulating a revised business plan for the next few months based on some new connections I made. You’ll hear about that eventually on the blog, too.

* I have two favorite parts of conferences. The first is seeing my publishing friends from all over the country. I’m blessed to have such neat relationships with people I admire, even though we rarely see each other. My industry friends, including authors, editors and other agents, are so energizing and affirming to me. I love catching up with them, learning from them, and talking business. I met a bunch of new publishing people this time, too, which I loved. I can hardly overstate how much my industry networking lifts me up and motivates me to get back to my desk and work!

* The other favorite part is getting to spend time with my clients, most of whom I rarely see in person. This time I met three of my clients for the very first time – so cool. I have to say, I’ve gathered the most amazing and FUN group of people! We had an agency dinner on Friday night (there were 20 of us), and on Saturday most of us tried to sit together at the awards banquet. It was a blast and I always feel incredibly blessed to be surrounded by such cool people with so much talent. (For my clients who weren’t there… you were missed, I promise. Catch you at another conference.)

I limit my conference attendance to two or three big ones a year, and I always to to ACFW because every single time, it has proven productive both personally and professionally. I highly recommend it to any Christian who is writing fiction (you don’t have to be writing Christian fiction). For all writers, I suggest you try to get to at least one conference each year or two, if you can. You’ll be amazed at the inspiration, motivation, practical learning, and new friends that will result.

Been to ACFW or another conference lately? What did you think?

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Pam Meyers on September 26, 2009 at 10:41 AM

    >Coming in late on commenting here. Rachelle, it was great seeing you at the conference last week. We have been hearing over and over again how much this year's ACFW conference has blessed in so many ways.
    Next year's conference will be September 17-20th in Indianapolis. Note that is a Fri-Mon. A slight switch in days of the week. So start saving now as Lisa said she is doing. It will be at the Hyatt in downtown, close to shops and restaurants.

  2. Rick Barry on September 25, 2009 at 4:17 PM

    >Sounds like there's a need for articles on the etiquette of pitching in person. I believe that, regardless of whether you're at a conference, at a party, or in an airplane at 30,000 feet, it's only polite to preface a pitch with a question like, "Excuse me, but I have a manuscript that I'd like to talk to you about. Do you have a few minutes, or is this a bad time?"

    Back when I was an editor, I worked for an educational publisher. Never had to worry about authors running up and saying, "Hey, I have a great new geology manuscript…"

  3. Jennifer L. Griffith on September 24, 2009 at 11:27 AM

    >I've attended Christian conferences and non-Christian conferences. BY FAR, the Christ-centered groups has been the most supportive, energized and loving. I also love the depth of classes taught at these conferences, the humbleness of each teacher, and the professional nature of the agents and editors during the appointments. Thanks for being a part of that experience for so many, Rachelle. You are very gracious.

  4. Robin Archibald on September 22, 2009 at 8:13 AM

    >I didn't go to my local (Philadelphia) writers conf this year because although I've been to it two years in a row and learned loads, this year I felt I needed to hunker down with my WIP. I'd like to go to ACFW next year. If I work VERY, VERY hard between now and then, I might have a novel to pitch. I was wondering where the ACFW conf will be next year. But as of a few days ago, the website still has the 2009 dates and place.

  5. Mechelle Fogelsong on September 21, 2009 at 11:31 PM

    >I drove 600 miles to get to the PNWA conference in Seattle recently, practicing my pitch to my kids in the back seat the whole way. Once I got to the conference, other authors gave me gobs of advice on how to improve my pitch, making the pitch longer and longer.

    When I finally met with an agent, I decided to use the original pitch I had practiced during my drive. It must've been okay at least, because she asked for the first ten pages, liked them, and asked for the first 50 after that. She hasn't gotten back to me since then, but I considered it a success overall.

    I'm especially glad I went with my original pitch!

  6. Krista Phillips on September 21, 2009 at 10:23 PM

    >This was my 2nd year at ACFW and I LOVED it as always. Even better this year because I had SO many friends both from last year and from the blogosphere. Meeting you was awesome (okay, fine, introducing myself at lunch then trying to crawl under the table was a FAB experience…)

    The conference was wonderful, learned a ton, stressed a lot, laughed a bunch, and was generally encouraged in my writing journey. Can't ask for more than that!

  7. Sharon Mayhew on September 21, 2009 at 9:20 PM

    >Dear Rachelle,

    If you had a limited budget and had to choose one "big" writing trip for the year, what would you choose to go to? Or would you choose taking a writing class?

    I recently had a fiction story accepted by a children's magazine and am pondering if I should continue with my plan of taking a course from the Children's Writer Insitute or to attend a conference or two. What would you suggest?

    Thanks so much, you have an informative blog and seem like a lovely person.

  8. Tea With Tiffany on September 21, 2009 at 7:56 PM

    >I would have loved to be there. I'm sure you are exhausted. Hopefully you can find time to rest, but then again it's already Monday!

    Thanks for always sharing with us.

    I look forward to reading "the buzz."

  9. Joel Q on September 21, 2009 at 5:32 PM

    >I'm fairly new at this, but have been to Pikes Peak Writers Conf. two times. Lots of good sessions and connections.

  10. Gwen Stewart--Singer-Scribe on September 21, 2009 at 5:06 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    It was great to meet you this weekend! I am impressed by both your professionalism and your warmth. That is a very fine line to ride and you do it with finesse!

    Me? I was awed by all of it. First, the mountains. Then all of the talent at ACFW. In both cases I felt dwarfed, but that's as it should be in the presence of such majesty–and accomplishment!

    God bless you and I hope you have a great start to your week.

  11. Jody Hedlund on September 21, 2009 at 3:27 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    I'm finally making my way around the blog world! Loved your recap. of ACFW. I'm still in a haze since I didn't get home until 10:45 last night and then stayed up until all hours of the night sharing the details of the conference with my husband!

    It was AWESOME to get to meet you and I loved that we could talk on a deeper level. And I'm glad that we could just hang out and have fun too! Thanks for sharing yourself with all of us! And it's a good thing you have such a pretty smile since you had to wear it for so many hours!

  12. Jessica on September 21, 2009 at 12:51 PM

    >Someone said something about you not feeling bad about requesting and I totally agree. Just having an industry professional share advice and knowledge is awesome. I hope you don't feel bad and I really, really doubt anyone leaving your table felt bad. 🙂 You seem very nice and I bet everyone who met with you was thankful for it.

  13. Lori Benton on September 21, 2009 at 12:50 PM

    >I couldn't attend ACFW this year, but did attend Mount Hermon in April. It was wonderful, laid back, inspiring, encouraging, and the teaching top notch. I hope to attend ACFW next year. Has the keynote speaker for next been announced yet?

    I was disappointed to miss Donald Maass's early bird session, as I've found his THE FIRE IN FICTION inspiring and helpful. If this session is available to purchase on CD, I'm so going to buy it.

  14. Diana on September 21, 2009 at 12:39 PM

    >Regarding ending a pitch session without making a request: a friend of mine was on the author's side of the table during a pitch session. She started talking about her historical, when the agent held up her hand and said, "I'm not looking for historicals. But you have me for a few more minutes. I'm happy to answer any questions you might have about the industry."

    My friend said she felt like she still left on a good note.

  15. lynnrush on September 21, 2009 at 12:28 PM

    >I just returned from ACFW as well. Long drive from CO back to AZ, but I'm glad to be in the heat of the desert again.

    ACFW was a blast. The Donald Maass class really went well. He is an amazing speaker who knows his stuff.

    This was my first ACFW conference, but my fourth overall. It was put together very well! Great bunch of people those ACFW-ers.

    What I loved the most, besides the education I received from the stellar faculty, was meeting my online friends for the first time! Crit partners and fellow blogging/FaceBook/Twitter friends in general.

  16. Roxane B. Salonen on September 21, 2009 at 11:18 AM

    >Rachelle, for the last decade I have faithfully gone to our Dakotas regional SCBWI conference (children's writers). This year, I attended the National Federation of Press Women conference because I had received a national award for religion articles. There, I had the chance to hang out with a lot of great journalists/writers/authors, including Heloise, who was a presenter and won Communicator of Achievement for 2009. It was a fun change to try a different conference. I can imagine it would be exhilarating to meet your new clients for the first time. Thanks for giving us insight on the need for agents to set firm boundaries. You must be exhausted!

  17. Catherine West on September 21, 2009 at 10:49 AM

    >I just say ditto to everything you and the others have said. I have only ever attended ACFW conferences, so I can't compare it to anything else, but for me, it's exactly what I need to keep going each year. Writing is a solitary profession so it's really important to have that connection with fellow writers in person. It can be a bit intimidating if you're not a real people person, and pitching anything for the first time is nothing short of nauseating for me, but after my first conference back in '06, I swore I would never miss one. Sadly, I did have to miss this year's conference and I'm still moping about it, but I'm greatly encouraged by reading all the wonderful reports and hearing I was missed from my friends! I also really appreciate the fact that ACFW makes tapes of the sessions available to purchase, I'm definitely going to do that this year.
    This conference has become the highlight of my year, so even though I never thought I'd have any great desire to visit Indianapolis, it's on my calendar for 2010!

  18. Katie Ganshert on September 21, 2009 at 10:24 AM

    >Wow, is all I can say about the ACFW conference. It was worth every penny. It was even worth pulling myself away from my 11 month old son for four days (although that was tough!).

    It's hard to process everything I learned – and that's not including the workshops. Just being able to meet with blogging friends (that was by far one of the coolest parts of the conference), and industry professionals was amazing.

    It was such a privilege being able to talk to you and a other agents/editors about my work. Everybody was so gracious and enthusiastic and helpful! I so much appreciate your heart for helping writers. You can bet I'm going to grab onto the advice you gave me and run with it!

    My favorite part of the conference had to be witnessing people's dreams come true! Like when Barbour announced those contracts, or watching authors win the Genesis or the Book of the Year. So very cool and encouraging!

    It was awesome getting to meet you face-to-face, Rachelle. Now it's time for me to get to work. 🙂

  19. Jill on September 21, 2009 at 9:38 AM

    >I've attended four of the last five ACFW conferences and they've all been terrific. I always learn from the classes and workshops, but I also get a lot out of networking and meeting others in this profession. ACFW always seems to top themselves every year.

  20. Donna McNiel on September 21, 2009 at 9:30 AM

    >I'm preparing for my first conference in Feb. (San Francisco Writing Conf.) and I'm, of course, looking forward to the pitch appointments. I would love for an agent or editor to say "Send me everything you have as soon as possible!" but what I'm realistically hoping for is constructive feedback about my project and my pitch. I would be thrilled to have an agent end an appointment by telling me how to do better, even if they're not ready to see my work. Don't feel badly about not doing more than that. That kind of feedback is a huge gift! (As I know you know. I guess the rub is getting the writers to know that. This one's working on it!)

  21. Terry Burns on September 21, 2009 at 8:54 AM

    >Rachael, enjoyed seeing you at ACFW. I subscribe to and always enjoy your blog. Be blessed.

    oh, you might consider adding to your blog list. We'd appreciate it.


  22. Anne L.B. on September 21, 2009 at 8:40 AM

    >I've attended three conferences in 17 months. Each one has been invaluable for:

    • CONNECTING with people in publishing. It's not simply about meeting that agent or editor who's going to get an author published. It's about building the relationships that sustain and develop a writer with a goal of publication.

    • LEARNING from the pro's—in a way you can't get from books or internet—the methods of craft which make a work worth of publication.

    • GROWING as an individual in faith, in professionalism, in writing skill.

    Three times I've headed to a conference wondering if it would prove worth the huge investment of time and money. Three times I've walked away with a resounding "YES!"

    (And Rachelle, THANK YOU for everything. Even when I'm among all those other fantastic agents, I'm convinced I couldn't possibly have a better one for me!)

  23. Dee Yoder on September 21, 2009 at 8:24 AM

    >I hope to get to the ACFW conference someday, but in the meantime, I try to attend the Faithwriter's Conference in Detroit. Wonderful times of learning and just being with writing friends. The experiences are very valuable.

  24. Jessica on September 21, 2009 at 7:51 AM

    >I was there and it was definitely awesome! My first time and I got to meet some of the bloggers who I've formed relationships with over the past year. They were incredible!!!
    I really wanted to meet you but every time I saw you, you were so busy. LOL I was the girl who on the first night said hi at the dinner tables. 🙂 And that was it.
    It really was wonderful meeting fellow writers, authors and editors/agents.
    Thanks for sharing about your experience!

  25. Marla Taviano on September 21, 2009 at 7:31 AM

    >I would love to go to that conference. Maybe next year!

  26. CKHB on September 21, 2009 at 7:21 AM

    >I've never been to a conference… I'll have to think more about whether I might want to go to one in the near future!

  27. Richard Mabry on September 21, 2009 at 7:21 AM

    So good to have a bit of time to share with you one-on-one. Don't know how you manage to be "on" for so long and interact so graciously with so many people.
    This was my fourth ACFW conference, and there's no doubt they've been better organized, better attended, and the program more worthwhile each time.

  28. Lisa Jordan on September 21, 2009 at 6:46 AM

    >I loved talking with you again, Rachelle. Even though you've been on all morning, you still gave me all of your attention during our appointment. I appreciated that. Thank you.

    ACFW is the only conference I can afford to attend, but it's such a worthwhile experience that I start saving for the next year as soon as I return from that year's conference.

    This year's conference was held at a gorgeous hotel with courteous staff. The behind-the-scenes conference staff did a terrific job of keeping things running smoothly.

    I learned a lot from the workshops, met wonderful new friends, and had several exciting God-given moments including a request for a full manuscript and placing 2nd in the contemporary romance category of the Genesis contest.

    With all of that, my absolute most favorite part of the conference is connecting with friends I see only once a year, including my writing partner.

    Conferences can be exhausting, especially if there is a lot of travel involved. Be sure to stay hydrated and take time for some rest and relaxation.

  29. Susan Cushman on September 21, 2009 at 1:15 AM

    >Oh, and I forgot to mention that I'll be attending the first ever Escape to Create Writers Conference at Seaside, Florida, October 14-16. Two of the authors who will be leading workshop sessions are Neil White and Scott Morris, two of my mentors from Oxford (Mississippi). And last November I had a blast at Southern Writers Reading in Fairhope, Alabama, which is possibly the best kept secret in the Southern writers circuit. Oops! Guess it's out now:-)

  30. Susan Cushman on September 21, 2009 at 1:12 AM

    >My three favorite conferences are the Creative Nonfiction Conference (and workshops),the Mississippi Writers Conference, and the Yoknapatawpha Writers Workshop (every June in Oxford, Mississippi). Learned a lot pitching to agents and editors at the CNF Conference, but the best part of these gatherings, for me, is networking, and meeting other writers who sometimes become lasting friends. I'll be presenting an essay at the Southern Women Writers Conference this Thursday through Saturday at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, and moderating a second session. This will be my first time on the other side of the podium, and I'm excited but nervous. Your blod is a continual source of inspiration and encouragement to me, Rachel.