Hot Tips for Conferences

We’re in prime writers’ conference season and lots of people are giving their advice (some of it different from mine). So I thought I’d drop a few hints your way just to increase your chance of conference-success.

• First up, everyone says “don’t be nervous.” Agents and editors are just people, right? Sure we are. We’re just people. Don’t be nervous.

• Just this once, avoid the bathroom pitch. It’s okay to pitch an agent or editor in a one-on-one meeting, or at a meal, or any other situation in which they express interest. Agents and editors EXPECT to be pitched, they expect you to try and impress them with your wit and brilliance. But not the bathroom. I HATE being rude, but I’ve had to break out my snarky side upon being pitched while washing my hands. No matter how amazing your book is, the bathroom pitch ensures its certain death.

• DON’T pitch a novel unless it’s complete. If you haven’t written words 1 through 100,000 (or so), don’t bother. WAIT until it’s ready. This doesn’t hold true with non-fiction. A completed proposal, some sample chapters… call it good.

• If you’ve brought anything with you like a one-sheet, a business card or a proposal, ASK the agent/editor if they’d like to take it with them. Some will, some won’t. Personally, I tend to just say no to carrying anything extra. Whatever you do, DON’T bring your entire manuscript. You don’t want to lug it around, and neither does anyone else.

• If you don’t have a project that’s saleable and ready to go, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth your time to take any one-on-one appointments. Here’s where I differ with other agents out there. Personally, I don’t mind if some writers use their appointment time with me to float some ideas and get advice and input (as opposed to pitching me a saleable project). However, agents are primarily there to find clients, and some may not appreciate you taking up their appointment time with no possibility of a viable business connection. If you’re not selling anything, perhaps take just one appointment, leaving room for others who are actually ready to sell. Then take every other possible opportunity to get your questions answered: agent and editor panels, late-night-chats, meal-times, etc.

• Be kind. Be polite. Cover your mouth when you cough. All that stuff.

The basics of going to a conference are:

• Go there to learn about writing

• To learn about publishing

• To make friends

• Go to make some professional connections that may help your writing career in the future.

• Don’t isolate yourself–talk to people, get involved, get to know people. Don’t let your introverted writer side take over or you’ll waste your time and money.

• Most of all: Go with a goal. Know why you’re going (and this will be different for each of you) and then conduct yourself at the conference with the idea of reaching your goal. Are you going to get an agent? To get three publishing houses interested in your book? To learn about the industry? To meet other writers? To get a break from the family? Always wanted to visit San Diego? All of the above? Decide. Then do it.

If you have specific conference questions… or if you want to add to my (admittedly inadequate) advice… feel free in the comments.

Update: I’ve expanded on this in the comments if you want to read more.

Photo credit:

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. […] Going to conferences can be a great way to network with writers and other publishing professionals. Rachelle Gardner has some hot tips for conferences. […]

  2. Monica on September 29, 2018 at 8:28 AM

    Bathroom pitches…would love to believe that just never happens, but I’m so sure it does. I’m definitely not one of those writers. Is there a single resource/website that compiles a list of writers conferences around the country?

  3. Twill on April 18, 2008 at 6:14 PM

    >I laughed about the Christian healthy microwave college cookbook idea too… then I started thinking.

    How many of those would sell to the *parents*…?

    Could be BIG.

  4. Terry Brennan on April 11, 2008 at 5:28 PM

    >Thanks, Rachelle … so much great information.

    I went to my first conference two years ago, knowing nothing and nobody. After 20 minutes, the finished manuscript I expected to pitch was pitched into the trunk of my car. It just wasn’t ready for the light of day.

    But, I had an idea …

    So, I went around and pitched the idea to anyone who would listen.

    Amazingly (an adverb), other people got excited about the idea, too. One writer gave me her outline for book proposals and – if I finished the book – would hook me up to meet her agent.

    The next year, same conference, the idea had become a manuscript – international suspense/action genre. I kid you not … I had two published authors, who write the same kind of stuff, taking my manuscript to agents and reps of publishing houses, telling them they should talk to me. Are you kidding me? Their work led to me being represented by an agent.

    I left the conference that night, got into my car, and wept at the wonder of God’s grace and his favor.

    Knock, and it shall be opened. Seek, and ye shall find.


  5. Pam Halter on April 11, 2008 at 7:48 AM

    >When I was preparing for the Mt. Hermon conference, my mentor told me to go with no expectations. Did I have goals? Sure. But going without high hopes sure helped me be less nervous.

    I came home with requests from a major publishing house and an agent.

    The publishing house has already asked for the whole manuscript.

    Am I totally jazzed? Yep. But I’m trying real hard not to make myself crazy while I wait.

  6. Linda Harris on April 10, 2008 at 4:52 PM


    Thanks for answering my question. I will plan to make an appointment with you. I’m looking forward to meeting you.

  7. R4C on April 10, 2008 at 4:09 PM

    >Oh darn! Rachelle, I would love to have you pull my idea out of your inbox and meet you at CCWC. However, I am equally excited about visiting with my son who will be home on leave from Iraq that weekend. I am in love with the idea of skipping one-on-one appointments because of having a contract with an agent. Reading your comment made me realize there are many more advantages to being agented than I thought. Sounds like heavenly bliss. I have always been a penny pincher, thinking I could sell myself and save money but I am learning that just doesn’t work the way I had hoped (I could list a number of reasons why. My guess would be that the number one reason is the network you have that I don’t): knowing a number of editors and what they are looking for. In saying that I mean to add to the conference discussion that this is part of the conferencing environment. The workshops you take, the editor panels, the opportunity for critque groups (my personal favorite); creating a network of writing enthuasists from many parts of the industry. The members of my very first critique group still email each other with our ideas and writing samples.

    And yes, I agree CCWC is the most beautiful location for a writer’s conference. It is such a great experience. Do bring your bottled water because the altitude takes some adjusting to and they say that helps. I have no idea why but it does.

  8. Rachelle on April 10, 2008 at 3:21 PM

    >Linda (and anyone else with the same situation)… You should definitely meet with any editors and agents who might be a good fit for you. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

    If you have a proposal on submission with an editor or agent, tell them that, and say something like, “Would you like to hear about it?”

    Right now, I don’t have a mental association between each project on my desk and the name of the writer. But talking to you about it would probably help me.

    Also, feel free to contact an agent or editor ahead of a conference, saying, “I have a proposal in your stack and I’m going to be at CCWC. I’d love the opportunity to discuss it with you.” That gives them (me) a good heads-up to maybe dig it out of the pile.

  9. Linda Harris on April 10, 2008 at 3:15 PM

    >Here’s another question or two (I’m planning to attend CCWC in Estes Park): As a potential client of yours, should I make ANY appointments with editors, or with other agents (should you decide not to represent me)? Should I make an appointment with you to discuss the proposal I already sent you?

  10. Mark H. on April 10, 2008 at 1:04 PM

    >Having never attended a conference, all this advice is extremely valuable. Thank you so much!

    Now if I could just finish this novel…

  11. Heather@Mommymonk on April 10, 2008 at 12:31 PM

    >I do hereby solemnly swear not to cough at agents or corner editors in the bathroom.

    What type of blathering will happen in an actual interview, well that’s something I can’t promise.

  12. Catherine West on April 10, 2008 at 11:19 AM

    >Together?? Like, you’ll be right there to hold my hand and make sure I breathe and kick me if I say something stupid??? WOW how cool are you!!
    LOL. Okay seriously, that’s good to know. But I’m thinking positive in that maybe by September we’ll be pitching my NEXT book…the one I will have to finish between now and then.
    Back to work now.

  13. Anonymous on April 10, 2008 at 11:03 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle for the insights. I’m about to go to my first writer’s conference, the Blue Ridge Conference in North Carolina. Richard? Maybe we can meet! I feel like I know you having read so many of your posts! I’ve got a finished novel to pitch, so I’m crossing my fingers and whispering prayers!

  14. Robbie Iobst on April 10, 2008 at 10:56 AM

    >I want to elaborate on what Karen said. Besides taking time with God at the conference just to breathe and hang out, it is vital for me to take time before the conference and really rest in His arms so I am okay with who I am as a woman and writer and fun human being. This way, I don’t walk around the conference looking for an agent or editor or random writer to fulfill that which can only be fulfilled by God. Sometimes conferences bring out desperate-to-be-wanted writers and not just hungry-to learn-and-possibly-sell writers.

  15. Tiffany Stuart on April 10, 2008 at 10:17 AM

    >This was great. And I laughed when you wrote “cover your mouth when you cough.”

    Total rabbit trail: My ten-year-old daughter only coughs on her sleeve or arm(she tells her friends to do that too) because of me telling her it does no good to cough into your hand.

    After all, don’t you then touch something or someone with that hand. 🙂

    So she walks around with germy sleeves..

    Okay back to your post, this was so good. I cannot tell you how many writers I’ve seen with full blown suitcases and briefcases to lug around their manuscripts. I agree a one sheet is better! There’s more time to talk eye to eye that way.

  16. Catherine Downen on April 10, 2008 at 9:11 AM

    >Rachelle, thanks for the great advice. I’m thrilled to learn that you will be at ACFW. I’m hoping (God willing) to attend, and I’d love to meet you. Now I have even more motivation to press on and finish my current WIP, so I can schedule a one-on-one conference. Blessings to you for being such an encouragement to writers.

  17. Anonymous on April 10, 2008 at 8:46 AM

    >Great information and feedback. I have not attended a conference to date but I plan to in the near future. This helps tremendously, thanks a million.


  18. Katy McKenna on April 10, 2008 at 7:51 AM

    >I really appreciate this perspective, Rachelle. It’s not always easy for new writers to see this issue from all sides. It makes me wonder if less emphasis should be put (in the conference literature) on “two appointments with editors/agents included!” and more guidance put forth about how to develop relationships with the pros (apart from these 15-minute meetings) for future reference.

    It all makes me thankful that God is involved, that He cares about bringing people together in His timing. He’s faithful to accomplish His purposes!

  19. Rachelle on April 10, 2008 at 7:38 AM

    >Katy, Catherine and anyone else who is agented…

    If you’re already contracted with a publisher, you are NOT going to a conference for one-on-one appointments but for all the other benefits. Remember, once you have representation and a contract, you’re not supposed to be pitching ANYTHING to editors, and obviously you’re not supposed to pitch agents.

    If you’re agented but without a contract, talk to your agent ahead of time to plan your strategy.

    All my clients… PLEASE talk to me before attending any conferences and we will discuss your purpose and priorities there.

    I will be at ACFW so if any of you (my current clients) are still uncontracted by then, we’ll pitch those editors together.

  20. Rachelle on April 10, 2008 at 7:29 AM

    >Regarding Katy’s question: This is the area in which I’ve found disparate advice given from different quarters. I’ve read some mainstream agents (non CBA) saying DON’T waste our time if you don’t have a saleable project, period. We are there to find clients and if your novel isn’t ready, you can’t be a client.

    Then you have conference organizers encouraging writers to use those one-on-one meetings for “practice.” So we go from one end of the spectrum to the other.

    I’m definitely looking for clients, and attending a conference takes a huge bite out of my work schedule so I really have to make it worth my while. But I like helping people, too, so I’m torn. I need to have a balance.

    With editors, I think it’s different. First, their publishing house is paying their way, while agents are generally paying their own way. Second, many of the editors don’t have much expectation of actually acquiring projects from conferences, so they might be more willing to take the “practice” pitches and simply be there to give advice and input.

    Editors are getting paid whether they acquire a project or not. Since agents only make a paycheck if they have clients who are selling books, we have a more pressing need to make sure our time is used wisely. This is a huge difference for me. When I was an editor, I always told people they could use their time with me however they liked. Now, I still WANT to help people, but I’m much more serious about looking for clients, too.

    There is not going to be a definitive answer. I’d suggest, as a general guideline, don’t do the “practice” pitches with agents but it’s probably okay with some of the editors.

  21. Catherine West on April 10, 2008 at 7:17 AM

    >Actually, I’ve always wanted to visit The Mall of America…if I go missing during the ACFW conference in September, you’ll know where to find me.
    I’m not sure what they were thinking with that location!
    However, I do have a question. With regard to appointments, now that I have an agent, do I go to any appointments? If I do, do I get two editor appointments instead of the agent AND editor slot? I’m not sure how that all works. I guess it might depend on how ACFW runs the thing too, but I thought you might have more of a clue than I do. I’ll check out the forums, maybe they’ve said something about this in the past.

  22. Richard Mabry on April 10, 2008 at 7:05 AM

    >Good timing for this post since I’m headed next month for my first ever visit to the Blue Ridge Mountains Writers’ Conference.
    As always, excellent advice. One additional thought. I’ve attended several conferences, each time with a goal in mind, and on more than one occasion God has pointed me in another–better–direction. So don’t be so goal-oriented that you miss the opportunity to make a fantastic connection or have your work sent in another direction.

  23. Katy McKenna on April 10, 2008 at 7:01 AM

    >Rachelle–Really helpful post! Question: Do some conferences discourage writers without a finished novel (or a finished non-fiction proposal) from signing up for meetings with editors/agents? I can totally understand that the reason editors/agents attend is to find new clients/manuscripts. But when writers register for a conference, they are generally led to view this as “their chance” to practice pitching their idea to a publishing pro, even if it’s only in an embryonic stage. Maybe editors/agents should reserve the right to specify in advance the type of meetings they’re willing to schedule? Thank you!

    Katy McKenna

  24. Karen on April 10, 2008 at 5:58 AM

    >Sage advice. I would only add that you might want to take some time to step aside during the conference, find a quiet spot, and ask God’s direction. One of the best experiences I had at a conference was sitting under a shade tree and talking to him for an hour–trying to figure out what in the world I was even doing there thinking I was a writer.

  25. Randy Mortenson on April 10, 2008 at 12:25 AM

    >Great advice, Rachelle. Spot on.

    I returned from a unique writers retreat this past weekend: Darcy Pattison’s revision retreat. Geared toward children’s and YA writers but applicable to all writing. No agents or editors there, so no distractions, as it were. We all came with rough drafts–already pre-critiqued by 3 others in our small group–and attacked them. Wow. This retreat has changed my writing (and reading, even how I see movies) for the rest of my life.

    Now it’s time to put to work what we learned and in six months we’ll reconvene for another 2 1/2 days–with an editor from Simon & Schuster and an agent from Writers House. The goal? A contract, of course. And we’ll learn about the publishing process and business and be sparked to get to work on the next book.

    I got so juiced I’ve already started working on a new story, besides revising the rough draft.

    These conferences and retreats are investments of time, money, sweat, and sleep, to be sure. But if you don’t invest, you won’t reap dividends or interest.