For Aspiring Writers: Your One-Stop Conference/Festival Etiquette Guide
By Sarah Arthur
As a published author who has made some of my biggest breaks by meeting editors at writing conferences, I’m often asked how I did this. How does someone who is relatively unknown get on the publishing radar? And how does one do this without alienating the entire industry, or selling your soul—or both?
My story is rather unusual, as I describe in this fun podcast interview—and I’m not entirely certain how it all happened (good weather? planetary alignments? divine somethingness?). So to answer the above questions I scribbled down my hunches and then messaged a group of veteran writers, editors, and poets, asking, “If you were to write a conference/festival etiquette guide for aspiring writers hoping to get published, what would it include?”
Their responses confirmed my hunches, plus gave me some great inside stories from the industry. What follows is your One-Stop Conference/Festival Etiquette Guide. For those who’ve been in the conference circuit for awhile, what else would you add?
- Be there to learn. Unless you’ve been doing this writing/publishing thing for longer than most editors have been alive, consider the conference itself as a relatively inexpensive college-level course in a topic about which (as an unpublished author) you know slightly more than nothing. This applies not only to what you can learn about the publishing industry but about the craft of writing itself, and even—yes: brace yourself—your own work (see #8).
- Treat editors like human beings. I can’t stress this enough. As one editor says, “Please don’t look at editors as inhuman publication machines who exist only either to do something for you or to reject you because they’re jerks.” Editors are real people who have to eat and pee and sleep like everyone else. Some of them miss their families; others have medical conditions, for pity’s sake. Find an area of common interest that doesn’t involve your cherished project. One editor advises, “Approach editors/publishers as fellow book-lovers and go from there.” Demonstrating that you’re a team player by showing you can give and take graciously in a mutual conversation is key. “Writing is a solitary discipline,” says that same editor, “but publishing, especially at the small press level, is a collaborative endeavor and needs a solid platform of trust, shared artistic values, and enterprise-in-common to work.”
- Research before you make a pitch. No: the publisher that’s never published monologues does not want to hear your monologue about your groundbreaking monologue. You will not make them abandon their brand, much less their founding vision, in one thirty-second conversation. Get online before the conference and learn what they do and don’t publish—not just genres but topics, issues, and authors. Purchase some of their books and not only read them but review them on Goodreads and Amazon, even on your own blog. In the words of one editor, “Haven’t read any of our books? Then why do you think you’re a good fit?”
- Ask questions. College course, remember? You’re here to learn, which means pursuing lines of inquiry with a kind of earnest curiosity—even delight. “Ask about their publications, ask what they like to see and where to find guidelines,” says one editor. Keep in mind that many editors are also writers: one suggests, “Ask them about their work. Don’t bring up your own work. After talking about what they do for a minute or two, they may ask about what you do.” Another says, “If you’re new to publishing and truly just want to have a conversation about how things work and make some friends, then do that! Just be clear about what you need/want from the conversation and most editors will be happy to talk with you.”
- Listen. It seems obvious, but once you’ve asked a question, close your mouth. For as long as they keep talking. Then follow up with another question. Attend an editor’s workshop(s); be there if the editor is on a panel. Read books the editor has written, if any. Become, if you will, a kind of disciple. But also be mindful that the editor only has so many people he or she can engage in a day. Someone else might be standing in line behind you, and out of respect for the invisible fellowship of writers around the world, without whom you wouldn’t be a writer yourself, step graciously aside. Then go find another editor to listen to.
- Buy their publications. In the words of one editor, “Consider budgeting to buy a few things to show your good faith understanding that publishing houses and small presses don’t survive without reader support.” If the publisher has a booth in the Exhibit Hall, take their products seriously: browse; then, if you find their titles or back issues intriguing, purchase something. One writer, who is also professor, says, “If you are a professor/instructor ask about a publisher’s books for your classes. I use small press titles whenever I can. Twenty copies bought for a class makes a big difference to a press like that.” Another editor says, “I’m much more willing to look at your manuscript if you are willing to support the press. It might end up being the best $20 you ever spend.”
- Be up front about your interest in making a pitch. Note this doesn’t say, “Pitch your project unsolicited.” You can’t throw your material at someone you’ve never met, unasked, and expect them to take you seriously. Rather, this is saying, “I really appreciate your publishing house’s vision and titles—including _________, which I’ve just reviewed on Goodreads. And it’s made me think that what I’ve written might be a good fit for you. Would you be open to me emailing you about that sometime?” And then the editor will either outline their company’s submission process (and you’d better take notes), or ask, “Well, what’s it about?”—because that way they know whether an email correspondence will be worth their time or become a vast black hole in the literary space-time continuum. Don’t be aggressive, but at the same time, says one editor, “Don’t offer to meet me for coffee under the auspices of asking a few questions when you really want to pitch a book. Just give me your damn pitch.”
- Hold your work lightly. At the first writing conference I ever attended, before I got published, I had grand visions of becoming a children’s book writer and illustrator. I came with manuscripts, a portfolio of illustrations, business cards and proposals to that effect. Pause at this point and take a look at my list of published works. Do you see any illustrated children’s books on there? No? That’s because the connections I made at that original conference ultimately had nothing to do with what I thought my work was about. Keep this in mind as you lug that little stack of proposals and sample materials around with you from workshop to workshop, from booth to booth in the Exhibit Hall. If you’re holding your cherished project in a closed fist, it might be time to open your hand a bit. What else might come of these connections?
- Learn how to graciously take “no” for an answer. For your reading pleasure, here’s an example of what not to do, as supplied by an editor for whom this was a real-life experience at the AWP:
Clueless Jerk: Hi, Editor! Here’s my chapbook manuscript. [shoves pile of papers in Editor’s face]
Editor: We only accept manuscripts online. Also, we don’t publish chapbooks. Try X, Y or Z publishers down the line.
Clueless Jerk: Yeah, but this is really good. I think you’ll make an exception if you read it. I’ll come back tomorrow to see what you think. [walks away]
Let’s rehearse all the things this aspiring writer did wrong, shall we? No, let’s just assume he broke all the rules. But he especially ignored a clear “no” when the editor kindly but firmly explained how their submission process works, what kinds of things they publish, and helpfully suggested some other options. That’s the end of the conversation, people. As one editor says, “I’ve had my fill of writers who want me to look at their stuff even when I’ve told them it’s not what we publish. Just stop talking!” After a publisher explains why your work isn’t a good fit, you simply say, “That’s really helpful. Thanks so much!” Then you browse their products, purchase something (if possible, particularly if you think this publisher might be a good fit for something else you could work on down the road), smile, and walk away.
- Honor the relationship. Have I said that editors are real people? Yep. They have only so many hours a day to answer email, respond to follow-up questions, or set appointments. So whatever happens after your interaction should remain professional, cheerful, and brief—and above all, should respect that the publishing process (including correspondence) is often glacially slow due to the volume of material an editor is reviewing. Haven’t heard back in two weeks? Two months? This is normal. One follow-up email by you 6-8 weeks after the conference is appropriate, but after that, leave it alone. And again: take “no” for an answer. Yet another lovely example supplied by my editor friends after AWP:
Clueless Jerk Number Two: Hi, Editor. About the manuscript that I sent, do you know if it received any consideration at all?
Editor: I don’t remember your manuscript, and you haven’t helped by not mentioning the title. We receive 150 manuscripts per year. I only see the last twenty or thirty, after grad students do the screening. You could submit next year. There will be a different pool of graduate students, and you might have better luck.
Clueless Jerk Two: I’ll just come back to the table later when there’s a grad student here and creep her out by giving her dirty looks and asking why she turned down my amazing manuscript.
Editor: Okay, good luck with that. Creep.
(Test question: What ten etiquette rules did the above conference attendee break?)
To wrap up, I tell one last story from my personal experience. I first met one of my editors at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, four years ago. He and I both happened to be waiting for colleagues who were engaged in conversation, so I turned to him and said, “Hi Dan [not his real name], I’m Sarah Arthur. You’re one of the editors at Woodhouse [invented], right?” He was cordial, and then I asked him if he ever got to simply enjoy the workshops, or if he was trapped with one appointment after another. At which point he warmed right up, talked for awhile, then asked me what I do. Soon he motioned for me to sit, and we talked for another 15 minutes—out of which came lunch and a book deal.
Yep, treat editors like human beings. Not that they’ll all give you a book deal. But they’ll remember their humanity was honored, that someone gave them the chance to exhale.
Sarah Arthur is a fun-loving speaker and the author of eleven books, including the bestseller Walking with Frodo (Tyndale) and the literary guides to prayer series with Paraclete Press (At the Still Point, Light Upon Light, and Between Midnight and Dawn). Her most recent title, co-authored with friend and colleague Erin Wasinger, is The Year of Small Things: Radical Faith for the Rest of Us (Brazos Press). www.saraharthur.com