Agent Advice Part 2: Stars sometimes align at conferences

There’s another Cinderella-in-Alaska story to tell this week, and it doesn’t involve a certain past mayor of Wasilla. Just this weekend, while doing a book-signing in Mat-Su, I met a local aspiring novelist who recently snagged a big agent. I’ve been meaning to write a post about agents but I wanted to share more than my own experience. Eowyn Ivey’s story adds evidence to the idea that if you work hard and look for opportunity, you might find it. She even found it in the same place I did: at a writing conference.
Eowyn, who is a bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer, attended the Kachemak Bay conference in Homer last year, where she had one of those meet-the-agent meetings that I frequently recommend to unagented writers. She isn’t the type to hard-sell herself and she neglected to bring her fiction manuscript to the conference, so when the New York agent asked to see more of her work, she panicked. She phoned home, beseeched her husband for help getting the manuscript faxed, succeeded in getting it emailed instead, and is still a bit incredulous of the final outcome: a contract with an agent (she researched his credentials as anyone would) whose clients include successful authors. She recently finished her novel manuscript and is awaiting word on what happens next.

I liked Eowyn as soon as I met her, and I don’t think she is the kind to brag. I want to brag for her, and what she did right. She is talented, of course. But she was also willing to seize the day, to get her work into the hands of an interested party quickly, to evaluate the agent carefully, and to follow through with a finished manuscript. (That last part is really important. You’d be surprised how many writers get nibbles but don’t follow through.)

My experience, at a conference in Aspen, in 2002, was remarkably similar. I had a creative nonfiction book ready to go to press, and the first pages of a novel. I signed up for an agent meeting and when given the choice of agent, selected the most winning person I could find, based on what I’d heard from editors on the panels that week. (They all openly admired her.)

I didn’t try a scattershot approach, attempting to talk to every agent or tell a single agent about everything I’d ever written, even though I did (and still do) write in more than one genre. Instead, I pitched one woman my one novel-in-progress – it was fresh and it was my dream project. I didn’t expect anything to come from it, and I wasn’t basing my self-worth on her reaction. (Conference participants with completely valid projects often have less positive meetings). But I didn’t hold back my enthusiasm either.

She asked for more. Back home, I evaluated her credentials with the help of Google, which led me to various publishing industry announcements about her recent successes. In the meanwhile, another agent had also offered to represent me. I chose agent #1 but was honest to agent #2, letting him know that I was giving agent #1 a first look; and of course, I thanked him profusely for his interest. (He’s still in the business and doing great things. It’s a small world!)

After a few months (believe me, I worried that I was taking too long) I sent agent #1 more manuscript pages and our relationship evolved from there. My novel, THE SPANISH BOW, was finished close to three years after I met my agent and sold to Harcourt shortly therafter.

Why do conference agent meetings sometimes work? I think that agents spend money and time going, and want to return home feeling it was worthwhile. Finding new talent is exciting. And the glamour of the conference location, whether it is Aspen or Alaska, can only help create a “stars-are-aligning” atmosphere. Eowyn’s agent mentioned he liked her name. My agent said she’d always dreamed of playing the cello. (The editor who later bought my book, which takes place in Spain, had just returned from a trip to Barcelona.)

If you write a memoir about cancer, you may end up meeting an agent who is worrying about a lump in her breast or recently lost a friend to the disease (either scenario could turn into “not interested!” or “universal – I love it.”) Your first five pages of fiction might be read by someone suffering a hangover (bad) or someone who just fell in love (good — maybe). Your physical appearance and personality could help or hurt the meeting. Then again, so could the weather.
Also, consider that at some of these conferences, you may encounter agents and editors who are tired of feeling besieged by aspiring writers. Neediness and naked ambition are turn-offs. For that reason, it’s best to use an official meeting as a learning opportunity; try not to “sell” (or at least try not to appear to be “selling”). Focus on figuring out how to improve your package for submission later. But IF an agent is in the right mood, be ready. That way, you won’t have to phone home to get more pages faxed or emailed to you.
Next up: the non-conference approach
Scroll to Top